Chicago organizers talk environmental justice at panel discussion

Maddie Elkins, Reporter

Chicago community organizers spoke on current efforts to combat environmental injustice at a panel Thursday night.

The event drew about 15 people to McCormick Auditorium to discuss environmental justice, the fair treatment of all people regardless of race, ethnicity or income in the development, implementation and enforcement of environmental policies. The discussion centered on issues of public health.

Keith Harley, director of the Chicago Environmental Law Program, explained the history of discriminatory environmental practices throughout America and pointed to the now closed Fisk and Crawford coal-fired power plants, which were located in Latino communities on Chicago’s west side, to illustrate the unequal environmental protection among different groups in the United States.

Harley said that despite public perception, environmental justice is not just being free from a disproportionate amount of pollution, but also about having equal access to amenities like parks, open space, nutritious food and public transportation. He said environmental justice groups’ agendas often include these issues.

Jerry Mead-Lucero, an organizer for the Pilsen Environmental Rights and Reform Organization, spoke of PERRO’s efforts to clean up polluted industrial facilities near Pilsen.

“That’s what environmental justice is all about,” Mead-Lucero said. “It’s how the various issues of race, class and gender come together in compounding the environmental problems and how they’re connected.”

Tamika Gibson, outreach and policy coordinator for the Illinois Environmental Council, stressed the importance of putting pressure on legislators to address issues of environmental justice.

“We have to, as constituents and community members, educate our legislators about it,” Gibson said. “A lot of times they are disengaged because there are so many things going on that, at a state level, the environment tends to be in the background.”

The event was sponsored by Students for Ecological and Environmental Development, Northwestern Community Development Corps, Freshman Urban Project,Alianza and For Members Only.

FMO coordinator April McFadden said FMO decided to collaborate on the event because of the intersection environmental issues have with social issues like race and gender. The Medill junior said it is important to show there is commonality between these issues.

SEED co-president Chelsea Corbin said she hopes the event gave the audience a broad understanding of why environmental justice is important in Chicago and other communities. Although attendance could have been higher, Corbin, a former Daily staffer, said it’s hard to get people to attend events at this point in the quarter.

“I think it was really successful to partner with so many other organizations that touch on justice in Chicago,” the Medill senior said. “I’m glad that we were able to raise this topic to students and help expose them to some of the really tangible, pervasive ways that the environment is important in Chicago and in relation to other social justice issues.”

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