Adult Education Empowers Environmental Activist to Lead Successful Campaign to Shut Down Toxic Plant
Date: March 19, 2012
—An inspiring story of how English language learning, parental involvement, basic and higher education, and civic engagement transforms lives and communities. This is a guest blog article in the discussion series on Cut the Excuses, Not Education! How SaveAdultEd.org Is Fighting the Proposal to Eliminate Adult Education in L.A.
Background: Martha Sanchez is a former adult ESL student, adult school graduate, and activist who led an environmental justice campaign resulting in the closing of Palace Plating. Adjacent to the 28th Street Elementary School in Los Angeles, this chemicals plant emitted hexachromium, arsenic, and formaldehyde into the environment for years, contaminating the air and soil. Several elementary school teachers, staff, and residents near the school died of cancer. Ms. Sanchez continues to fight for her community and is an activist in the SaveAdultEd campaign while attending college at California State University.
By Martha Sanchez, Activist
Education is more than acquiring the necessary knowledge to transform ourselves into productive and competitive workers in a global economy. Education to me is a very complex method that involves teaching social and technical skills, cultivating the mind, and instilling values. Education is not only a human right; it is the most essential process to fulfill our purpose as human beings in society.
I live in the historical community of South Central Los Angeles, where most people have been adversely impacted by the differential effects of joblessness, residential segregation, and the availability of public services. In my community, young people have confronted economic disadvantage, family disruption, and social disorganization by dropping out from school in order to find jobs to support their families.
For some of them, the gang has been a place in which they could forge an identity and achieve social status. The economic hardship, cultural dislocation, and lack of education experienced by many immigrant parents in my community made it difficult for them to adequately discipline their children, help them with homework, or guide them into a rewarding career.
The vast majority of kids in my community that have joined a gang did it because they found it impossible to live without some form of protection against the violence of rival gangs in nearby neighborhoods. Working families have deprived kids from parental guidance at home since they have two or three jobs. We have no access to social workers, psychologists, and other social services that could support families and keep young people in schools. And our schools are getting fewer resources every year.
I have a moral obligation to demand better education for all because I was one of those kids. Although my mom always encouraged me to go to school, we were seven kids and none of us would ever get the crucial elements to pursue higher education. The story of my childhood is comparable to the thousands of stories of abused and neglected children, victims from the lack of education and economic resources of their parents.
Fortunately, growing up in a tough environment hardly destroyed my spirit. Instead, it challenged me to overcome my pain and learn how to break the abusive chain by surpassing my parents’ education. Unfortunately, my limited financial resources had dictated how far I would go academically. My options were very clear: either leave my siblings behind to pursue my own education or find a job in order to help my parents provide for our family.
Although my dream of going to college began to vanish, my unwavering perseverance helped me to define my priorities. Therefore, I do not regret the decision of postponing my dream to achieve a higher education in order to support the pressing needs of my family. Although none of my siblings went beyond high school, my sacrifice was not in vain because it taught me tough lessons that prepared me for the next phase in my life.
My mom immigrated to the United States from Mexico when I was only 11 years-old. After ten years of waiting, I could finally join her again. Once in the United States, I confronted the fact that I could not survive in this country without knowing the language, the culture, and the system rules. Thus, I decided to participate first as a parent volunteer at my son’s pre-school program. That program not only changed my son’s life, it also provided me with tools to become a better mom and one of the most committed parents.
In 2000, my two kids survived a gang cross-fire while they were playing on our porch, so we decided to find a safer place to live. Trying to reduce the risk factors of gang membership for our kids, I never imagined the higher risk that we had to face in our new and supposedly safer community. In 2003, the Air Quality Management District came to my children’s school to discuss the school children’s exposure to toxic pollution caused by a nearby company, the health risks, and specifically to address multiple cases of cancer amongst school employees and students.
I can recall this meeting as the biggest turning point in my life since I only had two choices: either to accept what they were telling us, or create a new strategy to improve our environment. Although I was a powerless, untrained minority woman, and unable to speak English, I had never shied away from hard work and dedication. So instead of staying with the norm, I came up with a whole new way of thinking. From that meeting, without economic resources, tools, special skills, and previous education, I began a long journey of organizing parents, teachers, and community members to improve the quality of life in our community by removing the health threat.
I realized that nobody would translate for me every time that I needed it. I was confronted with the idea that I could not make any legal claim since I did not have scientific evidence. The most terrible confrontation perhaps was being questioned about my level of expertise, knowledge, and career experiences to solve such problems. The experts constantly built walls around us claiming that legal boundaries, social constraints, and city and state regulations prevented them from taking action in order to change our destiny.
Instead of being discouraged or feeling defeated, I was profoundly moved to demonstrate my commitment to improve our community. Thus, I took advantage of the Jefferson Community Adult School to learn English. I was placed in the path to obtain my GED and I got my diploma from Manual Arts Community Adult School. My professors worked with me until I was accepted in Los Angeles Trade Technical College where I completed two degrees and two certificates. Adult education didn’t finish at community college. My professors motivated me to continue my educational journey in a four-year institution. Being helped by professionals in these most critical moments truly changed my life.
On December 31, 2011, the settlement of a civil lawsuit against Palace Plating ended our eight year battle to close the plant.
Over the years, I have organized and led countless meetings and events, involving scores of neighborhood residents. I have successfully coordinated a strategic planning process in order to envision and build support for a redesigned neighborhood where the contaminated industrial pollution is cleaned up and replaced with new affordable housing, green areas, and urgently needed services. Taking responsibility and serving a multicultural and multilingual community is paying off.
As a result of the work I’ve led, the city of Los Angeles is investing over $6.5 million to transform the industrial location adjacent to the 28th Street Elementary School in Los Angeles into a family-friendly residential neighborhood. This multi-phase project will provide over 550 affordable rentals and for-sale residences, retail to support the community, and recreation facilities. This new project will address the physical, educational, professional and social needs in our community.
All organizing efforts trained me to work across the boundaries of policies, programs, governmental offices and private sectors without any hesitation. Since then, I have been involved in all aspects of being a leader: media contact, community liaison, organizer, researcher, advocate, and concerned parent. I never planned on any of these professions. They each appeared on my path one day and each led me to my vocation. This vocational path has helped me to foster strong relationships, collaborate, and guide different projects with diverse community groups and organizations.
The valuable lessons that I learned from my professor are the foundation of my character: dedication, hard work and academic integrity. The thread between all my life choices was my desire to serve others—trying to find a way to support each person I met, to ensure their voices were heard, for them to be understood and acknowledged. Acting as a servant leader brought me back to the path of higher education. A great number of people engage in community activities in order to advance their academic studies. Contrary to them, I’m pursuing higher education because of my passion to make a difference in the lives of others.
Every day I feel so grateful, humbled, and overwhelmed by the level of support that I have received to continue my educational journey. However, I am sincerely inspired to achieve something bigger. I want to continue supporting the most comprehensive gang prevention, intervention, and suppression model that could possibly rescue our youth in society: Adult Education!
Martha Sanchez, Activist
Ms. Sanchez is a guest blogger in the discussion series “Cut the Excuses, Not Education! How SaveAdultEd.org Is Fighting the Proposal to Eliminate Adult Education in L.A.” See the full discussion schedule online. Participate by posting your comments and questions in the Comment box below and signing SaveAdultEd.org’s petition.
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» LAUSD has $700+ Million in Reserves, but Still Plans to Close Adult Schools? » On Adult Education's Critical Role in Social Justice » Si se puede! Organizing Our Community in Adult Education » Education for the 99%: How the Top 1% is Destroying Public Education and What We Must Do to Stop It » Defending Adult Education in Los Angeles