Skip to main content

On Being a Woman of Color in the Environmental Movement

It’s taken a very long time to admit it, but yes, I am an environmentalist. There has always been some trepidation and awkwardness towards the label. I mean, how could I not be for the environment? This is about the air I breathe, nature, animals, water–mother earth! So there’s that elephant in the room–that the environmental movement doesn’t look like me.

I always thought that the environmental “movement” was not a place for me. For many years the label felt so foreign to me, even though I feel so passionate saving the planet from environmental calamity caused by human beings.  In a place as diverse as Los Angeles, it remains a white-dominated space. I mean, even the polar bears are white! (through no fault of their own either—blame it on evolutionary biology) The things that drew me towards environmental justice issues just happened organically (no pun intended). I grew up just south of the 10 Freeway, along one of the most hazardous highway corridors in the LA region. My brother and I both suffered from respiratory issues from a very young age and I remember the days when the smog was so bad, you couldn’t even play outside.

I became a vegetarian not just because my cartoon dopelganger Lisa Simpson become one, but because I saw the connection between animal rights and the effects animal consumption have on greenhouse gas emissions. After more than 20 years riding public transit in LA, I still take public transit twice a week to work. Not just because it saves me money, but because traffic congestion and auto emissions continues to affect the quality of life of so many Angelenos. And since I don’t have recycling collection in my apartment building, let alone composting in my apartment building, I sneak around looking for blue recycling bins in my neighborhood and keep a compost bin nicely tucked away in my fire escape. However, the fundamental shift in the way I saw the world and what I want it to be took place in 2005 in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. I realized that I had a moral obligation to become more involved in environmental issues because of the disproportionate effects communities of color will continue to face from climate change.

In the last year or so I’ve had to think a lot about what my role is in the environmental movement. I became the Director of the Don’t Waste LA campaign at LAANE, an exciting and incredibly inspiring effort to change the way we deal with waste in Los Angeles.

Los Angeles set a goal to become a “Zero Waste” city by 2025, meaning it would divert at least 90% of its waste from landfills—one of the leading contributors to greenhouse gas emissions. As my predecessor took on a new and important role under the new Garcetti mayoral administration, I was tasked with taking the campaign to the finish line with the approval of the Zero Waste LA Franchise Policy–radically transforming waste and recycling collection for commercial businesses and apartments and (FINALLY) requiring that recycling be offered to all customers. On top of that, the vast improvements under this new system will greatly benefit the hard working men and women that truly are the backbone of this zero waste system. This is what being in the environmental movement is about, and it is incredibly exciting to be part of such a cutting edge campaign. And on a personal level, it merges my core values around respecting and caring for workers and the environment in my home turf.

But I kept thinking to myself as I took on this new role, “No one else really looks like me.” Quite reminiscent of another reflection I had many years ago on another facet of my identity–feminism. That was a long and arduous journey towards embracing and taking ownership of the label. In this case, I had to jump right in and literally be on camera as the spokeperson for an environmentally-focused campaign. Would I do it justice? Will they see me as a “true” face of this campaign and movement? Do people see me as an environmentalist? All this thoughts crossed my mind as I prepared myself for many days of advocacy at city hall, countless radio, print and TV interviews leading up to the vote and ordinance signing ceremony, and in building relationships with coalition members (who I might add, welcomed me with open arms).

I have big shoes to fill, thanks to the hard work of those who carried our Don’t Waste LA for many years, and the countless environmental activists that brought attention to the issue of waste and the impact is has on workers and the environment way before us. It takes those of us going in and out of different worlds to connect people who may not always talk to and work with each other. Now I have to embrace my role in this work in order to inspire more people who look like me to feel right at home.

Learn more about the Don’t Waste LA Coalition.

Leave a Reply