Trailblazer: Nalleli Cobo

Taking on oil companies—and cancer—this activist is just 20 years old.

nalleli cobo
Gregg Segal

Last year, 20-year-old Nalleli Cobo posted a picture on Instagram of herself as a third grader: wearing a heart monitor and staring down the camera, fists on her hips, with a determined look in her eyes.

At the time, she had started having health problems, including heart palpitations and nosebleeds. She wasn’t the only one suffering such symptoms in her South Los Angeles neighborhood—her family and neighbors were also getting sick. So Cobo and her mom started organizing, knocking on doors to try to shut down the AllenCo Energy oil site located near their home.

“I was being poisoned because of my socioeconomic status, my ethnicity, our language, our immigration status,” she says. “That gave me even more of a drive to fight for my community.”

The experience ignited Cobo’s passion for environmental justice. At 12, she cofounded People Not Pozos (a pozo de petróleo is an oil well). She began speaking at rallies, and her outreach helped achieve significant wins. AllenCo halted its operations at the site in 2013, and in 2020 the L.A. city attorney filed criminal charges against the company for allegedly disregarding a state order requiring it to properly decommission its wells. Late last year, the Los Angeles City Council’s Energy, Climate Change, and Environmental Justice Committee said that the city can require buffer zones between oil wells and homes, hospitals, and schools—something Cobo has long been fighting for.

“If you’re persistent and you’re doing something that you love, it’s going to pay off in the end,” says Cobo. That image of herself in third grade remains important to her, especially now, as she’s fighting cancer. “It shows how much I’ve overcome. If I got through that when I was younger, I can do this.”

Though she’s focused on her health, returning to college, and continued community advocacy, Cobo has some longer-term life plans, including running for president. She jokes about getting a fake ID to run sooner than 2036, but her mom vetoed that idea. “I was like, ‘Worth a shot.’ ”•

Julia Herbst is a senior staff editor at Fast Company.
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