I Am An “Accidental Environmentalist”

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By Briana Villaverde, Community Organizing Intern
According to the EPA, people of color are disproportionately affected by air pollutants and are exposed at a higher rate. I have lived this statistic, fought it firsthand, and have been propelled by it into the world of environmental advocacy. My hometown, Paramount, California, is in the nation’s most Latino congressional district (CA-40). For a small city of only 4.8 square miles, it contains an overwhelming amount of metal and heavy industrial activity. This is my story of becoming an “accidental environmentalist.”
In 2016, Paramount residents rallied to stop a medical waste facility from being built in the city. This culminated in a demonstration at the city’s annual Apples with Santa Clause distribution where adults and children held signs that read, “Dear Santa, We Want Clean Air.” At the time, I was the president of my high school’s Green Club, where we focused on more basic environmentalism such as recycling and planting trees. This instance was a huge turning point for me and my understanding of organizing/environmental advocacy and that it went beyond mainstream conservationist rhetoric.

Image credit: Paramount Community Coalition Against Toxics
In 2017, I officially joined the organizing efforts with other Paramount residents to hold metal forging companies accountable for their willful polluting. Due to the volume of metal forging companies in the city and their process for treating metal at a commercial scale, many residents were experiencing irritation in their nose, throats, and lungs, as well as smelling strong metallic odors throughout the day. Children near these sites also reported shortness of breath and irritability from the odor. Community leaders filed a class action lawsuit against 8 of the prominent polluting industries in our city, but they were met with great pushbacks from electeds, other community members, and governmental agencies. We had short-lived wins when the South Coast Quality Air Management District forced companies to temporarily shut down operations that emitted hexavalent chromium, but they quickly started back up again with more “monitoring.” What this really meant was that they would increase operations at night when particulate matter was low. Additionally, our council members’ revolving door with the city’s members of the chamber of commerce left community members and myself in a constant state of disbelief with how money flowed between the city officials and these polluting companies.

Image credit: Paramount Community Coalition Against Toxics
After graduating from high school, I pursued this passion academically, majoring in Environmental Science and Policy with a minor in Chicano Latino studies at the University of California Irvine. I have interned and volunteered with natural resource management agencies and climate justice advocacy groups with my story as a grounding experience. Initially, I had set out with the intention of fighting for my community’s right to clean air and a safe environment, because that’s what I thought being an environmentalist essentially entailed. However, this path from lived experience to becoming a full-fledged and dedicated organizer is a common one that people, like me, will continue to walk. With the emergence of powerful climate justice organizations like the Sunrise Movement, Uplift, and SustainUS, I meet more and more young people of color with similar stories like mine. Their communities are also suffering from adverse health effects brought on by environmental racism and lack of corporate accountability – which leaves us with one strong choice, to become strong environmentalists. After a lot of struggles I realized that there was a shift in what I considered the role of an environmentalist – it was the love I have for my community and our right to a livable future that made me an “accidental environmentalist.”
Cover photo credit: Long Beach Press Telegram

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