The early hour on a Saturday morning did nothing to dampen the spirits of the fifteen high school students attending the Environmental Justice Training Program in Pilsen. As their weekly meeting wrapped up, the students passed around release forms for a future field trip, finished up snacks, and signed handwritten letters to politicians. But their amiability could not hide their passion. These students were gearing up for battle.
It was February 8, and the students had gathered in a classroom at the Rudy Lozano Leadership Academy to talk about the environmental issues plaguing Pilsen. The program is run by PERRO, the Pilsen Environmental Rights and Reform Organization, and has been meeting on Saturdays at Lozano for four weeks.
Jerry Mead-Lucero, a local organizer for PERRO and the training program’s leader, says these weekly meetings are “a place for us to connect more with younger people about environmental justice issues,” and “a chance to develop real relationships with the youth.”
“They’re asking all kinds of really good questions and making all kinds of great connections. I’m really excited about this group,” said Mead-Lucero.
PERRO is currently organizing against the opening of a metal recycling factory along Loomis Street, across the street from Benito Juarez Community Academy. Its six-month training program for students will teach them how to sample air, water, and soil for pollutants, and how to share those results with their neighbors and the government. PERRO hopes the students can help them build a stronger foundation for campaigns against environmental pollution in their neighborhood.
“This neighborhood and Little Village, we’ve been really active around environmental issues. When we first started this work there was very little public consciousness in the neighborhood, and so a big part of our work over the years was actually getting people to recognize the environmental problems,” said Mead-Lucero. “We’re much better off now than when we started.”
Environmental activism in Pilsen has become a burgeoning movement. The neighborhoods houses many old, polluting factories, including H. Kramer & Co.’s bronze and brass foundry and the former Loewenthal Metals site. PERRO’s own tests have found high amounts of lead in the soil of both sites, as well as on adjacent properties.
One of PERRO’s principal campaigns was organizing for the closure of the Fisk Generating Station, a coal-fired power plant in the neighborhood. In service since 1903, the plant finally closed in August 2012, after years of campaigning led by PERRO, The Sierra Project and Greenpeace.
Many neighborhood health issues had been attributed to pollution from the Fiske coal plant. In 2002 a Harvard School of Public Healthy study, which also looked at the now-closed Crawford coal plant in Little Village, linked Fisk and Crawford to 2,800 asthma attacks and forty premature deaths annually among neighborhood residents.
“A lot of the people in the neighborhood came out with lung problems or with problems breathing. I realized that, ‘Oh my god, that happened to me.’ And I never knew why,” said Kristina Jensen, a student at the Lozano Academy, and a member of the training program. “It never really hit me until that first day I was here—this is important. I really want to do this.”