Large cleanups along the Los Angeles River aren’t that unusual. Traditional environmental groups like Friends of the L.A. River and Heal the Bay have been leading sweeps for more than a decade. But a community drive to rehabilitate a soft-bottomed stretch of the river just north of downtown Los Angeles in late June was unusual, serving as a powerful symbol of how much the local environmental movement has changed in the past five years.
The Saturday morning cleanup wasn’t led by largely Anglo, Westside environmental groups. Instead, a diverse patchwork of community groups mobilized more 2,500 people from as far away as Orange County to restore the Glendale Narrows section of the river.
The leader of the cleanup was Tiger Kang, president of the Pacific Asian Volunteer Assn. Tiger is a larger than life leader in the Korean community that serves with me on Los Angeles’ Proposition O advisory committee, which helps decide how to spend $500 million in bond dollars to clean up numerous polluted waters. He is a journalist and businessman with tremendous respect in local Asian communities. Most importantly, he is without peer at getting people to participate in community betterment efforts. Tiger and PAVA routinely bring thousands of volunteers to beach and river cleanups. Also, PAVA has set up PAVA Junior clubs in over 100 high schools and middle schools in the region with the purpose of teaching students about our responsibilities in community involvement and betterment.
The other major participants in the cleanup were the NAACP and the Anahuak Youth Soccer Assn led by Raul Macias. These are extremely well-respected groups that were not created to protect the environment. For the regional environmental movement to succeed, the leadership must come from these groups rather than traditional environmental groups like Heal the Bay, TreePeople and the NRDC.
Liberty Hill Foundation’s efforts to coordinate all environmental groups through Green L.A. has improved communication and expanded environmental community clout. As promising as those efforts have been to date, the efforts of Tiger Kang and Raul Macias and other community leaders like them are more likely to drive a sustainable approach to environmental protection in our region’s kaleidoscope of neighborhoods.
They are charismatic, grassroots leaders that are providing students with recreational opportunities, leadership skills, civics education and a sense of community. Environmental protection is the cornerstone for success, but it isn’t the only focus. They are building on the success of community groups like Concerned Citizens and Mothers of East L.A. before them, and they are leading a volunteer movement that is growing at an exponential pace.
The next step is for them to realize their potential political clout and to start influencing government decisions that can help improve the quality of life in local communities. When powerful groups like PAVA and Anahuak start exerting more influence in the political arena, elected officials have to take notice and make real progress in creating a more sustainable urban environment.