By Jose Fermoso
Margarita Parra has been all over the world helping communities switch from harmful carbon gas emissions to cleaner options. Starting this spring, we are excited to announce the Colombian native will join Hispanics in Philanthropy as one of three new members on our Board of Directors.
For the last few years, Parra has worked as the manager of the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation‘s sustainable transportation and carbon-reduction efforts in the U.S., China, India, Mexico, Brazil, and Europe. Her work with the foundation has focused on removing pollution from cars and trucks and promoting low carbon options like transit, walking, and biking. Usually, these reductions come from countries with high-energy demands or high rates of deforestation. In 2016 alone, the foundation awarded more than $100 million to grantees in climate and energy.
Before Hewlett, Parra was known for completing difficult joint efforts with public and private entities, such as a carbon-offset protocol project of a methane landfill. Her colleagues, such as the Stockholm Environment Institute’s Derik Broekhoff, have described her as a great leader and project manager able to engage with people naturally and with a positive mindset.
Parra originally left Colombia in 1998 to study global development after winning a scholarship at the United Nations (UN), feeling, as she told us, like “an adventurer.” With an international family in tow, including a husband from New Zealand and a bouncy American-born daughter, Parra is looking to set up shop in the U.S. We’re more than glad to help her get comfortable.
In her first official interview as a board member, below, Parra talks to us about her work in emissions reduction, data-driven decision making, and the role Latinos can play in future clean energy economies.
You’ve been interested in sustainable transportation and low-carbon initiatives since you were young. Can you tell me how this interest grew out of your life in Colombia?
In the outskirts of Bogota as a child, I saw the bad effect development can have. When new infrastructure was built around us, there was no plan for water distribution or waste collection, and as a result there was trash everywhere without [thought to] take care of the environment. That was hard because we were used to living with a pretty forest to play in. So when I got to high school, I became active in my neighborhood association and became its youngest member. Later, I studied chemical engineering in college because I wanted to reduce pollution.
And how did you get from Colombia to the U.S. and eventually to the Hewlett Foundation?
I wrote a proposal to the UN to study global development in India, which then led me to another scholarship in New Zealand, where I did my Masters in Environmental Engineering. (And that’s where I met my husband!) From then, I kept going [and learning]. I went to Brazil for four years to work and then to the U.S. It’s been a journey with the possibility to do more and care about our planet from water, waste, and transportation to pollution. And I like to connect and serve people, which we do at Hewlett, and hopefully at HIP.
Tell me about the work you’ve done at Hewlett, especially in Latino communities.
Hewlett had an office in Mexico City developing a program related to air quality and transport in Latin America. Its goal was to reduce pollution and its impact on vulnerable communities. So I worked with Mexican stakeholders to make sure they had regulations in place and that new transportation initiatives worked well, like buses. Ever since, I’ve worked at Hewlett with groups around the world to help reduce the impact of climate change in our own communities. We ask: What are the policies we can implement [in those countries] that we can use here?
Let’s talk about young Latino workers in the environmental industry. What do they need to be a part of be economy of the future?
Many [Latinos] who are capable have not been trained on specific parts of the industry. Usually those who get into it come from other IT positions or civil engineering. We know [getting Latinos into green tech] is important because of our growing population and need for jobs. One area where we are doing well is transportation planning—there are Latinos there. But my overall advice is they need to think about how they can be a part of the cultural shift, since we know cities will need to adapt to tech like ride-sharing. So: think about the next level of solutions about how we use technology.
What’s the most harmful thing happening to Latinos today because of gas emissions?
In the U.S., most Latino populations are in low-income communities and most are affected by oil prices. They don’t have the income to change to alternative energy. And they’re also affected by polluting cars. In rural areas, Latinos have few options for mobility so they own their own cars and transportation costs take up a big part of their salary. So it’s environmental externalities and economic ones.
In Latin America, the big problem is cheap public transportation options are not there. You have to ride crowded buses if you’re low-income. In my hometown back in Colombia, the mayor started a network of bicycles but initially there were no safety checkups so a lot of accidents happened. I know people in my home city who ride on bikes behind buses with black smog coming out of them. Transportation is a sector that most affects low-income populations.
You’ve used data-gathering to improve understanding of emissions and gasses. Please explain its importance.
Well-informed policy-making needs to use data. The World Bank has a partnership to bring together telecommunication and tech companies to create a platform that cities can access. A big problem cities face is that tech innovation happens so fast they often need help to catch up. While we need new business models for mobility, there’s very little regulation of Uber and Lyft, for example, and there is some evidence that these services have slowed down the speed of buses in cities like New York. This could lead to low ridership of buses and created more congestion. We need to tackle individual car use to reduce pollution with innovative business and we need the right data for innovative policies. We don’t have all the data but we’re getting there.
How will you use your data expertise to improve how HIP does business?
I don’t know yet but I’d like to contribute new ideas. I am so inspired by the work. I’ve read the testimonials and talked to people about HIP. I want to see how I can connect my work, which has been heavily technical, and see what cuts across. I’m still a green card holder so I have a strong connection to the Latino community and want to connect even more, especially on issues like immigration.
How can philanthropic organizations benefit from metric-based decisions?
Most organizations can benefit at a macro level, but not all of them have the opportunity to see the big picture. Many beneficiaries of funds are far from them and data can make analysis of programs easier. At Hewlett, we shifted from working a lot in Latin America to Asia (India and China) based on evidence; we shifted to the highest carbon emitters. At the same time, the work is so complex there is often no one type of data or criteria that is most important.
As for specific Latino organizations, it’s important we have data conversations to improve our impact and influence on the right policies. We at HIP need to make people aware of how interconnected we are and how we can use data to be more influential and have more impact.