Ruth Santiago headshot

Ruth Santiago ’80 is Lehigh's 2023 Earth Month speaker.

Environmental Activist Ruth Santiago ’80 Returning to Lehigh as 2023 Earth Month Speaker

Santiago, who spent part of her childhood in South Bethlehem, will discuss the climate crisis and alternatives to the traditional electric system design on April 18.

Story by

Stephen Gross

Photography by

Chris Jordan-Bloch/Earthjustice

Climate activist and attorney Ruth Santiago ’80 is returning to the South Bethlehem community in which she grew up to present “Climate, Environmental Justice and Distributed Renewable Energy in Puerto Rico and Beyond” as Lehigh’s 2023 Earth Month speaker. Free and open to the public, Santiago will deliver her remarks Tuesday, April 18, at 7 p.m. in Sinclair Auditorium.

Among the topics Santiago will discuss are the hurricanes that affected her current home, Puerto Rico, during the 2017 and 2022 seasons as well as other events associated with the climate crisis on the island. She’ll also consider alternatives to the traditional electric system design and possible applications to places beyond Puerto Rico.

Santiago, who currently serves on the White House Environmental Justice Advisory Council, began her formal fight against environmental injustice more than two decades ago in Puerto Rico, where she has built a reputation as a community activist. 

She has sought to protect the island’s South Coast aquifer, battled the country’s largest oil burning power complex and worked to expand rooftop solar energy projects in the Jobos Bay communities between Salinas and Guayama in southeastern Puerto Rico. She has also worked with community and environmental groups, fishers’ associations and other organizations on projects ranging from a community newspaper, children’s services, a community school to ecotourism projects. Additionally, she is part of a civil society initiative to promote community-based solar projects and energy democracy called We Want Sun.

Her most recent cases have been related to energy projects and integrated resource plans.

While her environmental work is largely based in Puerto Rico, she has said that she remembers enjoying the “wonderful natural places in Pennsylvania,” such as the Pocono Mountains and Amish countryside, during her time at Lehigh.

“I think possibly I developed my love for the environment and community work in Bethlehem,” says Santiago. “So, maybe the seed was planted early on and sprouted in Puerto Rico.”

After graduating from Lehigh with a double major in economics and Spanish literature, Santiago, who was born in New York, earned her law degree from Columbia University. Two-and-a-half years later, she received a job offer in business law—mostly commercial litigation—that sent her back to Puerto Rico, where she spent her high school years.

The event is sponsored by Lehigh Sustainability, the College of Health, Environmental Initiative, Latin American and Latino Studies, Global Studies, the South Side Initiative, the Environmental Studies Program, SPAC (the Student Political Action Coalition), the Eco-Rep Leadership Program and the Department of Community & Population Health.

Story by

Stephen Gross

Photography by

Chris Jordan-Bloch/Earthjustice

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