As kids, we loved the times spent playing at our local park and running around the neighborhood with friends without a care in the world. As adults, we cherish sharing public spaces with our loved ones and building memories for future generations.
Now imagine growing up without having access to these places, not because they’re not available, but because the air, water, and soil in proximity to your home are too toxic for you and your family to live safely. This was Nalleli Cobo’s childhood reality in South Los Angeles.
At nine years old, Nalleli started experiencing detrimental health effects such as chronic headaches, nosebleeds, body spasms, and asthma. Nalleli and her mom quickly realized that the underground oil wells behind their home were the culprit behind her illness and the rest of the community. She sprang into action, organizing in her community and ultimately co-founding People not Pozos (People Not Oil Wells), an organization that advocates for the health and safety of communities impacted by oil and natural gas extraction.
Over the last decade, Nalleli has fought to shut down the toxic oil-drilling site in her neighborhood and ban urban oil extraction in Los Angeles. Despite the obstacles in her way, including a cancer diagnosis at nineteen, Nalleli has not only successfully helped shut down the oil-drilling site in her community but also persuaded the Los Angeles City Council and Mayor to phase out all oil and gas wells and ban new wells in all Los Angeles.
Last year, Nalleli was awarded the 2022 Goldman Environmental Prize (the Nobel Prize for the environmental movement) for her commitment to exposing environmental racism and improving the quality of life for her community.
We sat down with Nalleli to learn more about her inspiring story. Read the full interview below for Nalleli’s advice on how you can get involved in climate justice.
My activism started at the age of nine without knowing it was activism. It was survival. I wanted to open the windows in my home. I wanted to play outside, as you see on TV, with the kids kicking the ball down the street. I wanted those basic things in my home. When I saw that I was getting sick, that my family was getting sick, and that most of my community was impacted on a day-to-day basis because of this oil well, it was a no-brainer that I had to do something.
Coming from a primarily immigrant, Spanish-speaking, low-income community, I saw how so many others in my community, after working eighteen-hour days, were willing to go door-knocking even though they didn’t speak English. My community had so many barriers put up against them from the world, and they were still finding ways to knock them down and get the word out. How could I not do this too? I had the language and was able-bodied enough to go door-to-door knocking. How could I stay silent?
At first, it was a lot of door-to-door knocking and grassroots community organizing. My mom and I have knocked on 1,700 doors in our community. We can tell you everyone's names, their pet names, and even their food allergies. We had a tight relationship with our community members, where if my mom couldn't pick me up from school, she would have the upstairs neighbor get me, and she wouldn't worry about me because she knew I would be safe. Unfortunately, that's something many immigrants lose when they come to this country.
In Latin America, for example, the culture of close families and neighbors becoming an extension of it is common. Many people in my community had the parental instinct to come to this country to provide a better family for their kids. My mom often says, "I never thought I'd have to fight an oil well when I moved to the country," but that was the reality for the people in my community. We came for a better life, so why not knock on a door to tell someone they're being exposed to chemicals? How can we not organize a town hall meeting and invite the South Coast Air Quality Management District to come and do this interview with us? We had an internal instinct to defend each other.
When you’ve been advocating for something for so long, and you realize, “wow, the moment is finally here,” it feels surreal. I know we haven’t crossed the finish line, but the finish line is now on the horizon, and that’s a huge accomplishment. I get emotional just thinking about it because I know that by the end of this decade or whenever they’re all phased out, no future nineteen-year-old girl will have to choose between her reproductive system or her life. I know that no nine-year-old child will be faced with choosing activism for survival. They’re going to be able to play outside. They’ll have a stress-free childhood. That’s something that I unfortunately lost.
The more you learn about urban oil drilling and the danger it has, the impacts on your health, both mental and physical, are clear. When I was nine or ten, I would look up at the clock every ten to fifteen minutes at school and whisper to myself, “I hope they open the valves to prevent an explosion,” when my worry should have been, “do I remember how to multiply 5 x 5 or do I remember how to do this long division problem?” My worry was surviving through that day next to that oil plant. That will end with me now, and I’m very happy to be the person in that position. I’m fighting so that this will be read about in history books because nobody should grow up with an oil and gas well as their neighbor.
Education is the first step. We can create change unless we know what's wrong or have an idea of how to fix it. The next step is to listen to frontline community members. It's important to listen to those impacted daily because no one knows the impact greater than them. Nobody knows what's going on better than them.
We also need to remember that we, the people, hold power. A lot of the time, we get intimidated by elected officials and the terms that they use, and the power that they have. In reality, we gave them that power, we voted them in, and we can vote them out if they're not representing us properly. Our elected officials are supposed to be the voice of the people, the voice of the communities — not the voice of corporations. It's our job to remind them of that.
Lastly, we must keep hope. This work can be taxing, and you can feel like the world is crashing all around you, but it's important to remember all those pockets of hope, joy, and celebration of small and huge victories. When you use your voice to create change, it deserves to be celebrated, no matter how big or small.
We must ensure our elected officials act on the policies they've promised to deliver. They need to phase out oil wells with a just transition, starting with the oil wells close to sensitive land. After that, the land needs to be detoxified and given back to the community. Communities must decide how land will be used in the future, whether it's a community garden, affordable housing, a school, or a daycare center — anything but a toxic silent killer.
When we're phased out in the city of Los Angeles, let's get the county phased out, the state of California, and ultimately our country. In the U.S., 17 million Americans live within a quarter of a mile or less of an active oil and gas well. That needs to change.
Once as a nation we're phased out, why not try globally?
You can also support the below organizations working to end urban oil drilling in Los Angeles:
Join Seventh Generation in standing with Nalleli by urging President Biden to declare a climate emergency that will reject climate and community-damaging fossil fuel infrastructure across the country.