Vegas News

Women of color lead fight to bring climate justice to low-income Las Vegans

Wade Vandervort

Erika Washington is executive director of Make It Work Nevada, a local organization that supports Black women and other women of color in issues like pay equity and affordable child care.

Erika Washington, executive director of Make It Work Nevada, was raised by a green-thumbed grandfather who nurtured fresh vegetables out of their home garden in Detroit.

Making healthful foods widely available and educating Black families on their benefits is key, she said, to her role at Make It Work.

And when facing a mounting climate crisis that disproportionately affects low-income people and communities of color, deeper information on these issues becomes that much more imperative, said Washington, who is Black.

“I think everything I’ve done is weaved into my work,” she said. “If we’re going to thrive … we need to understand what’s going on with air quality, what’s going on with climate change and what’s being put in the land and in the water.”

In Las Vegas, several local organizations that focus on climate justice are driven by the people the issues affect. In particular, women of color like Washington have taken a stance in defending the communities they are a part of. Make It Work Nevada, born of the national Make It Work Campaign, is a local organization that centers Black women and other women of color in issues like pay equity and affordable child care.

“Working with Black folks, we know that they have not been reached out to to talk about the environment or to talk about climate change,” Washington said. “It’s been very white-led for a very long time. … You have to include the people who are closest to the issue in order to actually make any sort of change.”

Several organizations have banded together and are creating a website, breathefreenv.com, that aims to educate and raise awareness about climate change, reducing greenhouse gas emissions, reducing pollution to improve public health and lower energy costs for families in low-income communities.

The website will direct visitors to a new report by the Physicians, Scientists, and Engineers for Healthy Energy (PSE) that indicates methods ingrained in renewable energy have immense strength in lessening the burden of energy costs and in bettering the health of Nevada residents, in particular those in low-income and Black Indigenous People of Color (BIPOC) communities.

Partner organizations for breathefreenv.com are Battle Born Progress, CHISPA, Make The Road Nevada, Make It Work Nevada, Mi Familia Vota Nevada, the Faith Organizing Alliance and the Progressive Leadership Alliance of Nevada (PLAN) Action Fund, all of which have people of color in positions of leadership.

“It’s rare that all of these organizations doing environmental work are led by people of color,” said Laura Martin, executive director of PLAN, who is Black.

“Environment isn’t just the public lands or the recreation that we can do. It’s also environmental racism. … That’s what we wanted to do with this report, is really start diving into this conversation but also crafting and supporting policy ideas that are tangible and doable.”

For Maria-Teresa Liebermann-Parraga, director of Battle Born Progress, the thread between climate change and social justice is linked by personal experience. Settling in Las Vegas after immigrating from Mexico with her family, Liebermann-Parraga now lives near McCarran International Airport — which, according to the PSE study, is the highest-emitting point source of hazardous air pollutants in Nevada.

Liebermann-Parraga also stepped into climate justice work through a combination of her interest in clean energy and memories of her childhood in Mexico, defined by steady air pollution. While working with Battle Born Progress, she saw how people in her community suffered the consequences of climate change while simultaneously occupying little space in discussions around policy change.

“I still think, generally, a lot of people don’t know that they can be involved in asking their elected officials to make policies that can benefit them,” she said. “I think (policymakers) need to hear more from impacted people.”

Audrey Peral, lead organizer at Make the Road Nevada, also calls the airport her neighbor. She was struck by the report’s finding about McCarran’s effects on the environment, especially because she has a 14-year-old son who she fears is being harmed by the air he breathes, she said.

“I didn’t come into this world with an environmental background or anything like that,” Peral said. “I’m an undocumented person myself, so I came into this work through the immigration lens. … I’m allowed in these spaces to represent my community, and that’s definitely the headspace I come into it, but I’m also a part of my community.”

The unequal blows that low-income populations and populations of color already suffer because of climate change worsened during the COVID-19 pandemic, the PSE report says.

Because of this, policy changes to decarbonize Nevada must concurrently incorporate protections for lesser-served groups to avoid inequity later down the line, the report concludes.

“Low-income households and populations of color often struggle to pay for the electricity and fuels they rely on to power their homes and vehicles,” the report states. “These and many other social inequities impact every sector of the economy, and decarbonization efforts should consider these existing disparities in order to develop clean energy transition strategies that distribute benefits more evenly across the Nevada population.”

One finding in PSE’s study states that higher-income households consume larger amounts of vehicle fuel compared to those of lower-income households.

Electric vehicles as an alternative to gas-powered cars cannot be a complete solution because, costwise, they can be out of reach for low-income residents.

The report recommends that, along with first creating electric-powered transportation options, policymakers should offer financial incentives for electric passenger vehicles to low-income communities.

The $1 trillion infrastructure package that recently passed the U.S. Senate and includes $550 billion in new infrastructure investments, budgets $15 billion for electric vehicles. But that’s a $142 billion decrease from what originally was proposed — the steepest cut negotiated in the bill’s transportation section.

Martin said disincentivizing new purchases like electric vehicles and instead creating more mass transit powered by renewable energy would be the correct step forward.

“It’s not just about having new ideas or new things to buy,” she said. “It’s really thinking about what lends itself to the sustainability of our community and how can we problem solve to get to that point.”



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