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This Activist is Leading Los Angeles Toward a Greener Future: Nalleli Cobo’s Inspiring Journey for Environmental Justice

At 21 years old, Nalleli Cobo knew is changing the lives of the people in her community of South Los Angeles through her activism. From the age of nine, Cobo’s environmental activism started when she refused to ignore the foul smells and health hazards emanating from an oil well near her home.

While facing countless personal health struggles from pollution, including being diagnosed with cancer at 19, she stepped fearlessly into the world of advocacy, rallying alongside her mother to improve the living conditions of people in her community who lived in a toxic environment. In 2020, after relentless efforts, her activism led to the permanent shutdown of a toxic oil drilling site that had plagued her community for decades. Today, as the co-founder of People not Pozos and the South Central Youth Leadership Coalition, she remains steadfast in securing safety and health for all.

In an exclusive interview with Modern Muze, the 2022 Goldman Environmental Prize winner discusses the power of grassroots activism and how, with each step forward, she’s paving the way for a more sustainable Los Angeles.

Could you tell us about the founding principles and goals of People Not Pozos, and how your work aligns with securing a safe and healthy environment for the community of South Los Angeles?

People Not Pozos is a grassroots campaign in my community of South LA that works to create a safe and healthy neighborhood. Through the power of community organizing and storytelling, we have been successful in permanently shutting down an oil well in my community.

As a co-founder of People Not Pozos, how do you approach environmental justice in Los Angeles, particularly in areas where environmental hazards disproportionately affect communities? What strategies have you found effective in advocating for positive change and addressing environmental injustices?

My activism was born out of survival. I didn’t wake up one morning and decide to become a community organizer or activist; I simply wanted to open the windows in my own home. I began my activism at the age of nine but didn’t learn the word “activist” until I was eleven years old. I was simply fighting for my community’s right to breathe clean air.

I grew up 30 feet from an active oil and gas well that severely impacted my health, from nosebleeds to asthma to cancer, I have unfortunately had it all. I fight to end environmental racism and urban oil extraction. I fight, so my story ends with me. I believe storytelling is a very important and compelling form of activism. As an activist and storyteller, I’ve noticed how stories build community and allow us to relate to one another on another level.

You’re involved in the Tom’s of Maine Incubator program, which supports underrepresented leaders in the climate movement. How has this program empowered you and other emerging leaders to drive change in environmental sustainability efforts, especially in communities like South Los Angeles?

Being a mentor for the Tom’s of Maine Incubator program has been an amazing experience. Programs like these are essential! They empower youth, build community, and assist with tools/connections when needed. The Tom’s of Maine Incubator program is truly a blueprint for what many companies should be doing.

Given your experience working with grassroots organizations like People Not Pozos and corporate initiatives like the Tom’s of Maine Incubator, how do you see the role of collaboration between community-based efforts and larger corporations in addressing environmental issues and promoting sustainability?

Collaborations like these are extremely needed because they build a bridge between the resources many large corporations have and the solutions and ideas community-based organizations or frontline communities/members have. Collaborations like the Tom’s of Maine Incubator program should exist on a larger scale because of the incredible support provided and the remarkable change created as a result.

In your view, what are some of the most pressing environmental challenges facing communities in South Los Angeles, and how can locals help to improve them?

Communities like mine are called “sacrifice zones.” This means communities like mine, usually low-income families and people of color, live in close proximity to polluting industries or that exposes them to other kinds of dangerous chemicals and environmental threats. Los Angeles is the largest urban oil field in the nation. Our biggest challenge is one all Californians can help win.

SB 1137 is a law that would implement a 3,200ft health and safety buffer zone between new oil extraction and sensitive land. It was signed and implemented into law in 2022, but the week it was signed into law, Big Oil spent millions on a referendum. This November, Californians have the opportunity to vote to KEEP THE LAW.

This is a David and Goliath fight, and as a woman of faith, I know how that story ends, and I am happy to be David with my community in this important fight. It has always been people’s health over profit. One in 5 deaths worldwide are due to fossil fuel pollution. It is time to prove to the oil industry that they have no place in our backyards, our democracy, or our future. Let’s fight and vote to keep SB 1137 into law to create lasting, significant, positive change for our health and our planet.