2013 Goldman Prize recipient Kimberly Wasserman led local residents in a successful campaign to shut down two of the country’s oldest and dirtiest coal plants — and is now transforming Chicago’s old industrial sites into parks and multi-use spaces.
Describe the community of Little Village and how it shaped your path to becoming a community organizer.
Little Village is very segregated from the rest of Chicago – it’s like its own little world within the city. It’s predominantly Mexican-American, with a lot of people who were born and raised in the neighborhood, many of whom don’t venture out until they’re in their twenties or thirties, if ever. Little Village also has the number one open space deficit in the city and is home to the largest jail in the U.S., Cook County. I always knew that whatever I was going to do, I wanted to work in Little Village and give back to the community and to show the young people that there is a bigger world and opportunities outside of Little Village.
How did you first become aware that health problems in your community were linked to the Crawford and Fisk coal plants and what inspired you to become a leader in the fight to shut them down?
Growing up, my parents always encouraged me to fight against injustice, saying “If you see something that isn’t right, do something about it.” When my son had his first asthma attack at three months old I knew something wasn’t right, and started to really question what was in the air that could be affecting my child’s health. I began to suspect there was a connection to the coal plants in our neighborhood, especially after talking to other moms and discovering that many of their children also had asthma. When the Harvard study came out in 2001 confirming these fears, I decided I needed to do something about it.
Where was your greatest opposition in the fight to shut down the coal plants? How did you succeed?
Initially, the biggest frustration was that people outside of the Little Village community didn’t care because they couldn’t see a direct link to the problem. People’s ignorance towards health and environmental issues was a reason why the campaign took so long, and it wasn’t until a cultural shift happened and the environment became “sexy” that we were really able to gain public support. Then, it was the battle to shape the public officials’ mentalities and convince them that they represent the community and have a responsibility to them.
We had to ask them “What’s more important? Getting money from a corporation for a campaign, or the health of your constituents?” Throughout that process, we also needed to get our community to understand that the public officials work for them; that even though they may be poor or immigrants, they have rights as human beings like everybody else. We fought for 15 years until the coal company was completely backed into a corner and forced to shut down. Though, to this day, they have not taken responsibility for the health impacts and the deaths in Little Village.
How do you think the closing of the coal plants will affect Little Village?
Aside from improvements to the air quality and health of the people, I think the most important effect is that it has empowered the community to fight for themselves – if they can succeed in shutting down major coal plants, whatcan’t they do? Since the coal plants closed, we have been fighting for other improvements to our neighborhood, including new bus lines and healthier school lunch options. We’re also in the final stages of negotiating a Community Benefits Agreement for the site of the former coal plants, and are working to ensure that the new site will provide plenty of open space as well as other benefits for Little Village residents.
There are so many other communities that suffer from the presence of industrial toxins. What can they learn from your success?
Environmental injustice is an issue faced by countless other communities across the country, and I want to do my part to share our experience and help educate others on how to achieve similar successes. I’m now working on publishing a report on the coal plant campaign and how our community organizing tactics helped us get to our win – it’s essentially going to be a “dummy’s guide to community organizing.”
I want this to be an opportunity for grassroots activism to have a voice, and to share insider strategies and tactics that I wish I had known when I first started my own fight. For example, I learned through my work on the National Environmental Justice Advisory Council (NEJAC) that the EPA can only push for the bare minimum on behalf of a community, so it really falls to the community members themselves to negotiate directly with their opponents and continue fighting for what they want.