In 2009, inspections of a Buffalo-area fuel production operation known as Tonawanda Coke found serious environmental violations, bringing about the second-ever conviction under the federal Clean Air Act in 2013 and spurring enforcement actions and the levying of more than $20 million in penalties. The initial push behind these decisive actions didn’t come from scientists, elected officials or industry reps. It came from the residents—or, as Natasha Soto (BA ’13) would say, “folks”—living in the sullied shadow of the corporation’s two plants.
Affected by strange and pervasive health problems, neighbors started talking to neighbors, eventually joining forces to create what would become the Clean Air Coalition of Western New York. The organization, now known as Clean Air: Organizing for Health and Justice, sustained that momentum to become a small but robust nonprofit pursuing environmental justice and public health campaigns in communities throughout the region.
As lead community organizer with Clean Air, Soto talks to a lot of folks like those original founders—people exposed to hazards in their own neighborhoods and seeking changes, but unsure of how to bring them about. On Buffalo’s West Side, another area plagued by air pollution issues from the thousands of trucks that pass over the Peace Bridge every day, Soto organized with local residents, many of whom suffered from asthma, to compel the state’s Department of Environmental Conservation to install air monitors in the neighborhood and make environmental modifications to the truck plaza.
While some would consider that a victory, for Soto it’s a first step. “That’s how we start the work, with some air quality issue. But then, even if you address that problem, you still have a multitude of other quality of life issues,” she explains. “Maybe the streets don’t get repaved or the garbage doesn’t get picked up, or there’s a problem with lousy landlords.” That conundrum is at the heart of the environmental justice movement, which fights for equal rights for all regarding the air, water, land and other natural resources that everyone must share.
Soto favors a process called participatory budgeting (PB) as a way to tackle these interrelated issues. Developed in Brazil in 1989 and now being adopted in communities around the world, PB allows members of a community to determine together how to direct public (usually municipal) funds. All too often, such spending is decided behind closed doors, without public input or accounting, she says. PB brings it out into the open and lets everyone take part.
Clean Air implemented PB in directing disbursements related to the Tonawanda Coke and Peace Bridge cases. But then, Soto recalls, “The overall feeling was, why should this stop here? Why can’t we do this with the entire city?” So in 2015, she led a successful campaign to establish participatory budgeting as a $150,000 line item in the City of Buffalo’s budget. Though the award was not given in perpetuity, the process proved that everyday people can be capable leaders of their communities.
As Clean Air undertakes new campaigns—currently, there’s one related to the residual impact of an industrial fire, another to school bus lots located among homes—that power-to-the-people ethos is all-encompassing to Soto. What confounded her most as a student at UB majoring in environmental science (and what has kept the 31-year-old native New Yorker in Buffalo since graduation) were the disparities she saw between the dreams in motion and the realities in place. Now that it’s her job to connect those two things, she feels both energized and overwhelmed by the possibilities. Yes, it’s about the air, but the air touches everything.
“Folks are hungry for the world that they want to live in,” Soto says. “The real work is building community, something that’s not just shallow and surface level, so that when we stand together in front of City Hall—or anywhere—we can’t be divided.”