HINSDALE – McKaela Zegarski knows that in her affluent community in Chicago’s western suburbs, the drinking water is safe and the air outside is clean.
That is not the case everywhere.
The Flint water crisis is the most devastating example of environmental injustice in recent times, but it’s foreign to this area.
Not so are the local power plants and coal-burning factories that Zegarski said continue to relocate to lower-income communities throughout the Chicago area, or the large-scale disposal sites she said are located disproportionately in low-income, minority-based communities.
“As I flick on the light in my kitchen, as I throw out my trash, environmental racism is not a far off, distant threat,” said Zegarski, a senior at Naperville Central High School. “Environmental racism and environmental inequalities are alive and well in the Chicago area.”
Zegarski, and young people like her, gave voice to that cause Friday.
Close to 100 people, almost all of them high school age, gathered in Hinsdale’s Burlington Park for a strike against environmental racism.
It was one of thousands of similar events held worldwide Friday as youth activists turned out for a Global Day of Climate Action.
“First, this is about raising awareness and educating people about environmental racism because lots of people don’t know about it,” said Mohammad Ahmadi, a senior at Hinsdale Central High School and a member of Hinsdale for Black Lives Matter, who spoke at the event. “People think climate change is just an issue that impacts the environment. These policies impact people and they impact people of color, Black people and indigenous people the most. The climate crisis is a racial justice issue, too.”
Several young people gave speeches in the middle of the park, while songs and poetry on the issue of environmental racism were delivered.
And they took to the streets to March through Hinsdale, with chants of “system change, not climate change,” “climate change is not a lie do not let our planet die” and “what do we want, justice, when do we want it now, if we don’t get it shut it down.”
Many carried signs like “environmental justice is social justice” and “protect the planet and it’s people.”
“I have to live in the future,” said Wolfgang Burtner, a senior at Lyons Township High School. “I’m as concerned about the climate as anyone else, but I also recognize that I’m not as affected as some other people. That is why this is an environmental racism protest, not just a protest against racism and not just a general climate change protest.”
Zegarski cited examples of environmental racism throughout the Chicago area. The Mexican-American neighborhood of Little Village, home to two large coal power plants, has among the highest rates of asthma in Chicago.
A 2020 Air Quality and Health report for the city of Chicago showed that pollution hot spots are concentrated predominantly in Black and Latino neighborhoods in the city’s west and south sides.
“These factories can lower a neighborhood’s property value, costing families money and add a burden to what people face,” Zegarski said.
“There is absolutely a connection between climate change and racism,” Burtner said. “People don’t tie them together, but it’s so important for the sake of these communities that we talk about it.”
Among the demands the organizers of the strike had were comprehensive and intersectional climate education to be implemented in school districts 86, 87, 203 and 204 and others in Illinois, that the Clean Energy Job Act be passed by the Illinois legislature, that the Green New Deal and Climate Equity Act be passed by the Congress and that Hinsdale, Naperville and other local towns declare climate emergencies.
“It it not enough to stop the ills of climate change; we must address the effects of climate change,” Burtner said. “We must seek justice for those affected by the greed and slow response of the top emitters of fossil fuels and most powerful governments, the low-income, indigenous, people of color communities who experience the negative consequences of our nation’s environmental carelessness. The time to act is now. Every second we wait more people are being hurt.”
In February, the city of Chicago joined more than 1,400 local governments in 28 countries in declaring climate emergency declarations.
“The climate crisis is here,” said Payton Day, a senior at Naperville Central High School and member of Naper Youth for Black Lives Matter. “It’s taking lives, it’s destroying lives, homes and properties, it’s threatening economics, public safety and more. The time for waiting is over.”
With the 2020 election less than 40 days away, most of the people at Friday’s event are not yet old enough to vote.
But they believe they don’t need the ballot to affect change.
“Change starts from these movements, these protests, people speaking up and educating others,” Ahmadi said. “Voting is a way to make change, but to get people to vote for what is right in the name of science we need to educate people and we need to build a mass movement.
“Change starts here and works its way up.”