Leading and learning to save the world

UCSC Alumna Yana Garcia heads California’s fight against the ongoing climate crisis

Yana Garcia (Stevenson ’08, politics)

Writer’s note: Speaking with Yana Garcia, her unwavering enthusiasm for UC Santa Cruz stands out as truly unique. I’ve interviewed recent alumni and alumni from decades past, but none have dived so directly and eagerly into their time at UCSC as Garcia did within the first minute of our conversation. From the very first sentence of our interview, Garcia made clear that her education at UCSC was at the very core of her development as an environmentalist.

Yana Garcia (Stevenson ’08, politics) grew up amidst growing indigenous rights movements in Oaxaca and Chiapas, Mexico in the context of the denial of clean air and water to indigenous peoples in the area. Garcia brought a passion for these issues with her to UC Santa Cruz—fully aware of how her education could provide her with the foundation she needed to make a real impact.

Immediately upon her graduation from UCSC in 2008, Garcia dove into her environmental justice career. She worked in the White Earth reservation in Minnesota before attending Northeastern University School of Law, then joined the California Environmental Protection Agency as a deputy. Garcia currently serves as a Secretary for Environmental Protection with the California Environmental Protection Agency (CalEPA). 

UCSC helps launch career in policy and environmentalism

Garcia’s extensive career in policy and environmentalism began in the classrooms of UCSC. As Garcia leads CalEPA in tackling the climate crisis, she credits her UCSC education in assessing the big-picture priorities of droughts, flooding, and water management, and understanding how these key issues intersect in both their causes and impacts.

“The biggest thing that I apply now, that I gained from UCSC, is an inherently intersectional approach to everything that we do,” Garcia said. “We need to integrate various distinct efforts together in order to address some of our most pressing challenges and problems.”

Garcia studied politics and pursued a variety of environmental studies classes at UCSC. Garcia said that her time at UCSC was defined by its diversity of classes and opportunities for learning, something she was happy to take advantage of. She added that UCSC provided her with the opportunity to immerse herself in environmental studies while also preparing for her future career in law and policy.

“One of the beautiful things about UC Santa Cruz is that it allows you the flexibility to pursue a lot of different combinations of liberal arts and science curricula,” Garcia said. “I had a wide array of classes when I was at UC Santa Cruz, ranging from the hard environmental sciences to the politics of the military industrial complex.”

Even now, Garcia recalls the pedagogy of the many professors that helped her refine and develop the critical thinking and conceptual understanding that’s key to her work at CalEPA. Garcia remembers the importance of her lessons from Angela Davis, Dan Wirls, Gina Dent, and Emily Honig, who gave her a foundational education in the history of consciousness, women in law, third world feminism, and environmental sciences and issues. 

“The class “Women in the Law” led me to law school, and to hone in on some of those critical race theory concepts of deconstructing systems to understand the root causes of injustice,” Garcia said. “I've applied that to the way that I thought about policy issues in the environmental space—I credit my diverse curriculum in Santa Cruz with becoming involved in environmental justice.”

Years of service with CalEPA

Before serving in her current position, Garcia was Deputy Secretary for Environmental Justice, Tribal Affairs and Border Relations at CalEPA from 2019 to 2021 and had been CalEPA’s Assistant Secretary for Environmental Justice and Tribal Affairs from 2017 to 2019. 

During her tenure at CalEPA, Garcia led three Environmental Justice Task Force Initiatives in the communities of Pomona, Imperial County and Stockton. She also led the program that delivered more than $1 million in Environmental Justice Small Grants to 28 organizations to combat pollution, improve health outcomes and increase public engagement in some of California’s most pollution-burdened communities.

“[Yana] is a strategic and compassionate leader who played a central role in helping communities gain access to safe and affordable drinking water,” California Governor Gavin Newsom said in a press release. “Yana is known nationally as a groundbreaking environmentalist who has lifted up the voices of tribal nations, U.S.-Mexico border communities, and those struggling on the frontlines of the battle for environmental justice. I look forward to working with Yana to implement our ambitious environmental agenda with the knowledge that she is resolute in her commitment to ensuring a California for all.”

As Secretary for Environmental Protection, Yana oversees the state’s efforts to fight climate change, protect air and water quality, regulate pesticides and toxic substances, achieve the state’s recycling and waste reduction goals, and advance environmental justice. As a member of the Governor’s cabinet, she advises the Governor on environmental policy.

We’re all in this together

Garcia holds her experience at UCSC close at heart, and hopes that its students are equally ready to make the most of their time and education. Thinking of their future, she offers a piece of guidance for UCSC’s current student body.

“Think about the experiential learning opportunities that are offered at UC Santa Cruz,” Garcia said. “Internships are super important. Getting direct experience and taking advantage of those opportunities while you're at UC Santa Cruz is really critical, and can help us all feel like we're contributing, rather than just sitting in a classroom.”

As the crisis of climate change grows, Garcia calls on all students, whether in communications, art, or engineering, to contribute their knowledge and perspectives.

“Every perspective matters when it comes to addressing the climate crisis that we're all facing,” Garcia said. “Whether you want to work in tech manufacturing, biological sciences, healthcare, or environmental policy, or if you want to become a politician, a biologist, or an engineer—every profession, every specialty, contributes to our ability to address the climate crisis in various ways.”