Nancy Chen

An Asian American Lens on Environmental Justice

CAAEJ works to inform its community and push for collective action

From bitter melon to bok choy, planting vegetables in backyard gardens has given immigrant families in Chicago a degree of food sovereignty, providing them access to specialty produce that can be difficult to find on supermarket shelves. In 2000, Kelly Chen was in elementary school when her family purchased a house in Bridgeport. Like many fellow Chinese American families living nearby, the Chens started their own vegetable garden in their yard. When Chen got to high school, she started to learn about the urban pollution endemic to big cities, including the potential for lead poisoning in soil, commonly found in areas with industrial activity. Chen started to wonder: Is the soil my family grows vegetables in contaminated?

The concern remained lodged in the back of Chen’s mind as she went through college and graduate school for urban planning, where her coursework finally prompted her to search for a soil testing facility. The results she found online were neither especially helpful nor accessible. “I didn’t find any lab in Chicago. The results included some links to research papers, and a lot of shady sources,” Chen recalled. She eventually found a lab at the University of Illinois Champaign-Urbana that would test the soil, so she dug up a soil sample from her family’s yard and brought it over to the lab. After all those years of speculation, Chen’s fears were confirmed: the test results showed elevated lead content—notably higher than the 400 parts per million (ppm) standard designated by the EPA as being a safe threshold for gardening and children’s play areas. 

After sharing the results with her parents, Chen wondered if her extended network of family, friends, and neighbors might also be planting in contaminated soil. University of Illinois researchers have noted that “Chinese origin households have a higher density [of gardening] than anywhere else in the city,” after a 2012 study found an abundance of home-based gardens in Bridgeport, Chinatown, and Armour Square, all home to high concentrations of Chinese immigrants. With these immigrant communities in mind, Chen felt a moral obligation to raise awareness. “It feels really unjust, that just because you don’t speak English fluently, or maybe you have a lower income—it doesn’t mean you shouldn’t know this information that so readily impacts your life and your family’s lives.” 

Last year, Chen was introduced to Andrea Chu through a mutual connection. Chu has a master’s degree in environmental planning and organizes for both Asian Americans Advancing Justice and Food & Water Watch. Both women were interested in environmental justice as it impacts Asian American communities, and they joined forces to form Chicago Asian Americans for Environmental Justice (CAAEJ). CAAEJ is currently focused on the Chinatown Environmental Justice Initiative, which aims to educate and empower residents in neighborhoods with high concentrations of Asian American residents on environmental justice issues in their communities. Practically speaking, this has consisted of going door-to-door in Chinatown, where ninety percent of residents are Asian, and in Bridgeport, where approximately one third of residents are Asian, to talk to people about their gardens, offering to test soil samples and helping residents determine what to do in the likely event that their soil is contaminated. 

So far, the volunteer-run group has worked with an independent lab to test six samples from across Bridgeport; all but one site came back with results ranging from potential risk to high risk—meaning that the EPA recommends that the soil be excavated and replaced, or that all gardening take place in raised beds. Additionally, the results indicated that children’s access to these sites should be restricted to mitigate health risks. In the coming year, the goals for CAAEJ’s Chinatown Environmental Justice Initiative include fundraising and building partnerships with local universities to be able to continue offering soil testing, to build a larger volunteer and knowledge base, and to gain more expertise about the lead issue in Chicago and share the best mitigation practices.

Chu hopes CAAEJ and the Chinatown Environmental Justice Initiative can be a way for Asian Americans to recognize they face many of the same challenges as Black and Latinx communities when it comes to environmental issues. A long-term goal for CAAEJ is to join in solidarity and collaborate with other, longer-established local groups representing communities of color in Chicago. These include Neighbors for Environmental Justice, an advocacy group that formed last year to oppose the plan to build a MAT Asphalt plant in McKinley Park, and Little Village Environmental Justice Organization, a group that has organized successful grassroots campaigns to close down the Crawford and Fisk coal power plants and to remediate the Celotex Superfund site into the twenty-one acre La Villita public park.

Chu has been offering a workshop for the past year called “Asian Americans and Environmental Justice,” whose key themes are the need for solidarity across class and color lines and the urgency for leveraging advocacy as part of an organized group rather than focusing on individual-level action. The workshop argues that environmental justice should especially matter to Asians living in urban America, because Asian immigrants living in cities are often concentrated in residential neighborhoods that bear a disproportionate amount of negative health impacts from urban industry. Chu highlights the example of Richmond, California, where Asian and Black residents living near a Chevron oil refinery have organized time and time again to demand greater corporate accountability for toxic emissions and to block the expansion of the refinery.

During the workshop, Chu also delves into the challenges specific to Asian Americans organizing as a group: each Asian country speaks its own different language—sometimes multiple popular dialects within a single country, and residual cultural schisms exist between Asians whose countries of origin had historical conflicts. Asian Americans as a demographic group have the broadest wage gap in this country, and to varied extents in different regions of the U.S., Asian Americans often struggle with a kind of invisibility in being underrepresented in political and cultural conversations.

On a global level, Chu’s workshop highlights evidence showing how the detrimental impacts of climate change will hit Asian countries especially hard. Population is highly concentrated in Asia, and there are many vulnerable coastal zones in South Asia in particular, including numerous islands in the Pacific and Indian Oceans. Environmental scientists project that these areas will be unlivable by 2100. Though carbon emissions from developing countries have increased significantly in recent years, Asian countries did not produce the majority of emissions that cause climate change over the past two hundred years. As of 2014, the U.S. accounts for close to one third of all carbon emissions to date and leads the world in current highest emissions per capita, at 16.2 metric tons per person. “This is all information that people probably have heard about, but maybe in different contexts,” Chu said during a recent workshop in Kenwood. 

Chu’s intention through the “Asian Americans and Environmental Justice” workshop is to illustrate the stakes of environmental inequity in this country and on a global scale. She structures ample room for discussion, allowing participants to ask questions and to contribute their own experiences to the conversation. She’s offered the workshop about twenty times in the past year. It’s a time-intensive, quintessentially grassroots approach to building up the base for a nascent Asian American voice in Chicago. As an undergraduate, Chu studied environmental science at Ohio State, where the academic as well as extracurricular communities focused on environmental issues were predominantly white. “At Ohio State the largest environmental group was called Students for Recycling. [Coming from an Asian background], our grandparents and parents are already reusing and recycling everything. I just felt that their frame of reference was not relevant and not addressing the most urgent issues, ” Chu told the Weekly. She also criticized predominantly white organizations, such as the Sierra Club, one of the largest environmental nonprofits in the country. “[Those organizations have] a long history of taking land away from Indigenous people for ‘conservation’ reasons. The majority of their staff are white, from middle or upper middle-class backgrounds. Their priorities are more relevant to privileged audiences, audiences of middle class Americans. Their priorities are less relevant to urban communities of color.”

As it continues to establish itself in Chicago, CAAEJ’s approach is to center the people most impacted by environmental injustice and to nurture the Asian American voice within the public discourse on environmental justice. To that end, Chu emphasizes the critical need for Asian Americans to organize and to engage with their political representatives, for-profit businesses, and other civic entities as a community rather than as individuals. “At the end of the day, collective action is better than individual action,” said Chu. To Chicagoans who care about environmental justice and want to make a difference, she said, “It would be better if [people] focused their energy on fighting petrochemical infrastructure and lobbying their political representatives for renewable energy legislation. This is going to be way more effective than recycling plastic or pestering your friends about bringing totes to the grocery store.”

An Asian Americans & Environmental Justice workshop will be held at the Japanese American Service Committee, 4427 N. Clark St., on November 14, 6pm–8pm. facebook.com/ChiAsianAmEnviroJustice

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Correction, November 9, 2019: This article was updated to reflect the fact that Chu’s criticisms apply to multiple organizations beyond the Sierra Club. 

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Nancy Chen is an arts and culture writer who is a recent transplant from Philadelphia to Chicago. She works at the Art Institute in the museum’s Department of Learning and Public Engagement. Her reviews and stories have appeared in the Philadelphia Inquirer, PlanPhilly, the Artblog, the University of Chicago Arts Magazine, and Newcity.

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