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Environmental Racism in America Part 3: How Chicago’s Latino Community Transformed a Coal Plant into a Park

Kimberly Wasserman

July 8, 2015

In the third and final part of our three part series on environmental justice and environmental racism, we hear from 2013 Goldman Prize winner Kimberly Wasserman about her successful campaign to shut down two of the country’s oldest and dirtiest coal plants that were polluting her Latino community of Little Village. She is now leading a campaign to transform Chicago’s old industrial sites into parks and multiuse spaces.

In the guest blog below, Wasserman updates us on her recent work as an environmental justice advocate:

“In the last three years, the community of Little Village, on the southwest side of Chicago, has seen an amazing environmental transformation that has been 21 years in the making. It has included building community gardens, retiring two coal power plants, the transformation of brownfields into accessible public green spaces and access to affordable public transit.

While those fights have been won, the true battle rages on to ensure that our community can afford to stay and enjoy the fruits of our labor and to ensure that the processes that caused these injustices do not happen again. Through these struggles we have learned that our fight is not just that of conservation but a fight against environmental racism: a beast whose forms are as disingenuous as the white smoke that came out of the Crawford Coal Power Plant smokestack.

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While we successfully shut down the largest single source of air pollution in our neighborhood, community members continue to be concerned and organize around our daily exposure to the diesel air pollution of the trucks, industries and local highways that surrounds us. For many of our families this includes not just living in or near dirty diesel corridors, but also working within these industries – and for our children, going to grammar schools and high schools placed in and next to industrial areas.

A recent land use plan showed that Transportation and Warehousing are the community’s fastest growing industries. While the potential job creation and tax generation add up to a winning combination for some, they lack a health and environmental lens for our community. Both of these industries are highly diesel intensive, which means more exposure to diesel pollution that can exasperate disease and respiratory illnesses.

Kimberly Wasserman
How do we as a community get on the front end of these decisions and conversations instead of always being on the back end? By inserting ourselves into those conversations. We now find ourselves being more than just organizers: we are planners, developers, economists and strategist in the development of our communities. We are the leaders and we are helping develop a new generation of leaders to take on these roles. We want to ensure that the lessons learned from our struggles, and those of countless other EJ communities, are heard and applied. Through this work we are able to stand against environmental racism and thrive as a community committed to healing and caring for one another.”

The 22-acre La Villita Park, one of the newly created community spaces campaigned for by Wasserman, was built on a site formerly used by a company called Celotex (which is now owned by Honeywell) to make, store and sell asphalt roofing products.

To find out more about environmental justice and to see how your community measures up, check out THIS interactive online map created by the US Environmental Protection Agency. The map, known as EJSCREEN, identifies communities across the country that are at the greatest risk of health impacts from pollution.

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