Five questions with CGE’s Bea Echeverria

Gabi Karlan, Staff Writer

Bea Echeverria works at the Evanston Public Library and volunteers at Citizens’ Greener Evanston (CGE), a non-profit organization focused on environmental and social justice issues. She is on the Environmental Injustice Working Committee, a subgroup specifically dedicated to ensuring that the environmental activism movement’s resources are distributed fairly and that focuses on raising awareness of issues of environmental injustice in Evanston. Furthermore, the Environmental Injustice Working Committee works in collaboration with the community and government to protect citizens from environmental barriers.

Q: What is Citizens’ Greener Evanston and the Environmental Injustice Working Committee?
A: CGE is a non-profit organization that works to make Evanston a more just place with regards to sustainability and equity. We, as an organization, try to support and promote city initiatives. Each individual subgroup has specific duties, like Edible Evanston distributes food and produce and manages Edible Acres, while Transportation deals with produce transport. I am also a part of Beyond Waste, and I organize the Evanston Repair Clinic. Basically, since we are all volunteers, we do the things we like to do.
I would say that four or five months before the murder of George Floyd and everything that sparked, we began to noticed that our organization is extremely white. I am the least white, and I am from Spain, so I am still white. So, we noticed that in order to help people, we first needed to educate ourselves.
Now that we have a new president who is really prioritizing equity—she wants to make CGE an equitable group. We have [also] created the Climate Action Group, which is a way of merging climate with equity to educate about climate equity issues. Alongside this, some members of CGE are looking into working with Project Ready, a program with the libraries, meant to address equity with regards to teen patrons and makes white people understand that whiteness exists, and that we have made it the default, but it should not be the default.

Q: Should environmental justice be a key issue in Evanston politics? Do you think this issue is discussed an appropriate amount in Evanston?
A: Well, one thing that is very common in Americans is that you only focus on your own issues; you don’t realize that we are connected. I think that making the community understand that the t-shirt that you give away at an event is costing people their lives in many cases: it is being made in a sweatshop somewhere, they are being paid nothing, they have their babies next to them and the building is collapsing. I mean having a waste transfer station in your backyard sucks, but I think it is important to realize that avocados are killing people, that palm oil is destroying habitats. I think that is an important message to bring to the community.
Some people say there is no connection, but once you start talking about lead in paint or why Black or Latinx people buy bottled water or why the waste treatment plant in the 5th Ward, it is quite obvious this is still an issue in Evanston, and it is an issue we need to be addressing as a community.

Q: What does an “environmental equity lens” mean?
A: Imagine, suddenly, Amazon decides to just come place itself in the middle of the city. They want to create 200 jobs and create revenue for the city, but they also make that area unlivable. There would be trucks coming in all the time, people losing equity on their homes, trash all over the place and a horrible-looking building located across the street from your house. If this is done in an area that usually bears extra environmental burdens, that would be considered an environmental justice issue.

Q: What is an example of environmental injustice in Evanston?
A: Two years ago, the city needed to build a water transfer station so, almost without notice and with hardly any feedback from the community, they placed it in the 5th Ward. They gave two weeks’ notice to the neighbors. But, they didn’t send the notice in relevant ways. For you or for me an email is good, but for some people that are 80 years old and maybe they do not have an email or maybe they do not use it, it is not a relevant way to communicate information….
Enviromental Justice Evanston, a subgroup of CGE, is working on the waste transfer station that is located relatively close to the high school and is literally steps away from residential houses. It is an environmental justice issue, because it is located in a primarily Black neighborhood, and it affects primarily Black and latinx communities. The city has a history of trying to solve the issues and not making any progress. It generates smells, pests, vibrations and waste that are extremely detrimental to the community. It haa to be somwhere, that’s true, but the location needs to be better thought out—and it should definitely be away from other people…They specifically picked a place where people did not have the resources to do something, in a place where it would be extremely detrimental to the wellbeing of the community. The Environmental Justice resolution [a recent initiative passed by City Council to incorporate enviromental equity into city work] makes it so that that does not happen—that no private or public organization builds anything in Evanston that might stress or overburden a community that’s traditionally been overburdened.

Q: How can individuals fight environmental injustice in our community?
A: I think for either one, global or local, it is first important that you understand what environmental justice is. I did not know what it was until three years ago, so I think it is important that people reach out to CGE and inform themselves. At a local level, I would say looking at things from a different perspective, looking at things from the perspective of a non-white person. Going to the 5th Ward and noticing that a lot of neighborhoods do not have a sidewalk, for example. You would say, “So, what?” If you do not have a sidewalk, kids can not really play. If they do not play, they do not socialize. Then, maybe, you are encouraging obesity or mental health problems because they are isolated.
There are a series of things that penalize BIPOC that generally do not penalize white people in Evanston. So, I would say look at things from a different perspective because while it may not be called environmental injustice, Black people are aware of these things. They see how it is impacting the communities and their families. As the dominant group, you are careless about what is.