Supervisor Vargas Talks About Environmental Justice At The County
The San Diego County Board of Supervisors voted unanimously last month to create an office of environmental justice. District 1 Supervisor Nora Vargas proposed the measure, and $1.3 million was put in the county budget to establish the office by fall. KPBS Environment Reporter Erik Anderson recently sat down with the supervisor to discuss what environmental justice means to her.
Note: The following conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
Q: Help me define environmental justice, as you perceive it.
If you think about environmental justice, you can directly correlate it to ZIP codes that people live in and I think it's time for the government to take responsibility and make a change. We’re really proud of being a binational community, but if you think about the emissions from the long hours of folks waiting at the border, all of these issues are impacting the community that because of their ZIP code have been greatly hurt by these policies that didn’t really take them into consideration.”
Q: Why is environmental justice important to you?
Because of health care and the fact that the environmental injustices that have impacted our communities for so long, for me I think that’s where the conversation starts and why it matters. So for me, it was really important to create an office of environmental and climate justice. That really was going to ensure that folks who were going to be looking, their job every day was to wake up and look at the world through an environmental and climate justice lens. Which means looking at environmental racism in our communities. Looking at the toxins in our region. Contamination. And it was part of my bigger environmental package. But for me, it was really important that we had an office that really has people who are dedicated to looking at the world from that lens.
Q: Can you give me an example of how this county office might impact a piece of legislation that the supervisors would consider.
Absolutely. One of the things that the office is going to do is we’re going to focus on data gathering, making sure that decisions are based on data as we’re making the decisions on public policy. We’re going to ensure that we have programs and services available for the community so that they are engaged in this process. And if you think about the community engagement piece — what I keep saying to folks — for a long time it’s the community organizations, the environmental justice organizations that have been doing the work that the government should’ve been doing from the beginning. And so what we are doing now, is that the government is taking the responsibility and ensuring that folks have the information that they need. And that we are actually going to be able to get their input as we’re making the policies moving forward.
Q: Why do you think the supervisors are ready to make this change?
I often talk about the fact that representation matters. It's not just a hashtag. I think that when you have people who are from the community who are elected by members in the community … In my case, I am a product of this region, of the binational community. I understand what it's like to wait at the border, three to four hours trying to get across. And I know how bad the air pollution is for our communities. I have worked in health care for many years and I understand firsthand the impact of the contamination in our communities. I started working on the Tijuana River Valley issue and trying to address the contamination back when I was a staffer for a local congress member in the early 1990s. And so here we are in 2021. And as someone who has been at the forefront with these issues working, side-by-side with organizations like the Environmental Health Coalition, Casa Familiar and some of the other organizations that have been on the front lines. I came here to do a job on behalf of the community and that is what we’re doing. We have a new board of supervisors. We have the will to really make a difference And we have a short amount of time to do it, so we have no time to waste.
Q: It’s been decades that the community members have been raising these issues but why is it now that this is sort of coalescing in organizations that have the ability to make a change?
I think it goes back to decades of organizing in our communities. I started this work 25 years ago and we have all worked side-by-side in terms of doing the equity-minded work. Whether it's health care, the environment, economic justice issues, transportation, housing. We know that they’re all integrated. And I think if anything the last administration demonstrated how important making decisions based on science is for our communities. We talk about the impact of COVID, particularly in the Latino community and the communities across the county of San Diego. Again, it was the issue of where you lived that made a difference on whether or not you were going to have access to vaccines or access to testing. And we shifted that around in a really short amount of time. Because we looked at the data. We looked at the health equity index and we decided that’s what we were going to prioritize because the county of San Diego is the safety net for so many folks that for many reasons haven’t had access for years. So for me, it really is a new day in the county of San Diego. And I think what you are seeing in government is a real true partnership between elected officials and community organizations and advocates. And I do believe that the will of county staff is there to be able to make a difference and they’ve been very helpful in helping in this transition.