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CEJA Is Championing Environmental Justice Through Community-Led Policy Solutions

CEJA's member organizations and their community members have courageously and tenaciously advocated for their health and well-being.

California Environmental Justice Alliance is a statewide organization that works at the intersection of environmental, economic and racial justice. We spoke with Gladys Limón, executive director of CEJA, a grantee in our Community Well Being portfolio.

We spoke with Limón about CEJA’s current policy and advocacy efforts, in particular their campaign to ensure that no urban oil drilling is allowed within 2,500 feet from residential areas, schools, playgrounds, and other sensitive sites. Copious research exists demonstrating the negative effects of oil and gas drilling on communities living in their immediate proximity. However, implementing change has been difficult, even in progressive California.

One of the reasons, Limón explains, is that the "sacrifice zones"—communities with the worst air and water quality—are disproportionately located in communities of color and low-income communities. Almost 92 percent of the Californians who both live within a mile of an oil or gas well and are burdened by pollution are people of color. And these communities have historically had little political power and say over what is going on in their neighborhoods. But CEJA is working to change that.

CEJA is committed to replacing sacrifice zones with green zones. They’re committed to building community power and supporting communities of color and low-income communities living at the front lines of pollution as they advocate for themselves and transform their communities from toxic hotspots into safe and healthy communities: “It’s critical that we center equity as our pollution and climate policies evolve and get implemented. We need equity-driven policies. Otherwise, some communities will continue to be left behind and will continue to be sacrificed. And that is unacceptable,” explained Limón. This conversation with Gladys Limón has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Communities of color and low-income communities are essentially sacrifice zones for our modes of production and our fossil fuel-based energy system.

Gladys Limón

CEJA works at the intersection of environmental justice and economic and racial justice. Can you tell us a bit about CEJA?

Gladys Limón: The California Environmental Justice Alliance, or CEJA, was founded in 2001 by some of the leading and oldest environmental justice organizations in the state. We are a statewide, community-led alliance that works to achieve environmental justice by advancing policy solutions. We unite the powerful local organizing of our members in the communities most impacted by environmental hazards—communities of color and low-income communities—to create comprehensive opportunities for change at a statewide level. We build the power of communities across California to create policies that will alleviate poverty and pollution. Together, we are growing the statewide movement for environmental health and social justice.

CEJA is a member-based alliance, meaning that CEJA as an entity does not exist without our members and we do not move independently of our members. All of our programmatic and policy priorities are informed by our members and their local priorities and interests. We develop and execute our agendas and strategies collectively to ensure that we are lifting the needs of local communities. This approach ensures that there is integrity in our work. We serve as a vehicle for community-based organizations to steer the statewide agenda.

What makes CEJA different from many coalitions is that it is a permanent coalition. It’s not just issue-based, or campaign-based. It is a permanent coalition in which the members and partners commit deeply and for the long-term to create systemic change together.

Why is environmental justice work critically important in California?

Gladys Limón: The pollution and the climate crisis disproportionately impact low-income communities and communities of color. There are communities throughout our state that are at the front lines of those crises. For decades, they have borne unconscionable burdens from pollution, from smog, and other environmental harms that cut to the core of human rights to breathe clean air, have clean, safe water, and have an environment that doesn't jeopardize your life expectancy.

Every family has an inherent right to opportunity, and should have an opportunity to raise their children in an environment that is conducive to their well-being.

Unfortunately, that is not the case even here in California, where we have many progressive environmental policies and have made key advancements that have set precedents for the country and for the world. Despite those achievements, we still have communities that are essentially sacrifice zones for our modes of production and our fossil fuel-based energy system.

Can you give us examples of communities in California that are sacrifice zones?

Gladys Limón: Unfortunately, there are many, including San Joaquin Valley in Kern County and Richmond in East Bay, which is a community on the front lines of oil refineries. Wilmington is a community in Los Angeles on the front lines of the largest refinery center in the western United States. National City in San Diego is at the front lines of a huge port and suffers from severe air pollution. I’m also thinking of the Inland Empire, where there's been an exponential growth of warehouses and goods movement related to corporations such as Amazon. These communities are bearing all the burdens and enjoying none of the environmental benefits.

And yet we're at a critical moment, a real pivot point. We are collectively moving toward a transition that most people understand is necessary for human survival. And it's most important that, as we make this transition, it is a just and an equitable one. And that it lifts these communities, not just in terms of economics, but also in terms of public health. We have a crucial opportunity to transition in a way that alleviates the health burdens that have been choking these communities for too long.

What are green zones?

Gladys Limón: Green zones are what we aspire to achieve: to ensure that communities of color, and those at the front lines of pollution, can transform their communities from toxic hotspots into safe and healthy communities. We use a comprehensive approach to advance this transformation. This means that we are ensuring that impacted communities not only have access to but are the ones to primarily benefit from the new state investments. We are working to ensure that they benefit from clean, renewable energy jobs and that, through community-based solutions, they are able to convert their communities into ones with clean air, clean water, and access to resources. This is particularly important given the historic legacy of redlining and disinvestment.

The California Wellness Foundation is a key partner in advancing our green zones work. Through the Foundation's support, we've been able to ground our work in local needs and priorities, local campaigns and organizing, all the while scaling them at the statewide level.

CEJA is successfully elevating environmental justice priorities, shifting the narrative, impacting policy, and building community power.

Can you tell us about a recent policy advocacy campaign you worked on?

Gladys Limón: I can tell you about our oil setback campaign, which seeks to achieve a statewide setback policy for urban oil drilling. Setbacks are mandatory distances between oil and gas wells and occupied areas like homes, schools, playgrounds, hospitals, and nursing homes.

This campaign is based on the work of a number of our members, who are mobilizing in communities at the front lines of oil drilling in dangerously close proximity to residential areas and public places. For example, our members in Los Angeles are leading Stand Together Against Neighborhood Drilling Los Angeles, also known as STAND-L.A. Our member Center on Race, Poverty & the Environment works on setback policies in Kern County.

The premise and goal of a setback policy are quite simple. It should be a common sense public health policy that no family should have to raise their children and that no children should have to go to school next to inherently dangerous oil drilling operations. These sites are emitting carcinogens, particulate matter, and other poison on a 24-hour basis. They’re also creating some real nuisances that disturb everyday life activity.

Given our members' local campaigns, CEJA prioritized developing a policy that would prohibit, at the statewide level, urban oil drilling within 2,500 feet of homes, schools, parks and hospitals. It’s just appalling that in California, for all its environmental progress, we still have this very backwards practice that allows for these harms to happen. So we work together as an alliance and with other key allies and partner organizations through a broader coalition, called Last Chance Alliance, to advance a setback both through a regulatory pathway as well as the legislative pathway.

We’ve had an important procedural achievement so far. The Department of Conservation is currently assessing a 2,500-foot setback. We also had a bill last year, AB 345, led by our member organization, Center on Race, Poverty & the Environment, which sought to provide state mandates for a setback. Unfortunately, the bill died in committee in August 2020. That was highly disappointing, particularly because it happened in this most egregious time when so many are suffering from the pandemic.

Gladys Limon talks about the power of oil companies to influence environmental health in California. 

We're going to move forward with those efforts—both legislatively as well as in the rulemaking process. The Newsom administration has indicated that they plan to elevate and prioritize the health and safety of frontline communities and will center equity. The administration also made it clear that California will accelerate meeting our climate goals. We hope that this will indeed be the case.

However, my hope ultimately lies with our member organizations and their community members who have been so courageous and tenacious in their advocacy to protect the health and well-being of their families.

How has COVID-19 impacted your work and your priorities?

Gladys Limón: Clearly COVID-19 has impacted everyone on earth, and every entity and organization in one way or another. CEJA has certainly been impacted as well. Our member and partner organizations have had to do pivots and shifts to serve their communities. They have delivered food and water and have had to turn to protecting their community members from evictions.

For us, COVID-19 has elevated what we have held all along, which is that pollution is directly linked to health. Poor environmental health jeopardizes people's health. It renders them vulnerable in multiple ways. It’s not surprising that COVID-19 has disproportionately impacted communities of color and other communities that are regularly exposed to particulate matter. Pollution makes COVID-19 more deadly.

Gladys Limon talks about the connection between pollution and COVID-19. [Read transcripts for the audio clips here.]

Public health, air pollution and climate are all inextricably linked. So it’s critical that we center equity as our pollution and climate policies evolve and get implemented. We need equity driven policies. Otherwise, some communities will continue to be left behind and will continue to be sacrificed. And that is unacceptable.

What has been your proudest achievement in the last couple of years?

I'm proud to say that there are numerous achievements that we've celebrated, and we continue to celebrate. As a whole, community members from across the state and our members and partner organizations have been successful in elevating environmental justice priorities, shifting the narrative, impacting policy, and building power. And we've seen the results of that work recently with appointments to key positions, such as the ones to the California Air Resources Board.

Yet, we need to continue to educate and pressure the environmental community to understand that in order to meet our collective environmental and climate goals, we need to work together. Environmental justice priorities must be at the core of all our efforts, and not something that can be negotiated away, sidelined or partitioned off.

I see tremendous opportunities for stakeholders from across the spectrum to work in partnership. Together, we can create transformative policies that will address both local and global impacts in a way that protects everyone's health and safety and ensures that all Californians will thrive.

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