An Environmental Justice Advocate’s L.A. Story

Dr. Michael Anthony Mendez on the subject of his new book, Climate Change from the Streets, and the readiness of Latinos to act on climate and justice.

Consulting with Sacramento school board president Jay Hansen on vacant land reserved for a 3-acre instructional urban farm and community garden project scheduled to break ground in 2018

Courtesy Jay Hansen

Like Mike, Carol, Marcia, Greg, and company, Michael Anthony Mendez grew up in California’s San Fernando Valley. But unlike the Bradys, Mendez, who is Mexican-American, didn’t live in a roomy split-level on a tree-lined block. His neighborhood, the North Valley section of Los Angeles, housed two landfills but had no parks for the people, mostly immigrants, who lived there.

“We didn’t have green spaces in my neighborhood when I was growing up,” says Mendez, now an associate research scientist and the Pinchot Faculty Fellow at Yale University’s School of Forestry & Environmental Studies. Still, his working-class parents made sure he had opportunities to escape their gritty section of the valley. His father, who had worked as a bracero, or manual laborer, when he first came from Mexico to the United States and later owned a bicycle shop, taught him the value of two wheels. “As a teen, I worked at the bike shop,” Mendez says. “I still mostly bike and walk everywhere I go.” And Mendez’s mother, aware of the economic disparities among the various schools in the valley, enrolled him at Chatsworth High School, in a better-off part of town, instead of the local high school. 

“There weren’t a lot of people [there] who looked like me at the time,” Mendez says. “It was a culture shock; there were so many affluent people.” He also noticed that people living in the wealthier areas in the valley had more open space and better air quality.

Michael and his parents at their bike shop celebrating their retirement after 25 years of serving the community

Courtesy Michael Anthony Mendez

Those early lessons about social inequity inspired Mendez to pursue a career studying and advancing environmental justice and climate change action at the state and city levels. At California State University, Northridge, Mendez concentrated on urban studies and planning, then earned a master’s degree in environmental policy and economic development at MIT. He went on to serve as a senior legislative aide in the office of California State Assembly member Cindy Montañez from 2003 to 2006. There, he primarily tackled brownfields, the contaminated former industrial sites that often sit idle due to the expense of remediating them. Mendez helped make it easier to redevelop brownfields and to do so in a way that would be beneficial to the local community.

The Sacramento Railyards brownfield project

Robert Couse-Baker/Flickr

He also helped draft a law to ban the use of experimental pesticides—chemicals whose health effects are unknown—on K-12 public school grounds. That ban is still in effect today. 

Currently Mendez teaches his graduate students about the disproportionate environmental burdens faced by communities of color and low-income communities—from sharing their neighborhoods with power plants and incinerators to drinking contaminated water. He also aims to show his students how residents can help effect positive local change, such as by weighing in on creating parks or improving access to clean beaches.

In his forthcoming book, Climate Change from the Streets (Yale University Press), Mendez draws on more than a decade of fieldwork and analysis, including his firsthand observations while working for the California State Legislature as a senior consultant and lobbyist and as a gubernatorial appointee during the passage of some of California’s seminal climate change laws.

He also shows how the spirit of resistance has long been alive and well in his home state—a sentiment echoed by Adrianna Quintero, an NRDC senior attorney and the founder of Voces Verdes, a group that encourages Latino leadership on environmental issues. “California hasn’t lost jobs and revenue hasn’t gone down simply because the state has committed to fighting environmental harm,” she says. “Dr. Mendez shows that we can have solutions that are good for the economy and good for people.” 

Quintero adds that having Mendez and other Latino environmentalists involved in academia is crucial. “The more we can have leaders excited and talking about this type of work to students who are eager to learn, the more likely we are to have a thriving and truly diverse and representative movement,” she says.

A newly released national survey conducted by Mendez’s colleagues at the Yale Program on Climate Change Communication shows Latinos in the United States are now more convinced than non-Latinos that global warming is happening and that it is the result of human actions. It also shows they are ready to act on this growing awareness.

“Nearly three in four Latinos want industry, citizens, President Trump, and the U.S. Congress to do more to address global warming,” according to the report, “Climate Change in the Latino Mind.”

Michael serving as member of US Global Change Research Program’s working group on “Climate Vulnerability and Social Science Perspectives”

Courtesy Michael Anthony Mendez

Another key finding is that only 29 percent of Latinos have ever been contacted by an organization working to reduce global warming, though many are willing to take related political action, such as by voting for candidates who pledge to address the challenge.

Mendez’s research highlights how in California and elsewhere, people of color and Latinos in particular have played a central role in adapting and transforming neighborhoods to promote sustainable urban development.

“California has internationally acclaimed climate-change laws. And almost all the state’s environmental bills are authored by people of color,” Mendez says. He also emphasizes that legislators of color tend to hold more empathy for issues of environmental justice. Just look at last year’s environmental justice wins in California: Of 25 related bills taken up by the state legislature—from the Planning for Healthy Communities Act to the Equity & Transparency in Climate Act—the vast majority were authored by people of color, including many Latinos.

“There may be a false perception that Latinos don’t care enough about the environment, but that’s not the case,” Mendez says.

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