For years, many have made the assumption that communities of color don’t care about environmental justice. “That’s just something white limousine liberals care about.” Katherine Lorenzo is here to disabuse us of that notion and explain the environmental issues affecting working-class communities of color today.

“I always cared about the environment.”
– Katherine Lorenzo

Growing up, Katherine Lorenzo’s grandmother would tell her, “Turn off the water. It might run out.” Those and other conservation lessons from her Dominican grandmother would stick with Lorenzo. She would later organize a campaign to implement recycling programs at her high school. Though Lorenzo didn’t succeed at the time, that only fueled her passion for environmental justice.
Lorenzo then explained how conservation has naturally been a part of Latino culture, something that’s done to save money and while also helps in saving the planet. “It’s something in the Latino culture where we’re always saving stuff, reusing stuff,” she said. “We hadn’t been thinking about the environment first. But ultimately, we’ve already been doing so much to eliminate pollution in our community.”

“I love grassroots organizing. I love talking with my community.”
– Katherine Lorenzo

Lorenzo got a very early start in politics, as she volunteered with Barack Obama’s first presidential campaign in 2007. From there, she went on to study political science at UNLV, then work at issue advocacy groups like Mi Familia Vota. Now she’s back to working on environmental justice efforts as an organizer with Chispa Nevada, which is part of the League of Conservation Voters’ national Latino outreach program.

When others ask about why communities of color should pursue environmental justice, she points to the lessons of the past, as well as the clear and present danger. As communities of color are increasingly on the front lines of climate change, Lorenzo is working to ensure black and brown communities are included in the larger climate action agenda. “We have to remember that climate justice intersects with economic justice and racial justice. People of color are disproportionately affected by climate change.”

Clean buses, healthy niños, environmental justice for all

Lorenzo is currently working on Chispa’s Clean Buses for Healthy Niños campaign to convince Governor Brian Sandoval (R) and other state governors to switch out older, dirtier diesel powered school buses for cleaner electric school buses. As the State of Nevada decides how to invest the $24.8 million the state will receive from the Volkswagen settlement, Chispa and its allies are working to convince Sandoval that replacing the old school buses that are increasingly harming the health of Nevada students is the wisest course of action.
“Where do you get the most contamination?,” Lorenzo asked. “The biggest particulate polluter is from diesel engines. If you address the biggest polluter, you’re getting the most bang for your buck.”
Just as Lorenzo’s grandmother taught about water use, environmental protection ultimately makes economic sense. Looking at the larger picture, the environment is a critical “pocket book” economic issue for many communities of color. Pollution harms public health, and climate change threatens many communities’ future existence. Environmental justice truly does intersect with economic justice. Activists like Katherine Lorenzo are working around the clock to not just remind people of this intersectionality, but also motivate them to act on it.