Increased Health Problems In LA Neighborhoods Led To Homegrown Environmentalism

When residents of Commerce and East Los Angeles noticed an increase in asthma and cancer, they raised their concerns to the city. The same group of residents kept running into each other in public meetings and decided to work together. They were united in fighting against industrial expansion projects that raised risks of pollution near their homes, schools and parks. They named themselves the East Yard Communities for Environmental Justice (EYCEJ).

“Folks realized that there was a lot more they needed to know. There’s three questions at the foundation of East Yard: What is it? How does it affect us? And what can we do about it?,” said mark! Lopez, East Yard’s executive director.

EYCEJ was founded in 2001 and Lopez still uses those three questions to inspire the nonprofit’s programs and campaigns such as shutting down Exide Technologies (a battery plant that poisoned LA neighborhoods with lead and arsenic). The nonprofit emerged from years of the unheard community voices that have silently suffered the effects of pollution in their neighborhoods. Now, through grass-roots organizing, leadership building skills, utilizing research-based information, workshops and training, those unheard community voices influence policy change, policy makers and agencies that can institute health protective environmental justice policies that are in the residents’ best interest.

The nonprofit holds numerous workshops on air pollution, environmental and reproductive health, policy making and public speaking. In fact, Lopez’s first experience with EYCEJ was through one of their workshops where he learned about transportation — the rail yard, freeways, truck traffic and the health impacts of living near it.

“It put the gravity of the system into perspective. And it shocked me,” said Lopez. “That night I went home after the workshop and that was the first time I really heard the train horn and I’d grown up near the railroad tracks my whole life.”

He was hooked. Lopez graduated from UC Santa Cruz and came back home to South Gate. He heard about the nonprofit through a friend years back. He joined EYCEJ as an organizer. Over the years, he took on more responsibility and eventually became the executive director.

Working for an environmental justice organization made sense for Lopez. He comes from a family with roots in activism. His grandparents founded Mothers of East LA, which is credited as being one of the first environmental justice organizations in LA. Lopez’s earliest childhood memories are protesting against the construction of a prison in Boyle Heights.

“I knew coming back home I was going to [organize]. East Yard was consistent with the world views and values that I was taught and instilled with,” said Lopez. “There are people alive today who wouldn’t be because of projects East Yard has stopped.”

EYCEJ is homegrown in East LA and South East LA, but they are open to serving additional communities.

“If there are more communities that we can connect with, it only makes us stronger. We’ve helped build regional movements and national movements,” said Lopez. “And I think it’s a responsibility that we can take on in our organization.”

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