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April 15, 2013

Chicago Mom Wins Goldman Prize


Kimberly Wasserman, a 35-year-old mother of three from Chicago, is the North American recipient of the 2013 Goldman Environmental Prize. The world's largest prize honoring grassroots environmentalists, the Goldman is awarded each year to one recipient from each of the world's six inhabited continental regions: Africa, Asia, Europe, Islands and Island Nations, North America, and South and Central America.

Wasserman was recognized for helping lead local residents in a successful campaign to retire two of the country's oldest and dirtiest coal-fired power plants—the Fisk and Crawford plants on Chicago's Southwest Side—and she is now helping transform old industrial sites in the city into parks and multi-use spaces.


Before the announcement of the plants' closure, Chicago was the only U.S. city with two coal-burning power plants within its city limits. Wasserman's organization, the Little Village Environmental Justice Organization (LVEJO), has been a strong partner with the Sierra Club and the Club's Beyond Coal Campaign as part of the Chicago Clean Power Coalition, whose top priority for nearly three years was retiring the Fisk and Crawford plants.

Wasserman was born and raised in Little Village, a densely populated neighborhood of about 100,000 mostly Latino residents on Chicago's Southwest Side, where the Crawford plant is located. The Fisk plant sits in the adjacent Pilsen neighborhood, another mostly low-income Mexican-American community.

After her son began having asthma attacks in 1998 at the age of three months, Wasserman made the connection that pollution from the two coal plants was directly responsible for the disproportionate health problems plaguing the two neighborhoods—a connection later confirmed by a Harvard School of Public Health study.


Going door-to-door in Little Village, Wasserman discovered an alarming number of respiratory problems, premature deaths, miscarriages, and infant mortality. After joining the Little Village Environmental Justice Organization, she partnered with a neighborhood group in Pilsen, public health associations, policy groups, and environmental organizations like the Sierra Club to form the Chicago Clean Power Coalition.

For the last 15 years, Wasserman has been raising awareness about the health dangers posed by Fisk and Crawford, leading protests, performing street theater, and lobbying public officials to retire the two polluting facilities. With limited resources, she helped form a strategic alliance of faith, health, labor, and environmental groups to build momentum for the Chicago Clean Power Ordinance, which called for Fisk and Crawford to clean up their emissions or shut down.


In the fall of 2012, Wasserman's decade-and-a-half-long battle succeeded when the local utility, Midwest Generation, announced that the two plants would be closed. Both ceased operations last September, ahead of schedule.

Wasserman is now using the skills she gained over her 15 years as a community organizer to train the next generation of organizers and help other disenfranchised communities fight for environmental justice. The Sierra Club salutes Kimberly Wasserman for her courage, her vision, and her commitment to improving the lives and the health of her community.


All photos courtesy of the Goldman Environmental Prize.

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