A Breath of Fresh Air: How buildOn Chicago Students are Tackling Environmental Racism

A recent environmental report by the Chicago government, the Cumulative Impact Assessment, confirmed what activists have known for years–the city’s Black and Brown neighborhoods bear the overwhelming brunt of Chicago’s air and water pollution. 

The report, which is the first of its kind, designated 30% of the city as “environmental justice neighborhoods,” predominantly on the South and West sides. 

Not surprisingly, many of the schools buildOn Chicago partners with are in these neighborhoods. Chicago remains one of the most segregated cities in the U.S., and years of racist zoning practices have pushed the city’s Black and Brown populations close to pollution sources like factories, major highways, and hazardous waste facilities.

buildOn schools in Chicago lie in some of the city’s most polluted neighborhoods.

However, buildOn Chicago students didn’t need an official report to realize the pervasiveness of environmental racism in their communities. In a city where Black and Latino communities have far higher rates of environmentally-caused health problems such as asthma and cancer, students are well-acquainted with the reality of pollution in Chicago. They often take the lead on service events that improve their local environments, from park cleanups to protests to building community gardens.

Across the city, buildOn Chicago students are uplifting their neighborhoods through service events like this cleanup at 57th St. Beach

In heavily polluted areas like Pilsen, Canaryville, and Back of the Yards, buildOn students and volunteers are making their neighborhoods cleaner and healthier. Just this month, buildOn partnered with Capital One, NeighborSpace, and Home Depot to pull weeds, paint, and mulch at La Huerta Roots and Rays community garden in Pilsen.

Community gardens help reduce stormwater runoff, create habitats for wildlife, help clean polluted air, and provide fresh fruits and vegetables in places with higher rates of food insecurity. They also add crucial green space to neighborhoods that are severely lacking in it. buildOn is proud to partner with organizations like NeighborSpace, which manages 129 community gardens across Chicago.

Community gardens like La Huerta Roots and Rays play an integral role in promoting environmental justice.

We’re working hard to make the Windy City greener. But we can’t take on pollution in Chicago alone–that’s why it’s so encouraging that the city is taking this problem seriously and giving it the attention it deserves. 

The Chicago government’s plan to tackle this issue includes improving access to public transit, stricter business regulations, and expanded air quality monitoring. Environmental justice neighborhoods will take top priority in these efforts.

“No neighborhood should have to suffer the burden of pollution more so than any other neighborhood… The time to act on environmental justice is now.”

Brandon Johnson, Mayor of Chicago

Environmental justice is social justice. A community cannot be healthy and thrive if its environment is not allowed to prosper as well. In Chicago and cities across the world, the two issues are deeply intertwined. buildOn students will continue to hold their city leaders accountable and be on the forefront of making their communities, and our world, a more equitable place for all.

To help promote environmental justice, please consider making a gift to support both buildOn’s US and global programs.