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Sierra magazine
Act | On Your Convictions

It Takes a Little Village

Interview by Della Watson


Marisol Becerra, Chicago; cofounder, Young Activists Organizing as Today's Leaders]

"Little Village is a predominantly Mexican American neighborhood in Chicago with approximately 90,000 residents; over half of them are under 21. We are surrounded by industry. During my freshman year of high school, my mom was volunteering at the Little Village Environmental Justice Organization, and we went on a toxic tour. At the coal power plant, the tour guide talked about all the chemicals that are emitted and how they affect people's health: respiratory problems, asthma, and birth defects. My sister has asthma, and my mom and I have respiratory problems. I started linking the plant and the problems. That's what got me involved. I was angry.

"I've heard adults say, 'Oh, you millennial generation, you're such a disgrace. All you do is stay inside, play video games, and waste your time.' I was determined to change that perception. I started doing community organizing and started a youth group.

"Google Maps allows me to use census data so I can show where most Latinos or African Americans live and how close people live to the polluting power plants and industries--and make the point that we are facing environmental racism. It's important to map the area to see what is accessible to people. Our community is divided by gang territory, and there is only one park. There's often fear of going over the gang boundary to the park, so half the children don't have access to it. My goals are to shut down the coal power plant and get a clean park.

"I show the map at meetings with pictures and videos, and people say, 'I didn't know this was going on. I want to do something about it.' They can't say no to the video.

"I'm a sophomore at DePaul University. I'll probably go to another community and work with them to reach their goals, because I want to see the day when the U.S. is not dependent on coal. For now, I need to focus on Chicago. Little Village is my home, and I'm not going to leave it with all these problems."

WAITING TO INHALE The two coal-fired power plants in Little Village and nearby Pilsen are responsible for 41 premature deaths, 550 emergency-room visits, and 2,800 asthma attacks per year, according to a 2002 Harvard School of Public Health report.

ON THE WEB Learn more and view the map of Little Village at elcilantro.org. To read about coal plants in Chicago, see "Every Breath You Take" (July/August 2006).

Photo by Ralf-Finn Hestoft; used with permission.

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