San Francisco, United States

Traffic! Advocating for Environmental Health

PODER (People Organising to Demand Environmental and Economic Rights)

March 5, 2009

Going beyond the "usual" immigrant issues to empower a community to seek change

The increased focus on the quality of our physical and natural environment is theoretically open to and for the benefit of everyone. And yet, the reality is that “immigration”, “inclusion” and “the environment” are still not often issues that overlap – even though new-comer and low income communities are often the most vulnerable to environmental hazards.

For instance, the Excelsior District in the Southeast area of San Francisco is the only district in the city where the majority of residents are foreign born. The District also has the lowest per capita income in the city ($19, 176 USD) and is ground zero for traffic pollution.

Relative to the city at large, this community experiences significantly reduced air quality as a result of pollution from short cut diesel truck routes, diesel buses and a steady stream of toxic dust coming from the freeway and busy through-fares in the neighborhood.

Commercial and industrial trucks regularly travel through the neighborhood and traffic in the Excelsior has been measured as being two to three times higher than in other neighborhoods. The majority of buses that service the neighborhoods are still diesel vehicles as opposed to new hybrid buses.

The result is that Excelsior residents are being disproportionately exposed to environmental health risks and for six years in a row, the neighborhood has had the highest overall number of people hospitalized for asthma.

In 2004, People Organizing to Demand Environmental and Economic Rights (“PODER”), along with the Chinese Progressive Association and the Environmental Law & Justice Clinic at Golden Gate University, launched the “Immigrant Power for Environmental Health & Justice Initiative” to empower the low-income and immigrant communities in Southeast San Francisco to address their exposure to these environmental hazards.

PODER is a grassroots, environmental justice organization located in the San Francisco’s Mission district but that works with communities throughout the Southeast side of San Francisco in neighborhoods like the Excelsior, Portola, Visitacion Valley, and Bayview Hunters Point. PODER works to organize immigrant families to find local solutions to the issues they collectively face by actively involving them in decision making process.

As a result, the goal of the “Immigrant Power Initiative” program was not to simply advocate for environmental changes on behalf of the afflicted communities but to actually empower them to become their own advocates and through this, improve their access to and participation in health, environmental programs and policy making.

To do this, the “Immigrant Power Initiative” went into the community to train members to use technical devices to monitor pollution. This enabled the community to track pollution levels independent of both city government and outside providers and to have the information to challenge scientific analysis that did not reflect their lived experiences. Education seminars helped the community understand and be able to navigate and lobby the government to bring about change in their communities. Art and other creative activities were also used to communicate important information about environmental health and justice.


Just as the “Immigrant Power Initiative” was the result of the joint effort between PODER, the Chinese Progressive Association and the Environmental Law & Justice Clinic at Golden Gate University, training members from across the community enabled them to learn about and build alliances across traditional and cultural divides. It also increased the reach and network of community leaders who were now familiar with how to negotiate the political system to change and support an issue that they are all invested in.

It is a long-term effort but their have been regular victories along the way.

For instance, most recently PODER has been working to lobby the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Authority (MTA) which regulated one of the leading sources of pollution in immigrant neighborhoods – diesel exhaust and matter coming from medium and large sized trucks. Based on both PODERS own independent research (at one residential intersection in the Excelsior volunteers counted over 107 medium and big trucks passing over the hour period and amounting to 10% of the overall traffic) as well as that of the Public Health Department, the Excelsior District was identified as having over 17 hot spots where diesel pollution is being linked to sickness. Leaders from PODER and the Chinese Progressive Association have been lobbying the MTA Board of Directors and Supervisors to overhaul how the city plans for traffic in their neighborhoods. Community residents testified on the impact that this pollution is having on their health and lives and helped lobby and rally to show their support.

On Monday November 17th, 2008, celebration was in order when the Board of Supervisors of the MTA took its first step to pass a resolution that would require the MTA to plan for health and environmental justice and reduce the diesel pollution in these communities.

Making it Work for You:

  • What is an "immigration" or "diversity" issue, anyway? Usually, it's a community issue that we all share.
  • Training members from across the community helps them learn about issues, advocacy and how to build alliances across traditional and cultural divides.
  • PODER's long-term success comes from training community members to advocate on their own behalf --and not simply stepping in to do it for them.
  • Is there an issue in your neighbourhood that needs the support of everyone in the community? Think beyond the ususal suspects and increase your advocacy.