When Gustavo Aguirre Jr. took a job at the Central California Environmental Justice Network, it wasn’t necessarily a leap into the unknown. His parents had been farmworkers (his father was with United Farm Workers for more than two decades), and his grandfather had been an organizer with Cesar Chavez. “I work a ton with farmworkers because, particularly in the Central Valley, they are very exposed to environmental racism,” says Aguirre, who is the organization’s Kern County director. “My ability to continue that work with the farmworker-justice struggle, through this lens of environmental justice, [is] gratifying.”
Aguirre—who works closely with his brother Cesar at the network—focuses on helping communities that are most vulnerable to pollution from oil drilling, pesticides, garbage, and other environmental contaminants. It’s difficult to inform people who breathe toxic air daily “that their health and mental well-being is out of their control,” he says. So Aguirre tries to reframe that. “It’s letting them understand that they have the power to speak out, to participate in scientific projects that collect information and also change government policy.”
The network has been heavily invested in the implementation of Assembly Bill 617, which established a system of air pollution monitoring and reduction for severely impacted California cities. Thanks to targeted philanthropic donations, the network recently distributed 1,200 stipends to undocumented farmworkers directly affected by COVID-19.
In all his work, Aguirre is led by a deep commitment to improving his surroundings. “One person…asked why my wife and I didn’t move from the Central Valley,” he wrote in an op-ed for the Bakersfield Californian, regarding his daughter’s diagnosis with asthma, likely caused by the region’s poor air quality. “But we don’t leave, we lead.”•