"We Are All Normal People Fighting For a Better Future"


Oscar started his activism in 2020, focusing on local changes that help his community - and where the impacts are more personally felt.

headshot of oscar villalobos

This interview is part of our Labor & Climate series.

How did you get started with climate or labor activism? What convinced you to take action?

I was involved as a volunteer in the 2020 Bernie campaign. After the election did not go the way I wanted because he lost, I decided to continue as a local volunteer with Sunrise DC. Despite the disappointment of the Bernie Sanders campaign losing I felt like it was just the beginning of a journey that at the time I still had no idea where it would take me.

Why do you think it’s important for climate and labor to work together?

Climate and Labor should absolutely be together. We all have to realize that what makes the world function in general are workers. Unfortunately, because of the types of economic models that have been applied - particularly coming from countries in the Global North and imposed on those in the Global South - the working class and its wealth have seen a dramatic decrease as opposed to corporations and billionaires who are the root cause of the climate crisis. Environmentalism cannot be dumbed down to individual action but a collective that is fighting for a future together in solidarity. If we truly want to move on from an extractive economy we will need the full might of the workforce to make those changes that our economy desperately needs at the moment.

What can the labor movement learn from climate activism? And vice versa – are there any lessons from the labor movement’s history that are relevant for climate activists?

What the labor movement can learn from climate advocacy is the constant change. I understand change can be challenging for workers because no one wants to lose a good salary or benefits but if we educate people on what we are proposing and that yes, a change will be made - but for the better - labor unions will be in a much better position.

What climate can learn from labor is true militancy. There is a power in being part of a labor union and making decisions in a democratic way and moving together as a unit. As advocacy will become critical, climate activists need to become more militant in the work they do.

Both the climate movement and the labor movement face challenges that seem insurmountable at times. What do you look for in terms of inspiration that your goals are achievable?

I think there are positives for sure to take. For example more labor unions are open to the idea of green jobs and job creation from the renewable energy sector. But also there are a lot of opportunities for jobs in the transportation sector as well as upgrading infrastructure in cities. Some cities and states have passed climate laws that are now being implemented across the country with job creation in mind. The Inflation Reduction Act for example is a positive step in that direction in applying millions of dollars in federal funding to create green jobs in the next decade. Obviously the IRA is only a down payment and more needs to be done but we have already begun the process of transitioning to clean energy, now it's about accelerating that transition in a much more comprehensive way that eliminates bureaucracy and those federal dollars are going faster to the communities that need them the most.

Activism – both professional and as a volunteer – can be draining. How do you recharge, and what tips for “activist sustainability” do you have?

I do not want to give a false sense of security to people. That is not what I do. It is very difficult and it is especially difficult to be an activist or an advocate at this particular moment when we have experienced multiple historic crises from a global pandemic to an economic crisis with inflation and the climate crisis accelerating. Because of all this I think it is valid to feel sad and disappointed many times. I think that what is key and most important at this particular moment is what kinds of people you are surrounding yourself with. I reject the notion that you can’t build community with the people that you advocate stuff with. At the end of the day we are all normal people fighting for a better future and that fight becomes very fulfilling when you are doing it with your neighbors, friends, etc. This is one of the many reasons why I encourage people to get involved at a local level because you can do advocacy with your community and in many cases - not always - you can actually accomplish things. One example is young climate activists winning free transportation for students in Kansas City for example. That is huge for them and it is both a good climate and economic policy. I also want to be clear that this will take time. Even if we pass the most perfect climate legislation the implementation will take a long time to be realized and so I think it is important to have the context and understand what is ahead of us.  In terms of recharging for me, something that helps me a lot is spending time with family. Having a space where I do not constantly think about this really helps and it helps me to get ready to get back and continue this fight.

Is there something happening in the climate or labor space that you think isn’t getting the attention it deserves?

In DC there is a proposal to accelerate the removal of lead pipes which unfortunately have been poisoning our residents for decades. Unfortunately because of funding DC Water, which is the agency in charge of our water systems, will not have enough funding to remove lead pipes by 2030 which was the initial promise. The DC Council is currently proposing accelerating the removal of lead pipes by having a mandate and also more dollars to create union jobs in the process. Labor unions would lead the training and growing the workforce necessary to accomplish this. The bill is called the Green New Deal for a Lead Free DC and it is a bill that the coalition I work for totally supports and in the legislative process it had a public hearing where we had community organizations, public witnesses, and labor unions testify in support of it. This is powerful. We have a job creation labor bill with a climate lens that can be a reality for residents in DC who want a good paying job and performing a task important for their own neighborhoods and I think that is powerful. We hope to get a vote on the proposal at the DC Council this year so we can push for implementation next year and the years to come.