Kimberly Wasserman of LVEJO on “Killing a Midwest Generation”

The Talk:

Killing a Midwest Generation

In Plain English:

How a Chicago non-profit from a low-income neighborhood got an asthma-inducing coal plant shut down

The Speaker:

Kimberly Wasserman of Little Village Environmental Justice Organization (LVEJO)

The Sponsor:

Fossil Free MIT

What it covered:

When Kimberly Wasserman of the Little Village Environmental Justice Organization (LVEJO) took the podium at MIT’s Sloan School of Business and Management, she didn’t fawn; she was direct: “We never stop our community members from asking questions during our presentations,” she said. “And this isn’t that different.”

Bold move from someone who was just introduced to an MIT audience as “a community college graduate” and “an example of how you don’t need a degree to make a difference.” Wasserman is a community organizer with LVEJO, a community-based organization out of Little Village, a predominantly Mexican-American neighborhood on the southwest side of Chicago.

The last census said 70,000 people were living in Little Village. But Wasserman believes the actual number of residents is closer to 95,000. It’s impossible to be sure about the numbers, she explained, because there are so many undocumented immigrants living in the neighborhood. Plus, a lot of people with legal authorization to be here are still afraid to fill out the census, because it’s not unusual for two or three families to be living in the same apartment. They’re afraid they’ll lose their homes if the government finds out they’re crowing 8-10 people into a 2-room apartment.

The neighborhood is full of kids; half of the residents in Little Village are under 25. “There’s a lot of need for k-12, pre-K, daycare, but we don’t have it. The median household income is 30k,” Wasserman said.

Wasserman never set out to be an environmentalist. After high school, she went to a community college and started working at an after-hours program at a Boys & Girls Club. Her job was to supervise a computer lab that was open until 9:00 pm, where kids could work on homework and things. But when the budget got tight, the late hours in the computer lab was one of the first things on the chopping block. They didn’t want the extra expenses of keeping the lights on until 9 and paying the lab monitor to stay that late. However, the workers at The Boys’ & Girls’ Club thought that was a bad idea.

Teens needs places to study after school hours, and lots of teens don’t have stable homes. That’s when they end up wandering around on the streets and getting into trouble.

The leaders of Little Village Environmental Justice Organization (LVEJO) were based out of an office just down the hall from the computer lab and offered to help teach the Boys & Girls club people how to use social organizing to help preserve the program. Long story short, it worked out. The Boys & Girls Club is still open until 9 pm.

But around this time Wasserman, who was 21, was pregnant with her first kid and not sure if she wanted to keep working long hours at a computer lab. Fortunately, one of the LVEJO leaders was impressed with her and offered her a job with them. She’d be home earlier, and she would even be allowed to bring the kid to work sometimes. So Wasserman became an environmental justice organizer.

LVEJO is a grassroots organization, so every cause they champion comes out of conversations with community members. They spend a lot of time asking around about “What do you like about living in Little Village? What don’t you like about living in Little Village?” One thing that came up a lot was asthma.

When you look at national averages for asthma rates, Mexican Americans (who make up the bulk of the Little Village population) are less likely to develop asthma than people from most other countries of origin. But the asthma rate in Little Village was 20 times the national average. That’s the national average, multiplied by 20. That’s insane.

So what was so different about Little Village compared to the rest of the country?

One candidate was “Ass River”, a smelly sanitation canal that runs through Little Village. But “The Cloud Factories”, a set of coal-powered plants owned by Midwest Power Generation, were also a suspect. They sent puffy white plumes of smoke into the air every single day. The smoke looked pretty non-threatening, but how could you tell?

It turns out that a group of environmental epidemiologists at Harvard were interested in the same problem. They did some calculations and estimated that each “cloud factory” caused 1500 ER visits, 300 deaths, and 1300 asthma attacks per year. Those are the numbers for one individual plant; Little Village had two of them.

LVEJO tried to figure out if Midwest Generation had any connections to Little Village by asking around to see if anyone knew anyone who worked there. “We found a girl who dated a guy who knew a girl who knew a guy who worked at the power plant. That was the closest we got,” Wasserman said.

“We don’t get any economic benefits but it’s literally killing us,” Wasserman said. So LVEJO organized a protest at city hall, where young people from Little Village camped out in the lobby, lying in body bags, holding inhalers.

“What do you think happened next? Do you think we got attention or a push for an ordinance?” Wasserman asked. “No. We got a phone call from mayor’s office saying that we were to never, ever embarrass the mayor that way again. And we were in fact, banned from city hall…So we went back the next day and did it again.”

And so began a 12-year-long battle against the “Daley Machine”.

The winds of the Windy City didn’t push the coal smoke up to the North Side, which is where the rich people live, and in the pre-An Inconvenient Truth-era people were much less aware of how far air pollution could percolate from its original source.

LVEJO organized a project where they had young people doing GIS analyses in order to estimate how many school children went to school within a 1-2 mile radius of the power plants, hoping that if they could show people outside of Little Village were also affected, something would change.

When Chicago made a bid for the 2002 Olympics, they put together a campaign about the air quality called “Midwest Killing Generations”. They actually got to meet with the International Olympic Committee (IOC) and Oprah (“That was cool!”) about the air quality issues.

But it was still a struggle to reach the mayor’s office. They were often dismissed “We had to make it clear: this is not just because we’re crazy and we don’t have anything better to do with our time. We definitely do.”

The power generated by the lung-damaging coal-plants wasn’t even being used in the state of Illinois. It was being sold to the highest bidders out of state. “Our community is being sacrificed to make a profit for a company…People are angered by this,” Wasserman said. “It is our role to channel that anger in a positive way.”

They kept at it. They organized group trips to coal-mining country so they could learn more where coal comes from and how the working-class people in those regions are also paying a heavy toll in terms of their health. “This is really about how poor people from across the country come together when they’re getting screwed economically,” she explained.

In 2011, they teamed up with Greenpeace to organize an “Occupy the Coal Mound” event, where a group of protesters would camp out on top of the coal mound and demand that something be done. To prep, the Greenpeace people taught them how to hop chickenwire fences (like the one surrounding the mound) and what to do if they were arrested.

It turned out to be really underwhelming, because the coal company was repairing the fence, and there was a nice hole they could walk through and up to the top of the mound (which is a tough climb that takes a while.

The coal company people were livid. They called the police and demanded that the officers climb the mound and arrest the protesters immediately. But the cop had family down the block and completely understood why they were on the mound, Wasserman explained with a grin.

The cops told the coal company to call them when the protesters when they started coming back down the mound, and then they’d arrest them. The protesters ended up getting off the hook with tickets.

LVEJO kept pushing for a Clean Power Ordinance, but most of the deals at city hall are made behind closed doors that LVEJO didn’t have access to. The only way they could get things done was by teaming with more established organizations like The Sierra Club and Greenpeace. “We kept getting sold out,” Wasserman explained. “We didn’t like them, but they have access and money that we don’t.”

For example, at one point the city government proposed a “Chicago Climate Action Plan” that only included 8 words about air pollution being a problem. “The lady who was in charge of it said that if they didn’t like living in Little Village, they should move,” Wasserman said. “But to where? And who is going to pay off first and last month’s rent?!”

Finally, in the early 2010s, they ended up sitting down with the leaders of Sierra Club and Greenpeace and having “a serious conversation about privilege”. All three organizations agreed that if one group managed to snag a meeting at City Hall, everybody had to go, not just the well-connected environmentalists. “It was a very difficult conversation, but it was a very good conversation.”

What followed was “one of the best run campaigns I’ve ever seen.” They put together ads featuring real -life kids from Little Village (including Wasserman’s oldest son) about the asthma, and The Sierra Club paid to have the ads placed on Chicago Transit.

Meanwhile, Greenpeace organized more dare-devilish events including one stunt where they “occupied” the smoke stacks and one where they bungee-jumped off the side of a freeway to hang a banner.

“Our contribution was to be outside across the street, with snacks, playing music and cheering them on,” Wasserman said. Her volunteers certainly weren’t willing to jump off the side of the freeway.

When word came down that Mayor Daley would not be seeking re-election, the campaign kicked into high-gear. “With Sierra Club, we were able to get into every debate, making it one of the top three issues for the mayoral election,” Wasserman said.

In February 2012, Rahm Emanuel won the election and gave the coal company an ultimatum: Shut down or clean up. They chose shut down. Originally, they were going to shut down the first plant in 2012 and the second one in 2014, but the environmental campaign was able to exert enough pressure to get both plants shut down by the end of 2012.

It was a huge achievement. Wasserman said her one regret was that she wished they could have worked with the power plant workers more, because they, too, are working-class people who get screwed over by power companies. About 1/3 of the workers got transferred to new plants, and the remaining 2/3 either retired or got laid off. “But they were too scared of Midwest Generation,” Wasserman said. “Their strikes ended with contracts that left them worse off than when they started.”

And then the city was left with a question: What are we going to do with the land occupied by these abandoned power plants?

Wasserman was recruited to a mayoral task force that would decide what to do with the plant buildings. She was the only woman on a task-force that included everyone from city hall staffers to the executives of Midwest Generation. (“As a woman, that was…great.”)

For Wasserman and LVEJO the goal was to figure out: How do we assert what we want in our community? How can we be proactive about land development instead of reactive?

The bottom line was: “If community cannot get behind it, then it cannot happen.”

The people of Little Village have been told so many times that businesses are good for job creation and tax benefits that they just don’t believe it anymore; when the task-force asked, they said they wanted genuine green projects.

They decided to build a park. A big one. This was also a huge victory, because now the tens of thousands of kids who live in Little Village will finally have a green place to play outside.

Emboldened by their progress with the coal plants, LVEJO decided to lobby the Chicago Transit Authority and get a bus route that goes directly from Little Village to downtown. Without that busline, it could take Little Village residents an hour-and-a-half to get to work. They got that, too.

After three major successes in one year, LVEJO isn’t slowing down at all. They’re thinking about trying to get the Chinese water taxis that go from downtown to Chinatown to come a little further down the river and add Little Village to their route. They’re also trying to convince the city government to rebuild the sewer system, which flooded badly during this year’s snow melt.

And, of course, they’re hoping over the long term that their work will encourage more young people of color to go into science, engineering, and environmental policy.

Very few of the contractors who manage these building projects speak Spanish, and they sometimes ignore where the community is coming from. One contractor was hired to pull a defunct underground oil tank out of a patch of land where LVEJO was hoping to build a community garden and decided that it would be easier to just dump the oil out all over the ground than to transport the tank with oil still inside. The problem is, it’s hard to get things to grow in petroleum-drenched soil.

They still have a long way to go. There are still a lot of people who don’t get it, but these first victories are major first steps for the community. Getting more people involved in the policy conversation can still be a challenge. “They already have a lot of problems & don’t respond well when people say (in chipper white girl voice) ‘Hey! Here’s another problem you need to work with us on!’ Change needs to be connected to the economy.”

My Personal Take:

Wasserman’s not a scientist, but I learned a ton just from hearing her talk for an hour. (Also, if this recap seems like it’s running long, it’s partly because she talks fast and tells a lot of stories.)

It’s scary to think about how easily governments and companies can sweep the effects their actions have on under-served communities under the rug. There are lots of people from all over, not just Little Village, who would have been outraged by Midwest Generation’s attitude toward the people living next door to their coal plants, but a lot of people just don’t pay attention to local communities. (Especially local communities that are predominantly made up of working-class families and people of color.)

But the good news in Ms. Wasserman’s talk was: If you’re persistent and respectful about getting up in people’s faces, build alliances with people who have more access, and make a compelling case for yourself, you can get people to listen to you. It takes a lot of time and work, but it’s possible.

My favorite part of the talk was when she talked about going to the Appalachians to learn about where coal comes from. At first, I was really confused, because there she was, a lady from the southwest side of Chicago, pronouncing Appalachians the way I do: Apple-LATCH-ins. That’s the way we say it in the Smokies (the southern end of the Appalachians in East Tennessee, West Virginia, and the western Carolinas…in other words, the coal-mining country.)

Almost no one else in the country does. When I first got to college, I got into so many arguments about how the word “Appalachian” was pronounced. People say all kinds of weird things: “APPle-lash-un”, “Apple-AESH (with a long a)-ee-uh”, and I don’t know what else. It’s really annoying. (Even the people who were with me on the goofy way people from upstate NY say “yuman” instead of “human” were against me on “Appalachia”…Traitors.)

So hearing “Apple-LATCH-in” coming from a Chicago person was a pleasant shock. But it make sense when she explained that LVEJO hosted a program called “From the Holler to the Hood”, where people from Appalachia visited them and then the Chicago natives traveled to my neck-of-the-woods,The Smoky Mountains in East Tennessee/West North Carolina.

(For a while, there was also a radio initiative called “From the Holler to the Hood” that was doing mashups and collaborations between bluegrass and hip-hop artists. I don’t think it’s still going, but some of the stuff they put together is pretty cool.)

“As a young woman of color, going out to Appalachia and learning where the term ‘hillbilly’ came from and being able to meet their families was really empowering for me,” Wasserman said. “Because as an inner city girl, I heard the term, but I didn’t really know what it meant.”

That made me really happy to hear. As someone with a mostly-New-England-ish accent (lived in Rhode Island until I was 6), who grew up in East Tennessee, I am constantly getting reactions like, “But you’re a liberal. How could you live there?” and “No, you can’t be. You’re actually smart.” and, of course, “But you’re not a real Southerner.”

I don’t really think of myself as “a Southerner”, (Between having parents from Texas and Missouri, being born in Rhode Island, living in a physics company town, and then going to school in upstate New York, I’m probably more Northeast than not…) but when people go around talking about “The South” like its only defining features are racism, obesity, Confederate nostalgia, and copious numbers of Sonic Drive-Ins, a little voice in the back of my head is like, “I’ma start knockin’ all-a’-y’all’s heads together if y’all don’t stop over-generalizin.’”

The South is a complicated and diverse place. Just like everywhere else.

But I think what will stick with me most is the idea that for people in low-income communities, in neighborhoods where they have direct “pipelines” from school to prison, taking part in a non-violent protest is a huge risk. Being arrested at a Greenpeace sit-in is probably going to do a lot more damage to the reputation/employability of a person-of-color from a poor, immigrant family than it would for a white, wealthy, educated, cis-gendered, strawberry-blonde kid with a Rhode Island accent.

It’s easier for people like me to become environmental justice activists, because even if we have an arrest record, it’s much easier for us to sell the, “Oh, I was doing something that technically illegal but I was doing it to save the planet/my family and it was non-violent, so I’m not really a criminal” argument than it is for the average resident of Little Village.

I think that’s something we all need to remember when we’re worried about underserved communities “not caring about science” or “not wanting to take action about environmental issues”.

Biggest Misconception to Avoid:

LVEJO is not an organization of environmental crusaders who want to “save Nature”; they are a community-based organization that are doing what they need to do to ensure their kids’ health. During the Q&A, Wasserman told us the story of how LVEJO was founded:

One of the local elementary schools decided, as a “cost-saving measure”, to re-tile the roof while school was in session without taking any precautions about lead and asbestos exposure. “Well, people in our community work in construction. They know that there are some things you do, and some things that you just don’t do.”

(I can vouch for this. While I was in high school, our school district decided to rebuild the entire school by tearing down and rebuilding a couple of buildings at a time and relocating classes to trailers outside the main buildings as needed. So we spent two-and-a-half years listening to jackhammers while we did our trig quizzes. But we were never in any of the buildings when they were re-doing the roofs and taking out the older walls.)

But the principal insisted that re-tiling while school was in session was the cheapest (and therefore best) way to do it. LVEJO got started as a way to fight back against that, and they did succeed in putting a stop to it. One of the kids who was in kindergarten at the time ended up volunteering with LVEJO as a teen, and now she’s doing a PhD in public policy at Ohio State…So what goes around comes around, I guess?

But LVEJO is about community health, and people doing what they need to do in order to live their lives. Not trees. (Although, they do like trees.)

Best One-Liner:

(Not a joke, but this is important:)

On the decision to build a playground directly across the river from Cooke County Prison: “That’s the reality of living in our neighborhood. I kind of like the idea of being able to stand with my sixteen-year-old and say to him, ‘Look, if you don’t behave yourself out here, you gonna wind up in there.’ For us, the school to jail pipeline is very real. The young people already know it’s there.”

Best Audience Question (tie):

Audience member (probably like a senior in MIT undergrad): Can you say more about the task force? Because we’ve been looking into doing task forces for Massachusetts.

Ms. Wasserman: I was leery of the task force, but it was good to be able to voice our ideas, our reactions to the reports we were reading, and to be able to show that we can read the jargon. In industry, they always want to have an end use for the waste before the remediation happens. If we say the remediation needs to happen first, then that’s what actually has to happen, and we can make that understood.

People say, “But you’re being anti-business!” I say, “If the business that wants to come is the kind that’s gonna leave a cess pool behind when they leave, then I don’t want them coming in to my community.”

Being able to sit across the table from the guy I’ve been yelling at for twelve years and having a civilized conversation, with a mediator there, is actually really helpful. We could never have gotten the credibility that the task force gave us by ourselves. And the guidelines are not legally binding, but they are morally binding. It gives us a level of negotiation that we didn’t have previously.

Best Audience Question (tie):

Another audience member: How do you get people who don’t know anything about environmental issues on board? I mean, I study these issues a lot but not everyone I talk to is going to know as much as me.

Ms. Wasserman: It’s a process. You have to find a way to make it personal for them, and you have to talk to people 3 or 4 times before you find the thing that makes it real for them. You have to listen to him talking about his kids, his dog, whatever. I hear a lot of stories about kids with asthma. But you can take that and tell them that for every day they have to say home with a kid who’s sick with asthma, they missed out on much of their paycheck. And then it’s like Holy Crap! Then it’s personal.

But it’s a process. If someone comes up to and says, “Hey, how’re you doing?”, you probably don’t talk to that weirdo. I probably wouldn’t talk to that weirdo.

We’ve been working for years, and people doubted us, but we never promised anything we couldn’t deliver. We told them, “We’ll work work with you.” We can’t promise we’ll get the park, but we know we won’t get the park without doing the work. In Spanish it’s “mi palabra”, and as an organizer, you never go back on your word.

Sometimes the community has really surprised me. We were building a play ground over a former land fill, and we had two options: Put a cap over the landfill and build on top of that (which is cheaper), or pay money to have all the garbage taken out of the ground.

I thought they would go for the expensive one, but they said, “No. We do not want the expensive extraction unless we can follow each garbage struck that leaves Little Village and make sure that it takes the trash to a facility where it’s going to be disposed of properly. We don’t want it leaving out community if you can’t guarantee that it won’t end up in someone else’s backyard.”

At that point, I think our organizing has reached the next level, because now people are thinking about how other communities will be affected as well as ours.

Key Terms:

  • Environmental epidemiology= the study of how environmental contaminants affect distribution of chronic diseases like asthma and cancer
  • Privilege= the idea that certain groups who are in power have infrastructural advantages over outsider groups, such as people of color, low-income communities, and gender-queer people. For example, a person with a thick Mexican-American accent might have a harder time getting a meeting with a high-ranking official at City Hall than someone with a less thick accent. Just because of unconscious biases. It sucks, and it’s tough to pin down. But still important to think about.
  • Environmental justice= EPA defines it as “Fair treatment and meaningful involvement of all people regardless of race, color, national origin, or income with respect to the development, implementation, and enforcement of environmental laws, regulations, and policies.” Would like to see clauses about gender & sexual orientation thrown in there, but that’s a pretty solid working definition.

Tl;dr: There used to be two really gross coal-producing power plants in the neighborhood known as Little Village in Chicago. They were causing a lot of asthma cases, but since it was a low-income neighborhood with a high immigrant population, the politicians weren’t paying much attention. One group worked hard and was very persistent, so the plants got shut down.

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