The Life and Legacy of Cindy Montañez
It is with heavy heart that we mourn the passing of Cindy Montañez (January 19, 1974 – October 21, 2023).
Successful nonprofit leaders typically embrace one of two types of advocacies — either grassroots or grasstops. Grass-toppers exert extra influence on campaigns by mobilizing influential politicians and high-profile movers-and-shakers. Grassrooters, on the other hand, rely on passionate everyday people in the community to rally around a given cause and demand change.
Grasstop power is knowing the right people. Grassroots power is strength in numbers.
Cindy Montañez, the longtime CEO of TreePeople who passed away today, was the rare policymaker who had the charisma and smarts to wield both forms of power. She knew how to work her roots and the political treetops.
At heart a Valley Girl, Montañez worked tirelessly to promote the interests of the working-class Latino community she grew up in. At UCLA, she was one of five students who led a successful hunger strike in 1993 to overturn a decision to not fund a Chicano Studies program on campus. After being elected to the San Fernando City Council at the ripe age of 26, she later served as state Assemblymember, becoming the youngest person and the first Latina to ever chair the powerful Rules committee.
Those political connections would later help fuel her work at TreePeople, which shares Heal the Bay’s vision for a greener, more equitable, more sustainable greater L.A.
While Heal the Bay and TreePeople engage in a form of co-opetition, as our former Communication Director Matthew King used to put it, ”Each nonprofit works hard to differentiate itself to secure government grants, fundraising dollars and media attention, but when it comes to environmental policy in greater L.A. our two organizations are usually joined at the hip.“
The health of L.A.’s tree canopy and the health of L.A.’s ocean and watersheds are inextricably linked. What is good for trees is good for the sea. That’s why our policy teams have put their collective weight and clout over the years behind sound policy that will clean air, water and soil for generations to come in the Southland.
In 2006, then Assemblymember Montañez was the keynote speaker for Heal the Bay’s first Urban Watershed Summit at Compton College. She continued to work with Heal the Bay on various issues, playing a huge role in bringing the Measure W coalition to victory in 2018. The Safe Clean Water Program now provides nearly $300 million in public funds for increased stormwater capture and reuse throughout the region.
While her political savvy in the corridors of power drove victories like these, her deep connection to her family’s immigrant experience underpinned all her success.
“She’s selfless, it’s never about Cindy. It’s always about the greater objective,” Mark Gold, former CEO and President of Heal the Bay, said shortly before her death. “She really wants to make a difference in the community. She knows that improving the environment is improving the quality of life for the community she cares about.”
Recently, the Los Angeles City Council honored Cindy for her lifetime achievements and her many roles and impacts of influence and action.
Looking ahead, Montañez said she hoped all levels of government will put more focus on addressing climate change. Although the widespread focus on homelessness and affordable housing is important, the intense focus can come at the expense of addressing pressing environmental concerns, she said.
“We focus too much on one thing” at a time, she said. “We need to include climate change.” “I hope that somebody emerges as the champion for environmental justice.
“The fight for justice should never end”, she said later in the interview.
“Did I do enough?” she asked. “No. But I did everything I could while I was able to.”
Thank you, Cindy, we are all forever grateful!
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