Having heroes can be risky given how often they turn out to have feet of clay, but since this is Women’s History Month, I’m going to name an environmental champion whose courage and determination should inspire us now more than ever: Aurora Castillo, who was known in her East Los Angeles community as “La Doña.” Although she was a Goldman Prize winner (in 1995, only the fifth year of the prestigious environmental award), odds are that you haven’t heard of her. That’s a shame, because Aurora Castillo exemplified the kind of community-based, volunteer activism that’s at the heart of the work we do today.
While in her seventies, she helped found and remained the guiding light for the Mothers of East Los Angeles (MELA), a community organization which set as its first goal stopping the state of California from building what would have been the eighth prison in East L.A. Could a group of Latina grandmothers thwart the state? In 1992 that unwanted prison was relocated elsewhere. But La Doña and MELA looked beyond that one injustice and realized they could do more. When they learned that an oil pipeline from Santa Barbara to Long Beach would be routed through their community, they organized and stopped it. When permits for a toxic waste incinerator were issued without any environmental impact report, MELA led marches, filled public hearings, and filed suit. The incinerator was stopped, too. So was a hazardous waste treatment plant near a high school.
Aurora Castillo died in 1998 at the age of 84, but the organization she founded continued to work on environmental justice issues well into the 21st century.
Right now, we could use a thousand La Doñas.
I believe they are out there. In fact, I know they are. Everywhere you look in the world, you’ll find women leading the way on issues like climate change, environmental justice, and the defense of Indigenous lands. There’s Lois Gibbs, who bravely brought toxic pollution to the public consciousness; Winona LaDuke who is leading an effort to protect her Tribal homeland from a dangerous tar sands pipeline; Miya Yoshitani who leads the Asian Pacific Environmental Network; and Elizabeth Yeampierre of the Climate Justice Alliance, to name just a few inspirational leaders. I could name a hundred more whose work on the frontlines leaves me in awe. But what these wonder women deserve even more than our admiration is our support.
That’s why the Sierra Club is collaborating with the Women’s Earth Alliance to launch the U.S. Accelerator for Grassroots Women Environmental Leaders. Its purpose is to provide online support, training, and resources for women leaders who are working on the frontlines of environmental and climate justice. Everyone can use help sometimes, and heroes are no exception. Our goal is to offer today’s heroes tools and strategies that will help them build and strengthen alliances, scale up their solutions, and make change happen.
The Accelerator will be accepting applications and nominations for this year until May 18, so if you or someone you know might benefit, I urge you to check it out.