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In this Q&A, Esmeralda Hic, IMT’s Policy Fellow reflects on her community’s fight for environmental justice in California, and what changes she hopes to see in the building efficiency sector within the next couple of years.
Was there a defining moment when the reality of climate change became personal to you?
I think my entire life has been shaped by climate change and environmental justice issues. I grew up in the Coachella Valley in Southern California, which is the ancestral homeland of the Cahuilla people. There are many struggles there, most in relation to the Salton Sea, which is a big surface lake that was never intended to be there and was made on accident. Of course, there are always going to be consequences when you change the natural environment around you, and some of those consequences [for my community] include the deterioration of the lake and its evaporation at an exponential rate. It’s disappearing quickly and leaving behind huge amounts of sediment and naturally occurring arsenic, pesticides, and heavy metals from nearby agricultural land. All of this is contributing to the biggest public health crisis that my community is going to be facing in the coming years, apart from extreme heat waves that are already happening (120 degree weather being the new normal there).
With all of this happening in my community, my health has been affected as well. I grew up with asthma, and so did a lot of the other children and elderly people in my community. I remember being seven years old in elementary school and playing outside in 110 degree weather. On these hot days, you could also smell the sulfur from the lake, which is about 40 minutes away. Dealing with this is so normalized in our community, especially because the tools and the knowledge to understand why things are the way they are and the consequences of this reality, are not readily accessible to the community.
My mom was also a farmworker growing up, and she’d tell me stories of her days out in the hot sun, with no protection from the heat in the California desert, and I began to understand many of those inequities as well. So when I see the California wildfires and the farmworkers who are still out there picking our food and feeding so much of the country at the expense of their own well-being, it’s really tragic. Seeing all these issues compound and not get addressed finally made me realize that the politicians we have in place right now may look like us and might share a similar background as the community, but we’re not the priority anymore. That realization pushed me towards college and getting a degree in Earth Systems Science so that I could truly understand climate change. Along the way, I picked up another degree in Chicanx/Latinx studies because I wanted to understand the impact of the social dynamics of my community—it’s a part of me that never left me and will never leave me.
How do you see your role as a RAY Clean Energy Fellow at IMT helping the organization reach its ambitious climate goals within the next few years? What fresh perspectives do you bring to IMT?
I don’t think we can solve climate change without addressing our economic and social inequities, and I think IMT is doing a good job at shifting that narrative towards being more inclusive and working at that intersection of economic, social, and environmental issues. The RAY Fellowship that I’m part of is meant to be a pipeline for environmental leaders of color to gain access to the environmental field and spaces that we’re meant to be in, but have been systemically excluded from for one reason or another.
One of the perspectives that I bring to the organization is my understanding of the challenges on the ground for the communities and cities we’re working with, because I went through them as well. As a person of color that lived in a frontline community, I know what it’s like to be at the forefront of the climate crisis and how overwhelming, angry, and frustrating that can be. I may not be in the Coachella Valley anymore, but my family, friends, and community are still there fighting the same fight. I understand first-hand what it means to be energy burdened, and how it feels to have bill collectors call your parents and threatening to turn your electricity off. I am also the daughter of a Central American immigrant and in the past couple of years, we’ve seen a huge climate migration and exodus from these countries caused by climate change. I have all of these fundamental experiences as part of my background that come into play whenever I engage in environmental work, and I think that when we can admit that there are pieces of ourselves in the struggles of other people, there’s more empathy and strength in our shared humanity especially when we’re trying to address the climate crisis alongside social and economic inequity as well.
Why is diversity so important to IMT and the impact of our broader work?
My favorite quote is from a South African disability rights activists, and it says, “Nothing about us, without us, is for us.” Essentially, we can’t come up with solutions without listening to the people who are being directly impacted by climate change. Environmental, social, and economic inequity are all intertwined and for a long time, the environmental field was complicit in contributing to some of this with its sole focus on greenhouse gas reductions. The RAY Diversity Fellowship, for example, is a response to that. A report from Diverse Green looked into the “green ceiling” and how diversity in environmental organizations has never surpassed 16% because these organizations aren’t doing a good job of reaching out to or retaining POC. With all this information, you come to understand that the environmental field is also rooted in oppressive systems. If we exclude certain communities from our work, we further emphasize that these communities are disposable and unimportant and no community or human being is disposable.
As someone who is new to the organization, has COVID-19 or the ongoing social justice movements made you think of buildings and spaces differently? Is there anything you would like to see change in the building efficiency sector?
I’ve always been very conscious of buildings and where they’re located. I look at a school and think, “Wow, the highway is right there, and kids are playing right next to it.” And all of those emissions that they breathe might be from people that don’t live in the city, and who get to go home to their less polluted air in the suburbs. However, I’ve never thought about the relationship between the buildings we’re in and our health. Now that we’ve been experiencing a global pandemic, it’s made me reflect more on the buildings that have been neglected for decades because of where they are—not only do people in these buildings have to deal with the long term effects of inefficient, unsafe, and unhealthy buildings, they also now have to worry about COVID.
I’ve also been more conscious of how people use buildings and spaces to mourn and how they can benefit the community if their needs are part of the design and building process from the beginning (like community healing spaces for example). It really matters what the intentions are when building something, and it’s not always about quantity over quality. People in rural America need better buildings just as much as people in cities, so in the coming years, I’d like to see building efficiency work branch out beyond the big cities we’re usually engaging with and work to become more inclusive of smaller communities that are facing the same challenges brought on by climate change.