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Environmental Justice Series: Óskar Zambrano Méndez

While all of us are affected by the impacts of toxic chemicals, some communities bear a greater burden than others. Safer States partners with powerful community organizations who fight against toxic chemicals on the front lines. In this blog series, we will highlight some of the stories of the leaders of these environmental justice advocates.

This week, we hear from Óskar Zambrano Méndez, Director of Civic Engagement & Advocacy at the Latino Community Fund of Washington. Latino Community Fund worked closely with Toxic-Free Future in winning a first-in-nation law restricting PFAS from food packaging in Washington State earlier this year.

Tell us a bit about your group, its values and mission. How did the food packaging campaign match that mission, and why did you see it as a priority?

Our mission is centered around folks from the Latino community, and we also do work with folks from low-income communities. We want to inform and teach people tools so they can do self-advocacy. The food packaging campaign was important to us because in low income communities, many people resort to packaged foods, which may contain these harmful PFAS chemicals. A lot of the places we work are also food deserts that rely heavily upon these processed foods which come in packaging. Through our Healthy Families Initiative we thought it important for people to know what was actually in their food!

We also do a lot of work with youth, who often understand the legislative process well, and understand what environmental justice work means. We involved a lot of students in the food packaging campaign, who were able to learn about how the issue impacts them directly. Inequitable food access is a form of oppression that isn’t as explicit.

Tell us about yourself. What is your role in environmental health/justice work, and what aspect of that work is most important to you?

I am the Director of Civic Engagement and Advocacy, so I oversee all our organization’s advocacy efforts, and I foster direct political action. This work is important to me because I grew up in a community where I wasn’t aware of these issues. But I grew up in San Bernadino, CA, where we had one of highest asthma rates in the country, and foods have been imported from far away, for example.

In my earlier years of advocacy, we did a lot of work on food. Where pizza was considered a vegetable because of the tomato sauce! That was my first introduction to food justice issues, and I’ve realized that we can actually change things by educating communities and giving them tools and opportunities so they can self-advocate. Small grants and financial help can help sustain this advocacy. LCF helps fill this gap and provide opportunities and resources for self-advocacy.

What are the most encouraging/exciting/successful moments of your environmental campaign? What are the most challenging?

The most exciting part is the community discovering that they already are environmentalists. People who lack resources can’t just go out and buy tupperware. So they reuse the containers that their food comes in, they keep their clothes, they re-purpose things and already have skills and mindset of conserving resources and being an environmentalist. But others don’t call it environmentalism–they call it being poor! Right now the environmental movement is largely white-led with a white-lens. So we recently did this workshop called “Your Mama’s So Green.” It was intended youth and it was culturally relevant, and framed in a way that you already are an environmentalist! That way they get it and they’re like, oh, that’s what that means!

The challenging thing is getting more support for Latino communities. There are lot of leaders among the environmental communities that communicate for the communities. At Latino Community Fund, we communicate up rather than communicating for them. Instead of being grasstops, we continue to be grassroots and communicate bottom-up, instead of assuming we get what the community wants.

How does it help you to be connected to other groups working on environmental and health issues?

You get to learn from each other and be collaborative. You can see what worked for them, how can we improve. Networking and getting that experience from others is really valuable. It’s also good to amplify our concerns and community needs.

What is your greatest hope for the future, when it comes to environmental health and justice work?  Is there anything else you would like Safer partners to know?

Wow, there are so many things. My biggest goal is to have more youth and community leaders tackle these issues in a way that is more effective. I want to create a path for these communities to be at the forefront. Many communities don’t realize that they need to be that way, and it’s a struggle. My goal is for the environmental justice movement to be lead by communities that are more impacted, in a real sense and not just on paper.

More language access would be a great thing in the toxics movement, in being more intentional about having non-English speaking communities have access to materials and resources. A lot of the research and policies are currently in English and inaccessible to these communities. People often ask for more resources, so it’s good to provide this information to non-English speakers, too.

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