Reflections of a Chicago Community Organizer: Water Justice and the Need to Act Now

During a trip to a water conference, an environmental justice activist considers what it takes to support his community without letting go of the importance of healing.

Oscar Sanchez speaking at the NRDC exhibit at EXPO CHICAGO, April 10, 2022

Credit: Taylor Glascock for NRDC

Chicago is home. The alphabet is how I navigate through the Southeast Side, and the steel that built the city came from my community, though it left a legacy of pollution behind. Many of us were aware of that last fact early on. At the age of 10, my younger brother asked, ''Why don’t we have the resources if we’re the ones who need them the most?” He was referring to how we had to travel from our home to the North Side so he could receive the proper medical care for a respiratory issue. But anyone across Chicago’s South Side might ask the same kind of question. Because it’s true that we don’t have those resources. One area where that is most clear is water.

Chicago, home to at least 400,000 lead service lines—the most in any city in the country—has replaced fewer than 100 in the past two years. This is a public health crisis that has multiple impacts on mostly low-income communities and communities of color. Water accessibility means everyone must have quality and affordable water. That is not the case now.

In addition to replacing lead service lines, there is also a need for better stormwater infrastructure, because our communities are not equipped to handle the worsening climate crisis. Currently, community members have pumps that prevent flooding, which are on 24 hours a day, seven days a week. But what happens when there's a storm that shuts off power, causes flooding, and is followed by a heat wave? This happened this past June, when a “supercell storm” brought two tornadoes to the Chicago area. Our community has already been impacted tremendously by outdated water infrastructure, yet my working-class friends and neighbors are expected to accept life in a “sacrifice zone” and the burdens of environmental injustice.

In recent years, I’ve seen how many of our government agencies don’t communicate with one another, nor are they transparent. This has real-life consequences for not only me, my family, and my community but throughout Chicago. The lack of urgency is clear in just how slow the Department of Water Management has been with its pilot lead service line replacement program, which is set to replace the water infrastructure on a residential block and the lead service lines of the households located there. The lack of urgency is also demonstrated by the very burdensome process of applying to get your lead service lines replaced. For many families, who are often working two jobs and already strapped for time, the stress they experience just to access something they need to survive is compounded.

This is exactly why I recently attended River Rally, a conference of organizers, academics, researchers, and others in the water justice movement coming together in Washington, D.C., to learn from each other and connect. As someone who is affected by this work directly, I feel each statistic tells me a story of how our communities are suffering. Each number is a neighbor, a friend. Therefore, it’s important to understand where we are when it comes to addressing water issues, where we have to go, and the impact of doing that work. This is what my time at River Rally was for. These are my reflections as a community organizer.

Leaving for the Capitol

Before I began the trip, I had to say goodbye to my grandparents, who were visiting from Mexico. My grandfather lost his arm and a part of his other hand working at an industrial woodcutting company, and I’m reminded of this when he puts his hand on my head, then the middle of my chest, next over my heart, and, finally, to the opposite side as he says, “Dios te bendiga. Cuidate, mijo.” (“God bless you. Take care, my grandson.”)

Credit: Courtesy of Oscar Sanchez

What does it mean to heal? The thought crosses my mind as I read All About Love by Bell Hooks. I’m at the airport, traveling to find answers for the small but growing environmental justice organization I work for. I don’t expect to obtain all the answers, but I do expect to ask questions to see if my doubts in justice will be relieved. What does it mean to heal when we are constantly attending to the gaps in our low-resourced communities? What does it mean when we talk about self-care and rest for ourselves? During crisis mode in our work, days and nights blend. We have to be on alert, and we feel the weight of it as we put the needs of our community above our own.

So I think healing begins with having the unapologetic belief that both our community and ourselves are worthy of health and well-being. Because those who seek justice seek to heal. For me, justice also means being rooted in love. Love is fighting for the life we were born to live, one without labels and systemic restraints. As I think about what it means to let go of all the reasons to doubt, my partner grabs my hand, and I remember that what we hold onto is also important.

Credit: Courtesy of Oscar Sanchez

Connecting with a people and a place

I’ve traveled to Mexico for a wedding and attended protests about labor rights, I’ve traveled to Ironbound in Newark, New Jersey, and attended the celebration of advocate Steven Donziger after he was released from house arrest, and now I’ve traveled to Washington, D.C., for River Rally. One of the most powerful acts of protest I first encountered came from a person filled with joy: Craig. He is literally living in front of the White House, reminding us all of what’s left to be addressed, what has been ignored, and what we lose sleep over. If you’re reading this, Craig, I am planning for the next time we can get together and share a meal.

Credit: Courtesy of Oscar Sanchez

What allows me to connect with any area is the people and the food. D.C. is no different. I am in my happy place. A walkable community, bagels, and good coffee. This is the fuel of champions, and it becomes my morning routine throughout the rest of my time in D.C. While we’re speaking of happy places, this is Brenda Santoyo, senior policy analyst for the Little Village Environmental Justice Organization (LVEJO). She debriefed me on many of the water issues in Chicago and at the state level. I joined her on this trip. And the handsome gentleman eating that bagel is none other than me—a simple man, enjoying the simple things.

In those first few days traveling around D.C., I am reminded that not all places are welcoming or reflective of all people. There's a reason natives say you haven't visited D.C. if you haven't left the capitol.

Credit: Courtesy of Oscar Sanchez

We visited the Art Museum of the Americas, and I learned of the work of Julio Valdez. What does it mean to exist in water? What does it mean to exist in America? There are moments you can see things clearly in both art and this country, and others where so much seems muddy and uncertain. His work pulls me in and whispers that we must exist, and sometimes that means fighting for our existence.

Credit: Courtesy of Oscar Sanchez

After walking through Valdez’s water exhibit, we entered the I Can’t Breathe exhibit. This is the catalyst for who I am today—someone learning, trying to understand, trying to love, trying to change to be able to see a world where Black people aren’t killed, even slowly, through poverty. This grounding isn’t from a place of sadness, it’s from a place of love, as I’m reminded of in Open Veins of Latin America by Eduardo Galeano. “History is a prophet who looks back: because of what was, and against what was, it announces what will be.” You see, history is expecting us to continue fighting, and we will, through different forms of mutual aid and policy creation. We give everything, because we have everything to lose.

Gozo. The Spanish word for “joy.”

Credit: Courtesy of Oscar Sanchez

Reexamining the work

Time for the conference, which gave me the gift of reflection: What does it mean to attend? You will meet many people who will embrace you, especially Black and brown folks. I learned there are many powerful tools to equip our community with, there are many stories to share, there are many things to still be done. I feel ready to bring all of that understanding to our community back in Chicago.

Overall, the River Rally was more than a conference or a trip to D.C. It was learning the priorities of other institutions and organizations. And although we all do things differently, if things are done from a place of restorative justice, where we consider and repair the systemic harm caused to others in areas like water, we can be in a better position than we are now. I met many folks who have that intention.

Credit: Courtesy of Oscar Sanchez

I’d like to leave you with two things. One, it is true that where you have water, you have life. Here in the United States, we must make sure everyone has access to clean, affordable water if we want life to thrive.

Two, the following is from my final conversation with a D.C. native that reminded me why we do this work.

Sanchez: What does water mean to you?

D.C. native: It’s important. It’s vital. When I think of water, just in talking about D.C., there’s water all around us.…We have the Anacostia River that runs right through D.C., and it’s a part of a watershed that hits the Chesapeake Bay. But it’s really polluted. It’s murky brown and it’s been that way for a really long time. Right now, they’re talking about putting some stuff in a bill that [says] they want it cleaned up. They want it to be a fishable, swimmable river. And I don’t doubt that they’re gonna try to push to make that happen. Because the folks saying it now have the influence and resources to make it happen. So, I think about that.

This story was commissioned by NRDC in April 2022 as part of our Perspectives column. NRDC does not support or oppose any candidate for office.

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Chicago has more lead service lines than any city in the country.

Urge Mayor Johnson to replace Chicago’s toxic lead service lines and protect residents!

Urge Mayor Johnson to replace Chicago’s lead service lines and protect residents!

Chicago has more lead service lines than any city in the country—and there is no safe level of lead exposure. The longer Chicagoans wait for lead service lines to be replaced, the more families could be exposed to lead contamination and face life-threatening health risks.

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