I wrote this blog 30,000 feet up in the air on my way to the UN Climate Summit in Paris. Getting the privilege to attend this important global event is a far cry from where my life was 15 years ago. Back then I was an undocumented immigrant living in Oakland and trying to keep my head above water. The year 2001 was a particularly bad year for me: My employer at a good job let me go because my undocumented status was revealed after the attacks of 9/11 prompted more robust background checks; the terrorists attacks themselves ended any possibility of immigration reform, which seemed very possible that year.
After being fired from my management position, I found a cashier job that barely paid enough to pay rent and go to school. On my way home from a late night shift the bus I was riding was shot at and I was left stranded at 2 a.m. in East Oakland. One of my last memories of that year was me face down with a shotgun pulled on me by the Oakland Police Department after my car’s license plates seemed to show I was driving a stolen vehicle. It turns out the DMV gave me the wrong license plates. Yup, 2001 was a horrible year.
I write this because as I sit on this plane contemplating what the next week of climate talks will bring, my mind wanders back to those 2001 days. It goes back to that period because those experiences drive me to make this time count. I was desperate in 2001 and today I notice desperation in the faces of my neighbors in Oakland. Our world feels and looks unhealthy. Our communities carry a heavy burden and I share in their pain. We know that low-income communities are hit first and worst by climate change, and now in the U.S. those same communities are also getting hit worse by income inequality, poor access to healthcare, poor education, state sanctioned violence, housing insecurity, discrimination and hate.
Perhaps nothing that we talk about this week in Paris can change the many issues that impact our communities but I refuse to believe so. These talks are not just about saving the planet. They are about how we live and what we prioritize. As we have shown in California, we can have a clean energy future that leads with equity and invests in improving the living conditions of the most impacted communities. We are building that future now. California’s climate policies are cleaning the air and investing in projects that will save families money, improve health outcomes, create economic opportunity, promote community development, and educate thousands about the benefits of renewable energy. California is leading in our fight against pollution and poverty and I want to tell everyone in Paris about it.
Yet, despite all the success, we need to do a lot more. We need to increase investments in disadvantaged communities. We need to prioritize projects that can deliver meaningful, assured, and measurable benefits to those communities. Our climate investments must address community need while protecting residents from displacement as communities improve. We need to accelerate community transformation by smartly investing in neighborhood scale sustainability initiatives that integrate clean energy and sustainable projects. And we have to make it easier for low-income residents to access all the customer clean energy incentives created by our climate policies. It’s a lot to do, but we can get it done. We must.
In the years to come I will work tirelessly to ensure that our communities receive the investment and urgency necessary to eliminate pollution and poverty. This is my mandate. I could have never imagined that I would be in the privileged position of attending a UN Climate Summit when I was laying there on the streets of Oakland with a shotgun pointed at me, but here I am. Fifteen years after a horrible year I am a U.S. citizen and this week I take my work to Paris but always in my mind and heart are the streets of Oakland, East Los Angeles (where I grew up), and Mexico where I was born.