Reflections from a Chicago Community Organizer: Water Justice and the Need to Act Now

Oscar Sanchez speaking at the NRDC exhibit at EXPO CHICAGO, April 10, 2022

Chicago is home. The alphabet is how I navigate the Southeast, and the steel that built the city comes from my community, though it left a legacy of pollution. Many of us were aware of this last fact early on. At the age of 10, my younger brother asked, “Why don’t we have the resources if we are the ones who need them the most?” He was referring to how we had to travel from our home to the north side so he could receive proper medical attention for a respiratory problem. But anyone in Chicago’s South End might ask the same kind of question. Because it is true that we do not have these resources. One area where this is clearest is water.

Chicago, home to at least 400,000 lead service lines — the most of any city in the country — has replaced less than 100 in the past two years. This is a public health crisis that has multiple impacts on most low-income communities and communities of color. Accessibility to water means that everyone must have quality and affordable water. This is not the case now.

In addition to replacing lead service lines, there is also a need to improve stormwater infrastructure, as our communities are not equipped to deal with the worsening climate crisis. Currently, community members have pumps that prevent flooding, which run 24 hours a day, seven days a week. But what happens when there is a storm that cuts out electricity, causes floods and is followed by a heat wave? This happened last June, when a “supercell storm” caused two tornadoes in the Chicago area. Our community has already been greatly impacted by outdated water infrastructure, but my working class friends and neighbors are expected to accept life in a “sacrifice zone” and the burden of environmental injustice.

In recent years, I have seen how many of our government agencies do not communicate with each other, nor are they transparent. This has real consequences not just for me, my family and my community, but for all of Chicago. The lack of urgency is clear how slow the Department of Water Management has been with its lead service line replacement pilot program, which is to replace the water infrastructure of a residential block and the lead service lines of the households therein. The lack of urgency is also demonstrated by the cumbersome process of requesting replacement of your lead service lines. For many families, often working two jobs and already strapped for time, the stress they experience simply to access something they need to survive is compounded.

This is exactly why I recently attended the River Rally, a conference of organizers, scholars, researchers, and others in the water justice movement who gather in Washington, D.C., to learn each other and connect. As someone directly affected by this work, I feel like every statistic tells me how our communities are suffering. Each number is a neighbor, a friend. Therefore, it is important to understand where we are in addressing water issues, where we need to go and the impact of this work. That’s what my time at the River Rally was for. These are my thoughts as a community organizer.

Leaving for the Capitol

Before starting the trip, I had to say goodbye to my grandparents, who were from Mexico. My grandfather lost his arm and part of his other hand working in an industrial logging company, and it reminds me of when he puts his hand on my head, then in the middle of my chest, then on my heart, and Well, the opposite as he says, “Dios bendiga you. Cook, mijo.” (“God bless you. Take care, my grandson.”)

Courtesy of Oscar Sanchez

What does healing mean? The thought crosses my mind as I read all about love by Bell Hooks. I’m at the airport, traveling to find answers for the small environmental justice organization I work for. I don’t expect to get all the answers, but I do expect to ask questions to see if my doubts in court will be resolved. What does it mean to heal when we are constantly addressing the shortcomings of our low-resource communities? What does it mean when we talk about self-care and resting for ourselves? In crisis mode in our work, days and nights merge. We need to be alert, and we feel the weight of it as we put the needs of our community above our own.

So I think healing begins with the irrefutable belief that both our community and ourselves deserve health and well-being. Because those who seek justice seek healing. For me, justice is also being rooted in love. Love fights for the life we ​​were born for, a life without labels or systemic constraints. As I ponder what it means to let go of all reason to doubt, my partner grabs my hand and I remember that what we’re clinging to is also important.

Courtesy of Oscar Sanchez

Connect with a people and a place

I traveled to Mexico for a wedding and attended labor rights protests, traveled to Ironbound in Newark, New Jersey, and attended attorney Steven Donziger’s celebration after his release from house arrest, and now I’ve traveled to Washington, DC, for River Rally. One of the most powerful acts of protest I first encountered came from a joy-filled person: Craig. He literally lives in front of the White House, reminding us all of what has yet to be worked out, what has been ignored, and what we are losing sleep over. If you’re reading this, Craig, I’m planning for the next time we can get together and share a meal.

Courtesy of Oscar Sanchez

What allows me to connect with any field is the people and the food. DC is no different. I am in my happy place. A walking community, bagels and good coffee. It’s fuel for champions, and it’s becoming my morning routine for the rest of my stay in DC. While we’re talking about happy places, it’s Brenda Santoyo, senior policy analyst for the Little Village Environmental Justice Organization (LVEJO ). She informed me of many water issues in Chicago and at the state level. I joined her on this trip. And the handsome gentleman eating that bagel is none other than me – a simple man, appreciating the simple things.

During those first few days of traveling around DC, I remember that not all places were welcoming or reflective of everyone. There’s a reason locals say you haven’t visited DC if you haven’t left the capital.

Courtesy of Oscar Sanchez

We visited the Art Museum of the Americas and I discovered the work of Julio Valdez. What does it mean to exist in water? What does it mean to exist in America? There are times when you can see things clearly both in art and in this country, and times when so much seems muddy and uncertain. Her work draws me in and whispers to me that we have to exist, and sometimes that means fighting for our existence.

Courtesy of Oscar Sanchez

After passing through the Valdez water exhibit, we entered the I can not breathe exposure. He’s the catalyst of who I am today – someone who learns, tries to understand, tries to love, tries to change so I can see a world where black people aren’t being killed, even slowly, by poverty . This grounding does not come from a place of sadness, it comes from a place of love, as I remember in Latin American Open Veins by Eduardo Galeano. “History is a prophet who looks back: because of what has been, and against what has been, it announces what will be.” You see, history expects us to keep fighting, and we will, through different forms of mutual aid and policy creation. We give everything, because we have everything to lose.

Gozo. The Spanish word for “joy”.

Courtesy of Oscar Sanchez

Review work

It was time for the conference, which gave me the gift of reflection: what does it mean to attend? You will meet many people who will kiss you, especially black and brown people. I learned that there are many powerful tools to equip our community, there are many stories to share, there are still many things to do. I feel ready to bring all of this understanding to our community in Chicago.

All in all, the River Rally was more than a conference or a trip to DC. It was about learning the priorities of other institutions and organizations. And while we all do things differently, if things are done from a place of restorative justice, where we consider and repair the systemic harm done to others in areas like water, we can be in a better place. position than we are now. I have met many people who have this intention.

Courtesy of Oscar Sanchez

I would like to leave you with two things. First, it is true that where you have water, you have life. Here in the United States, we need to make sure everyone has access to clean, affordable water if we want life to thrive.

Second, the following is from my last conversation with a DC native who reminded me why we do this work.

Sanchez: What does water represent for you?

Native DC: It is important. It is vital. When I think of water, just speaking of DC, there’s water all around us… We have the Anacostia River that runs through DC, and it’s part of a watershed that touches the bay of Chesapeake. But it’s really polluted. It’s cloudy brown and it’s been that way for a very long time. Right now they are talking about putting things in a bill that [says] they want it cleaned up. They want it to be a fishable and swimmable river. And I have no doubt that they will try to push for that to happen. Because those who say it now have the influence and the resources to make it happen. So I’m thinking about that.


This story was commissioned by the NRDC in April 2022 as part of our Perspectives feature. The NRDC does not support or oppose any candidate for office.


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