When her 3-month-old son had his first asthma attack, Kim Wasserman was a 21-year-old single mom with no health insurance.
She remembers sitting in the emergency room as her baby struggled for air and was placed on oxygen, wondering if she’d done something wrong during her pregnancy.
“It was incredibly scary,” she said.
She began researching her family history and southwest Chicago neighborhood to understand “what was in the air I breathe and what could I have done during my pregnancy to give him a better chance.”
Wasserman eventually discovered that the condition was hereditary but aggravated by environmental pollution from a coal-fired power plant less than a mile from her house in Little Village.
The search led her to a career in community organizing and a successful 12-year campaign to close two of the nation’s oldest coal power plants, the last two within Chicago’s city limits.
Wasserman, executive director of the Little Village Environmental Organization, won the Goldman Prize for North America in 2013 for her efforts and now chairs the Illinois Commission on Environmental Justice.
She will be a keynote speaker at the annual conference sponsored by the University of Illinois Institute for Sustainability, Energy and Environment, scheduled for today and Wednesday at the Illini Union.
The theme will be environmental justice, a switch from past years when speakers focused on renewable energy, sustainable cities or other infrastructure topics, said Gillen Wood, associate director of the institute.
Environmental issues have become community issues of social justice and equity, particularly with climate change, Wood said.
“It’s not by chance that low-income communities across the United States are where you find the nastiest, dirtiest industries,” Wasserman said.
People who live in impoverished parts of the world or lower-income areas in the United States are on the front lines of climate change, Wood said, evidenced by the impact of Hurricane Harvey in Houston, where the hardest-hit neighborhoods were in flood-prone areas that are “increasingly uninsurable.”
Taking place at the same time as the U.N. Climate Action Summit, the UI event will feature progressive discussions on the way that environmental stresses exacerbate inequities, as “they tend to take whatever social problems we have and make them worse,” Wood said.
Wasserman joined the Little Village environmental group as an organizer in 1998, soon after her son’s asthma diagnosis. She took him door to door as she talked to families who also reported high rates of asthma, bronchitis and other respiratory problems.
Little Village — a neighborhood of about 100,000 people, mostly Latinos — sits a few hundred yards from the Crawford and Fisk power plants. A Harvard study linked more than 40 premature deaths, 550 emergency-room visits and 2,800 asthma attacks every year to the toxic emissions from the two plants, with children being the most vulnerable, according to Wasserman’s Goldman Award nomination.
Wasserman, who is Mexican-American, organized residents to speak up and eventually joined forces with other church, health, labor and environmental groups to mount a public-action campaign, including “toxic tours” of nearby industrial sites.
“It was a 12-year campaign to educate ourselves as community members about what was happening and why it was happening, understanding who these companies were, what they did, and what our role as a community is,” she said.
The creation of the Chicago Clean Power Coalition in 2011, and the election of a new mayor and aldermen, put pressure on the power company to upgrade its pollution controls, and the two plants were shut down in 2012.
Wasserman, who had led earlier efforts to build new playgrounds and community gardens in Little Village, is now working with the city to redevelop the two sites. Her group is also trying to transform other former industrial sites into parks and open spaces.
In 2017, a developer bought the power plant site to redevelop it into a 1 million-square-foot warehouse and distribution center, promising jobs to local residents. But Wasserman’s group argued that would be “another source of pollution. That’s not justice.”
Her group would prefer to build on the neighborhood’s strong food economy — a major source of Chicago’s street vendors — and build a large urban agricultural operation on the site, with an indoor farm, market and commercial kitchens.
At the conference, Wasserman plans to share what her group has learned to help others advocate in their communities and promote sustainable economic development for the state. That includes looking at industry’s impact on both rural and urban communities and what happens when companies shut down, she said.
“Illinois prides itself for moving away from coal. We need to be having more robust conversations about what does a sustainable future in Illinois look like,” she said.
As chair of the Illinois Environmental Justice Commission, she wants to hear from “communities or voices we’re missing, communities we can help.” She’d like to see community groups join with organized labor, environmental justice organizations and preservationists on that effort.
“The reality is, at least for us because of our experience, we know it’s affecting all of us,” she said.
Her group visited a coal-mining community in West Virginia and met with low-income miners and also traveled to areas where coal ash is stored, to “understand each of our struggles,” she said.
She wants to build the same kind of alliances across Illinois, to “understand the ways we can support each other, to understand that we’re fighting literally the same people and the same fight in our communities.”
At this week’s conference, more than a dozen speakers will take part in panel discussions on clean water supplies, urban green spaces, race and pollution, global climate justice and other topics.
Wasserman speaks at 1 p.m. Wednesday, and the closing keynote at 6:15 p.m. is from John Knox, a law professor from Wake Forest and special ambassador to the U.N. on climate and the environment. He has pushed for including environmental security as a fundamental human rights in the U.N. charter.
The talks are open to the public. For registration and program information, go to sustainability.illinois.edu/outreach/isee-congress.