How did you first become interested in environmental issues?
I was raised in the Little Village community here in Chicago which is predominantly Mexican-American. When I was in my Freshman year of high school, I started volunteering with the Little Village Environmental Justice Organization and the first thing that I did with them was to go on a community tour of the neighborhood. The coal power plant was one of the sites we visited. I was just amazed that all the smoke that came out of the plant was polluting our neighborhood and was so dangerous. My sister and mother have asthma and that just connected a piece of the puzzle. That’s the main thing that motivated me to work with the environment and get other people interested in it as well, especially youth.
How did you come up with the idea to start Youth Activists Organizing as Today’s Leaders (YAOTL)?
It was the summer of my freshman year in 2004. I was an intern in the Little Village Environmental Justice Organization. There was a group of three of us who were interested in the environment and we launched El Cilantro, an environmental newsletter in the community geared towards youth. It’s made by youth, for youth and that way we get more youth involved in the organization. We went from 3 members to almost 30!
What does the YAOTL do?
We’re trying to convince our mayor to put more pressure on coal power plants, along with other state officials. Besides that, we also go door-to-door, educating residents on the coal power plant and what it is and the health effects that it has. We’ve been conducting surveys on residents in our community to see if there’s a cluster of people that have cancer because we also live very close to a lot of industries that use toxic chemicals.
Has the community been supportive in your cause?
In the beginning, people didn’t take it seriously. Then the community started getting more knowledgeable about what we do and who we are. We give the older folks hope.
What message do you have for other young people like yourself living in urban communities?
I would tell them to really explore their community and find out what’s in it. If there’s something that is wrong, or that they don’t like, they should not keep it to themselves. They should raise awareness. For example, with the whole global warming issue, you cannot attack global warming all at once. It has to start locally and once you’re finished locally then you can move on. It’s more from the bottom up. That would be my suggestion.