Growing up, I thought pollution was normal. I thought everybody had asthma, like me. But when I started going to school on the north side, I saw that those communities in Chicago weren’t dealing with the problems we were. Instead they had plenty of well-maintained parks, trees, and other amenities that made their neighborhoods beautiful.
Later, my career in communications led to a job opportunity at a national environmental advocacy group. And that’s when I started really connecting the dots. The pollution I lived with growing up wasn’t a coincidence. It was the result of racist zoning policy and a history of excluding communities like mine from decisions that impact our health.
Back in Chicago, I was the co-chair of a grassroots group called Southwest Environmental Alliance. We used direct action to fight against environmental racism and achieve self-determination. One of our most prominent fights was against an asphalt plant that opened up right next to a school and across from the only park in the neighborhood, without any community input.
In the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic, the plant kept operating and continued to pollute the air, creating additional risk in a neighborhood that was already one of the hardest hit by the virus. But the pandemic did not stop us from mobilizing to protect our asthma-ridden community from the worst impacts of COVID-19. We knew that if we didn’t speak up for ourselves, no one else would.
But there was a disconnect in how efforts like ours were perceived in traditional environmental spaces, like where I worked at the time. I began to notice that when historically excluded communities were brought up at all, they were often represented one-dimensionally—as victims of their own circumstances. But I knew that wasn’t true in my own neighborhood. In fact, there was a ton of momentum and energy to improve our communities.
These communities are not powerless. We’re not voiceless. We are actually the ones who know the solutions to our own problems, we just need support to bring them to fruition.