Clean Power in Lake County: Environmental Justice Leaders Discussed How to Secure a Just and Sustainable Future for All at Brushwood Center’s Smith Nature Symposium
RIVERWOODS, IL -- Brushwood Center at Ryerson Woods welcomed speakers Celeste Flores and Dulce Ortiz to Environmental Justice in Lake County at the Smith Nature Symposium.
This conversation, part of a seven-part live-streamed series on critical environmental issues, examined environmental injustices in Lake County that disproportionally affect people of color and immigrant families and offered a vision of how to secure environmental, economic, and racial justice for these communities.
Flores and Ortiz are Co-Chairs of Clean Power Lake County, a community-driven coalition that organizes within frontline environmental justice communities to shift the county to healthy, sustainable, and renewable energy. This assembly of partners includes faith-based, environmental, and public health organizations working to achieve self-determination for vulnerable and underserved people. As leaders spearheading this local movement, Flores and Ortiz offered perspective on the current state of environmental justice in Lake County and shared their understanding of the progress that has yet to be made.
“The fact is that pollution does not affect all people equally in the United States, and certainly not in Lake County. Communities comprised largely of people of color, immigrants, and low-income households are more likely to be closely located to pollution sources, such as ethylene oxide and coal-fired power plants, than other portions of the population. Historically, these community members have been excluded from decision making and policymaking, and that is something that must change,” said Flores, Co-Chair of Clean Power Lake County. She is also the Lake County Outreach Director for Faith in Place, an organization that empowers people of all faiths to care for the Earth.
Flores, the daughter of immigrant parents, was born and raised in Lake County, Illinois. She first became involved in environmental justice as a student at Bellarmine University in Kentucky, where she saw the devastation of mountaintop removal, a highly destructive mining practice. After graduation, she spent a year as an AmeriCorps volunteer in Appalachia. She then returned to Lake County where she learned about local environmental justice efforts of Clean Power Lake County to ensure the city of Waukegan a just transition away from its decades-old coal-fired plant. Flores has been a lifelong member of the Most Blessed Trinity Parish, and in 2017, she was awarded The Gaudium et Spes Award by The Consejo Hispano Arquidiócesis de Chicago (Archdiocese of Chicago) at the Noche de Gala, an annual dinner recognizing leaders in Hispanic ministry. Flores’s leadership has been recognized nationally, and she was Senator Tammy Duckworth’s guest for the State of the Union in 2020.
Securing a just and sustainable energy transition for all is already challenging, but it will be even more difficult because climate change is due to disproportionally impact environmental justice communities. Climate change is a threat multiplier, meaning it aggravates existing stressors, including pollution, health risks, flooding, droughts, poor infrastructure, and political instability, which unequally affect underserved communities. With the looming threat of climate change, transitioning Lake County to renewables does not necessarily ensure all people benefit equally. Careful government planning and community involvement at the local level is key to remedying current disparities and insuring they do not persist. Clean Power Lake County believes grassroots involvement from environmental justice groups is essential in this process and that government must actively seek these communities’ input. When the Waukegan coal plant is ultimately retired, for example, the plan should include a fair transition for plant workers and the community, so people’s livelihoods do not suffer and residents are not left to clean up residual pollution.
Though the task of creating a just future for all is daunting, it’s important to start with small steps at the community level that ripple into greater impacts and empower people to live healthy, happy lives. Dulce Ortiz (originally from Mexico City, Mexico) helps immigrant families be fully informed and participating members of the community as Co-Chair of Clean Power Lake County and Executive Director of Mano a Mano. Mano a Mano is an agency that serves the growing Lake County immigrant community through health resources and services, educational classes, and immigration legal services. Often, immigrant families struggle to integrate and advocate for themselves because they lack the necessary language skills, information, and connections to navigate the American job market, schools, and complex health system. Ortiz leads the Mano a Mano team in planning and programming community engagement that builds human dignity and teaches people the skills they need to advance their well-being despite prevailing inequalities. She also plays a key role in the development of strategic community partnerships and leads the Mano a Mano’s policy-advocacy agenda. Ortiz is an advocate with a deep understanding of community needs, and she uses her expertise to help immigrant families better integrate into American life.
All funds raised from the Symposium directly supported Thrive Together, Brushwood Center’s COVID-19 crisis response for a more just and sustainable future. All presentations were available in English and Spanish.
To learn more about the series visit www.smithnaturesymposium.org.