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Prize Winners Today: Kimberly Wasserman’s Fight for Environmental Justice in Chicago

February 28, 2023

A Voice for Environmental Justice

Kimberly Wasserman is a born organizer. Strong, joyful, and constantly evolving, she radiates warmth and energy. Secure in her beliefs but open minded and friendly, Kim’s power comes from both within herself and from her community on the Southwest side of Chicago: Little Village.

Last month, we sat down with the 2013 Goldman Environmental Prize winner to discuss her decades of work as a community organizer. Since winning the Goldman Prize, Kim has continued to charge forward, fueled by a drive for justice for her Latino community. She’s dreaming of what naysayers may call a utopian future but, in her mind, it’s just one generation away.

Growing up in Little Village

Kim grew up in Little Village, a working-class neighborhood known for its large Mexican-American population. “La Villita” is brimming with culture—from dulcerias to community gardens—and with people: it is one of the densest communities in Chicago. Its immigrant community is proud and resourceful; an estimated 48% of Little Village is foreign born.

Little Village is also a textbook case study for environmental justice. Despite its dense population, Little Village has the “least amount of green space per capita in the City of Chicago.” To the east of the neighborhood, the Cook County jail looms large, and to the south, hundreds of diesel trucks motor in and out of a new Target distribution center. Over the course of the neighborhood’s history, zoning laws have allowed industry to operate adjacent to crowded residences. Significant pollution and reduced access to medical care have meant higher rates of asthma and other health issues. Historically, the neighborhood’s majority Latino population has been underrepresented in electoral politics, but this has started to change in recent decades.

For Kim and 100,000 others, Little Village is home. The daughter of immigrants from Mexico, Kim shares, “I understood my rights, civil liberties, and what it meant to be a woman of color from a young age. I had a responsibility to fight for my rights and the rights of my community.” Today, she is the executive director of Little Village Environmental Justice Organization (LVEJO), the largest Latino environmental justice organization in the Midwest.

Kim chats ahead of a community meeting held at Thomas Kelly High School on February 9, 2023. Photo: Goldman Environmental Prize

A Case Study for Environmental Justice

From its construction to its botched decommissioning, nothing is more emblematic of Little Village’s fight for environmental justice than the story of the Crawford coal-burning power plant. Built in 1924, the Crawford coal-fired plant sat just south of Little Village where, combined with the nearby Fisk power plant, it was linked to more than 40 premature deaths, 550 emergency room visits, and 2,800 asthma attacks every year due to toxic emissions. Neighborhood kids called the plant a “cloud factory,” in reference to the visible pollution that plumed into the sky.

After a grueling and personal 12-year battle championed by the team at LVEJO, the power plants closed in 2012. Kim won the Goldman Prize for her leadership in the campaign.

Unfortunately, closing the power plant opened another Pandora’s box for Little Village. When the decommissioned Crawford power plant was finally demolished in April 2020, it sent a massive cloud of dust over neighborhood homes. A year later, it was revealed that, several months prior to the demolition, city employees had warned their superiors that the plant’s implosion could cause “almost cataclysmic” harm.

A jarring report released in February 2023 revealed negligence by the city and Hilco, the site’s developer. Kim proclaimed, “I can’t help but cry. How much do you have to not care about the people in our neighborhood?” She and her community are reeling from the report’s findings.

The site of the decommissioned Crawford power plant is now the aforementioned Target distribution center, one of the largest warehouses in Chicago. Little Village residents say it has “replaced one source of pollution with another.” This story is evolving.

A Target distribution center took the place of the Crawford coal-fired power plant. Photo: Goldman Environmental Prize

Hard Work

Although she presents as a fiery beacon blazing towards justice, Kim is also human. And she gets tired. “This work is really hard,” she shared in a moment of vulnerability. “It’s really scary.”

Reflecting on a period of burnout several years ago, the mother of three underscored the importance of rest, noting, “my organizing can only be as strong as I can be as an individual.” This means prioritizing herself to better serve her community. Still, despite the two steps forward one step back nature of her work, Kim is not discouraged. “You have to find your light in this work; for me, it’s my neighborhood,” she affirmed.

Kim’s face lights up when she talks about the youths of Little Village. LVEJO runs a youth program every summer, teaching young people about environmental and social justice and empowering them to become decisions-makers in their community. She’s seen neighborhood kids graduate from high school and continue to pursue advanced education. Beaming with pride, she cited a former student who is now teaching an environmental justice course at the University of Illinois. “If I’ve done nothing else in my life, I’m honored to support this,” she reflected.

Kim Wasserman, 2013 Goldman Environmental Prize winner and executive director of Little Village Environmental Justice Organization. Photo: Goldman Environmental Prize

Putting the Spotlight on Environmental Justice

When Kim won the Goldman Prize, she felt as though she was living in a contradiction. Thrust into the public eye, fielding nonstop media interviews, the individual attention was a foreign experience and a sharp contrast to her grassroots career in community-based organizing. Kim had to work hard to stay humble. “Organizing isn’t about the spotlight, it’s about the work,” she noted. But “winning the Goldman Prize was wonderful,” she concluded, “as it put the issues of environmental justice on the map.”

Kim is bold in her goals and has created a strategic, multipronged, community-based approach to achieve them. She started with educating elected officials about environmental justice, pulling from existing frameworks in New York and California. She rallied community members and local youths to act as citizen scientists, gathering soil samples and air quality data to present to city council members. (This has since inspired the city to create its own formalized air monitoring program.) Finally, Kim collaborates with fellow Chicago nonprofits to understand zoning policies for land use, working together to chart a healthier path for the city’s neighborhoods.

Throughout it all, Kim maintains her core value: community first. “It’s truly wonderful,” she commented, “to see what communities can do to come together in the face of adversity.” Despite a long history of industry in the neighborhood, Little Village is alive and full of potential. The future of the neighborhood is encapsulated in its burgeoning community farm and food program, which boasts five chefs of color and feeds 300 Black and brown families each year across South and Southwest Chicago.

Kim’s work as an environmental justice advocate is long-term, intergenerational, and hard. Her wins are her community’s wins. While continued challenges are deeply felt throughout the neighborhood, she is marching forward, taking incremental steps to achieve a clean and healthy future for the residents of Little Village.

Is Kim Wasserman a utopian dreamer or a hardworking realist? Perhaps a little bit of both.

Managed by LVEJO, Little Village’s community garden is named “La Semillas de Justicia Garden” (the Seeds of Justice Garden). LVEJO also manages a community farm, which fed 300 families in 2022. Photo: Goldman Environmental Prize.

Visit Little Village Environmental Justice Organization‘s website to learn how you can support Kim’s work.

This blog post is part of the Prize Winners Today series, a monthly installment that reports on the latest news and projects from past recipients of the Goldman Environmental Prize. From reflections on the Prize to updates from the field, we’ll answer the question—what are these extraordinary individuals doing today?

About the author

Ellen Lomonico

Digital Communications Manager

Ellen is excited to elevate the stories and amplify the impact of Goldman Prize recipients around the globe. She manages the Prize’s digital presence, produces written and visual content, and contributes to strategic communications planning. Prior to joining the Prize, Ellen held various roles in the solar industry, from marketing to education program management. She holds a BA in Geography and Environmental Studies, with minors in Spanish and Environmental Systems and Society from the University of California, Los Angeles. She joined the Prize in 2020.

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