By: Eden Bunna
Edited by: Blair Paddock
It’s no easy feat to get policy passed in Chicago, something Brian Gomez knows first-hand. He and his partners at Chicago Youth Alliance for Climate Action have been working to get several high schools to put solar panels on their roofs. He’s wondered at times if it’s even worth the effort.
“Are we going to be able to do this?” asks Gomez, 22. “It’s hard to sell. It makes sense that those challenges are coming, but I think it’s a really good investment for the schools.”
Gomez, described by a colleague as soft-spoken and a bit reserved, has been largely outspoken about his work speaking out about climate change, and inspiring others to do the same.
Gomez grew up in the West Elsdon neighborhood on the Southwest Side of Chicago, and his advocacy for climate action and environmental issues has spread throughout the city.
His interest in environmentalism was first piqued when he visited the Shedd Aquarium.
“A lot of the museums helped me connect to the environment—to the oceans and the lakes,” he says, sipping his coffee in Cafecito, a South Loop restaurant he frequented when he was a student at the close-by Jones College Prep High School.
Gomez is the director of partnerships at CYACA, which he founded during his time at Illinois Institute of Technology—an accomplishment he’s proud of. At CYACA, Gomez and the team are advocating to get solar panels into at least three Chicago public schools in order to create more clean energy.
He works with CYACA full-time, and recently began working occasionally with the Sierra Club, a group dedicated to environmentalism. He will work with the Sierra Club on their summer program.
He has become a role model for the students who are a part of CYACA, says Suzy Schlosberg, co-director and chair of the group’s political action team and a student at Whitney M. Young Magnet High School. Gomez has played an important role at the organization, especially as a mentor to students there.
“Day-to-day, [I can be] someone to just bounce ideas off of or introduce CYACA to different partners across the city,” Gomez says. “Now, it’s a lot of partnership work.”
He shares with the students what he’s learned at various training programs, and his experience as an advocate for environmental issues is impactful to the students, says Schlosberg.
“He has such a well of information, and then when he shares it, we’re all kind of stunned,” she explains.
Gomez has set a strong example of what it looks like to lead with passion at CYACA for the students who have most recently stepped into those same leadership roles. Having been a part of so many different organizations, Gomez often acts as a link between groups.
“I’ll connect people from CYACA to different opportunities,” he says. “Especially if someone is graduating, and they’re like, ‘Oh, what am I going to do now?’ I’m like, ‘There’s this other [group] that works with college students that you should connect with.’ ”
He wants students to know that advocating for environmental and social justice does not end in high school.
The Sierra Club, which advocates for clean and renewable energy, offers an opportunity for students to stay involved in environmental issues. It joins with other groups to pass bills and build and leverage political power, says Caroline Wooten, organizer at the Illinois chapter of the group, who has worked alongside Gomez.
“[Gomez] has done a lot to mentor young people in Chicago and connect them with opportunities to get even more involved,” Wooten says. “I really appreciated that.”
Wooten says the most exciting Sierra Club project she was a part of was the Future Energy Jobs Act, a policy the Sierra Club worked on with CYACA. The bill passed in December 2016, and it “increases the amount of renewable energy that is going to be built in Illinois, increases energy efficiency and has also created a program called Illinois Solar for All,” Wooten explains. This program works to make solar power and training programs for installation available to economically disadvantaged households, those previously in foster care and returning from the prison system.
It’s eye-opening being an environmentalist in a city like Chicago, Gomez says.
“You see the effects of things like pollution, coal plants, tar and things like that on people—you see what the impacts are on people first.”
He’s been able to advocate in Washington, D.C., and Springfield, Illinois, and says it might be interesting to take CYACA to the United Nations, where the UN’s Environment Programme is the leading international environmental authority.
When it comes down to it, though, Gomez says, “It’s hard to leave the city—I’ve been here for so long.” There’s a lot going on nationwide, but Chicago will always be home.
Surrounded by the bustle of the South Loop streets, Gomez describes his upcoming plans to travel. He laughs, adding that cars and buses definitely aren’t the greenest ways to get around. Besides, he never got his drivers license—which makes sense for someone who has lived in Chicago all his life.