Growing up in the desert heat of Chihuahua, Mexico, Leonardo Gamboa learned a simple lesson.

Some folks have the capacity to escape the heat, Gamboa says. Others dont.

Upon moving to the U.S., he realized the same division existed in the sprawling city of Tucson.

Not escaping the heat means to me, not being able to have a car, relying on public transportation, Gamboa says. That means I have to walk to the bus stop and its hot.

Leonardo is now a program manager at Amistades, a nonprofit focused on social and environmental justice for the Latino community in Pima County.

Its Justicia Juntos (Justice Together) initiative was created from a $166,000 Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) grant to help Tucson’s Latino community deal with increasing temperatures.

The EPA grant lasts for three years, starting May 1.

The initiative will serve to complement the citys climate action and adaptation plan. While that plan covers the entire city, Justicia Juntos looks to go micro by focusing on those most impacted by extreme heat on the south side.

Amistades President and CEO Claudia Jasso says that the south side community will guide their strategy rather than dictating what needs to be done.

We want them to be able to have the resources to apply practical solutions day-to-day so that they can feel like theyre part of a solution, Jasso says. Its really about empowering Latino communities to learn and access resources so that they can tackle all the issues that come with extreme heat.

Their strategy includes forming neighborhood coalitions of youth, who will work with scientific experts to communicate issues of extreme heat with their family and friends. In addition, the initiative will provide education to residents about the effects of extreme heat and how to deal with it.

Amistades also plans to create two mobile resiliency hubs to provide cooling for overheated residents, although this project is separate from the EPA grant.

Justicia Juntos comes at a time when studies have shown that Tucsons south side grows hotter than the rest of the city, especially during the citys scorching summers.

A study released in 2021 by UC-Davis found that the south side of Tucson has temperatures over 15 degrees hotter on average than the northern part of the city. The study showed that Latino communities across the southwest typically live in hotter areas. As Arizonas summers get hotter each year, that means these communities are at risk from extreme heat emergencies.

This is the primary reason why Amistades wants the program shaped by the people most affected by extreme heat. Gamboa credits his colleague Karla Toledo for establishing familiarity and trust with the south side community.

I learned so much from those interactions, Gamboa says. Really at the root of it is trust and letting the community see that youre there. I think thats key in a lot of what we do.

By leading with culture first, Justicia Juntos looks to establish a heat resiliency plan to last for years beyond the grant.

Organizations from the federal government, what they do is try their best rooted in numbers how they can create a service delivery of grants to provide a solution and oftentimes those solutions arent as sustainable, Gamboa says. Culture here provides us with tools as much as numbers. You know, this is the knowledge of the people, so we can make these efforts sustainable.