By David Diaz

I was born in the late 1980s to two hard-working parents, Raquel and Jose, in Ensenada, Mexico. My parents immigrated to the United States with a dream; to create a better life and opportunities for our family. My parents raised me in the communities of El Monte and South El Monte where I made some of my best friends, memories and met my wife. My parents went above and beyond to provide economic security for myself and two siblings, working multiple jobs and creating a successful daycare business for over a decade. Their relentless work ethic inspired me to advance my education, be the first to graduate college in our family and receive a Masters of Public Health from Claremont with one goal in mind: come back and serve the communities that raised me. As a first-generation immigrant, I knew it was paramount to come back and be of service to others in my community.

Growing up in El Monte and South El Monte, I was often asked “Where you from?” as a way of seeking what school, gang, or clique I may represent. However, I was never interested in joining a gang or representing more than the sports team I was playing on. Fast forward to my professional career, now the question is “Where are you from?” as a reductive way of understanding my background, culture, or identity. Where I’m from; El Monte and South El Monte, we live in a concrete jungle where we are being suffocated by the criss cross of freeways (605, 10, and 60 fwy), surrounded by mountains of trash (Puente Hills and Montebello Landfill), while the small planes from the San Gabriel Valley Airport rain down lead poison and pollution on a daily basis. The Environmental Protection Agency describes where I’m from as a top 10% disadvantaged community across the STATE due to high levels of air pollution, a history of contaminated sites, high poverty and unemployment rates. Additionally, where I’m from has some of the highest childhood and adult obesity rates, lack of urban canopy (5%), and lowest park space (.4 acres per 1000 residents in El Monte, .7 acres per 1000 residents in S. El Monte) in Los Angeles County.

Poor urban planning and public health outcomes of where I’m from are not by accident; decades of disinvestment, displacement, and racist policies have led to the conditions we continue to endure. I do this work because I’m a product of where I’m from; I grew up as an obese kid, with raging anxiety, and asthma trying my best to navigate the world. I recognize I’m very fortunate to have received an education (less than 1% of folks in EM/SEM have a Masters) and I feel my best when I’m of service to others. I’ve dedicated my life to public service, to building coalitions and working alongside schools, businesses, nonprofit organizations, and community members to advance environmental justice, equity, and regenerative policies.

As the Executive Director of ActiveSGV, I take an active role in organizing, developing, and ensuring the success of our environmental justice work. I’ve implemented an organizational community engagement approach aimed at meeting community members where they’re most comfortable, using the language they speak, and in a manner that’s easy to understand. We believe civic engagement happens when basic needs are met and we know from the data that’s not the case. We uplift the voices of folks who are often neglected to provide them with an opportunity to provide input, shape, and/or design policies, projects, and/or initiatives to improve quality of life in their community.

As an elected official of the El Monte Union High School District, my mission is to close the student achievement gap through environmental leadership. During my tenure on the high school district board, we have banned Styrofoam, installed reusable water stations, installed solar canopies at each of the high schools, purchased an all-electric bus fleet and battery storage. We’re also developing wellness centers and Farm Labs at each of the high schools that are coupled with a horticulture pathway and outdoor learning opportunities for students. The Farm Labs will provide an opportunity for students to grow food, heal, and develop deeper connections with nature, peers, and their community.

I know my lived experience that challenges are not unique to me, but shared among families where I’m from. I do this work because I believe in equity and justice and I cannot stand idly by while our communities continue to experience harm. Where I’m from matters, the people matter, and we must have equitable investment in transportation, climate, education, and community wellness to survive the climate crisis and protect the most vulnerable. If you ask me now where I’m from, I proudly represent where I’m from!

David Diaz is a finalist for the 2021 Pritzker Emerging Environmental Genius Award. Join us on November 18 when we’ll hear from the finalists and announce a winner.