By Kimberly Wasserman
I’m from South Lawndale, also known as Little Village, a neighborhood on the west side of Chicago. It is a predominantly Mexican-American, low-income community that faces a number of environmental burdens. And, although we were suffering the impacts of pollution and other stressors that affect our health, Little Village community residents weren’t fighting the pollution.
That’s where the Little Village Environmental Justice Organization (LVEJO) comes in. LVEJO is an organization that has been working to protect people’s health and the environment in our community, through democracy in action. I first crossed paths with LVEJO while working as a computer teacher at the Little Village Boys and Girls Club. When the club faced closure, the staff and students rallied with the help of LVEJO to keep it open because it serves an important role as a place for local youth to gather, learn, and play. Attracted to community organizing, I later took a position with LVEJO. That was after my first son was born, who had his first asthma attack when he was just three months old. Now, two of my three kids suffer from asthma.
In 2002, a Harvard School of Public Health study validated what Little Village residents had long suspected; air pollution from the antiquated Fisk and Crawford coal plants in our neighborhoods was linked to over 40 premature deaths, 550 emergency room visits, and 2,800 asthma attacks each year, as well as heart attacks, bronchitis and other ailments. In order to fight this epidemic on a larger scale, LVEJO helped form the Chicago Clean Power Coalition, made up of 50 community, public health and environmental organizations. The coalition’s tireless efforts eventually led to a victory, with the closure of the dirty, inefficient plants this past September. Now, we are working to make sure the former plant sites are properly cleaned up before any redevelopment takes place.
Working for LVEJO, I have also focused on training young people to stand up for environmental justice and the many issues we still face in Chicago. One of our campaigns is to create more green space in the community. Currently, Little Village is ranked #1 for the worst deficit of open space; no new parks have been built there for 75 years. But, we are encouraged by a proposed new nature walkway on an abandoned rail line and plans for a new 24-acre park, designating 6 acres for urban agriculture to open up access to fresh produce.
We will continue to fight for justice in Little Village, and in the meantime we can breathe a little easier thanks, in part, to the efforts of many people in our neighborhoods who are willing to organize and stand up for the health of our community.
About the Author: Kimberly Wasserman grew up in the Chicago neighborhood of Little Village, the same community where she currently lives and works. She began her work with LVEJO as a part-time organizer, but eventually moved up to full time. As part of her current position, Wasserman is responsible for coordinating all LVEJO campaigns, ensuring that all leaders and bases are an active part of the campaign, and executing the campaign. She is also responsible for building the necessary relationships to ensure that the campaigns move forward.