Engaging the Latinx communities to drive action on ocean justice and climate policy

Benjamin Jones
P Cubed
Published in
7 min readNov 2, 2022


Photo by Sören Funk on Unsplash

Mission: Azul works to conserve marine resources by bringing Latinx perspectives and participation to ocean conservation through authentic engagement, community building, and collaboration.

The Multiplier Effect: Multiplier’s wraparound support — including strategic advice, human resources and fundraising consulting, financial services, and contracts management for an international creative project — enabled Azul to grow from a woman with a backpack and a passion for the ocean into a grassroots powerhouse with a seat at the table in state, national, and international ocean policy development.

Climate change, overfishing, and pollution pose escalating threats to our oceans — irreplaceable, life-sustaining resources that store carbon dioxide, produce over 50% of the world’s oxygen, provide habitat for 250,000 known species, and supply essential ecosystem resources to the 37% of the global population living in coastal areas. Research including Azul’s 2022 U.S. Latinos and the Ocean Poll demonstrates that an overwhelming majority of Latinxs want action on ocean justice and climate policy issues. But mainstream ocean conservation efforts haven’t adequately engaged Latinx communities in mobilization, leadership, and advocacy efforts.

“When I started attending ocean conservation events, I was often one of a few Latinas and frequently the only Spanish speaker,” says Marce Gutiérrez-Graudiņš, who founded Azul in 2011. “This contributed to the false assumption that Latinxs and other people of color don’t care about ocean conservation and can’t lead in this space, which couldn’t be further from the truth.”

To change this assumption, Azul celebrates rich Latinx conservation traditions; connects Latinxs to current solutions for marine conservation; elevates Latinx voices in ocean and coastal resource protection; centers Latinx people as marine stewards; and draws on Latinx communities’ commonsense approaches to resource use and protection.

Azul is the only ocean conservation organization in the U.S. specifically focused on leveraging the strengths and voting power of diverse Latinx communities. As a Latinx-led and -serving organization working in the environmental justice and ocean conservation movements for more than a decade, Azul has had a front seat to missed opportunities, missed connections, and the exclusion of Latinx people’s lived experiences.

The launch: Uncommon tenacity fuels early success, resilience through a funding drought

Azul’s first big success came quickly: In the same year she founded Azul, Gutiérrez-Graudiņš helped advance a successful ban on possessing and selling shark fins in California. A natural connector and organizer, she worked with folks who worked alongside the Chinese American community to navigate cultural concerns, ensuring that diverse voices were engaged in the process. That success helped Gutiérrez-Graudiņš attract funding and a referral to Multiplier.

“Marce is tireless,” says Multiplier Executive Director Laura Deaton. “When she came on board with Multiplier, she was working three jobs while pursuing Azul’s mission on the side. She’d received a small grant to move a community of people toward advocacy. And when the grant money went away, she didn’t stop.”

Believing deeply that inaction, incremental action, or maintaining the status quo were not options given the life-threatening ocean conservation issues we face, Gutiérrez-Graudiņš persisted. She met with lawmakers, students, church groups, and community members across California. When a fresh round of funding came through, she came back to Multiplier primed to take advantage of the organization’s operational backbone and accelerator services.

The strategy: Savvy advising and a strong foundation free a visionary to focus on mission

Photo by Brian Yurasits on Unsplash

Azul’s next major policy victory came in 2014 when its Deja el plástico campaign influenced the passage of California’s single-use plastic bag ban, which went into effect in 2016.

These early wins reinforced Azul’s need to build an engaged, mobilized, diverse base of Latinx ocean champions. For years, Gutiérrez-Graudiņš had attended California Ocean Day on her own. The annual event gives participants the opportunity to meet with elected officials, learn about current issues and proposed solutions, celebrate the state’s marine environments, and meet like-minded advocates. “In the beginning, I was the only Latina, and trying to meet with all 26 members of the Latino caucus by myself,” she says. “I knew the event should be representative of California’s diverse communities.”

That recognition spurred her to create Azul’s organizing arm, Latinos Marinos, to expand the Latinx community’s civic engagement and political power. Its efforts succeeded in changing the face of ocean advocacy in Sacramento — Latinx representation at California Ocean Day grew from seven people in 2016 to more than 90 in 2019 — and strengthened the support of California’s Latinx community for ocean and coastal conservation.

Multiplier supported Gutiérrez-Graudiņš throughout the growth that followed, helping her select the right grant opportunities; make strategic staffing decisions; and identify, scope, and implement technology to drive the mission.

“Multiplier’s name recognition and reputation for incubating high-impact conservation and cross-sector organizations helped Azul establish itself as a respected, effective player in the ocean conservation space,” says Gutiérrez-Graudiņš, “and they continue to provide critical administrative solutions and ongoing strategic finance and operational support.”

Multiplier also advised Azul on hiring in a competitive market while operating on a shoestring budget. The team reviewed position announcements and assisted with defining responsibilities. That counsel led to Gutiérrez-Graudiņš hiring Director of Operations Celia Solis, whose organizational and relationship skills have transformed Azul’s day-to-day operations, adding structure that gives Gutiérrez-Graudiņš the freedom to make the most of her talents as a visionary leader.

“Marce is a powerhouse,” says Deaton. “Azul is exactly the kind of project that Multiplier likes to take on. Our team’s support and know-how have enabled her to concentrate on what she does best: Be a vocal leader and drive support for important issues rather than be an accountant or grant manager.”

The win: National and global impact fueled by activism and the arts

Following Deja el plástico’s success, Azul committed to supporting the 30X30 Ocean Alliance, a global campaign focused on protecting 30 percent of land, water, and oceans by 2030. Azul has played a significant role in shaping the ocean portion of the campaign in the U.S.: Gutiérrez-Graudiņš and Azul drafted equity and access language that was adopted in California Gov. Gavin Newsom’s Executive Order N-82–20, which committed the state to supporting 30X30. As a result of California’s leadership, President Joe Biden directed the Department of the Interior to develop guidelines to achieve 30X30 nationally.

Gutiérrez-Graudiņš’ bold ideas and passion also powered En El Mar, an ambitious multimedia project that culturally connects the environment and the arts through a music album, documentary, and podcast.

“Latinx communities innately treasure the life-sustaining force of the ocean, as well as the physical and spiritual nourishment it provides. Because the ocean is so embedded in our culture, a lot of traditional music reflects that theme,” says Gutiérrez-Graudiņš. “In fact, you could populate an entire playlist solely with cumbia songs that are about the ocean.”

At the height of the COVID-19 pandemic Gutiérrez-Graudiņš approached Multiplier with the idea of recording a live music album to capture this cultural connection and create a call to action. To her delight, they said they’d help her make it happen.

“I really tested them,” Gutiérrez-Graudiņš jokes. “This is so beyond Multiplier’s usual scope. But the team went 150 percent above and beyond to keep their promise.”

That included coordinating studio time and drafting and executing contracts with creatives in Spain and Canada, including graphic artists, digital strategists, recording artists, and more, along with expediting international wire payments and coping with pandemic-related delays. Multiplier also helped Azul get set up on TuneCore, a distribution platform that allows Azul to upload to digital platforms like Spotify, where the album is available for streaming.

Also in the works are a film titled EnClave, a podcast, and an anthology.

In 2019, the United Nations approached Azul to author a report titled “Neglected: Environmental Justice Impacts of Marine Litter and Plastic Pollution.” The report marks the first time the U.N. has made a statement on this aspect of environmental justice. And in February 2022, Gutiérrez-Graudiņš traveled to Nairobi to join a U.N. conference calling for a global treaty on plastic pollution. Because of that effort, the U.N. opened a two-year negotiation period designed to produce a worldwide, legally binding treaty to curb plastic pollution.

Azul’s next goal is to expand its scope of work and build the capacity to operate not only at the “grass tops” level but also organize extensively at the grassroots.

“The vision is still the same,” says Gutiérrez-Graudiņš. “Our work has always been and will always be to enable and encourage Latinx champions for the ocean. But rather than focusing just on legislators, we want to create opportunities for regular folks, so that even parents with three kids and 15 free minutes a week can do something impactful.”

Working with Multiplier allows Gutiérrez-Graudiņš the freedom to execute an ambitious and globally important vision. “As a female- and Latinx-led organization, there is an inherent risk in navigating the historically white-dominated conservation space,” says Gutiérrez-Graudiņš. “Multiplier believes in me, believes in Azul, and wants to see us increase our impact.”

Project Details

Project type: Startup

Focus area: Healthy planet and people; secure natural resources

Duration: 2011 to present

Major funding: David and Lucile Packard Foundation, Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation, Resources Legacy Fund, Walton Family Foundation

Sustainable Development Goals: Reduced inequalities, responsible consumption and production, life below water