Little Village's Teen Activists

Chicago teens discuss the ways they’ve challenged school pollution.

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In Chicago’s Latino communities, there’s a long tradition of parents protesting for better schools and facilities. In fact, the neighborhood’s environmental advocate, the Little Village Environmental Justice Organization (LVEJO), was formed in 1998 to voice concerns about lead dust at a local elementary school. Fourteen parents even went on a hunger strike in 2001 to demand that a promised high school be built, and the community’s activism continues.

Below is an interview with six members of LVEJO’s youth branch, called Young Activists Organizing as Today’s Leaders. Although these teens—identified here only by their first names—work on all kinds of campaigns, from gangs to public transportation, environmental conditions at schools are never far from their minds. As one teen put it, “In this community, there has always been a struggle for good quality education and good facilities for schools.

E Magazine: How did the organization get started?

Carolina: They were remodeling Gary Elementary School during school hours. They were removing the windows. The parents were very concerned because there was a lot of dust. It was an old building. Definitely, the concern for lead was there. 
Amairani: I was there! We were all sitting in the class scared, wondering, “What if we get lead poisoning?”

E: What happened?

Carolina: They stopped the construction during the school day. Then the parents took it further. They were also concerned about the cleaning chemicals the janitors were using. They were able to get the school to use greener cleaning products that were going to help the students, the environment and the people working with the chemicals.

E: Wasn’t there also a problem with a bad smell at the school?

Carolina: Across from Gary, there’s a facility that refinishes steel drums. They burn the residue out of the drums, and they collect the dust and let it blow in the wind. It’s a really strong smell. It’s painful. When you breathe it in, it burns.

Kevin: Like the coal plant smell?

Amairani: No, the other smell. There’s different smells. [Everyone laughs.]

Daniela: A lot of people in the neighborhood use the school as a park.

Barbara: The only park we have is pretty small.

Kevin: Not only that, but it’s in a different gang’s territory.

Carolina: The problem is, we’re landlocked. Anywhere you go, you’ll face chemicals, contaminated soil, air pollution, traffic, diesel trucks everywhere. When I come out of school, I feel the air so thick with diesel fumes. Anywhere you go in Little Village, you’ll face an environmental justice hazard. The biggest community victory has been Little Village-Lawndale High School. And that school, I believe, is built on top of contaminated soil.”

Daniela: The park is also going to be built on a toxic site—which will be cleaned up. But it will still be a victory.

Carolina: We are the ones who are going to be in that environment, at the park, at the school. We are the ones who’d really like to have a safe and clean space. Unfortunately, we have been put in this situation. We’re trying to do the best we can. We’ve always done the best we can with what we’ve got.