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Lions Roar : November 2011
48 SHAMBHALA SUN NOVEMBER 2011 Diana Lopez Roots of Change SAN ANTONIO, TEXAS Growing up in the hardscrabble sprawl of East San Antonio, Diana Lopez knew exactly where she wanted to go—straight into the Air Force, and the sooner the better. It’s the thing to do in the Texas town they call “Military City, U.S.A.,” especially on the East Side, where many poor immigrants, Latinos, and African Americans see the armed forces as their best chance for secure employment. But in 2006, before she was old enough to enlist, Lopez accepted a life-changing summer internship with the Southwest Workers Union, a grassroots group dedicated to social justice. The industry-heavy East Side has an abundance of environmental contamination—most famously from the former Kelly Air Force Base—but little green space, few places to get groceries, and fewer still that carry good, fresh produce. Lopez went door-to-door for the SWU, gathering informa- tion for a health study. “It was eye-opening to hear about the effects of chemical contamination on their health,” she says. “There was a lot of really serious liver, reproductive, and respi- ratory illness.” Some were dying from those illnesses or being buried by debt. She turned away from the Air Force and signed on with the SWU as an environmental justice worker. “It was a very hard choice for me—I didn’t know where my life path was any- more.” Family and friends thought she was making a mistake, telling her she’d been brainwashed. Lopez’s first battle—and first victory—as an eco-warrior was in 2007. With 60 percent of the city’s fuel storage tanks already on the East Side, the city planned to add a couple of more close to two schools. She helped neighborhood groups oppose the plan and argue for more green space and healthy food alternatives. The tanks were stopped and council gave the community a small plot of land. The Roots of Change community garden grew out of that struggle. “I didn’t know a thing about gardening,” laughs Lopez, now twenty-two. “I just started digging.” Others joined in. “People talking to people, sharing their stories,” she says. “That builds community—a victory in itself in a neighbor- hood that was known for hookers and a place to get drugs.” Walking the Talk Hundreds of volunteers now work in the garden, which has grown to about an acre, and they get plenty of fresh organic vegetables at no cost. There are community work days, and an education center teaches young people leadership and problem- solving skills to help them make better choices in their lives. As well, Roots of Change has a market whose profits sustain the project. Some people, including Lopez’s father, have now started “family farm” gardens in their yards, and earn money by selling their homegrown vegetables at the market. Lopez’s work won her a prestigious 2010 Brower Youth Award from the Earth Island Institute, but she says the respect awarded to her by her parents means more. When they first visited the garden, they wound up in a workshop about history and civic engagement, and learned that their daughter was not a “radical,” but a leading environmental and social activist. Meet four young activists who are making the planet a better place. PHOTOCOURTESYOFEARTHISLANDINSTITUTE