Chicago student protesters demand Lightfoot live up to campaign promises on environmental protection

More than two dozen Chicago young activists Friday called on Mayor Lori Lightfoot to reinstate a city department of environment to combat heavy pollution in black and Latino neighborhoods and increase efforts to fight climate change.

About 30 people, mostly students, rallied outside the mayor’s office on City Hall’s fifth floor. They urged Lightfoot to follow through on her campaign promise to reopen the environment department, which former Mayor Rahm Emanuel eliminated in 2012.

“Sometimes it’s hard for me to breathe,” Alexandra Shelby told the crowd, explaining she was born with asthma. “Tell me, Ms. Lightfoot. Do you really want to live off this reputation of robbing healthy lives from those in the black and brown communities?”

A high school senior at the Progressive Leadership Academy charter school on the South Side, Shelby joined other members of a school student group focused on environmental issues at the protest. Demonstrators circled in the lobby in front of Lightfoot’s office and chanted, “Hey, hey, ho, ho. Environmental racism has got to go,” and “Clean air is what we need. Lori Lightfoot, I can’t breathe.”

Members of several activist groups at the rally criticized the mayor for not moving quickly on her vows to better city environmental enforcement and develop plans for climate change — two issues the protesters said inordinately damage minority communities.

“It’s important that black and brown people are up here at the front line of this conversation of environmental injustice because we know that we live in communities that are directly impacted by the climate change crisis,” said Alycia Moaton, a leader of the group GoodKids MadCity. “It shows where Lori’s priorities are at with her not wanting to invest in reopening this environmental department. She criticized Rahm Emanuel for not giving attention to it and yet she has done nothing herself.”

The protest comes as pressure has mounted on Lightfoot to “bring back the city’s department of environment,” a key promise she made while running for mayor. Lightfoot vowed the department under her administration would protect residents from polluters, lead in water and poor air quality.

In December, eight months after Lightfoot took office, the Better Government Association reported the mayor was backing away from the initial campaign promise, saying the city didn’t have the money to immediately fund it. But she was promising to hire a chief sustainability officer as a first step toward providing more environmental oversight.

Lightfoot still hasn’t hired anyone for the post.

“In order to meet an ambitious climate agenda, the administration is currently in the process of hiring a Chief Sustainability Officer who will ensure a dedicated focus on current climate and environmental issues from the Mayor’s Office,” according to a statement released by Lightfoot’s office. “The CSO will work ​with subject matter experts and community stakeholders to develop forward-looking policy solutions that center racial equity and growing quality jobs, and protecting communities from pollution.”

In January, Elise Zelechowski, city deputy director of policy, was named acting chief sustainability officer. Zelechowski was a former city environment department employee under former Mayor Richard Daley.

“I honestly don’t know what the hold up is,” said Peggy Salazar, director of the Southeast Environmental Task Force. Overall, Salazar said she’s been disappointed at the lack of any movement on environmental protection under Lightfoot. “When it comes to the environment, she falls real short.”

The calls for action follow eight years of Emanuel’s administration in which city environmental inspections and enforcement plunged, the BGA reported last year. A few months ago, the city’s inspector general mirrored some of the BGA’s findings, warning that residents across Chicago are potentially exposed to risks from hundreds of sources of toxic air emissions that went unchecked for a three-year period.

Ahead of Friday’s demonstration, the students said in a statement announcing the protest they are concerned about the “environmental racism and the disproportionate pollution experienced by black and brown youth on the South and West sides of Chicago.”

They also want to hold the mayor to city goals converting buildings to renewable energy. Lightfoot has set those goals of city-owned properties by 2025 and converting the entire city to renewables by 2035.

Earlier in the week, activists from the Little Village Environmental Justice Organization called on Lightfoot to reassess the city’s planning practices that they say have increased pollution in communities near industrial areas, such as the West and Southeast sides.

For Moaton and others, they would like to see the mayor follow up her rhetoric with action.

“She has run a campaign on progressive tactics but has not followed up on anything she has said she’s going to do,” Moaton said.

This story was produced by the Better Government Association, a nonprofit news organization based in Chicago as part of the “Lens On Lightfoot” project, a collaboration of seven Chicago newsrooms examining the first year of Mayor Lori Lightfoot’s administration. Partners are the BGA, Block Club Chicago, Chalkbeat Chicago, The Chicago Reporter, The Daily Line, La Raza and The TRiiBE. It is managed by the Institute for Nonprofit News.