Response: January 2016 Issue

Little Village, Big Change

A small community in southwest Chicago took on Big Coal — and won.

Little Village, Big Change
Kimberly Wasserman in front of the Crawford coal plant, owned by Midwest Generation. She worked with LVEJO to have the plant closed.

Chicago's southwest side used to be home to two of the nation's oldest and dirtiest coal-fired power plants — the Fisk and Crawford plants, owned by Midwest Generation. Just a few hundred feet away from the Crawford plant is the vibrant and diverse community of Little Village, a small but densely populated neighborhood of some 100,000 residents, mostly Latino families and children.

Toxic emissions from the smokestacks — unwittingly called "cloud factories" by local kids — would waft over the sky in Little Village, while coal dust from the plants' stockpile settled onto houses and school grounds. The pollution intensified during the winter and summer, when the plants ramped up operations to fill energy demands, mostly coming from other states.

Meanwhile, residents were suffering high rates of asthma, bronchitis and a slew of other respiratory illnesses. In fact, a Harvard study linked more than 40 premature deaths, 550 emergency room visits and 2,800 asthma attacks every year to the toxic emissions from the two plants, with children being the most vulnerable to the plants' pollution. Residents would rely on nebulizers and oxygen tanks to help them breathe; parents who worried about asthma attacks would keep children from going outside to play. Thousands stayed home from school or missed work every year because they were sick, resulting in educational and economic losses.

Action for change

I am a Chicana born and raised in Little Village. I lived in a house not a mile away from the Crawford plant. In 1998, a single mother, I had to rush my 3-month-old baby to the hospital when he started gasping for air. According to the doctors, my son had suffered an asthma attack, which I later found out had been triggered by environmental pollution.

Fired up from this experience, as community organizer for the Little Village Environmental Justice Organization (LVEJO), I began going door to door with my baby in tow, talking to families in the neighborhood who were dealing with similar problems. I explained how their health problems were stemming from the coal plants and convinced parents — some of whom were undocumented immigrants afraid to speak up — that they had a right to live and raise their children in a neighborhood free from toxic pollution.

Keeping these local voices front and center, I worked with other local community-based organizations to form a strategic alliance with faith, health, labor and environmental groups and reached out to local policymakers. With limited resources, we mounted a campaign that got residents out to picket and attend public hearings, organize "Toxic Tours" of industrial sites and stage a "Coal Olympics" timed around the Chicago's bid to host the 2016 Olympic Games.

After a long stall in Chicago politics, whose leaders had long supported the coal industry, our efforts to shut down the plants gained new momentum in 2011 with the creation of the Chicago Clean Power Coalition, the election of a new mayor and a new class of aldermen on the city council.

The coalition pushed efforts for a Clean Power Ordinance among local policymakers, and the measure received support from 35 aldermen and Mayor Rahm Emanuel. Faced with expensive requirements to upgrade its pollution controls and reduce greenhouse gas emissions, Midwest announced it would shut down the Crawford and Fisk plants.

The coal power plants closed ahead of schedule in the fall of 2012, and LVEJO, in partnership with a community organization in nearby Pilsen, is negotiating a Community Benefits Agreement. The agreement prohibits any fossil fuel industry from operating on the property and entitles residents to meet the potential new owners, who will be required to present their plans for the site to the community.

Suggestions for action

After 12 years of struggle, LVEJO has learned a few things about fighting Big Coal. If you are gearing up for a fight against industries prioritizing money over people's lives and well-being, we have a few lessons we would like to share.

Know your principles. You are the frontline community. You are the moral standard for judging what is good and bad or right and wrong in your campaign. Living your principles makes your path sacred, and everyone — including your enemy — knows it.

Know your target. Study their corporate structure and mission. Understand their obligations to state and federal governments — permits and compliance with regulations. You have to find and use any point of leverage available.

Find allies, create accountability and build strategic capacity. You will increase your power if you build coalitions. Finding allies locally may be harder than you think. Big Coal uses charitable contributions to quench opposition. When you find allies, create accountability. Establish rules for working together. Look for diversity to increase your strategic capacity. The more diverse your coalition is, the better chance you have to take advantage of opportunities that arise.

Be creative, and don't play it safe. Big industry and the political establishment will want you to show up at choreographed hearings. Don't fall for it. Create your own arenas and places of political theater. We did not get approval from Midwest Generation or government agencies before holding our massive Day of the Dead celebrations, Coal Olympics or Die-ins at city hall.

Be in it for the long haul. Don't expect a quick and easy win. Big industry is not going away without a real fight. There is a reason why pride and greed are among the deadly sins.

Prepare now for the next phase of struggle. Even while you are fighting on one front, you have to anticipate the next phase of the struggle. While we were pushing for Midwest Generation's decision to close, we were also planning for what would happen after the closure. When the decision came, we had a draft Community Benefits Agreement ready and were able to hit the ground running on our community visioning for the sites.

Have fun and celebrate! This kind of struggle is hard. It is a lot of work. But it was also fun! We helped expand democracy for our people. We helped regular working class people and immigrants feel power, power to choose what is good for their families and their community. That has given us joy. So celebrate!


Kimberly Wasserman is director of organizing and strategy at Little Village Environmental Justice Organization in Chicago, Illinois. Within a year of the coal plants' closure, LVEJO was also able to win a bus line extension in 2013 and a new 23 acre La Villita Park in 2014. Ms. Wasserman presented her story during the plenary on environmental justice at United Methodist Women's 2015 National Seminar. Portions of this story appear on GoldmanPrize.org. Reused with permission.

Posted or updated: 1/5/2016 11:00:00 PM
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