Nieto, 35, is executive director of Little Village Environmental Justice Organization.
Little Village is a very unique space. I was born and raised here. One of the coal power plants is in our community, next to Pilsen. Our parents, when they first started out, didn’t know about the environment. Learning what that means—that they can be victorious in creating a healthier environment—has manifested itself into the organization today.
I was a computer teacher at the local Boys and Girls Club. When they threatened to shut down our club, organizers reached out and offered to help us keep our club open. And we were successful. I really liked the organizing aspect of the job. I was pregnant at the time with my firstborn. After I had my son, they asked me if I would be willing to come work with them. I could bring my son to work every day. I have been with them ever since, and I have raised three children through the organization.
The organization is 15 years old and I’ve been around for 13 years. We have initiatives we’ve worked on over the last couple of years. We work on public transit, from the Blue Line to the Pink Line to the reinstatement of the 31st Street bus. We also have a very strong youth program. Our young people are beginning to focus on urban agriculture programs and access to healthy foods, but also looking at the food trends our families currently have, and why they’re unhealthy. The obesity rate in our community is not helped by the fact that we only have one park. Folks have understood this, and found the will to fight.
My role as the executive director is a mixture of making sure the campaigns are moving forward and working with the organizers to make sure they’re on point—meeting their goals and objectives, creating strategies. It’s also local fundraising and working with our board of directors to ensure that we’re fiscally in a strong place.
The depopulization of Little Village is very sad. For the first time in my life I’ve seen abandoned homes, foreclosures. Along 26th Street are countless businesses for rent and sale, which you would have never seen years ago. It’s sad, but at the same time our community has come together. The community is finding its voice, and it’s amazing to see that. Now when they see injustice, they’re coming out and saying, “What do we do about this?” —As told to Julia Thiel