By: Luis Gutierrez, Senior Associate, Leadership for Urban Renewal Network (LURN) and Jorge Madrid, CA Campaign Director, Environmental Defense Fund (EDF)
It's a warm, sunny day in August at the iconic Mariachi Plaza in Boyle Heights, California. More than 400 local residents have come together to dance to the classic tunes of Selenamos and the cumbia-rock fusion of El Conjunto Nueva Ola - the entire stage powered by solar. They're enjoying delicious vegan treats, participating in a live mural art project, and screen printing their own reusable tote bags. Many are collecting free shade trees to plant at home, learning about bicycle safety and receiving free helmets, and discovering information about a new vehicle trade-in program that allows Californians to swap out their older vehicles for a new or used electric car. So what exactly is this celebration of music, art, culture, and clean energy? It's Eastside Sol.
Event organizers Jorge Madrid and Luis Gutierrez reflect on the origins of Eastside Sol, its driving principles, and what's in store for the future.
How did the idea for Eastside Sol come about?
Jorge: I started working in clean energy policy during the peak of the economic recession, around 2008. Many advocates, myself included, believed clean energy could combat climate change, reduce local air pollution, and alleviate some of the economic malaise that hit low-income communities of color first and worst. Problem was, very few of these new clean energy technologies and programs were showing up in neighborhoods like the one I grew up in, on the Eastside of Los Angeles. This needed to change. I knew I wanted to do something to celebrate the culture and community where I grew up and introduce new technologies and programs that could help folks save money, access jobs and resources, and breathe cleaner air. But I had no idea how to pull it off until I met the folks at REPOWER LA and LURN.
Luis: LURN was working on several projects related to land use and local economic development, including a citywide effort to legalize street vending, a project to reimagine vacant lots throughout South Los Angeles, a healthy foods purchasing-cooperative for small businesses, and a campaign to utilize art in combatting gentrification and displacement in Boyle Heights. When Jorge approached us with this wild idea, we thought it fit perfectly with our style of projects.
How has this event evolved since the first Eastside Sol last year?
Jorge: The first Eastside Sol focused on solar access and equity issues. It was a great success, only because of the amazing community partners and residents who came to support. This year, we wanted to expand the scope of the event and provide residents with more, because we know there are complex challenges facing our neighborhood. Intersectional challenges need intersectional solutions.
Boyle Heights ranks among the top 5 percent most environmentally burdened neighborhoods in the state. Simultaneously, the community is dealing with a lead contamination disaster and major pollution from freeways and heavy industry. The neighborhood is 70 percent renters and the median income is $33,000. Boyle Heights is also on the front lines of gentrification and displacement, a growing concern in Los Angeles and many major U.S. cities.
We believe clean energy, like solar power and electric vehicles, can help families in Boyle Heights and similar neighborhoods. It can create local, well-paying jobs, lower energy bills, reduce pollution impacts and health costs like asthma, and create more affordable mobility options. California, and cities like Los Angeles, are rolling out programs that can help residents access these technologies and make them more affordable.
Clean energy is not a silver bullet to address all the challenges facing the Eastside, but we are confident it can be part of the solution.
What have you learned from Eastside Sol about community building?
Luis: To pull off the delicate balance between entertainment, information, and engagement, we discovered five values while planning our 2015 event and refined them this year:
• Fun - If people aren't having a good time, they're not going to grab onto the ideas we're sharing and they're certainly not going to share their opinions and advice. So, to get people to see the entire event, we turned it into a game of "loteria." Visiting different stations allowed you to collect stamps on a card. Once attendees reached a certain number, they traded in their cards for a food ticket. The awesome music during the event helped keep people happy and moving!
• Culture - We worked closely with community organizations and members to ensure the event was an extension of local culture and values. Everything - from the food to the messaging and music - was planned and coordinated collectively. We wanted folks in the neighborhood to feel like it was their space.
• Local leadership - This event was a success because we worked closely with community leaders and organizations. We asked for their help in leading the planning and identifying the themes for the event.
• Tradition and history - We started Eastside Sol knowing the community was already doing a lot for the environment - re-using plastic containers, repurposing water for gardens, etc. Knowing this, we sought to introduce residents to services and resources that would help augment those existing practices.
• Accountability - Large agencies, such as LA Metro and utility companies, were critical in the development and execution of Eastside Sol. However, very early in the process we opened consistent and clear lines of communication to ensure their participation served community needs and the spirit of Eastside Sol. We also knew we had to hold ourselves accountable to community needs and concerns.
What's next for Eastside Sol?
Luis: We want to return to Mariachi Plaza next year and produce an even bigger event with more resources for the community. Additionally, we may replicate our model in other neighborhoods and cities throughout Los Angeles and California. We want to work with as many impacted communities as possible to ensure they are at the table where important environmental, transportation, and land-use decisions happen. This, to us, is one of the best ways of engaging underrepresented communities - through fun, art and culture, and collaborative community spaces.