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Making a More Powerful Movement: Imperial County Activist Luis Olmedo

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Luis Olmeda
Luis Olmeda at a 2010 Clean Air Roundtable | Photo: William Foster

The common stereotype of environmental activists would tell you that they're all either high-priced lawyers or trust fund hippies. That hasn't been true for decades, if it ever was at all. Our series This Is What Green Looks Like profiles Californian environmental activists from diverse communities and walks of life, bringing you stories of your neighbors campaigning to protect the planet. 

Every now and then, a conversation dismantles entrenched “black and white” belief systems long enough for the nuances  to seep through. Given these polarized times, such exchanges are vital. I was fortunate enough to have one such conversation with Luis Olmedo, the Executive Director of Imperial Valley’s Comite Civico del Valle (CCV).

CCV is a community-based environmental justice non-profit best known for its campaign to combat and control the high levels of childhood asthma in California’s Imperial Valley and surrounding areas. (More than 23,000 Imperial County residents have been diagnosed with asthma, many of them economically disadvantaged people with limited access to health care.) The group has been serving the Imperial Valley since 1987, when it was founded by Olmedo’s father.

Imperial Valley sits right across the border from Mexicali and is home to a largely Latino (80-85 percent) population of farm workers and ranch hands. Olmedo’s father crossed the border from Mexico in the 1970s to earn a living as a farm worker in the United States. His wife, son and daughter eventually followed, but unlike him, they were undocumented. Luis was around seven years old at the time; he recalls those early years as punctuated by poverty, racism and the inevitable loss of identity that both entailed. He remembers “trying to live under the radar, not letting my poverty be the face of who I was. And unfortunately, that played a big role in growing up. It’s just really rough to come to another country and live through racism in many forms. Both direct and indirect.”

Luis was in high school when his father started CCV, as he puts it, “with the purpose of helping migrant students advance to higher education. And part of his struggle was why was I not being placed in college level classes? Why was language a determinant versus other subjects that might determine, why did I have to be labeled a migrant student throughout my whole elementary and high school years, versus advancing me, preparing me to go to university?”

“So I think that was inspiration in part,” Olmedo adds, “to get other migrant students and to get other parents involved and to bring equality and fairness into making sure that migrant students were also advancing so they wouldn’t have a destiny of becoming just another generation of farm workers. That was part of the American dream, having kids go on to have better jobs, better lives, better opportunities.”

At the time, the young Olmedo was preoccupied with surviving his very real daily struggles, of trying to find a foothold in a world in which he saw himself as unacceptable, “I didn’t make sense of it until I was out of high school, until I was already in my mid-twenties. None of it made sense. I wasn’t coming full circle back to who I was. Lost identity.” During those early years of the organization’s existence, Olmedo didn’t really understand why his father was investing time and precious resources into something that offered no financial return, instead of putting food on the table. Looking back, Olmedo says that he realizes that his father “opened up a lot of opportunities. I think he did everything that he did, the sacrifice that he’s made his whole life has been to advance his children.”

By the time he graduated from high school in 1990, Olmedo was looking to break free of the social and economic limitations that had been imposed on him, of making his own mark and fortune because he was, as he puts it, “living under this shadow, this cloud of feeling this loss of identity, you always try to find some sunshine and that sunshine looked like ‘I need to have a nice car and I need to have a nice house and all these amenities, the suit and the tie and have the great job.’ That to me was a way to get that cloud off me and find some sunshine.”

And so he embarked on his own journey for the next decade, separate from his father’s organization, trying to forge his own identity. He attended a local college and had several management related jobs but still couldn’t find his rightful place in the world.

“It was kind of hard really to find a place to fit in and I think in my quest to find economic independence and find all this great stuff, it wasn’t fulfilling. I didn’t  find wealth, I struggled to find the perfect job. But I appreciated all the experiences I'd had.”

And much like the old adage of the thing we are searching for being right under our noses, CCV turned out to be the very thing that would enable Olmedo to make his mark in the world.

It was around 2000. CCV had been working with a local organization that was undergoing a transitional period, going “from a sort of Latino culture, a farmworker serving culture to an English speaking, corporate one.” Olmedo asked his father if he could assist and use some of the knowledge and experience he had gained over the last decade running businesses and working in management.. This cemented Olmedo’s entry into CCV, an organization that has over the years made significant strides in funneling much needed funding and resources to one of the poorest areas in the country, whilst still remaining very much a grassroots, community-led outfit.

It’s against this backdrop of Olmedo’s early history, a history shared by so many of Imperial Valley’s Latino migrant worker residents, that I broached the topic of the new administration under President-elect Trump. Expecting a response of fear, anger, despair, and outrage, I am met with something altogether unexpected.

“These issues that we’re facing as a country now with all the uncertainties that are to come, I personally try not to get too caught up with that,” says Olmedo. Instead, his approach to the inevitable challenges that lie ahead is one of determined pragmatism, of focusing on getting things done for his community, not on trying to change the world. And ironically, this approach will probably change things incrementally for the better on a larger scale.

“As an organization, if you want to be effective, you’ve got to find different strategies,” Olmedo says. And for us, when we talk about different governmental values and so on, we just try to stay relevant. I think to be effective, you can’t just go in one single direction. You’ve got to have the element of surprise, you know. And it’s not just me but my team, we get it. It’s never linear. We have to find ways to overcome these hurdles. We push and then we pull. We give, we take. It’s always this exchange. But never compromising who we are, our values and our mission. And one of the ways we do that is being careful where we get our money. Very careful. And we’re always upfront that our organization’s values and our focus are never compromised.”

Aerial view of, or through, Calexico and Mexicali's air pollution | Creative Commons photo by Omar Barcena
Aerial view through Calexico and Mexicali's air pollution, circa 2010  | Photo: Omar Barcena, some rights reserved

This approach is grounded in many years of navigating the hurdles and setbacks of serving a community of color where environmental racism is all too real. And in order to achieve real results for his community, Olmedo and his team have to work with what they’re given. Throwing one’s hands up in despair and exasperation might be a satisfying way to vent but it doesn’t do much in the way of helping those who need it the most. “My movements towards justice have not just been about making noise and about having a presence but also about laying down the facts. And in order to do that, I need to be able to dive deep into these agencies and organizations and systems that are either flawed or corrupt. And so, a lot of times, I can’t do it on a national level. But I can do it at the local level. Holding agencies accountable, holding people accountable, making sure that I’m involved, making sure that my organization is responding to opportunities where we can make things better through policies, through legal approaches, through organizing, through preparing leaders of the future, mentoring students who are going to take these positions.”

People like Olmedo and organizations like CCV have been battling economic and environmental ills facing low-income communities of color for a long time. And although the new administration threatens to undo a lot of their incredible achievements, Olmedo refuses to indulge in any sense of impending doom. As he says, “people have opinions all the time but they’re not engaged.” This engagement, says Olmedo, can only come from a clear focus on the cause and taking action with that focus in mind.

With Olmedo at the helm CCV has made great strides on the childhood asthma front, working with the State Department of Public Health to design and fund an asthma intervention campaign that includes both an air monitoring project, and educational outreach that is clinic-, home- and community-based. CCV worked with state agencies to establish an online public air pollution reporting and tracking system, an initiative that has spread statewide. A recent notable victory has been going into partnership with two insurance companies, a clinic and a hospital in order to submit a grant for further funding. In the past, CCV had not received much support from local healthcare facilities for its environmental health campaigns, so this partnership is a significant shift.

CCV is also heavily involved in tackling the problems facing the Salton Sea, helping to bring much-needed funding to the area, and working towards policy change on a local government level.

There is no end-point to CCV’s work, barring a significant global shift in environmental and economic culture. Until then, Olmedo and CCV tackle the hard work of advocating for policy changes on the local level for the greater good of the community. “We mostly focus on making sure we’re holding government accountable, holding all stakeholders accountable,” says Olmedo.  “And that takes… an enormous amount of investigation, an enormous amount of legal work. Our end goal is to make sure that we win a victory. And it’s all just based on calculated moves. I can’t tell you that I have a formula, [except] our ability to make those calculated moves in all directions and make sure that the end result is what we wanted.”

I think, though, that Olmedo does have a formula of sorts, one that can be applied not only to the climate-change denying and wall building impulses of the new administration, but to the many environmental and social justice issues that existed long before  a Donald J. Trump presidency loomed before us. His formula is one of uncompromising and determined focus and pragmatism in the face of challenge; of working with what we have been given, no matter how unpalatable; of effecting change at a community level. Or as he says, “I’m just trying to deal with what’s around me, [and] getting the experience that mainstream organizations have but with the grassroots mentality. And I think that’s making us a more powerful movement.”

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