DEEGAN ON LA-Inspired by President Barack Obama to pursue a career in organizing to build community and advocate for change, Aura Vasquez (photo above) became a community organizer early on, a path that led to her leadership role as an organizer and activist for environmental justice.
Seeking to become even more politically active, Vasquez ran and was elected to a seat on her Neighborhood Council (Wilshire Center Koreatown Neighborhood Council). There she landed a roll-up-the sleeves job as chair of the Planning and Land Use Committee, establishing a community benefits policy to make businesses and developers give back to her community and not just profit from it.
As a result of her political activism, Vasquez was appointed to the Board of Commissioners of the DWP by Mayor Garcetti. She’s now in the early stages of campaigning to be a Los Angeles City Councilmember, representing CD10 in the Spring 2020 elections.
One of Aura’s passions is Environmental Justice—now a very relevant topic as we grapple with the realities of climate change and are beginning to understand the impacts on disadvantaged communities.
Aura Vasquez shared with CityWatch some of her thoughts about the ways environmental justice can be delivered to the communities that have very little political clout--something she plans to expend on their behalf.
CW: What should a newcomer to the concept of Environmental Justice know about it?
AV: Environmental Justice reflects on fundamental realities that communities of color and low-income communities are more subject to pollution and contamination. The environmental impacts hit at the heart of people’s lives. Groups that are subject to discrimination, racism, and low-incomes are also subject to environmental racism.
Communities of color and low-income have little or no political support that will defend their health instead of profiting from fossil fuels. Why are gasoline plants put into these communities? Often times, there is lack of involvement and the communities affected do not have any political support. This is why fossil fuel structures are often placed in low income communities of color because often in these communities we don't have strong political representation that puts people’s lives before profits.
The current climate crisis affects them the most, for example having contaminated water, or no water at all. These communities cannot access politics equally because of money. Politicians are representing the interests of who helps them get elected. Those entities are often tied to the people that have more money.
CW: How do you fit into Environmental Justice?
AV: I grew up in Colombia, as an Afro-Latina, in a small sugarcane town. The sugarcane industry was the main economic provider, but they also polluted the only river we had and source or fresh water. They; were the very people that made ash rain every day in our tow; the ash came from the burning of the sugarcane. We called it “the black rain.” I grew up seeing that and wondered who could go up against big corporations like the sugarcane company that was polluting our air? We suffered from asthma and other respiratory effects. We all learned about the ozone layer and how dangerous it is.
At age 11, I learned this and understood that my environment in my little town was no different than other places in the world like the big city of Miami because of climate change that could one day cause that city to be flooded. I really understood the problem, and that I would not grow to see the world as I knew it because of the contributors to climate warming such as gasoline, coal, and fossil fuels.
CW: How does Environmental Justice fit in as a building block to the New Green Deal?
AV: Environmental Justice is the heart and soul of the Green New Deal that will put people back to work. The centerpiece of the Green New Deal is changing our economy and transforming it to a “green” economy that will be an economy that produces tons of investment, and employment. A Green New Deal will also bring benefits to those most affected by environment distress. We must put them first.
I was a DWP commissioner and a proponent of solar energy. I knew it was good. We live in sunny California, and in Los Angeles where we can harness sun energy. The first solar program that LADWP planned, it was for people that owned a home, with a good roof that could hold a solar panel system. People with good credit could sign up. Half of all Angelenos don’t own a home, and many may not have good credit. Some of the good people with homes and roofs and creditworthiness were enjoying solar energy that was being subsidized by the rest of us, who couldn't meet conditions to have solar panels because we had an apartment or a home without a good roof, or poor credit. Environmental Justice is LADWP making solar available for renters through a community solar power program for solar energy. That’s equality and environmental justice for all, not some of us. All of us paid for the LADWP but not all benefit. That is not Environmental Justice, that is not equity.
CW: Why are you running for CD10?
AV: I’m running for the position of Councilmember for CD10 because I want a CD10 that works for all of us, the people that work hard to put food on the table and make our city better. I am fighting for an affordable and healthy city. I was to see designated bike lanes and micro-mobility lanes for bikes and scooters. We don’t see that in CD10. The streets need fixing. There is no green space. Koreatown is the most parks and open-space-deprived part of the city, and this is no different in other parts of District 10.
We are very dense and suffer from severe heat island effect because of the lack of trees. I was elected to the Wilshire Center Neighborhood Council in Koreatown (part of CD10) three times. I saw first-hand how the high cost of living is displacing seniors and families from their community. We need responsible development. CD10 has so much diversity but needs environmental justice for all.
Hearing some of the thoughts of Aura Vasquez led me to a question: Will we ever have equality and environmental justice for all, not just for some of us? A good step toward recognizing the situation and dealing with it here in LA occurred when the City Council recently established the position of Climate Czar. This could pave the way for a possible solution. First, we get a “Czar” and next, he or she helps to create Environmental Justice for all.
(Tim Deegan is a civic activist whose DEEGAN ON LA weekly column about city planning, new urbanism, the environment, and the homeless appear in CityWatch. Tim can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.) Photo: National Weather Service. Edited for CityWatch by Linda Abrams.