Erica Thames grew up and spent most of her life in a low-income community in Southern California's Inland Empire, a region of more than four million people just east of Los Angeles that is beset with some of the worst air pollution in the U.S.
"Growing up, I had a general idea of environmentalism in the form of recycling, saving water, etc.," the 23-year-old activist told MTV in an interview this fall. "But it wasn't until I started learning about environmental justice and environmental racism that I became really involved."
Thames hooked up with the Sierra Club in 2012 when she was a student at San Bernadino Valley College. While volunteering at an Inland Empire cultural collective called Chicccaa (Chicano Indigenous Community for Culturally Conscious Advocacy and Action), she met Allen Hernandez, an organizer with the Club's My Generation campaign.
Thames quickly became a key volunteer leader with the campaign, going door-to-door to ask local residents to sign petitions supporting rooftop solar in low-income communities, and organizing demonstrations opposing California utilities' restrictions on renewable energy.
"Erica took the lead in organizing these demonstrations," says Hernandez. "We wouldn't have had such a successful rally outside Southern California Edison's headquarters this August if it wasn't for her." The demonstration, pictured above and below, was held to protest the utility's opposition to California families installing solar panels on their homes.
Thames, above at right, said that many of her friends and neighbors in the Inland Empire were initially skeptical when she began working to bring rooftop solar to her working-class community, which in addition to being plagued with bad air also suffers from high unemployment.
"People would say, how does that apply to me? I don't have $20,000 to put rooftop solar on my house," she told the Associated Press this fall. But when she explained that the growth of rooftop solar would mean local construction jobs, savings for local property owners, and lower electric bills and cleaner air for everyone, it hit home. "When you start talking about health benefits and jobs, people become really intrigued."
Hernandez calls Thames "the most critical volunteer I've had." The admiration runs both ways. "Allen mentored me completely," Thames says. "I wasn't sure what to expect when I started out as a Sierra Club volunteer. Allen taught me all about environmental justice -- and injustice. He really drove home the point that the area where I grew up was hit hard by environmental racism."
This fall, Thames moved to Austin, Texas, to work for the Sierra Club's Beyond Coal campaign. "Being a staff organizer gives me the time and resources to be able to dedicate myself to creating change," she says. "It was a bit of a challenge at first dealing with culture shock -- Texas and California are totally different worlds! But the skills I learned in California helped greatly, and I was able to make the transition with not much problem."
Thames stresses that organizations like the Sierra Club must make it a priority to assist communities like the one in which she grew up in their fight of resistance against environmental racism.
"Erica is an example of what investment in our communities can produce," says Hernandez. "She was already a student leader at her college, but her involvement and development with the My Generation campaign helped her achieve community leader status. Her furious and unwavering commitment to social justice and environmental justice is both humbling and inspiring."