Antonio Diaz.

With what environmental organization are you affiliated?

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I work with a San Francisco-based grassroots environmental-justice organization called PODER: People Organizing to Demand Environmental and Economic Rights. I’m the organization’s director.

What does your organization do?

PODER works with Latino immigrant families in San Francisco to organize on environmental- and economic-justice issues affecting them, their families, and our communities. We work primarily in neighborhoods such as the Mission District, the Excelsior, and other areas in southeastern San Francisco.

For example, we’ve worked on the need for San Francisco to be proactive in addressing the impact of lead poisoning on children, and we’ve organized with families in the neighborhood to advocate for parks and open space. A key aspect of our approach is to work with folks impacted by these issues to develop their leadership and their capacity to build power to bring about social change.

What are you working on at the moment?

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Right now, we’re working on land use and planning in the Mission District and on air-quality issues in the Excelsior. On the land-use front, we’re part of a neighborhood coalition that has been working with residents to develop a community plan that meets the needs of the Mission’s immigrant and working-class population as opposed to the priorities of greedy developers and scheming politicians who value profits over people. In other words, we’re working on developing land-use policies to resist the impacts of gentrification and defend our right to the city.

Regarding the air-quality concerns, we’re working with residents in the Excelsior to monitor the air quality in their neighborhood and launch a campaign to lessen these problems. The Excelsior is in the part of the city that is overburdened by heavy truck and freeway traffic, bus yards, and construction. Each day, approximately 550,000 vehicles pass through highways 101 and 280 that run through this area of the city. After we work with residents to gather data, we will work together to develop a campaign to do something about it.

Also, although our organizing is local, we’ve been working with organizations from throughout the Bay Area, statewide, and nationally to link up our efforts and have a broader impact.

How do you get to work?

I take the BART, Bay Area Rapid Transit, to get to work.

What long and winding road led you to your current position?

I was born and raised in Texas, on the Texas-Mexico border. Growing up along the border gave me a keen sense of the injustices that exist in the world. As has been said, the borderlands is where the Third World rubs against the First. It was amazing for me to see that just by crossing a bridge, which my family did on a regular basis since my grandmother lived on the Mexico side, one entered an area of extreme poverty. I had a working-class upbringing, but the contrast was striking to me.

In many ways, those experiences instilled in me a sense to work for a better world. I got on this path when I was a university student and I’ve been on it ever since.

Where were you born? Where do you live now?

I was born in Laredo, Texas. I live with my partner and our son in Oakland, Calif.

What has been the worst moment in your professional life to date?

Hmm, I’ll get back to you on that one.

What’s been the best?

Two things come to mind.

First, in the environmental-justice work I was involved with in Austin, Texas, the organization I was part of waged an organizing campaign that successfully shut down a 50-acre fuel-storage tank farm. The tank farm was in the middle of an African-American and Latino neighborhood. The storage facilities emitted carcinogens such as benzene and other toxics into the surrounding neighborhood. The corporations that stored fuel at the site included Exxon and Chevron, among others. We shut it down and forced them to clean up.

Photo: iStockphoto

Second, I’m proud of the youth leadership program that we’ve developed here at PODER. For almost 10 years, PODER and the Chinese Progressive Association, a sister organization based in San Francisco’s Chinatown, have brought together Latino and Chinese immigrant youth to learn about each other’s cultures and immigration stories, increase their critical-thinking skills, and enhance their leadership and organizing skills. The youth have made great contributions to our organizing campaigns and continue to work in their community.

What environmental offense has infuriated you the most?

Greenwashing. It’s incredible, although not surprising, to see the extent to which corporations continue to devise ways to profit from people’s increasing concern for their environment and health. I’m sure we’ll get a product bottled and sold to us that purports to solve climate change sometime soon.

Who is your environmental hero?

I can’t say that I have a hero. Since most of my work for the past 20 years has been at the community level, I’m inspired by everyday folk who speak up, act, and strive every day to make a difference.

What’s your environmental vice?

My iPod.

How do you spend your free time (if you have any)? Read any good books lately?

Gardening. Reading. With Beth, my partner, having fun with our three-year-old son.

I just finished reading Zadie Smith’s On Beauty and a short story collection by Texas author Oscar Casares. I’m currently reading The Road by Cormac McCarthy.

What’s your favorite meal?

Mexican food, but in particular mole, a dark, delicious sauce. Among my best memories of traveling through Oaxaca has been tasting the various mole sauces from the area.

Which stereotype about environmentalists most fits you?

Hybrid-car owner, habitual composter, compulsive recycler. Pick one.

What’s your favorite place or ecosystem?

As a native Texan, I enjoy South Padre Island. Beautiful beaches and warm water!

If you could institute by fiat one environmental reform, what would it be?

I’d make certain that any local, state, or federal environmental decision-making body included people directly impacted by those decisions. We would have policies that truly make a difference in protecting our health and environment if people affected by those policies actually had a voice and vote in determining what’s to be done.

Who was your favorite musical artist when you were 18? How about now?

At 18, I discovered The Velvet Underground. I bought all their albums. Now? I eagerly anticipate the release of new music by folks like Café Tacuba and Alejandro Escovedo.

What’s your favorite TV show? Movie?

We have basic cable. My current guilty pleasure on TV is The Shield. Although I’m not a huge fan of the sci-fi genre, one of my favorite movies is Blade Runner.

Which actor would play you in the story of your life?

Gael Garcia Bernal. Yeah, right!

If you could have every InterActivist reader do one thing, what would it be?

Look past the big green groups when you’re looking for organizations to volunteer for, donate to, or support in some way. All across the country, groups rooted in communities are working on issues that not only make lives better for the residents in the neighborhoods where they work, but also are providing the best ideas on what a cleaner, healthier, and sustainable society needs to look like.

Also, these types of organizations, many of which will be at the United States Social Forum taking place in Atlanta, Ga., at the end of June, have a broad-based agenda that links social, economic, and environmental-justice concerns. At this point in time, we need that kind of holistic vision and approach.


Antonio Diaz, director of environmental-justice organization PODER.

Climate Dialogues is a grassroots coalition organizing around climate and just beginning to do outreach to Latino, immigrant, and related communities. Do you have suggestions for the best way to make the linkages between climate and more immediate issues in order to build these alliances?    — Phil Mitchell, Seattle, Wash.

A key principle in organizing is relationship building. People are interested in engaging with others if they know one another, have built trust, and recognize that they are all working for similar goals that benefit everyone.

I say that because I think that it’s important to get a sense of who’s already doing work in your area with Latinos, immigrants, and other related communities. Get to know what issues they are interested in and how they intersect with what you’re doing. Strategize together on how to make those connections.

Yes, it takes time, energy, and commitment to do this, but this is a crucial approach in order to avoid token-izing other communities or expecting them to jump on your issues without them getting something in return. Good luck!

For many years, the Spanish saying, “No hay mal que por bien no venga” has impressed me. It is very difficult to translate, but means something like, “There is no evil which does not come for good.” Is the calm, patient, faith-filled confidence that that suggests to be found at all among the immigrants that you know? Does it inspire a kind of creativity which perhaps is foreign to us Anglo-Americans? Or, put another way: Is there a special kind of wisdom that Latino immigrants have to teach us regarding conservation and living well with nature?    — Marcus Stephanus, New York, N.Y.

Sure, I think that there is something that we could learn from immigrants regarding “living well with nature,” as you say — especially those that come from rural and indigenous backgrounds.

However, I wouldn’t want to essentialize the Latino immigrant experience by saying that immigrants have that specific wisdom. The immigrant families that I’ve worked with have very distinct experiences based on the countries they come from, whether they are from rural vs. urban areas, etc. You can’t get more urban or citified than Mexico City, for example.

I do think, though, that many immigrants do have a different mind-set than Anglo-Americans because of the dire economic conditions that many come from. Someone once said that the first recyclers were poor people. Obviously, when you have less, you learn how to do more with what you have.

Do you see any one organization that has succeeded in engaging the Latino community in environmental activism nationally? Clearly you have succeeded in your community, but is there anyone on the national level who is succeeding in engaging communities across the country? Are any of the national Spanish-language networks making any effort to make this a priority for the national arena?    — Leah Holmes-Bonilla, Arlington, Va.

No, offhand I can’t think of any national organizations that are engaging Latinos on environmental-justice issues or environmental activism. Instead, what is happening is a lot of local work in Latino communities throughout the country in both urban and rural areas. There are also organizations such as the Southwest Network for Environmental and Economic Justice, a multiracial and binational network based in Albuquerque, N.M., that is comprised of many Latino organizations and has a national presence on the environmental-justice front.

On the one hand, I don’t think that not having a national organization is necessarily a bad thing. As we’ve seen, having an office in D.C. or in a state capital is no guarantee that our policy goals will be achieved or implemented.

On the other hand, there is a lack of a consistent, trusted voice at the national level addressing these concerns.

On the positive tip, I know of organizations in different parts of the country, including here in California, that are working together to impact policy at the regional and state level. As a firm believer in a bottom-up approach, I believe these efforts are creating a path to achieve systemic change at the national level.

At last October’s Bioneers conference in San Rafael, Calif., Paul Hawken urged the green audience to really engage the social-justice movement. He said “the environmental movement really needs to get on the social-justice bus” — not the other way around. The two movements united would be a much stronger force for change. I’m a white nature lover who is happiest out in open space. I live in the mountains up here in Trinity County, Calif. I get passionate about logging, salmon, bears, and gardening. Can you help me get more fired up about why I should be equally concerned for social-justice issues, racism, the plight of the urban poor, etc? Please help me see how your issues matter as much as my issues.    — Neil Harvey, Hyampom, Calif.

I don’t think that it’s a matter of convincing one another of the importance of my issues vs. yours. It’s crucial to understand how the work we’re all doing is needed to bring about the paradigmatic shift for a healthy, sustainable world.

That’s why I think that the United States Social Forum happening later this month, that I mentioned previously, is so important. It will provide an opportunity for organizations and people working on domestic and global justice to come together to develop leadership, learn from each other, and strategize. It’s a great opportunity to think beyond the “my issues vs. your issues” approach.

However, I do agree with Hawken’s point about the need for the environmental movement to “get on the social-justice bus.” At this critical moment, any movement that wants to make a difference needs to address the issues of race, class, and power in a substantive way.

The top 3 percent wealthiest people control 84 percent of all world resources. Therefore, they are the biggest CO2 producers of all. Cannot the rest of us create an international class-action suit and normalize resources among all people?    — John Bailo, Kent, Wash.

Well, we could if justice was actually blind and not blindfolded by the 3 percent.

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