As the condition of our climate continues to deteriorate, national and state policies beholden to special interests often play an exacerbating role in worsening effects on working-class communities, especially communities of color. Lack of adequate urban planning and underfunded public projects that can improve quality of life and reduce pollution are often ignored in the larger conversations around climate justice. Dedicated public servant David Diaz is the Executive Director of Active San Gabriel Valley, a local nonprofit organization that focuses on mobility, climate, and health and wellness in underserved communities. He joins Boom California to discuss the connections between public policy and environmental equality, and how we can take an active role in combating climate change in our own neighborhoods.
Boom: Hi David. We’re interested in knowing what the climate crisis looks like for a majority-minority city, one populated by migrants and children of migrants. Can you tell us a little bit about how it is that you, as a child of migrants, arrived to an understanding of environmental justice and the climate crisis.
David Diaz: Yeah, it’s a nice place to start. I was born in Mexico, as you know in Baja, California, and at six months old my parents brought me over and we landed in the city of El Monte. We’re right on the border of the city of El Monte and South El Monte. So, for me growing up as a latchkey kid, my parents had to work multiple jobs to make it work. We lived in this house that was subdivided internally. So, we had what was the front of the house. And then, in addition, there were two other units that were in the back. As a latchkey kid, I grew up on frozen food. My parents, due to a lack of economic opportunities, they had to work, so they couldn’t cook fresh meals. We ate a lot of McDonalds; we had a lot of frozen food. As a result, I became an obese kid growing up. Similarly, a lot of family members, extended family members, had diabetes, heart disease, coronary related diseases. I went to a lot of funerals due to strokes. When I was probably 18, 19 years old I was at about 260 pounds. I went on this trip of Muay Thai kickboxing mixed martial arts and nutrition education, learning about how I could be a healthier individual and so through that process I ended up losing about 110 pounds. And when I was going through this process, I was also going to Rio Hondo Community College and learning about culture, the erasure of culture, displacement, all the things that were not taught at the high school level. That really impacted me deeply. I ended up going to college at Arizona State to study psychology and social health and what I looked at was how systems play a role in determining the outcomes of people’s well-being and quality of life.
When you look at the communities that I grew up in, El Monte and South El Monte, some of the realities that emerge liken it to a concrete jungle. When I say concrete jungle, what does that mean? It means the absence of canopy, urban canopy, trees, vegetation, greenery in our communities. The national average for urban canopies is about 22%, so this means the percentage of publicly owned trees. In the city of El Monte, that’s about 5%.We’re not lacking fast food or liquor stores or tobacco, you can find one of those pretty easily. We’re also a super park poor community. The national average is approximately six acres per one thousand residents, and for the cities of El Monte and South El Monte, it’s about 0.41 acres per one thousand residents. And just to give a perspective: one acre is roughly the size of a soccer field, so we’re talking about cramming one thousand people in less than half the size of a soccer field.
And so, that coupled with questions like: what were the outcomes in the community I grew up in? Severe pollution burden, high childhood and adult obesity rates, low educational attainment, high unemployment. You start looking at the connections in the system and not just pointing them to personal responsibility, but understanding that all this stuff was done intentionally. So that really motivated me to take the opportunities that were provided for me and come back into my community to be part of that change. I ended up going to Claremont Graduate University to get my Master’s of Public Health. Simultaneously, I was interning at the city of Pomona’s Manager’s Office. I was also working for a startup in south Los Angeles on this concept of dealing with the whole health of an individual. Through these experiences I was able to connect with like-minded folks and organizations that were doing work that I was interested in. One of those organizations was Day One, which was based out of Pasadena, and they actually had this position that had recently opened, and it was titled El Monte Nutrition Education and Obesity Prevention Coordinator. And when I read it, I remember thinking: that’s what I want to do! Like it’s in the title, what I want to do. So, I ended up applying and I got the job. And then that put me into this kick of working in El Monte and South El Monte on various initiatives.
Boom: One of the things that you just outlined for us is the different ways in which residents in El Monte, and other majority-minority cities, experience what we might call if not climate change, at least, environmental injustice. Lack of access to parks and green space, lack of urban canopy, easy access to fast food and liquor stores. Are there any other things that you think are ways that people experience climate crisis or environmental injustice in El Monte and South El Monte that you haven’t mentioned?
David Diaz: When I jumped into the work, it was about nutrition education and obesity prevention for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program. So, it’s called SNAP for short, food stamps or food assistance program. Providing them with physical activity and nutrition education is great. However, folks would tell me things like I love to eat healthy meals, I just have to work 14 hours and my schedule is variable. And I’m also worried about my housing insecurity and also I don’t have a car. And I would love to walk in my community, but I just don’t feel safe going outside and walking, because there’s no infrastructure for people to feel safe while walking. Those include simple things like the presence of sidewalks. In El Monte, more than 35% of the sidewalk network is missing. I quickly realized that we can’t just focus on direct services. We need to continue to address the systems that are in place. Poor urban planning has led to a number of things. Harm from freeways has been documented. They’ve displaced thousands of people and mitigated generational wealth from families. The car industry in general, is problematic. So, for example, if you’re a person that’s in El Monte and you want to get to a place within the city of El Monte, pretty much your options are limited to whether you have a car. And what does that create? Car dependency, which creates dependency on oil and gas because you need that. Poor urban planning has contributed greatly to the environmental inequities that we see today. And again, those things aren’t by accident, they’re by design.
Boom: I think one of the things that you’re teasing out is the ways in which there are individual actions and choices that one can make. But in some ways, depending on one’s class, one’s neighborhoods, folks are limited by these larger structural factors. How does Active SGV work to address personal choice and structural conditions?
David Diaz: At Active SGV our mission is to create a more sustainable, equitable, and livable San Gabriel Valley. Active SGV started off as a Facebook page in 2010 by a group of concerned residents from the San Gabriel Valley. They were a multiracial group that lives in different parts of the San Gabriel Valley, from West SGV to East SGV, all concerned about the lack of public transit and active transportation opportunities available for folks. When I say active transportation, that’s everything that’s human powered: walking, biking, skating, scooting. The Facebook page grew into an official organization. They were a chapter of Los Angeles County Bicycle Coalition, the Western Gabriel Bicycle Coalition, and then they ended up being called Bike San Gabriel Valley.One of the first things that they did was identify these things called master plans, like a bicycle master plan or active transportation master plan and what the gaps were for cities. There’s 31 cities and four large unincorporated areas in SGV. About 2 million residents. They audited which of these cities have done any planning or thinking about active transportation or bicycle master plans.
Since 2012, Active SGV has worked on 12 masterplan processes for 12 individual cities and counting. What that looks like is that we’ve coordinated regional efforts so that there’s regional connectivity in the San Gabriel Valley. Because it’s not enough to just create one bike lane and then see it end at the city boundary, after which you no longer have anywhere to go. For Active SGV, it’s really been about doing the work around identifying where the gaps are and then providing some of the programming ourselves. So, our focus is really on mobility, climate, and health and wellness. Those are the kind of broad categories in which we’re trying to tackle this climate crisis because we know that you need a combination of the above strategy. We need to do the engineering. We need to have actual projects or infrastructure built in the ground.
For Active SGV our communities of concern are really the ones that are most pollution burdened, impacted by pollution, park poor, low income, so that’s what we’ve focused on. The West Puente Valley, El Monte, South El Monte, La Puente, Baldwin Park, parts of Monterey Park, parts of Alhambra. We’re working in Azusa and northwest Pasadena right now, which are really impacted. We’re trying to do this multifocal approach to address some of the region’s most pressing needs. And over the last few years that’s looked like coordinating one of the longest Open Streets programs in the United States. It was 17-plus miles long, from South Pasadena, all the way up to Azusa. Open Streets provides an opportunity to take our biggest public asset, meaning the thing we have most of—roads, which are a fully funded asset—and temporarily transforming them into parks.
We are also working with UCLA and the Energy Coalition to do an indoor air quality study. There are a lot of different appliances that people use that rely on gas. El Monte and South El Monte are in the top five worst pollution burdened sites in California. And that puts us around the top 10 in the entire United States because the county has one of the worst air quality indexes in the United States. If you look at it from that frame and then you look at peoples’ indoor air quality, it’s about five to seven times worse than their outdoor air quality.
People are literally living in toxic conditions because of some behaviors, gas, not having proper installation, or the type of dwelling they’re living in. It’s a number of variables. So, what we’re hoping to do with the outcomes of this study is to inform future building codes for the State of California. Like moving to electrification.
One of the examples that is good for our health and wellness efforts is that we’re currently funded to address food insecurity in the San Gabriel Valley. What we’re doing is coordinating a number of up to 160 – 190 nutrition education and/or physical activity classes with communities that are considered SNAP eligible.
Those are just a few examples of the work that Active SGV is doing, but our frame is always investment where it’s most needed. Doing the work alongside the communities that are most in need and then thinking about multiple benefits. We know that food insecurity doesn’t exist by itself. There’s a lot of complexity that creates food insecurity. Same with absent infrastructure for people walking and biking. It just doesn’t exist by itself.
Boom: One of the images that I got when I was listening to you talk is the El Monte airport. El Monte residents don’t own the planes and they don’t get to go on the planes. It’s almost like there’s literally another freeway. What are your thoughts about the El Monte airport?
David Diaz: The airport for me is like a visualization of the inequity that occurs. Neighboring communities used to have these airports too, that were from way back when, like WWII or something like that. I’m so puzzled as to why we still have this airport that is for leisure activities of the people who have, and it comes at the expense of people who don’t have, which is the people that live in the city El Monte, including myself. I would love for there to be some type of mixed-use development at that site that includes parks and addresses the housing need and has opportunities for economic development for small business owners, entrepreneurs and people from the community. Instead of what it is right now, which is a parking lot for rich people. If I had a wish list, I would love to get rid of that airport. I don’t see the value that it brings to the city of El Monte. It doesn’t generate revenue for them, they’re not getting significant taxes from them. We’re just getting all the pollution, and all of the carbon. So, I would love to see it become something else.
Boom: There’s this term that I read in an LA Times article recently “solastaglia.” It’s a term coined by Glenn Albrecht to describe nostalgia for a place that is no longer the same place. And it’s not that place anymore because of environmental degradation, because of climate change, because it’s been transformed. This really hit me. As you know, Greater El Monte used to be surrounded by water, now it’s surrounded by freeways. We grew up with it surrounded by freeways. I imagine, some generations miss Marrano Beach and being surrounded by water. You have a baby, I have a baby. What do you think we’re going to be nostalgic for in 20 years if we keep headed in the direction we are headed?
David Diaz: As someone who’s involved in the climate world, people are pretty much of two frames of mind. One is resilience. We need to build resilience, and another way to say resilience is that we need to create adaptive strategies. Climate adaptive strategies. What that signals to me is that we pretty much have passed the point of no return. It’s like it’s coming. It’s going to happen. Therefore, let’s just try and adapt to the best of our ability. I think that right now people take for granted being able to go outside. Something as simple as that. You and I are going to miss the days where it was just as simple as, hey let’s go outside today. Because the wildfires that are happening right now aren’t a thing of this moment. They’re going to be a thing of this moment, tomorrow, next month, next year. They’re going to continue to happen and more major human made disaster events are going to continue to happen. And so when I think about it, it really comes down to things as simple as, we’re going to miss being able to go outside. You’re going to have these clean air days and not clean air days determining when you can actually go outside if we continue on the path that we are on right now without an aggressive or bold redirection somewhere else. I think it’s as simple as that. And I know that back in the smog days, people couldn’t go outside because of smog days or limit your physical activity outside because of smog. But moving forward, UCLA scientists right now are saying that the number of days by 2050, the number of days above 95 degrees are going to climb from 32 to 74 by 2050. That’s what UCLA scientists are predicting right now. Today, you and I are having this discussion and it’s currently 101 according to my watch.
Boom: Let’s end with one last question. We’ll try to end on a positive note: how can folks get involved with Active SGV? How can folks make small and big decisions that will help us move in a better direction?
David Diaz: Good question. I think in general one of the things I would offer to folks is to engage with Active SGV at activesgv.org and find our volunteer internship opportunities. We’re trying to do a much better job of building local capacity at the local level. One of the things that you mentioned right now is, how can at the individual level, people do better? One is educating themselves and we can work with folks to help them work through that education of what’s going on. I think that for me I’ve been learning as I’ve been going. What are best practices? What do we need to do? What’s the latest research? And working alongside folks to discover best strategies.
I think that one of the things that we’ve been doing a whole lot, while we still want to do a whole lot more, is build local capacity so that it could be advocacy at the local and state level. Because ultimately, one of the things is that the climate has been politicized. We can’t agree on whether it’s real or how progressive it is, the whole electoral process, you know, from the local level to the state and national level, special interest has a lot of grip on politicians.
One of the immediate ways to engage with us is to help do some of this advocacy around some of the legislation that’s being introduced. Particularly here at the local level, as we know that our assembly members and Senate members both take a lot of oil and gas money. They voted, and you can see it, in favor of oil. They wouldn’t even agree to vote against like a 2,500 foot setback from oil drilling sites and where homes should be located. I think that’s one way. I think in general a solution that needs to be considered at the statewide level or even at the more regional level, is how we build more regenerative economies and really focus on how we can not only create – but it’s also been this battle of jobs vs climate. Either we have climate or we have jobs, and I don’t see it as that black and white. We need to be able to find ways can do it all. It’s not just investing in climate infrastructure, but it’s also investing in people; moving them onto green jobs and divestment from fossil fuels.
Divestment strategies are very important. Sign up with a credit union or public banks because private banks fund a lot of fossil fuel interest. If you currently have a pension or 401k, 403b, look at how your profits are coming back from oil and gas. What stocks are you investing in if you have that? I think that we need to build this economy where it’s inclusive of everyone. And we talk about things like a just transition. A just transition and that really gets to having a more regenerative economy that includes building good economic opportunities for folks addressing the most climate pressing needs, focusing on base frameworks, including racial justice so that we can live in the community that we’d like to. One of the things that I love about this organization that works in the southeast LA area and also Long Beach, East Yard Communities for Environmental Justice, that one of their hashtags is #WeAreJustTryingtoBreathe. And while that sounds simple, it’s a reality: we are just trying to breathe. We are literally just trying to breathe. And so, I would love for us to get to a point where we talk more about regenerative strategies versus resilient or adaptive ones.
David Diaz serves as the Executive Director of Active San Gabriel Valley, a local nonprofit organization, focusing on mobility, climate, and health and wellness in underserved communities. He’s a dedicated public servant and advocate with project management, coalition building experience who has successfully worked with youth, schools, businesses, nonprofit organizations and cities to advance sustainability, equity and public health. David is also a member of the El Monte Union High School District, Investing in Place Board Member, member of the San Gabriel Valley Service Council, Chair of the Measure A Oversight Committee, and Vice Chair of the Upper San Gabriel River Watershed Area Steering Committee. He holds a Masters of Public Health degree and lives in the City of El Monte.
Copyright: © 2020 David Diaz. This is an open-access article distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License (CC-BY 4.0), which permits unrestricted use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided the original author and source are credited. See http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0/