Leticia Colón de Mejias thinks no problem is insurmountable if Americans come together.
“Sometimes we take these subjects and we make them so big and scary that people feel we can’t take action,” said Colón, 42, a Connecticut entrepreneur, environmentalist and mother of seven. “Climate change seems terrifying. And everyone’s like, it’s too big.”
But Colón believes we could all do a little bit more — like, say, unplugging your cell phone charger.
One of the children’s books Colón has written, “Defeating the Phantom Draw,” is about the electricity we waste by leaving chargers and electronics plugged in, and on standby, even when we’re not using them. Researchers estimate that anywhere from 10 to 23 percent of the energy we use in our homes is that phantom load.
Bringing that message to schoolchildren and underrepresented communities has been a priority for Colón, who is often the only woman of color in the room when local environmentalists are talking policy.
Colón is president of Green Eco Warriors, a nonprofit that teaches youth about the impacts of our consumption. She recently organized a climate action rally at the state Capitol in Hartford, Conn., and also runs an energy efficiency business — the kind that will install insulation in your home and fix that draft in your window. A close friend described her as an “inferno of inspiration.”
“We live in this age where everyone is constantly on a tablet, on a cellphone, on a computer, on a television,” Colón said. “Everyone is binge-watching, and I want people to be binge-doing."
Let’s start from the beginning. Where did you grow up?
My parents were divorced, so we went back and forth quite a bit between Miami, Florida, and Connecticut. Miami was diverse, and in Connecticut there were only two minorities at my school — me and this other girl. I think that’s why I’m comfortable in any environment.
So my dad was a firewalking instructor. He was Taíno from Puerto Rico and really connected to the environment and spirituality. Firewalking’s a concept of mind over matter. Growing up, my dad’s friends were people like Michael Bolton and Tony Robbins, who told me that anything was possible. I guess I’m probably really intense. When you’re exposed to that type of thought process early on, I think it really removes barriers, in a way.
Firewalking is a 10-hour seminar, and when I was about 10 years old, my father expected me to present and to walk on fire and teach others how to do it.
Were you scared?
The first time, I was really scared. I remember feeling bad that I felt scared because I’d seen people walk on fire my whole life. And I remember stepping up to the fire, and then stepping back and not actually walking.
But there was this woman there — she was like 78 years old. She had come to watch but didn’t intend to walk. All of a sudden, she just walked up to the fire and started walking. I remember thinking as a little girl, “If this old lady can do it, I’m going to look like a fool. I better go do it!”
So I went behind her. When we were done, she hugged me and I remember feeling accomplishment and joy. Since then, I’ve had lots of firewalks. It’s a reminder that no matter how hard life gets, it’s how we respond to adversity that defines us as humans.
You’re now an entrepreneur with a focus on energy efficiency. How did you get into it?
I was in the health care industry since I was 20, reading heart rhythms and watching people’s heart monitors for cardiologists, before moving on to medical records. Eventually, I developed workforce programs at the hospital and was recognized for it, and started to think that maybe I had another calling.
I left my career in health care and chose to become an entrepreneur to allow me to focus on helping the people and the planet on my own terms, without restrictions. My business, Energy Efficiencies Solutions, started up in 2010. I was already really worried about climate change and the impacts on my children. You know, with all the reports I was reading on how water was going to become scarce. And food.
So I had my kids and I give up television. Like, cold turkey. We quit TV.
What was that like?
It was insane; they were attacking each other. It was crazy because they were used to coming home from school like most kids and turning on the television.
And when you have a lot of time, you have to find something to do. And that is how our nonprofit Green Eco Warriors was born. I said to my husband, “I’m not going back on my decision to get rid of the TV, so we have to find something to do with the kids.”
We started making videos on what we could do to save the planet. We also tested water samples from the ocean, and took field trips to the dump to let kids see the waste we were creating and how horrid it looks when you go see it.
I’m one of those people that once I know, I can’t pretend that I don’t. You know how some people live in “Hear no evil, see no evil, speak no evil?” Once I’ve seen it, it’s real for me and I need to do something about it.
In this children’s book you wrote, Defeating the Phantom Draw, it looks like the Phantom is sucking on a Big Gulp, except it’s electricity.
It’s us having our chargers plugged in, our computers charged in, and we’re not even using them. Our TVs. Even the clock on your microwave — that light is pulling energy.
With our “Switch It Off” program for kids, our goal, really, is to raise awareness on our personal responsibility and our personal ability to change the world. I like to say, turn off that electronic and turn on your superpowers — or your minds. Math, science, reading. Writing poetry. Acting, dancing. Anything that is directly doing, versus vicariously watching.
There’s a perception that white liberals care more about the environment and “going green” than people of color. Why is that?
A reason why that misunderstanding exists is that a lot of the nonprofits are run, and their boards are chaired, by white liberals. You see the product of white liberals coming together and making policies. Sometimes those policies don’t reflect the thought of equity.
Society thinks our people are not interested in climate change. We are. Absolutely. We want to survive like everyone else. And we want to breathe air and we want clean water. You know, these problems affect us, and sometimes they affect us more than other people who are affluent or have more than those groups. The problem is we don’t have the seat at the table.
You say one of your biggest missions is raising equity on green issues.
On our nonprofit side, we work with environmental organizations like the Sierra Club, the League of Conservation Voters and its Chispa program. Chispa is the Spanish word for “spark.”
What we’re trying to do is make sure that those underrepresented populations feel empowered to make personal changes in their own lives that’ll lower their costs of operating their household, and make the planet a better place to live.
I try to help people understand that energy efficiency is like your mother. It’s working all the time and no one is ever thinking about it. It’s the workhorse that’s unseen and doesn’t ask for your appreciation. It just continues to always deliver.
How does your work build on what other women have done?
I’m inspired by people who see things not as they are, but how they should be. At the end of the day, sometimes one person can really change the world. We often don’t think of it that way; we feel small and insignificant in these political times.
But we’re not insignificant and small. One person can spark an entire movement of change.
This is what I tell my kids and my staff: Time, talent, tenacity. You have to put the time in. You have to build your talent level or bring people to the table who have talent. And tenacity — nothing happens overnight.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
This story is part of Sharing America Profiles — a series about women of color doing local work that highlights an issue of national importance.
Vanessa de la Torre is a reporter at Connecticut Public Radio and part of the public radio collaborative Sharing America, covering the intersection of race, identity and culture. This initiative, funded by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, includes reporters in Hartford, Conn., St. Louis and Kansas City, Missouri, and Portland, Oregon.