Every year the Goldman Environmental Prize committee selects an amazing group of winners from around the world to receive what is sometimes called the environmental Nobel prize – and I could not be more thrilled with their pick for North America this year: Kim Wasserman Nieto of Chicago, Illinois.
Kim is a phenomenal environmental justice activist and mom from the Little Village neighborhood in Chicago. Her work with the Little Village Environmental Justice Organization (LVEJO) has been inspiring and ground-breaking. The Little Village community is primarily Latino, and is located next to one of the most notorious, polluting coal-fired power plants in America. As a woman of color on the frontlines of the fight to stop the pollution, Kim not only served as an inspiration to many others, but she also led a winning campaign that ultimately secured the retirement of not one, but two, deadly coal plants.
We are proud to have been one of Kim and LVEJO’s allies in the work to retire Midwest Generation’s old, dirty Fisk and Crawford coal plants in Chicago last year. The pollution from these two plants caused significant health problems for kids and adults in the nearby neighborhoods, including increasing the number of asthma attacks suffered by Kim’s children.
LVEJO and dozens of other organizations, including Sierra Club, joined together in the Chicago Clean Power Coalition to push for the coal plants to be cleaned up or retired. The coalition was powerful because it was led by frontline community members who not only marched in the streets, but also sat at the decision-making table. It’s an inspiring model of successful environmental justice work that I hope will get more of the national attention it deserves, thanks to the Goldman Prize.
The impact of the plants on Kim and her children provided a compelling story and images that we will never forget. You might recognize Kim’s son Peter from these hard-hitting ads that filled billboards across Chicago.
Kim also shared her story in a powerful op-ed in the Chicago Tribune about her children’s struggles with asthma. As a mom, I’ll never forget reading this piece, and imagining how frightening it would be to see my own baby struggling for air. In the piece, Kim wrote:
I’m not saying that Fisk and Crawford caused my sons’ asthma. After all, there’s industry everywhere in our community – it’s a regular toxic soup. But Fisk and Crawford depend on outdated technology, and they’re impacting my environment more than anyone else. I don’t necessarily blame them for causing my kids’ asthma, but I do blame them for making it worse.
My husband Stan and I are also trying to do our best by our kids. We try to make sure they eat healthy food and get lots of physical activity to strengthen their lungs. But we can only do so much. After that it falls on our city, state and federal government to provide Peter and Anthony and all the other little kids with a clean environment.
The Environmental Protection Agency last week featured Kim’s path to activism on its environmental justice blog. In the blog, Kim highlights her commitment to engaging young people in environmental justice advocacy, and points to her latest focus bringing more green space to Little Village.
Here is how Christine Nannicelli, a Sierra Club organizer who has worked closely with Kim over the years, described her:
“Kim worked on these issues for over a decade, and at a time when many people were scared to talk about them. Ultimately, Kim stood up and said her family in Little Village, and other working class Latino families on Chicago’s southwest side, have just as much right to breathe clean air as wealthy white people on the north side. That was the blunt reality, and Kim called it like she saw it.”
We joined activists from communities all over Chicago and celebrated alongside Kim and residents of Little Village when Midwest Generation formally announced that Fisk and Crawford would be retired. Those victories wouldn’t have happened without Kim, LVEJO did and their decade of tremendous work organizing creative events to raise awareness and call for the closure of Fisk and Crawford.
Today, we join with many of those same activists in celebrating North America’s newest Goldman Prize winner. Congratulations to Kim for this well-deserved honor. The world needs more wonderful activists like her.