Closing the Cloud Factories

Friday, July 20, 2018

Grantmakers Tour the Little Village Neighborhood in Chicago

The Little Village neighborhood in Chicago presents multiple examples of situations that environmental justice efforts often face, where planning and decision making exclude community residents, only to saddle them with the negative effects of these decisions.

Forefront’s Environmental Member Network recently went on an interactive tour of Little Village. Organized by Forefront’s Director of Member Networks, Kim Casey, participants in this active learning session toured the neighborhood, learned about the struggle to build a healthier community, and discussed how to construct an environmental movement that is focused on building equity and justice.

Featured presenters included Dr. Antonio Lopez, Little Village Environmental Justice Organization (LVEJO); Kim Wasserman-Nieto, LVEJO; Juliana Pino, LVEJO; Bruce Boyd, Arabella Advisors; and Elizabeth Cisar, Joyce Foundation.

Fisk coal-fired power plant. Creative Commons photo by Seth AndersonThe children used to call them “cloud factories,” but for decades, the Crawford and Fisk coal power plants spewed toxic emissions into the skies over Little Village, while coal dust from the plants’ stockpile settled onto houses and school grounds. Residents suffered high rates of asthma, bronchitis, and a slew of other respiratory illnesses. In fact, a Harvard study linked more than 40 premature deaths, 550 emergency room visits and 2,800 asthma attacks every year to the toxic emissions from the two plants, with children being the most vulnerable to the plants’ pollution. After years of tireless work, LVEJO successfully shut the plants down in 2012, but the work to replace the sites will shape some of the next battles around the environmental health of the community.

“The tour was a rich mix of history and contemporary local activism,” said Heather Smith, co-chair of the Environmental Group, who participated in the tour. “Kim and Antonio and Juliana were incredibly gracious hosts. For me the tour illustrated in several ways how environmental and structural racism manifests itself on the ground. For example, we walked around La Villita park which is wedged between a metal recycling facility and the Cook County Jail. Despite thousands of kids within a 1/2 mile of the park, it took years of advocacy and organizing to build the facility which brought home the racial and environmental injustices that manifest themselves in our city. It was an eye-opening experience, and I hope it leads grantmakers to consider the work and how to mitigate these injustices.” 

Other issues in the Little Village neighborhood include building and supporting a park that is responsive to community needs, making sure schools are in locations that support health and clean air, and reducing truck traffic in the neighborhood. Tour leaders shared how details can be missed when community voices are not heard—details such as how a park may be used, where environmental impacts are being most felt, and the particular challenges a community faces.

In discussing how to build on past victories and how to construct an environmental movement that is more focused on building equity and justice, participants made three key takeaways:

1. Chicago development has often not occurred in ways that are conducive to community health. Increasing environmental justice means involving community residents in the progress of their own community, listening to their voices, and providing what they need to help them build a healthy community.

2. Community engagement needs to be real—it needs to happen early in any decision-making process, and it needs to treat the problems raised in the process as genuine. Iterative models of policy development that re-engage the community throughout the process can be useful.

3. Environmental justice is community-based, and since relationships are at the heart of that work, funding should also be based on relationships. By building relationships with community organizations, funders can learn their strengths, which can help them understand the roles partners can play in larger efforts. Funders can also help build relationships between larger and smaller organizations, and they can open doors that are often closed to the community.

To learn more about the Environmental Grantmakers Member Network, contact Kim Casey, Director, Member Networks at