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Engaging communities around a “Green New Deal” in Illinois
In previous years, climate justice grassroots organizations in Illinois lacked a network to hold conversations about climate issues in their communities, identify state and government allies, and locate common targets. That was until the Illinois Green New Deal Coalition launched in 2021 to carry out direct actions, offer political education, and provide leadership training. The coalition, made up of more than 25 organizations, includes environmental justice groups, labor unions, students groups, and they’re in the process of adding housing and immigration groups.
Dany Robles is the Illinois Green New Deal Coalition Coordinator. In this Q&A, he will talk in depth about the coalition’s goals such as a “just transition” to renewable energy in Illinois, engaging Black and Brown working class communities, and the creation of an environmental youth council.
Interviews have been edited for length and clarity.
Q: What need did you guys see for the Green New Deal coalition?
A: We felt that there wasn’t a group talking to working class families or people about climate change and their opportunities to impact their own lives through upcoming legislation. We really wanted to contextualize the conversations that needed to be happening. Post-Trump presidency, there was also a gap of who’s pitching and advocating for a Green New Deal at the national level to bring the funding that is necessary. So that’s how our coalition got built up.
There’s young organizers out there who are very much dedicated and looking to make those changes. But they’re very spread out throughout the state. It just feels like there’s an opportunity for us to coalesce all the advocates throughout the state to make sure that they have a space to have conversations amongst each other, but also build that network to be ready for the long haul project. Our coalition landed on the structural reform being a 20 to 30 year project. We need to be creating the spaces and areas where we can continue having the development, the analysis, and the campaign goals that are going to get us to win these changes.
Q: As an organizer based in Chicago, what are some environmental issues you see specific to the city?
A: What we see especially here in Chicago is a lack of access to green spaces for Black and Brown communities, food apartheids that are preventing people from getting good, healthy food, and the city keeps making these plans to decarbonize within a certain timeframe. But the city is not making sure Black and Brown community members have access to green jobs, the technical training involved in these jobs and the creation of resources such as green space that the city will be investing in.
There are a lot of community members who are concerned about what changing our way of energy and transportation means for them if they work in those industries. So there’s a big conversation on what a “just transition” to renewable energy looks like. For us it’s a question of how we ensure that we’re getting buy-in from those community members, and helping them be leaders so that the just transition conversation is uplifted.
Q: Could you talk a bit more about a “just transition”? How do you think it can be done in a way that is mindful of who a transition to renewable energy might be affecting?
A: There’s the Climate and Equitable Jobs Act that puts some funding towards technical training, but also assistance for any housing or financial issues that some workers might have during the process. We think that we’ll need to see more of that.
A just transition also creates a timeline that’s not going to cause abrupt change. We’re not going to close everything down in the next two years. It’s gonna actually take almost 20 years before the full coal plants close down. What we’re hoping to do in the next decade or so is make that timeline decrease because we can’t continue exerting greenhouse emissions at the rate that we’re going, and even though Illinois is at the forefront of closing down fossil fuel plants as a source of energy, there are still so many states that are far behind. We’re not moving fast enough to impact the amount of greenhouse emissions that we have to reduce.
I think one of the things that we, as organizers, have to lean on is, radical change sometimes takes some time, unless there’s an inflection point that causes massive changes. It’s going to take some time for us to make the movement and mobilization towards the changes that we need. And part of that is grounding ourselves that it’s not a challenge of a day or a month. It’s a challenge of a lifetime.
I look at civil rights leaders or Chicano leaders who did a lot of this work before us, and for them to make the changes that they needed, it sometimes took 20 years before the conversation really shifted. And for us as climate organizers that can feel alarming, because we do feel there’s that needle continuing to tick behind us. But I also think that needle can help us make the conversation to be quite transformational, when we start feeling the effects really hit us hard.
Otherwise we are gonna see increasingly extreme climate patterns. We’re already seeing them, like forest fires and increased storms that are more severe in nature, droughts. I think sometimes we just have to feel it to really understand what’s happening. In Chicago, we’re sensing it every once in a while, whether it’s longer summers, or wild winters.
Q: You guys are also concerned with legislation, right? How do you try to bridge that gap between policymakers, and communities most impacted by environmental injustice, do you try to reconcile that?
A: I don’t. There’s a lot of people in those elected seats that are no longer paying attention to our communities — that they’re more closely tied to special interests — whatever it’s gonna take for them to win their offices. We’re looking to target those leaders to get them out. At the local level, we want to see impact on local races, and really have those conversations among the community members and the local leaders to be driving some of that impact.
It’s a bit of a challenge within our coalition because all of our organizations can’t technically be doing electoral political work. But what we can be doing is shaping the conversations that we have with our community members. Some of the questions that we’re asking are, ‘What is your current elected official or representative doing for you? And how is that changing your current life?’
Q: Yourself and other environmental organizers are also trying to build up an environmental youth council in Illinois. Could you tell me any upcoming plans for that council?
A: The Youth Council will be part of our coalition. The coalition itself tends to be older folks. What we’re trying to do is bring those organizers in the coalition to the youth council, and then the youth council to the coalition to help give insight and keep conversations flowing between the both of them. We’re trying to build a campaign around equitable redevelopment of schools. With the youth council, I think more of our goals are closely tied to public schools, knowing that public schools also have to decarbonize in the next five to 10 years to be ready for renewable energy electrification.
As we are shifting those schools, we also want to be cognizant that water quality, and air quality isn’t the best in schools across Illinois. We also want to move toward a curriculum in Illinois that really focuses on climate justice and environmental justice to both give students a historical context of why environmental justice is important to our lives, but also a technical preparedness program to prepare young students for some other jobs that are coming up in the future.
Q: As far as the demographics of the youth council, who is it that you guys want to be targeting?
A: For our youth council, we’re looking for college level students to take on mentorship roles. And then high school students would be those on the ground, helping bring some of the climate justice concepts to their peers. I mean high school students basically live at school for most of the school year. They can best explain why they need those changes, and why they are requiring their school administrators and school teachers to make those changes with them, for them.
On top of that, there’s a lot of teachers who want the schools to stop being closed down and be fully funded so they can get the mental health resources that they need, the nurses that they need, and better quality infrastructure, so their schools don’t feel like they’re always falling apart. So we hope to also liaise with students and teachers to be in conversation with each other.
Q: How did environmental organizing become important for you? And what sustains you in the work?
A: After the 2016 election, it really clicked in my head that I wasn’t happy with the career path I was in. I was working in corporate investigations, and it just didn’t feel like I was feeling fulfilled at the end of the day. And what was the true catalyst for me to move into the organizing world was seeing AOC (U.S. Congresswoman, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez) and members of the Sunrise Movement take over Nancy Pelosi’s office. I remember reading an article about it on one of my days at work, and I just saw their energy and determination. Seeing AOC, who is a year younger than me, be the voice of our generation in the halls of power; it really motivated me to think about what else I could be doing.
My first instinct was, I wanted to help elect better leaders like AOC and through that process, I ended up finding an organizing home with Sunrise Movement and organizations like Justice Democrats. In those organizations, my analysis of the structural issues that were happening started to refine themselves to really see the world in an intersectional lens, and also realize that one of the biggest issues that is upcoming for our generation is climate change. It’s a piece that’s gonna affect all of us across the world. As an immigrant, I just started realizing the conversation on immigration reform isn’t just about citizenship for the people who are here, but also thinking about how we absorb the climate refugees that are coming down the pipeline.
Climate refugees are going to be losing their homes and losing their ways of life because of the global climate change that we’ve caused as a Western world. Like the deeper we dive into it, the US, Europe and all the Western countries have a lot more culpability creating greenhouse gas increases. We should be thinking about how we are going to be adapting our immigration system to make sure that we are protecting the people that we’ve harmed.
One of the struggles now is that I think imperialism has taken a new life in how it’s being developed. Now it’s very much tied to new liberal corporations, and I think having those targets — identifying that these are the people that we need to be advocating against — is a long-term trajectory, because I think we’ve gotten very closely tied and reliant on major corporations.
The big goal that we are trying to move towards is, ‘How do we create a sustainable way of community building so we don’t have to rely on these massive corporations to keep us going?’ We want to use the information that we are gathering, the stories that we experience, and use that to shape the conversation to make the changes that we need in the future.