Interview with Mario Garcia Sierra
Bringing energy efficiency and sustainability to diverse communities
by A. David Dahmer
If you go to a multicultural event in Madison, there’s a good chance you will see Mario Garcia Sierra there. That’s because he is well known in Madison’s minority communities. And that makes his job as residential services manager for Madison Gas & Electric easier as he tries to bridge the information gap around topics of energy, sustainability, and more in order to ensure that citizens are receiving similar services in the community.
“We want to make sure that we are providing information and engagement to our residential customers so they can have a better control over their energy and at the same time access their customer service that we have at MG&E,” Garcia Sierra tells
The Madison Times in an interview at Cargo Coffee on Madison’s near east side.
Many times how agencies and corporations engage with the minority communities is different from how they engage with the regular community. That’s where Garcia Sierra’s expertise comes in. Another larger part of his job is building partnerships with community-based organizations and agencies to better engage those families that those organizations that serve in different parts of the city. “We want to make sure that we have services and programs in Spanish,” Garcia Sierra says. “For example, we have a radio show that reaches thousands of people on a monthly basis called Viviendo Con Energía.”
Viviendo Con Energía [Living with Energy], a radio show that has aired on La Movida 1480 AM for 10 years now, is designed specifically to help Madison's Latino community better understand why and how energy is important to them. “To me, I think it’s the best way to engage the community because that is the station that they listen to,” Garcia Sierra says. “When we go there, it’s a two-way communication. It’s not just us talking; it’s people calling in and asking questions, too. We tackle all kinds of topics. Right now, we’re getting ready for the winter, for example, and we’re making sure that people can do basic adjustments to their homes so they don’t waste energy and so they can ease their heating costs.”
MGE also partners with Energy Services Inc. to let people know about energy assistance that is available to them. It’s all about raising awareness of issues — like energy, sustainability, gardening, composting, environment — that many of us Madisonians already take for granted.
MGE’s pioneer program, the New Green Challenge/El Desafio de Vivir Verde, provides a lot of information on gardening, composting, energy, and where people can find community gardens. “The New Green Challenge is a perfect example of how we work with our partners because with that we have Centro Hispano, the Urban League, and community-based organizations that work with our Latino communities,” Garcia Sierra says.
The New Green Challenge/El Desafio de Vivir Verde program works with 18 African-American and Latino families to provide a six-month hands-on education in sustainable living. The families meet monthly for workshops led by experts in the areas of sustainable food, water, waste management, transportation, energy saving and recycling. “We use a lot of social media to get our message across for the New Green Challenge,” Garcia Sierra says. “With that program, our goal is to provide a new service to minority communities. We’ve always seen that there is a lot of discussion about sustainability in Madison but not very often do we see the communities of color involved in those discussions. That doesn’t mean that they don’t care. It’s just that nobody has approached them or designed a program that was specifically for them.
“We as Latinos and African Americans have a lot of things in common and one of those is that we come from the land,” Garcia Sierra adds. “Our parents and grandparents are connected to the land. Our ancestors were creative when sustainability was necessary. And when families were more connected to the land, we ate healthier. So it’s great to see how both communities — when given the space — are coming together more around sustainability.”
The New Green Challenge deals with those barriers that keep people from participating in sustainability discussions and practices. “The program has been around for about two years now and I think it’s really been successful,” Garcia Sierra says.
“Right now, we’ve had two cohorts of people who have gone through the program and close to 40 families. The people become ambassadors of their own communities and let other people know about gardening, composting, recycling, or energy use. We’ve planted some seeds in the community and some of them are growing already.
“I think some people were surprised when they learned that they could compost their organic waste,” he adds. “And when they first tried it, they enjoyed it. And their kids were excited about that. It’s fun to see people as they learn more and more about sustainability.”
Through his involvement with the New Green Challenge, Garcia Sierra is learning quite a bit himself. “The families have a lot knowledge and a lot of experiences and many times we are learning from them,” he says.
Garcia Sierra is originally from Guatemala City, Guatemala, and came to the United States in 2003. “As I look back, it’s been a pretty fascinating journey and I never expected that I would stay here that long,” he says.
Garcia Sierra says he was a bit naïve about the United States before he came based upon the version of America he saw in the movies and on TV. “I didn’t imagine there would be all of these challenges here … that cities would have poverty. How could there be poverty in the U.S.? I had naïve ideas of American health care and education, too, and I thought everybody had access to those services in this great country.
“Even in Guatemala, a poor country, I didn’t know that concept of a food desert… because even though you were poor you always have access to your food that you grow — especially in the rural areas,” he continues. “They might lack electricity and other things —but they always have their food.”
Now, Garcia Sierra is helping people cope with their own food deserts in south Madison. Before moving to MG&E, Garcia Sierra was in the heart of south Madison as longtime program director for Centro Hispano of Dane County.
“I realized that when I came here to Madison that I wanted to be part of an organization that worked to improve the lives of families,” he says.
At Centro, Garcia Sierra was also co-founder of the “Latino Youth Summit (LYS): On My Way to College,” where he helped lead successful summits for middle school kids.
“In Guatemala I was always involved in some kind of youth movement or group and I continued that at Centro Hispano,” he says. “`
Garcia Sierra is back with Centro Hispano once again joining the board of directors earlier this year. “It’s a very exciting time at Centro right now,” he says. “It’s a beautiful time to be a board member. There is a lot of momentum in the community in general but specifically for the Latino community. There are a lot challenges; but there are a lot of opportunities. It seems to me that Centro is on the right path and poised to really make a great impact on the lives of families.”
Garcia Sierra’s extensive community work has not gone unnoticed. Last year, he was the recipient of the Urban League’s Best in the Midwest Young Professional of the Year award which honors an under-40 leader in the community who is making a difference in the lives of others through community service, a commitment to diversity, and demonstrated leadership through volunteerism and community engagement.
Accolades aside, you can really tell that Garcia Sierra does the work that he does because he really enjoys it.
“I’m fortunate to work for a company that is invested in the community in general. Energy is part of all of our lives and sometimes it can be a complicated issue,” he says. “My goal is to make sure that the community has the information they need to make smart decisions about their lives.
“It’s a win-win for everybody. We’re having an impact on people, it’s good for people’s health, and it’s good for the environment. Everyone benefits when the environmental movement becomes more diverse,” Garcia Sierra adds. “I think it’s critical at this point. Sometimes it just seems like a little thing … but when we add everything up, it helps. It makes a big impact. And it can help bring the community together to learn and to share knowledge.”
To learn more about The New Green Challenge, visit facebook.com/TheNewGreenChallenge