UCLA School of Law graduates helped local residents score a big win in May, when Los Angeles County transportation officials axed a decadeslong plan for a multibillion-dollar expansion of the 710 Freeway. As the principal corridor diesel trucks use to haul goods from the ports to Southern California, the 710 has been a major source of pollution in the predominantly Black and Latino communities nearby.

Communities for a Better Environment, or CBE, where three UCLA Law alumni work, was one of the groups leading the fight. It’s also one of the earliest U.S. organizations to focus on environmental justice — a social movement to address disproportionate exposure to environmental harms in low-income communities of color.

“Winning a case against the ConocoPhillips or Chevron refinery is important to move the needle on the black letter law, but that’s not how we bring environmental justice or social change,” said Shana Lazerow, legal director for CBE. “Social change happens because of organizers and community members taking ownership of the environment around them, self-determining, ‘Where do we live?’ and ‘How does our environment look?’”

Lazerow earned her law degree in 1997. Jennifer Ganata, CBE’s senior staff attorney, is a 2013 graduate of the master of laws program, and Idalmis Vaquero, an Equal Justice Works fellow at CBE, is a 2021 J.D. graduate. With four decades of combined legal experience, the attorneys have contributed to community campaigns in California to reduce air pollution, water contamination, noise and other potential harms.

Driven by first-hand experience

The three attorneys’ legal work is rooted in the experience of communities most at risk from environmental harms. For Vaquero, pollution hits close to home. She grew up in Boyle Heights, a Los Angeles neighborhood affected by lead contamination from the Exide battery recycling facility. Her perspective as a resident and concerns about her younger sister’s and neighborhood children’s health underpins her fight for justice.

“My personal connection to the work motivates me at times when it feels defeating,” Vaquero said. “It puts more fire in my belly. I know there are other families that feel the same way about children being exposed to lead.”

That also helps her build trust and confidence within the community — which has sometimes been lacking for attorneys.

“There’s a well-deserved stereotype of lawyers being distanced from communities,” said Sean Hecht, co-executive director of the UCLA Emmett Institute on Climate Change and the Environment. “Through their work with CBE, these three advocates have been especially effective in bridging the gap between their legal strategies and the communities they serve.”

Though known for strict environmental regulations, California cities rank among the country’s worst for air quality. Southern California ozone levels consistently exceed federal standards. Low-income communities near major oil refineries, freeways and industrial operations face increased rates of cancer, asthma and other debilitating health conditions.

Federal and state programs are trying to address such issues. CBE organizers last year led EPA administrator Michael Regan and other government officials on a tour of Wilmington, a Los Angeles neighborhood, to listen to community activists and see the effects from oil drilling sites, refineries and scrap metal recycling facilities. And the Biden administration has created a Justice40 Initiative to prioritize investments in underserved communities.

Empowering residents to take action

CBE, first launched in the 1970s as Citizens for a Better Environment, had more of a national focus at first. Today, CBE exists exclusively in California, where its offices have targeted air pollution in low-income communities like Richmond, in the Bay Area, and Wilmington, Huntington Park and Maywood in southeast Los Angeles.

“There is a sense that because this is the environment we live in, these disparate conditions are inevitable,” Lazerow said. “But there is nothing inevitable about disproportionate impacts in low-income communities of color.”

That’s why CBE focuses on community-led campaigns to bring residents’ voices into government decision-making processes, such as permitting for industrial facilities and air quality policy planning. And, it’s one of the first environmental justice organizations to staff lawyers to represent communities.

CBE is now providing new approaches to advocacy training. Ganata created a legal apprentice program to prepare community advocates to become attorneys without a formal law school education. Apprentices work with staff attorneys, submit hours to the state bar and take an interim bar exam. After four years, they would be eligible to take the California bar to become practicing lawyers. Ganata is already supporting one CBE colleague in this process — and her goal is to extend the program to community members.

“Meaningful public participation is at the center of what we do,” Ganata said. “How do we get the communities that have been impacted to have a seat at the table?”

At CBE, lawyers develop campaigns with members and organizing teams to ensure its legal strategies are deeply rooted in the needs of communities they represent. It empowers residents to speak for themselves by boosting their knowledge of environmental law and what’s happening in their neighborhoods.

That’s made an impact. CBE campaigns have blocked attempts to expand the Chevron refinery in Richmond, pressured agencies to tighten oil refinery emissions regulations, and are helping phase out urban oil drilling in metropolitan Los Angeles. A CBE campaign also led to the removal of concrete rubble piled up in Maywood after the 10 Freeway collapsed during the 1994 Northridge earthquake. That area is now a park and high school.

Only a few groups were focused on environmental justice issues 10 years ago, Hecht says, but that’s changing.  

“Environmental lawyers and policymakers are looking to the kinds of tools CBE has developed, above all, the capacity to listen and respond to the needs of people most impacted by environmental harms,” said Hecht, who is also co-director of the Frank G. Wells Environmental Law Clinic, a frequent CBE collaborator.

From law school to environmental justice

UCLA Law offered the attorneys experiential learning and provided mentorship that built on their interests to prepare them for careers serving their communities.

When Lazerow arrived at UCLA Law in 1993, the school hadn’t yet established programs in public interest law and policy or environmental law. But a new environmental law clinic assigned her to CBE, where she was part of a successful campaign against a proposed waste transfer facility in Athens Park, a south Los Angeles neighborhood near the 110 and 105 freeway interchange.

Lazerow also worked with Athens Park and Huntington Park residents to address health impacts from nearby glass recycling facilities. She saw that streets around the facility sparkled with escaped glass particles, and nearby residents reported their children would suffer from abraded skin and bloody noses when they played outdoors in backyards or in the neighborhood.

At the time, there were no dedicated textbooks or classes on environmental justice, but the experience was formative.

“It was as if someone had pulled my blindfold off and I could suddenly see the world: This is where social change and justice comes from,” Lazerow said.

Today, UCLA Law offers two environmental law clinics, the Frank G. Wells Environmental Law Clinic and California Environmental Legislation and Policy Clinic, as well as a dedicated environmental justice course.

Vaquero, first introduced to environmental justice through CBE as a youth organizing intern in college, participated in the Wells clinic and the David J. Epstein Program in Public Interest Law and Policy.

“I felt like I was not alone at UCLA Law working on environmental justice issues,” she said. “I became more comfortable with asking, ‘If there isn’t a specific law … what else is out there?’ Maybe there’s not a specific law or policy, but we figure out how to create one or use other laws to push for change.”

Faculty mentors helped Vaquero secure an Equal Justice Works Fellowship, which supports her work at CBE. Vaquero’s advocacy is focused on cleaning up homes impacted by the Exide facility, as well as what community members envision for the future of the site. She’s also seeking institutional reforms at the California Department of Toxic Substances Control to help prevent similar incidents from occurring.

Housing, clean energy in sights

Ganata has integrated law school lessons into her environmental justice practice. She worked as a youth organizer at CBE before returning to UCLA for her master of laws degree, where she focused her coursework on critical race studies. Her advocacy includes renter protections, land use and environmental law.

She focuses on state laws that require cities to incorporate environmental justice into their general plans and housing elements — city planning documents that guide current and future development.

The UCLA Law graduates are now bringing communities’ voices into California’s clean energy plans to make sure the transition offers resources to those most at risk from unreliable electric grids and extreme weather. And, they want to continue to build the power of the communities they represent.

“I feel humbled and open to learning from my own community members, residents and neighbors in my community,” Vaquero said.