By Jessica Xiao
Six Environmental Justice Lessons from Little Village Environmental Justice Organization
Last winter I spoke with Kim Wasserman, executive director of Little Village Environmental Justice Organization (LVEJO), based in Chicago, Illinois.
Kim Wasserman and LVEJO (pronounced “ell-VAY-ho,”) have spent nearly two decades fighting the bad in Chicago’s predominantly immigrant community of Little Village, engaging in a 12-year campaign to shut down two coal plants that ranked as the top three for most polluted in the US and contributed to some of the highest asthma rates in the country.
Environmental Justice communities with a Just Transition lens often talk about fighting the bad — the pollution, the trash, the lack of voice in decisions that affect the community — in conjunction with building the new — a community-wide vision of what comes next once the harm is stopped. So in addition to shutting down the coal plants, Kim has also seen LVEJO through establishing a bus access line, converting a brownfield site (a piece of land that may have hazardous substances, pollutants, or contaminants on it — in this case, a former asphalt plant) into a park, and starting a community garden. For all of this work,Kim was awarded the Goldman Environmental Prize in 2018, which honors grassroots environmental activists around the world.
Of course, none of this is easy. One thing I learned is even after a coal plant shuts down, building the new brings a whole set of new issues: how does the community gain voice over how parts of the neighborhood are being used or developed? What needs to be done to clean up the messes left behind — and who’s responsible for these messes? What does “the new” even look like, for residents who have been fighting just to breathe clean air and haven’t had the privilege and space of deep reflection on what’s next?
But even as Little Village envisions “the new,” “the bad” continues to demand the community’s attention in the aftermath of the two coal plants. A developer, Hilco Redevelopment Partners, bought the site of the former Crawford plant in 2018, and is building a warehouse there for Target — a big box store that prides itself on fast shipping. How will this impact the residents of Chicago? It comes at the cost of replacing the coal pollution in Little Village with truck pollution, because the location is a convenient entryway for trucks coming off the highway into Chicago.
To add insult to injury, in March the city of Chicago and Hilco scheduled a demolition of the smokestack on the former coal plant site with less than 24 hours’ notice, and informed only a small segment of the community. The Little Village neighborhood was covered in industrial dust at the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, a disease that is deadlier to those with impaired respiratory systems. The images would alarm any of us walking down our streets or coming home–and beg the question, why wasn’t Little Village consulted, let alone informed?
Despite these continued struggles against options that are terrible for the planet and people, LVEJO persists in building the new, with a Just Transition solution based in developing the local food economy.
But I’m getting ahead of myself. After my conversation with Kim, here are the main lessons I learned about how to be an environmental justice leader.
1. Know your neighborhood and know your strengths.
“A neighborhood needs to understand its strengths and weaknesses and how they lay in the city’s overall investment and priority,” said Kim. LVEJO weaves together strategic thinking with its love of the community.
Little Village, “La Villita,” is a predominantly recent immigrant community, about five miles in radius, with a young population that is culturally Catholic.
Although it is the second largest corridor of revenue (and pays more taxes than Lincoln Park, one of the most affluent neighborhoods of Chicago), Kim says they haven’t seen that money reinvested in the community. Their community is also subjected to lots of over policing and has the second-worst air quality in Chicago.
It is also near the largest inland port in North America — and one of the first exits off the Joliet Parkway into Chicago, making it an ideal location for companies like Target and others that pride themselves on fast shipping and delivery rates. In fact, Hilco Redevelopment Partners, which bought the old coal plant site, aims to turn it into a warehouse, replacing toxic plant pollution with trucking pollution that would exacerbate the air quality issue already faced by the neighborhood.
To combat these challenges, LVEJO identifies the strengths and resources of the community and its people, and builds those up. This is an asset-based approach to community development, meaning the community leads in deciding what its future looks like and how to get there. The community owns its strengths, and starts from a position of knowing its own power rather than from a place of deficit and what it lacks.
For example, the neighborhood’s livelihood is food-based. There are 160 restaurants in the five-mile radius and 60 percent of all street-based vendors across Chicago commute from Little Village. “If you buy mangos or corn anywhere in Chicago, they probably come from my neighborhood,” says Kim, which is why LVEJO supports passing policies that build the economic infrastructure supporting the local food-based economy, like incentivizing restaurants and other food businesses to buy locally and sustainably produced food, or allowing food co-ops to bid for government contracts (co-ops are one of the few ways undocumented folks can build their businesses).
2. Know your city.
“Every city has its shit — you need to understand how your city runs and regulates itself to be able to execute a strategy,” Kim says.
The history of Chicago affects the identity of the city to this day — and its racist economic policies (immigration, redlining, mortgage lending, how policies are made) have left a lasting impact on communities of color. The way that local government agencies work together — or don’t — is important intel for anyone trying to figure out the pathways to lasting change.
In Chicago, the Department of Planning is powerful because it doesn’t have to involve other stakeholders in its decision-making — often consulting them only late in the game. One time, the Department of Planning chose a new location for a school, only later considering that kids might have to cross an active railroad track to get to school when it looped in the Department of Transportation.
This non-collaborative culture of planning is what LVEJO aims to dismantle in its work. It doesn’t make sense for planning to exist in a vacuum outside of the community itself and other public agencies looking out for different community interests. That’s why LVEJO feels it’s critical to infiltrate planning spaces and get yourself a seat at the table.
Knowing that city planners hold a lot of power and lack accountability, LVEJO dismantles that culture and ensures that community voices are heard by becoming a part of committees, task forces, and planning boards that make the decisions.
The status quo culture of planning in Chicago has been “pay to play politics,” transactional, and undemocratic. But this is not the way LVEJO wants to do things. LVEJO takes a seat at the table, not to behave in the same ways, but to ensure procedural justice so that the process of making changes is democratic, fair, and inclusive. LVEJO brings in the wisdom and aspirations of the community. It makes power uncomfortable by questioning, shedding light, and making transparent how decisions are made so that backroom politics aren’t the default or an acceptable way to plan communities.
Sometimes, Kim says, the government gives LVEJO token roles, appointing community representation to councils and boards as a gesture so that the city can check off the box of “inclusion,” when it’s actually trying to control and restrict the spaces in which the community can use its voice. But that strategy crumbles when confronted by the strength of grassroots organizing and relationship-building.
3. Follow your community’s lead.
“My goal is that the folks I work with take over my job. If I’m doing it right, I want out of my job. Half of our staff are former youth who have moved up,” shared Kim.
LVEJO’s theory of change revolves around organizing with young people and intergenerationally in community. By organizing within the community, people get to own their neighborhood and consider, What would I like to see in my neighborhood and how do I think it should be managed? Who makes the decisions to allow these things to happen and where does our voice as a neighborhood fit in?
This self-determination is especially important because the city has to repair its relationship with Little Village and many other neighborhoods to build trust. The people of Little Village have experienced a history of government agencies omitting information or trying to plan the neighborhood without even knowing that much about it.
Kim explained, “At one meeting, the Department of Planning presented a graph about public health determinants in Little Village. The numbers didn’t seem to add up. LVEJO found out that the planning department had altered the Department of Health’s presentation to leave out the most troubling information: one of which is that Little Village has the second worst air quality in all of Chicago. They chose to leave out this information so that they wouldn’t have to include improving air quality in their plans for development in Little Village.”
Community members fight the misinformation and lack of information by doing their own research and coming up with unaltered data. LVEJO has mapped the neighborhood’s assets, from churches, to afterschool programs, daycares, number of bus stops, grocery stores, small businesses, and more. It also collaborates with an Advanced Placement Statistics class at a local high school, where students use their statistics projects to report on the impact of trucks on the community’s levels of air pollution. Students set up a video camera, film street intersections, and count the number of trucks, providing valuable data.
“The only way to get to equity is through environmental justice, to understand how everything is interconnected. If community engagement and self-determination are not part of the narrative, these are all just false things we’re doing.” said Kim.
But community-led work comes with challenges. What happens when there are disagreements within the neighborhood about the best path forward?
LVEJO leans into disagreements, says Kim. “We vote on issues and we agree to disagree. I can have all the best intentions in the world, but if the neighborhood says no, they say no, they are my boss.”
It’s not easy, but it’s important, because it shows how much people genuinely care: “We have lost board and community members through that process, but we don’t shy away from hard conversations. I’m more concerned when people are so tired and exhausted and have nothing left to give that they don’t care.”
4. Find, educate, and create allies within institutions.
“They may try to box you in, but organize the shit out of it.”
“Organizing is educating people on their shit,” says Kim. She and her team are used to presenting at every meeting and calling out the many ways that policies and planning processes have contributed to environmental racism and negative public health impacts on the neighborhood of Little Village. They’re used to teaching the definition of environmental justice, gentrification and displacement, and how the system benefits some and harms others.
Little by little, LVEJO has cultivated allies by finding the department chairs and staff who believe in the Principles of Environmental Justice and the Jemez Principles for Democratic Organizing and then pushing those organizations to be more responsible.
Although it’s exhausting work, LVEJO considers it necessary work and necessary discomfort.
Kim let me know why: “The level of uncomfortableness and gasping, ‘omg,’ was needed because people need to acknowledge the existence of these things that are happening. These spaces need to know their impact. This isn’t pinky ring kissing — they work for us, the community. And we have to start from values. What does it mean to be in alignment? What are our definitions? Not everyone’s definition of equity is the same and we have to start by having that conversation.”
5. Lastly, ask lots and lots of questions. Never stop learning.
“I come from a family of badass women who fought their entire life, who took us to marches, rallies, hunger strikes — everything was a teachable moment for us. From a young age, I fundamentally believed and knew I had rights.”
LVEJO has an inquisitive spirit, developed out of resilience and necessity. When city planners don’t know enough about the neighborhood, LVEJO does the research. When plans are put forth that affect Little Village without its consultation, LVEJO asks the hard questions that need to be asked.
Some of these lessons come from burnout and self-care. After being awarded the Goldman Prize, Kim felt burned out and left LVEJO for four years before returning as its Director of Organizing and later becoming Executive Director. In that time, she learned urban planning, which expanded her understanding of herself as a resident of Little Village. “How does planning work? What is the planning world? I understood that there is a world of people who make decisions about your own community. What are your rights in that space?” By taking a break from the space, she brought in a new lens by which to understand the issues facing Little Village.
LVEJO has also learned from its peers, like UPROSE, an environmental justice organization and CJA member in Brooklyn, New York:
Kim went on, “After Superstorm Sandy, UPROSE mapped out brownfields and categorized them. They ranked the brownfields by which ones hadn’t paid property taxes in decades (cheaper and easier to acquire) — and held workshops in the community to learn what residents wanted to see on these brownfield sites, creating a community-based process of developing these sites. LVEJO did the same.”
LVEJO has bought themselves a moment to talk not only about what they don’t want, but what they want to build for the future.