Community activists discuss environmental justice

Lizette Hernandez (left), director of health and environment programs at Physicians for Social Responsibility Los Angeles, and Hugo Garcia (right), campaign coordinator of “People Not Pozos,” talked about the damage of environmental racism on low-income communities of color. (Lillian Zeng/Daily Trojan)

Low-income communities of color most often suffer the burdens of hazardous sites leading to adverse health effects like asthma, two environmental community advocates said during the “Environmental (In)justice Forum” hosted by USC Kinetic Wednesday.

Nearly 30 people attended the event, which focused on the intersections between pollution and discrimination. Speakers included Hugo Garcia, campaign coordinator of “People Not Pozos” (people not oil wells), and Lizette Hernandez, the current director of health and environment programs at Physicians for Social Responsibility Los Angeles.

Hernandez said the inequity is in many ways an effect of redlining, a discriminatory and racist practice in banking and real estate that kept minorities out of certain neighborhoods.

Manufacturing plants that released toxic chemicals into the environment were often built in these majority minority neighborhoods, Hernandez said. After living in one of these neighborhoods growing up, she said her son developed asthma.

PSR-LA created an interactive map that can tell members of South and Southeast L.A. if they live within 500 feet of a hazardous site.

“One of the main things we want you to walk away with [tonight] is the different layers of oppression that exist on a daily basis,” Hernandez said. “Environmental justice came from black and brown communities who saw [that] there’s a reason why they are living next to toxic sites and there’s a reason others aren’t.”

After growing up in South L.A., Hernandez went off to college and thought she would never move back to her home city. But during the L.A. riots of 1992, she realized she needed to return to help change the issues she grew up with.

“I had a commitment to my community, and I was going to come back to share the skills and address the challenges,” Hernandez said.

The USC Kinetic presenters also discussed NIMBY-ism, an acronym for Not In My Backyard, which refers to people who oppose any development near their residence, but can tolerate it when placed somewhere else. This rationale can lead to potentially harmful land use projects being built in communities that lack the resources or influence to fight back, said USC Kinetic Vice President Keala Rusher, a senior majoring international relations global business.

Garcia previously helped on a 15-year campaign to stop the 710 freeway extension and tunnel. If the campaign had not been successful, the project would have negatively impacted the South Pasadena communities that Caltrans planned to build the freeway through, Garcia said.

Garcia added that small-scale community organizing and activism is vital in these cases in order to produce real change.

“It’s going to take just going out and hardcore organizing in your community,” he said. “Somebody’s gotta knock on doors.”

Katherine Yang, a freshman majoring in media arts and practice, said environmental justice remains important not only in the context of global issues like climate change, but also in smaller scale issues, where the intersectional elements of disadvantage are more clearly seen.

“There is something to be said when the Woolsey fire victims … can raise a million dollars in one night, [but] we can barely raise $1 million among ourselves in one year,” Hernandez said. “This is what systemic racism and classism looks like.”

Editor’s Note: This article has been updated for clarification.