As a little boy, Robert Zardeneta loved going to work with his father, a housing and community development worker for the city of Los Angeles. Zardeneta fondly remembers wearing his “little sweater vest and tie, just like my dad.” The image that really stuck, though, was a pen holder with a wooden fist that sat on his father’s desk. For Bob Zardeneta Sr., the wooden fist symbolized his passion for the Chicano Movement and affirmative action. “Because of his fight, he gave so many new people of color an opportunity to develop careers with the city. He was always really proud,” says Zardeneta Jr.
It’s that pride which inspired Zardeneta Jr. to build on that social activist background and parlayed it into a passion for “going green,” or being environmentally conscious. Robert Zardeneta, 37, served as the Executive Director of LA CAUSA (Los Angeles Communities Advocating for Unity, Social Justice, and Action) for four years, an organization designed to help at-risk youth in East Los Angeles. “I really feel we need this holistic approach to taking our young folks and creating leadership opportunities for them so they can be the change that they want to see in their community,” says Zardeneta.
On August 8th, 2012, Robert Zardeneta, announced the launch of a new YouthBuild program in Boyle Heights, a community neighboring East LA. It’s part of his new job at Relief International as the Director of Domestic Programming. But for Zardeneta, LA CAUSA is where it all started
LA CAUSA, which hosts a charter school, recruits heavily among students pushed out of traditional schools. “We go to the housing projects and we knock door-to-door,” explains Zardeneta. “It’s about “having a place where we accept who they are and where they come from.” Once at school, those students learn math, English and all the standard subjects relative to high school education, but it’s the vocational component that’s drawing nationwide attention.
Picture this. In a dark basement with one exposed bulb and a flashlight, five team members hover over a narrow opening in a wall as the team leader illustrates how to install a tankless water heater. It’s an energy-efficient way to heat water by using small heater coils instead of tanks. This is how young people learn to be “green” — through a hands-on approach.
“East Los Angeles is recognized nationally as one of the greenest urban communities in our country” says Zardeneta, “and that’s primarily based on the work that we’ve done.” In just a 3-block radius on the streets of East LA, you’ll find nearly a dozen homes with rooftop solar panels and tankless water heaters, installed by LA CAUSA students or graduates. Zardeneta estimates these retrofits save families at least 75 percent a month in utility bills, and in turn, provide “clean energy” in our growing eco-conscious era. In its seven-year-history, LA CAUSA students have retrofitted 60 homes within the East L.A., South L.A. and Oxnard communities.
For Zardeneta, this is just the beginning. He calls himself a “job creator” and thinks every job can be a green job. He tells the story of 25-year-old Rick Martinez, a LA CAUSA graduate who now works as a supervisor for Grid Alternatives, a California organization specializing in renewable energy. Martinez has trained volunteers who then go on to work on “hundreds and hundreds of solar projects throughout the state of California,” says Zardeneta. Martinez “had 40 solar installs under his belt at 25” thanks to his training at LA CAUSA.
And the buck doesn’t stop with just retrofits. “Our young folks can start off being the solar installers today, and in eight years become the engineers that are designing the solar systems.” It’s about “creating education around green as a lifestyle.” It’s that innovative thinking that has put Zardeneta on the national map. In 2010, Robert Zardeneta received the Latino Leader of the Green Economy Innovation award by the Congressional Hispanic Caucus Institute. Secretary of Labor Hilda Solis and the Obama Administration recognized LA CAUSA’s service efforts in the United We Serve campaign. But these prestigious honors haven’t pulled Zardeneta far from his own East L.A. roots. Ask Zardeneta what he thinks about all the attention and he’ll tell you, “I’m just a guy who cares about young folks.”
From a young “folk” in a little sweater vest, to a national player in the Green Movement, Zardeneta has inspired hundreds of students. “And if each of those students can go back and mentor hundreds of students in their lives, you know, that’s change,” says Zardeneta, clearly passionate about his mission.
NOTE: Video of Zardeneta was shot while he was still Executive Director of LA CAUSA