A young man on a skateboard recently approached me outside my Inglewood office and asked me for directions to a telephone store. Bloodied and bruised, he started crying and told me he had just been jumped on the bus. He worked overtime that day and fell asleep on his way home, and was robbed of his phone and first paycheck from a new job. “I gave my life to God 8 years ago and try so hard to live right” he told me tearfully, pulling up his shirt to reveal a scar from a gunshot wound. “But every time I get ahead, I always get knocked back down.”
Having grown up in economically vulnerable conditions, I know what it feels like to have been knocked down. At some point, my family lost our housing and my sister and I had to move around as my mom worked to make ends meet. His troubles, and even my own growing up, represent a consistent challenge for so many in our community – the feeling that every time you take a step forward, somehow circumstances dictate that something will knock you back down. This is what inequity feels like — and every person fighting to get ahead has their own version of this story to tell.
In my home town of Inglewood, issues of equity run the gamut. From affordable housing and gentrification to environmental justice and the lack of access to good food. Unfortunately, the economic resurgence in Los Angeles County has not benefitted all communities equally, and there’s simply no reason why folks in our community shouldn’t have access to the same resources as those who live in more affluent places, like Beverly Hills. Through this inequity, environmental problems have become social issues by default – there are far too many people who have too little access to clean air and are forced to breathe unhealthy air that aggravates medical conditions.
The ability to live in a healthy community is about fairness. It’s about making sure policymakers take communities’ needs into account and make strides to distribute resources equitably. The time to respond to these needs is now.
It is no secret that economically vulnerable communities of color experience disproportionate impacts of gentrification and are often left to live in harmful environmental conditions. Certain areas receive far greater resources, while Inglewood has virtually no means of defense against environmental hazards that are a threat to our health. I grew up in Inglewood, in neighborhoods lacking quality housing, clean air, and green open spaces. I’ve seen how a lack of resources and exposure to environmental contaminants go hand in hand.
Inglewood is sandwiched between major freeways and the LAX flight path. Our exposure to pollution is high, and the effects on our health are real. We also live in what I call a park deficit – we have little to no access to parks for recreation and clean air. The asthma rates for African American and Latino communities in Los Angeles County is staggering – 25% of African American children have asthma, and 8% Latino children struggle with the condition.
We need to continue to shine a spotlight on these issues that collectively impact our lives, and invest in strategies that address this systemic problem. During a recent school board meeting students, parents and community members presented compelling solutions to invest in our community. More than two dozen youth, parents and residents spoke about how their friends and family are losing their homes to skyrocketing rents, how they struggle with asthma, and how they are determined to work with our leaders to invest in solutions.
It is high time we scale up these kinds of efforts. My organization, the Social Justice Learning Institute has developed a Greening Plan, with our partner TreePeople, that maps out how to improve the environmental quality of Inglewood and Lennox. We worked closely with stakeholders in our community to design solutions that work to improve our regional environmental conditions. But this plan alone is not enough to protect our communities from the consequences of gentrification and environmental degradation.
Our lawmakers must all work to make equity a personal priority in their districts. We need to invest in strategies to improve conditions in our community. Inglewood families depend on our leaders to develop policies that will improve our environmental conditions and keep our long-time residents securely housed. The people of Inglewood deserve for every step forward they take to count, and to not get set back by the throes of inequity.
D’Artagnan Scorza, Ph.D. is the Founder and Executive Director of Social Justice Learning Institute. He is a U.S. Navy Iraq-War Veteran, UCLA graduate, and native son of Inglewood, California.