Redefining environmentalism in South LA 

By gardening and keeping lights low, a family in Watts

challenges mainstream notions of “environmentalism.”


Ashley and her mother in the garden at their Watts home. | Ashley Hansack

“Turn off the damn lights! You act like I have money coming out of my ass,” yells my mom.

It’s not: “turn off the lights because you waste energy,” “turn off the lights because we need to reduce fossil fuels,” or “turn off the lights because we need to conserve resources.”

It’s: “Turn off the lights because I cannot afford to give up an extra ten dollars to pay the bill. I told you once and I don’t want to have to tell you again: turn off the damn lights.”

There are 13 light switches controlling the visibility and the mood lighting throughout my family’s house in Watts. In every bedroom, hallway and common living space, there is a light switch waiting to come to life and shine.

Enter the bathroom. Light on. Exit the bathroom. Light off. Enter the bedroom. Light on. Exit the bedroom. Light off.

Again and again, I turn the lights on and off without ever stopping to think about where this light comes from and how I have the great magical power to bring light into a room with the effortless flick of my wrist.

My mom abruptly interrupts my feelings of invincibility at times by yelling, “Turn off the damn lights!” She says it with such anger in her voice that I quiver in fear, and then laughter. Mom, relax. Take a chill pill. I just forgot. I promise I will never do it again. Or at least, I will try not to do it again. Or be sorry when it happens again. Just forgive me.

In my twenty years of existence, I have yet to encounter an individual who is so adamant about turning the lights off the second a person thinks about leaving a space. If the electricity bill is under my mom’s name, people had better be on their toes and make a constant effort to consciously think about their use of resources. Under my mom’s watchful eye, waste is not an option.

The author's mother tends to the plants. | Ashley Hansack

The author’s mother tends to the plants. | Ashley Hansack

It is hard to dismiss this woman who only stands at five feet in height, and it is easy to fear her. She is bold and talented. When she speaks, she gives off a sense that one must listen. She can curse people out in two different languages and skillfully aim inanimate objects at people who dare to ignore her. This lady belongs on the board of Greenpeace, the Sierra Club or the World Wildlife Fund. They need someone like my mom, someone with a resonant shrill in her voice.

Aside from being an avid electricity saver, my mom helps save the world in other ways too. She refrains from buying items whenever she can and she only uses her gas-efficient car to go to work and run errands. She has never boarded an airplane or train. She eats food on the brink of expiration because she hates to see it go to waste, and she also grows her own food right in our backyard.

But my mom is definitely not a hippie. She litters, she does not recycle, and she thinks organic food is a scam. She doesn’t properly dispose of batteries and she does not think twice about any ecological impact when the Chinese take-out she orders arrives in Styrofoam containers. I am certain that if my mom had millions and millions of dollars, she would without a doubt use her economic power to destroy a wildlife habitat and build something profitable, like a casino or WalMart.

My mom is a different type of environmentalist, you see. She is not a yerba mate, Whole Foods shopping, outdoor exploring type of gal. She is a woman born and raised in a poor family in Mexico. Her family situation taught her about making the most out of the few resources she had, and she learned to take delicate care of the land beneath her feet while  conserving every drop of water as if it were the last. She grew up living a simple and low-impact lifestyle, but not out of attempts to fit into trends or pick up a new hobby.

The author's mother displays fresh-picked tomatoes. | Ashley Hansack

Ashley’s mother displays fresh-picked tomatoes. | Ashley Hansack

This is how people live when every penny counts toward survival. My mom’s motives are very much rooted in economics. She knows she simply cannot waste resources; she cannot afford waste (literally). Her main goal is not to save the world, her main goal is to save money.

As an environmental studies major in a college in the Pacific Northwest that strategically emphasizes the importance of sustainability, I am bombarded by strict and limiting definitions of what it means to be an environmentalist. I see it all around me.

Seven members from a club dedicated to combating climate change hop on a plane to travel across the country to attend a conference focused on climate change. I wonder if they have thought about how they may be doing more harm to the earth by boarding an airplane to go to a place that tells them that engaging in such activities helps kill the planet.

Outdoor enthusiasts drive to the nearest wild areas to kayak, climb, and backpack. They proudly proclaim their love for the land but do not stop to think about how their plastic gear allows them to interact with nature comfortably and superficially.

The author in her garden. | Ashley Hansack

Ashley in her garden. | Ashley Hansack

Students buy reusable water bottles and used clothing without critically thinking about their consumer habits. Is it better to buy an “eco-friendly” product with “eco-friendly” motives or is it better to not buy the product at all? They pride themselves: I save the world by point one, two, and three. I only eat locally-grown organic food. I am a vegetarian. I hate large corporations. I love being outdoors. I love to climb trees and rocks. I know Thoreau’s work like no other. I own a Prius. I only shop at Goodwill. I buy sulfate-free shampoo. With such great pride, they talk about their accomplishments and goals, their hopes and dreams. They work so hard, they proclaim, but only to save the world from their very own actions.

Even though my mom constantly thinks about ways to minimize her intake and limit her use of resources, she is not deemed an environmentalist. In fact, she is left out of the environmental movement all together.

As a poor Latina, I have seen the ways in which poor people of color are left out of environmental discourse because they do not fit into the rigid guidelines of what it means to be an environmentalist. Refraining from the use of fossil fuels simply because they cannot afford to use them does not count in this movement. Growing food out of necessity does not count in this movement. Limiting electricity usage to save an extra ten dollars on the bill does not count in this movement.

Although my mom litters, seldom recycles, and disposes of electronic devices improperly, she understands the value of the land and works to foster its prosperity in her own ways. We can include people like my mom in the environmental movement and have a more fruitful discussion of how we are going to combat climate change by thinking about environmentalism through a more inclusive lens.

First, we need to recognize how people of color have a rich history of sustainability in their history. We need to learn that history and recognize that the mainstream environmentalism that has historically been led by elite and White people ain’t cutting it.

With that understanding in mind, we can stop asking: “How do we bring more people of color into our super White movement?” and begin to struggle with the differences of our skin color, income, ideas, and beliefs to build a more inclusive and effective environmental movement.

The author's mother tells Ashley to keep a close eye on electricity costs. | Ashley Hansack

Ashley and her mother in their Watts home. | Ashley Hansack

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