The Southwest Environmental Alliance recently led a public meeting at St. Paul’s Catholic Church, addressing pollution in Pilsen and surrounding neighborhoods.
Maria Acosta of the Illinois Poor People’s Campaign stressed that people should be alert and concerned about environmental issues happening in their communities. “If this isn’t already moving you, then there must be some other stuff that’s happening in your life that is taking precedence,” she said, noting concerns about pollution should be a priority as well. She added groups such as hers “tend to think a lot of times about the idea of winning people over,” but fighting pollution also must be “really based on the individual.”
Theresa Reyes McNamara, chairperson of the Southwest Environmental Alliance, addressed health issues resulting from pollutants in local communities. She believes most residents she has met through knocking on doors in the community suffer from life-threatening illnesses. One day, “We went knocking on doors, and out of ten doors that opened, in eight of the families” there was “some sort of cancer,” including two children, she explained.
McNamara also addressed the challenge to passing legislation to improve communities’ well-being. She feels money particularly has “complete influence” in legislative decision making.
“It all has to do with money,” she said. “There’s always going to be somebody in it with money that’s going to try to stop something like that [anti-pollution legislation] happening.”
McNamara proposed that residents and community representatives collaborate to overcome this challenge. “We just have got to keep trying and pushing and hoping that people will come together and wake up and say, ‘You know, I’m here for a purpose, and my purpose is how do we work together to make it a better life for all of us, not just one of us.’”
Alfredo Romo, executive director of Neighbors for Environmental Justice, hopes those who attended the meeting feel motivated by what they learned and aspire to create change.
“Some of our goals are to continue to educate our community about environmental justice and environmental health,” Romo said. “And one of the things that we’re trying to do with this information is to empower people to participate in decisions about activities that may affect their environment and their health.”
He stressed learning about planning processes is crucial and local residents must pay attention to “Anything that has to do with development, implementation, and enforcement. I think it’s very important for people to really understand that there’s ways to participate in the planning processes of any developments.
“One of the things that we have learned as well is that we need to continue to seek transparency and to demand meaningful community involvement” and engagement in development planning processes to make any change happen, Romo added. “If we don’t take that approach, we’re going to be paying for the direct impacts of environmental degradation of any heavy industry or corporation that comes into our community. So it’s very important for people to really understand that aspect in order for us to best protect our community’s environmental health.
McNamara discussed her group’s plans for the future.
With the mayoral election coming up, group members plan to hold mayoral candidates accountable.
“We want to know, how are they going to help the environment and then follow through?” McNamara said, noting that concerning the environment, Mayor Lori Lightfoot “said she was going to do something, and of course she didn’t.”
McNamara noted that the Southwest Environmental Alli-
ance also will try to determine whom the best aldermanic candidates will be concerning protecting the environment.
Her group also plans on talking to local State legislators, “just to sit and chat with them and to bring other politicians and start talking to them in regards to the environment, and having them join us and figuring out how they can help and who else they think we should bring to the table,” McNamara noted.
She assured that “we’re not forgetting our focus: the different companies that are polluting our community and addressing what’s going on, whether it’s the air or the soil or water. All three of those things are being hit here in our community. Anything having to do with these companies, anything having to do with carcinogens, we will be addressing.”
For the Illinois Poor People’s Campaign, email [email protected]. To contact Neighbors for Environmental Justice, email [email protected] To contact Southwest Environmental Alliance, email [email protected].