Tomasita González, environmental-justice organizer, answers questions
What work do you do?
I work as a community organizer at SouthWest Organizing Project, based in Albuquerque, N.M.
What does your organization do?
For over a quarter century, SWOP has worked to build an environmental-justice movement in disenfranchised, working, and people-of-color communities. In the ’90s, we sought to challenge the mainstream “Group of Ten” environmental organizations with a letter demanding that affected communities — those suffering most from industrial and human-produced toxins and pollution — have a seat at the table in shaping the environmental movement.
What are you working on at the moment?
We’re trying to get the New Mexico state legislature to adopt an environmental-justice bill and memorial.
How do you get to work?
I carpool with coworkers when possible.
What long and winding road led you to your current position?
I and my community are struggling for the right to access clean, safe drinking water. SWOP came in and helped organize, guide, and empower us to stand up to elected officials, etc., in order to resolve the problem. I saw changes within the officials, etc., so I decided to stay and share my struggle and experience and be a support to others.
Where were you born? Where do you live now?
I was born, raised, and am currently living in the South Valley, which is located in Albuquerque, N.M.
What has been the best moment in your professional life to date?
When we were organizing for environmental-justice legislation and some elected officials treated the polluters like we normally get treated — like we’re crazy.
What environmental offense has infuriated you the most?
What really upsets me is when our elected officials hand out permits to polluters, knowing our communities are already overloaded with toxins and environmental hazards and degradation.
Where do you think environmentalists and social-justice advocates can find common cause?
During the last year, whole communities and cultures were found to be expendable following natural disasters all over the world. In the U.S., the richest country in the world, the poor and working class — and yes, African Americans — of the Gulf Coast were left to die in a predicted disaster in the wake of Hurricane Katrina. The threat of climate change and a world energy shortage looms mightily over the world’s overwhelmingly poor population. Environmentalists and social-justice advocates must find common ground not only in combating the effects of corporate globalization on the environment, but also in organizing to meet the immediate needs of families all over the world left out of existing power structures.
Do you see environmental ills disproportionately afflicting the communities where you live and work?
Of course. There are two environmental movements we can speak of: one is a middle-class (mostly) white environmental movement and the other is a very diverse grouping of locally based groups working hard to end the environmental degradation of their communities. A central tenet of this movement is that people have the right to live, play, and work in a healthy and safe environment. Commonly referred to as the EJ movement, this work receives little attention in the press despite its significant accomplishments toward holding corporations and governments environmentally accountable — not to mention the (other) environmental movement, which often is perceived to act as if humans are parasites.
How can the environmental movement cast a wider net culturally and become a bigger-tent issue politically?
The environmental movement must come to the realization that humans are part of the environment.
Who is your environmental hero?
Jeanne Gauna, one of the cofounders of SWOP. She passed away a few years ago. She really knew how to engage, motivate, and empower people. She made me feel like anything could be done as long as we stuck together and stood up. Now, I know why she said it wouldn’t be easy, but things are getting done.
What’s your environmental vice?
Sometimes I stretch the truth about my carpooling habits.
How do you spend your free time?
I come from a soccer family (myself and my two boys), so my free time is spent in practice or at games.
What’s your favorite meal?
As long as it has chile (hot preferred), I’m good.
What’s your favorite place or ecosystem?
I love to go to the Bosque along the Rio Grande with my kids. I hope my kids will be able to take their kids there too.
If you could institute by fiat one environmental reform, what would it be?
It would be that polluters and governments would have to complete an impact study prior to issuing permits.
Who was your favorite musical artist when you were 18? How about now?
I love to dance to cumbia no matter the artist!
What’s your favorite TV show?
I really don’t have time for TV, but I’d say the game show 100 Mexicanos Dijeron.
Which actor would play you in the story of your life?
There’s no one in Hollywood quite like me. But my kids want J.Lo to play me in a movie!
If you could have every InterActivist reader do one thing, what would it be?
Now more than ever, we should value the importance of community-based institutions where disenfranchised, everyday people can impact the decisions that affect our lives — decisions increasingly made by special interests, corporate interests, and patron politicians. Donate to your friendly, local community-based organization!