Kimberly Wasserman Nieto says when she was younger she never wanted to be like her progressive organizer parents, but sometimes your parents’ genes may be stronger than you think.
Fifteen years ago, Wasserman Nieto was 21, and a single mother living in the low-income, Mexican-American neighborhood where she was born and raised — Little Village in southwest Chicago. When her son had his first asthma attack at just 3 months old, she started recognizing that much of the community was facing the same health problems. After some research, she realized the link between the asthma incidents and two nearby coal plants. With the help of some public health organizations, and many years of hard work, she was able to close the two coal plants owned by Midwest Generation at the end of 2012.
Today, because of her years of hard work dedicated to helping the health of her community, Wasseman Nieto is being awarded the world’s largest prize honoring grassroots environmentalists — the Goldman Environmental Prize — which not only gives her and her work international recognition, but also an award of $150,000 to pursue her goals of a renewed and protected environment.
“I think I’m still acclimating to it , but it’s just an honor,” says Wasserman Nieto. “I didn’t even know the prize existed before this — it’s a true honor.”
What first inspired her to fight this challenging fight, she says, was the large number of families she encountered in her community going through the same respiratory issues; she wanted to get to the root of the problem.
She got a full-time job at the Little Village Environmental Justice Organization (LVEJO), and shortly after, a Harvard School of Public Health Study was released that confirmed the suspicions that the coal power plant in the neighborhood contributed to more than 3,000 asthma attacks, 1,500 emergency visits and 41 deaths per year.
“Having a document confirming your beliefs proved to people what they believed was true,” says Wasserman Nieto. “It upset a lot of people.”
She says she began sharing the report with everyone who would listen.
“We had press conferences, broke it down to 3rd to 4th grade language level so everyone could understand,” says Wasserman Nieto, who also helped people understand what asthma was and how to deal with it. “We worked with community members to do small things to keep children safe…Once people were educated, they came together to work on options.”
Eventually, she says they went to City Hall and called on the mayor to take action.
“The big challenge was just convincing people that this was not just a Latino issue, but an issue for everyone who breathes air,” says Wasserman Nieto. “It was very challenging during a time where the environment was something only tree huggers worked on. [Later on, as environmentalism became more mainstream] this campaign picked up a lot of steam.”
She says she started out as a community organizer at LVEJO for seven years, and she has been the executive director for the past eight years. Even though she’s married now, and the mother of two more kids, she doesn’t see herself stopping her environmental work anytime soon.
“We have the responsibility to make sure our communities are safe,” says Wasserman Nieto. “I hope it’s human nature, when people see something wrong, to make it right. This is my home, and if I don’t fight for it, nobody is going to fight for me.”
Now that the coal plants are shut down, she’s working on cleaning up a long-neglected toxic asphalt factory and transforming it into a 23-acre park.
‘We’re working on making sure the community is involved on how that site is cleaned up,” says Wasserman Nieto, who is also working on a public transit campaign. “We are advocating for a full bus line in our community — to give the community access to the lakefront and better access to jobs. Right now, to go from southwest to lakefront, it takes two hours. We want to be able to go there in 30 to 45 minutes.”
Today, Wasserman Nieto is 36, and her first son who got asthma and started her long fight against environmental pollution, just turned 15. He and one of his younger siblings still have asthma, but it is well controlled. She’s hoping that they will be cured soon, as local emergency rooms have already seen an eight percent drop from asthma visits.
“I credit my parents for planting this seed in me,” says Wasserman Nieto about her community organizing career of a decade and a half. “As much as I fought it, I ended up here. My main role model has been my community… They inspire me, correct me when I’m wrong, and guide our work.”