By: Ruth Rodriguez, Communications Intern

Esther Portillo, Interim Executive Director of the Center for Community Action and Environmental Justice (CCAEJ) in Jurupa Valley, CA, shared her experience as an activist for CHEJ’s Living Room Leadership Series. Portillo has organized and empowered communities of color across the nation and now is leading CCAEJ’s grassroots efforts to bring environmental justice to the Inland Empire.

CCAEJ works to improve the social and natural environment by expanding indigenous leadership, organizing communities through the use of campaigns, and creating a framework of community power for safer, healthier, toxic free places to live, work, learn and play.

Portillo began organizing in the early 2000s after graduating college. The history of racism and the demographic shift of where she grew up influenced her interest. Because affordable housing was no longer viable in places like Los Angeles, there was a displacement of people of color who moved to the Inland Empire, a region in Southern California.

“It’s definitely an environmental racism issue as well.”

Currently, CCAEJ is fighting against land use and warehouse development. The warehouse industry has been effective in rezoning previous residential areas and making them industrial zones. The industrial warehouse complex in the Inland Empire spans 500 million square feet and 20 million square feet are added every year, making it the largest warehouse district in the world. Additionally, air quality has worsened as a result of the use of warehouse diesel trucks. Diesel releases harmful particulate matter into the air, reducing air quality. Because of the growth of the industrial complex in the Inland Empire, Portillo stated the area is becoming like an “inland port.”

The effects of pollution in the Inland Empire can be seen through slow lung growth in children and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease. Portillo said, “Community members have literally passed away from the impacts of all this pollution.” She called it a sort of state of emergency.

“It is like a life and death situation for folks.”

Portillo explains that the way to be most effective is to “organize the folks that are directly affected by these policies.” These people are usually women of color, and it is necessary for community members to develop the policies they want. Litigation, change of land use strategy and planning, and community organizing are essential for enacting change in the Inland Empire.