By Jante Pruitt
From the multiple fires to the recent mudslides, the tragedies that have affected Southern California this past year show us how quickly and violently climate change can wreak havoc in our local communities. However, in my community in South Los Angeles, the impacts of climate change take on a different form. In an area bound by freeways and dotted with truck routes, brownfields and oil drills, climate change traces the lines of a slow systemic injustice.
It shows up as a mom worrying about how to keep her children safe and cool during a heat wave in October when she can’t afford air conditioning and opening windows isn’t enough to keep cool anymore.
It’s an elderly woman living next to one of the numerous freeways in our community and experiencing an asthma flare up on a hot summer day.
It’s a young person having to walk a mile through a concrete heat island to get from an unshaded bus stop to his job, where he doesn’t get a rest break.
These are just a few of the stories I’ve heard more and more over the past several years, while working as a community organizer in South L.A.
Other factors, like over-policing, housing instability, homelessness, the prevalence of unsafe, low-wage work, and lack of access to health care only intensify the impacts of our changing climate on local community members.
In fact, socioeconomic factors coupled with proximity to pollution sources have made it so that 74 percent, 96 percent, and 64 percent of the residents of Council Districts 8, 9, and 10, respectively, which encompass South L.A., live in the state’s most environmentally disadvantaged areas, showing that our families truly are living on the frontlines of climate change.
But we’re at a turning point. Our state government is making massive public investments to reduce the impact of climate change, making it critical that the benefits of those investments reach the low-income communities of color that are often hit first and worst by climate change.
Investing in climate change solutions allows us to not only address long-standing issues that are only worsened by climate change, but it also presents the opportunity to reimagine our communities.
Our community members have a vision for a just and thriving South L.A. When asked what they would like to see, residents have pointed to the need for safe, shaded bike and walkways in commuter-heavy, accident-prone areas; clean, low-cost transportation options with accessible stops; green space to improve the health of our families and reduce heat island effects; and most importantly, jobs that are not sickening our people but are pathways to sustainable careers.
Growing up, I would hear my family members tell stories about the old South Central, where middle class manufacturing jobs abounded and small businesses flourished. Back then, communities still faced many issues that persist today, like over-policing and education inequity, but generations of families were lifted through union jobs in seemingly lasting industries.
I would hear my family members talk about how all that changed when companies packed up and left, taking with them community wealth and leaving behind brownfields.
Now, residents envision a new economy for South L.A., but on different terms. Not an economy that exploits workers or pollutes neighborhoods, but one that restores and sustains the health and economic well-being of our communities.
Addressing climate change actually presents an opportunity to transform the policies and practices that have failed communities like mine. To do it right requires systemic change. And our community members are ready to lead that change towards a cleaner, healthier and more equitable economy.
Over the past two years, Strategic Concepts in Organizing and Policy Education has convened grassroots leaders from South L.A. community-based organizations to develop community principles for investment.
Thanks to the leadership of local residents, community organizations, agencies and elected officials, these principles laid the groundwork for the development of a transformative climate vision and plan to address mobility, green space, workforce development and climate resilience issues along the highly polluted Slauson Corridor in South L.A.
The development of community-driven principles along with a vision and plan for the Slauson Corridor sets a major precedent for planning and policy decisions in South L.A., but is only the first step in realizing our community’s vision for a restored economy and environment.
Our agencies and decision-makers must recognize that climate change is an intersectional issue that is already impacting our community members. To enact the vision of this plan and transition South L.A. from the polluted, industrial area that history has forced it to be, to the climate resilient community that its residents hope for it to become, our lawmakers must continue to follow the lead of our community members and become champions for climate justice.
Jante Pruitt is the program director of organizing at Strategic Concepts in Organizing and Policy Education (SCOPE). Born and raised off Slauson and Western avenues, she is passionate about working with residents to imagine and implement their vision for a just South L.A.