The San Diego County Board of Directors voted unanimously last month to create an environmental justice office. District 1 supervisor Nora Vargas proposed the measure and $ 1.3 million was budgeted for the county to establish the office by the fall. KPBS environmental reporter Erik Anderson recently spoke with the supervisor to discuss what environmental justice means to her.
Note: The following conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
Q: Help me define environmental justice as you see it.
If you think about environmental justice, you can correlate it directly to the postal codes that people live in and I think it’s time for the government to take responsibility and make a change. We are really proud to be a binational community, but if you think about the emissions due to the long hours of waiting at the border, all of these issues have an impact on the community which, due to its zip code, has been greatly affected. by these policies. it didn’t really take them into consideration.
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Q: Why is environmental justice important to you?
Because of health care and the fact that the environmental injustices that have plagued our communities for so long, for me, I think this is where the conversation starts and why it matters. So for me, it was really important to create an environmental and climate justice office. This was really going to ensure that the people who were going to look, their daily job was to wake up and look at the world through an environmental and climate justice lens. Which means examining environmental racism in our communities. Looking at the toxins in our area. Contamination. And that was part of my biggest environmental package. But for me, it was really important that we had an office that really had people who were dedicated to looking at the world from that perspective.
Q: Can you give me an example of the impact this county office might have on a law that supervisors would consider.
Absolutely. One of the things the office is going to do is we’re going to focus on collecting data, making sure decisions are based on data as we make decisions about public policy. We will make sure that we have programs and services available for the community to be engaged in this process. And if you think about community engagement – which I keep telling people – for a long time it was the community organizations, the environmental justice organizations that did the job that the government should have done all along. . And so what we’re doing now is for the government to take responsibility and make sure people have the information they need. And that we’re actually going to be able to get their input as we develop the policies.
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Q: Why do you think supervisors are willing to make this change?
I often talk about how representation matters. It’s not just a hashtag. I think when you have people who are from the community who are elected by the members of the community… In my case, I am a product of this region, of the binational community. I understand what it’s like to wait at the border, three to four hours to try to cross. And I know how bad air pollution is for our communities. I have worked in the healthcare field for many years and understand firsthand the impact of contamination in our communities. I started working on the Tijuana River Valley problem and trying to tackle the contamination when I was on the staff of a local congressman in the early 1990s. And so here we are in 2021 And as someone who has been at the forefront of these issues, working side by side with organizations like the Environmental Health Coalition, Casa Familiar, and some of the other organizations that have been on the front lines. . I have come here to do work on behalf of the community and that is what we are doing. We have a new supervisory board. We have the will to really make a difference And we have little time to do so, so we have no time to waste.
Q: Community members have been raising these issues for decades, but why is it now that it is sort of coming together in organizations that have the capacity to effect change?
I think it goes back decades of organizing in our communities. I started this job 25 years ago and we all worked side by side to make the job fair. Whether it is health care, the environment, questions of economic justice, transport, housing. We know they are all integrated. And I think the last administration demonstrated how important science-based decision making is to our communities. We are talking about the impact of COVID, especially in the Latin American community and communities in San Diego County. Again, it was the question of where you lived that made the difference in whether or not you were going to have access to vaccines or tests. And we changed that in a very short time. Because we looked at the data. We looked at the Health Equity Index and decided that this was what we were going to prioritize because San Diego County is the safety net for so many people who for many reasons don’t have not been able to access it for years. So for me it really is a new day in San Diego County. And I think what you see in government is a real partnership between elected officials and community organizations and advocates. And I believe the will of the county staff is there to be able to make a difference and they have been very helpful in helping in this transition.
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