Recently, Wilkinson College of Arts, Humanities, and Social Sciences invited PJ Flores, Keila Villegas, and Kayla Asato of Orange County Environmental Justice (OCEJ) to discuss local environmental injustices in the latest Engaging the World: Leading the Conversation on Environmental Justice (ETW) event, “Bringing the Fight for Environmental Justice to Orange County.” OCEJ is a non-profit advocacy group dedicated to fighting for environmental justice in the areas adjacent to Chapman University. Engaging the World: Leading the Conversation on Environmental Justice facilitates conversations between the Chapman community and those involved in the fight for environmental justice to highlight the disproportionate impact of environmental toxicity on populations based on race, ethnicity, nationality, and social standing. These dialogues give students the opportunity to “truly learn what it means to become a global citizen,” says Dr. Reginald Stuart, Vice President of Diversity, Equity, & Inclusion at Chapman University, “and also to understand how what they learn in classrooms can impact the world they live in.”

Examining OC’s History

During the event, PJ Flores, Project Director at OCEJ, emphasized the importance of examining Orange County’s history of Spanish, Mexican, and U.S. colonization of Indigenous lands. According to Flores, “what we’re facing now in terms of droughts, wildfires, massive air pollution and land pollution are results of taking away the right of custodianship from Indigenous peoples [and] taking away the rights to remain on their traditional lands, and from the history of enslavement and exploitation of migrant people throughout [Orange County] that has created the empire of industry that we see now.”

Flores began the Defending the Sacred campaign to protect the historical village of Puvungna in the area known as Long Beach, California. The Cal State Long Beach campus is built over Puvungna, a place of gathering where the Acjachemen and Tongva nations still gather in ceremony and celebration. Friends of Puvungna filed a lawsuit against Cal State Long Beach to stop the university from building over the remaining twenty-two acres.

A few days after Flores’s presentation, Cal State Long Beach (CSLB) finally reached a settlement agreement to perpetually protect Puvungna land from development. This victory for the environmental justice movement, and the role that groups like OCEJ play in moving the needle, underscores the importance of having open conversation and developing awareness of local environmental justice campaigns.

 “We see on the news every single day that the world is going up in flames—it’s important to recognize that there are organizations at the grassroots level continuing this work and asking you not to give up hope yet,” OCEJ Community Organizer Keila Villegas

Advocating for Low-income Communities

Research compiled by OCEJ highlights the disproportionate impact of air pollution and water contamination on people of color in low-income communities in Orange County. Flores emphasized that the lead contamination crisis persists in Santa Ana, which places young children at risk for disruptions in brain development. OCEJ works with residents in low-income and impacted communities by holding workshops and public forums. “If these are the folks who are facing the highest burden from these issues,” says Flores, “then these are the people who need to be leading our fights and creating solutions.”

By working with UC Irvine and other academic partners, OCEJ compiles and analyzes data, and develops action plans with community stakeholders. Keila Villegas, Community Organizer at OCEJ, introduced Orange County Environmental Justice’s active campaigns, including PloNo Santa Ana, or “Lead Free Santa Ana,” which advocates for low-income communities in Santa Ana impacted by lead contamination. In November of 2020, OCEJ delayed the adoption of a General Plan Update in order to negotiate language with the Santa Ana City Planning Commission to address and remediate the issue, and has succeeded in establishing policy language in terms of increased lead testing.

For those looking to get involved in environmental justice advocacy at the local level, Flores, Villegas, and Asato encourage students to visit Orange County Environmental Justice’s website and follow @ocenvironmentaljustice on Instagram. OCEJ also runs an Environmental Justice Summer Organizing Academy, which offers two curriculum tracks—grassroots and electoral organizing—for implementing policy changes, allocating funds, and promoting indigenous sovereignty.