Parents at the Heart of Chicago Environmental Justice Group

10/09/2008 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

What kind of world will we leave behind for our children? What can we as parents do to ensure our children do not suffer the health effects of dangerous air quality and industry and government negligence?

Two Chicago moms working for environmental health and justice in the Little Village neighborhood confront the answers to these questions daily.

Unfortunately for them and other residents of Little Village, their neighbors include 2 large coal-burning power plants. The power plants release mercury, sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxide pollutants, all of which have been linked to asthma and emphysema.

Kim Wasserman Nieto and Lori Morrison-Contreras, residents of the predominantly Mexican-American southwest side neighborhood, recently talked with me about the Little Village Environmental Justice Organization and what it means to residents.

Wasserman Nieto, mother of 2 older boys and an infant daughter, is a coordinator with LVEJO. While we talked she held and nursed her daughter who she said she brings to work with her. She came to LVEJO when she was working for the Boys and Girls Club which was housed in the same building as LVEJO. When the Boys and Girls Club was faced with removal from the building, LVEJO members helped the group fight the efforts.

Morrison-Contreras, mother of a 13-month old daughter, previously worked with the United Farm Workers in Illinois and in California. Through her work with the UFW,  she first learned about LVEJO and became a member. She is now a board chair. Morrison-Contreras said she is inspired to work with the organization because she believes her community can make a difference in the environment.

"I work with LVEJO because we understand and work towards environmental justice for our entire environment, our community as a whole, the people, the land, the air, the water. Everything you can see, touch and smell and even what you can't is an integral part of our environment.

We work closely with our neighbors to decide as a community what is beneficial to our environment and what is not..

Since becoming a mother this work has become even more important to me because I know what health risks my daughter is exposed to on a daily basis simply by living here and it is terrifying. But I also know the strength of my community and I know we can fight against those who are polluting our neighborhood and the outcome will be a healthier environment for us all."

LVEJO began in 1994 when neighborhood parents and residents proposed moving an existing elementary school to another location because of health concerns. A building roofing project was scheduled to occur during school hours.

According to the group, USEPA air pollution data shows that zip code 60623 has the 2nd worst air quality in the 8 county region of Chicago. Children in this area have the 9th highest rate of lead poisoning of Chicago's 77 community areas with asthma rates of 17%. While there are only 11 acres of open/park space for 95,000 people which is the smallest in the city.

Little Village is the most densely populated neighborhood in Chicago and has the 2nd largest population (95,000, according to a 2005 census estimate) of the city's 77 community areas. The median age is the city's youngest, 21.5 years old. According to the 2000 U.S. Census, it is the 23rd poorest of 77 community areas in the city. Schools are the most overcrowded in Chicago with a high school drop-out rate of 61%, according to data from the Chicago Public Schools.

A recent Chi Town Daily News article reported that because of age, the two Fisk and Crawford coal burning plants located in Little Village and nearby Pilsen neighborhoods are exempt from federal regulations requiring modern pollution control devices.

The group says the plants, owned by Midwest Generation, make over $32 million in profits per day with all of the energy they produce sold out of state.

Wasserman Nieto said Gov. Blagojevich has promised to "clean-up" the power plants, but the organization wants the plants shut down. LVEJO members want the plants replaced with renewable energy job training centers and alternative energy producers.

In addition to their efforts to promote clean energy in the area, LVEJO organizes campaigns and programs in the neighborhood that support access to public transit, open space, urban agriculture, youth environmental education and leadership programs.

Wasserman Nieto said the urban agriculture program especially offers seniors a sense of pride in contributing to gardening projects that benefit families who then share their harvest with one another and learn more about eating healthfully and economically.

Members of LVEJO held a press conference Aug. 8 at City Hall to address the lack of public transit options in their area. They say they would like to meet with Mayor Richard Daley before the Feb. 9 deadline, when the city will submit its final bid for the Olympic games to the International Olympic Committee.