Growing up in the Inland Empire of Southern California, Erica Thames spent most of her life living in a low-income community that had some of the worst air quality in the country. After learning about the Sierra Club’s youth-led My Generation campaign, Thames became more involved with the environmental justice issues in her community.
Even though the 23-year-old activist has recently moved to Austin to work on the Sierra Club’s Beyond Coal Campaign, she’s still working to raise awareness about the issues affecting her community and others like it. Check out her interview below to see find out more about environmental justice issues, how they affect communities, and how you can get involved in the “green” fight.
ACT: First things first: When did you first become an environmental activist?
THAMES: I didn’t become an active environmentalist until about a year ago. Growing up I had a general idea of environmentalism in the form of recycling, saving water, etc., but it was not until I started learning about environmental justice/racism did I become really involved.
ACT: How did you first get involved with the Sierra Club?
THAMES: I kind of got involved with the Sierra Club on accident. I was part of a cultural center/ collective called ChICCCAA, and there was a Sierra Club organizer that worked at the center as well. I wanted an internship to help boost my activist career so one of my mentors at ChICCCAA, Mary Valdemore, referred me to Allen Hernandez (the Sierra Club organizer). At first my thoughts of being a Sierra Club intern weren’t the most enthusiastic, but I figured that it would be some good experience so I signed on. Its funny looking back at that now, little did I know that I would end up being a Sierra Club staff member a little less then a year later. Allen taught me all about environmental racism and pointed out how myself, and the area I grew up in, was hit incredibly hard by it.
ACT: For our readers who don’t know, what is environmental racism?
THAMES: Irwin Weintrab describes environmental racism as “The intentional siting of hazardous waste sites, landfills, incinerators, and polluting industries in communities inhabited mainly by African-American, Hispanics, Native Americans, Asians, migrant farm workers, and the working poor.” It also expands into accessible fresh produce and healthy food, clean towns/living areas, disaster relief response, access to the outdoors via public parks or national forest and so on. To me environmental racism is seeing a disproportional amount of folks that look like me actively dying everyday due to environmental oppression.
ACT: How has environmental racism affected you and your community?
THAMES: The Inland Empire is a working class community mostly populated by people of color. It also has some of the worst air quality in the country. Environmental racism has affected my family greatly. I was diagnosed with asthma at a very young age. Some of my earliest memories where of my mom staying up late night with me comforting my cough, or of visits to the emergency room due to asthma attacks. I still heavily feel the effects of asthma today and it has made me sit on the sidelines many times in my life, causing me to miss out on all that life has to offer. Not only that but my dad died of cancer when I was in high school — he was only 40 years old.
ACT: How can our readers get involved in advocating for environmental justice issues?
THAMES: The best way to get involved is by getting plugged into folks working in your community on issues. It sometimes can be hard at first especially if you are new to this since the activist world can seem like a pretty tight knit community. But keep searching, attend community events, if you’re in school look into the clubs or student groups there. Just be adamant until you find a group of folks that you feel comfortable with.
ACT: If you could teach our readers one thing about the environment, what would that be and why?
THAMES: I guess some advice I would give someone who wanted to become involved is to really educate yourself. Not just in environmentalism but in all aspects of social justice. Take the time to learn about classism, ageism, patriarchy and white supremacy. Because without becoming educated in all aspects of social justice, you could actually end up doing more harm then good. You want to be a resource for an impacted community.
Want to follow Erica’s lead and work to save the environment? Check out the action links below.
Learn More About Beyond Coal
Join the 3.2 million voices that have already asked the EPA to protect communities from carbon pollution.
Take action with the Sierra Club, like signing online petitions to help the environment!