Antonio Diaz, environmental-justice advocate, answers questions
With what environmental organization are you affiliated?
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?
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.
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?
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.
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?
What’s your favorite TV show? Movie?
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.