Activist Susana De Anda on Environmental Racism and Her Fight for Safe Drinking Water
Susana De Anda, the co-founder and executive director of California's Community Water Center, talks about her mission to provide safe drinking water to low-income Latinx families in the state.
“I believe that having safe drinking water should be a basic human right and it should not be a privilege,” says Susana De Anda. The Mexican American activist, 39, is the co-founder and executive director of the nonprofit organization Community Water Center (CWC), which is dedicated to ensuring that all Californians have access to safe, clean and affordable drinking water. “Every day I work to ensure that everyone can have this basic necessity,” De Anda tells People CHICA.
When De Anda was working as a community organizer back in 2006, she read a lot of reports about the poor quality of water in areas with consistent characteristics. “They were low-income areas, where people of color and farmworking families lived,” she says. “There were primary water contaminants [like nitrate, arsenic and uranium] in their tap water that could be detrimental to health. I was trying to figure out if people really knew the poor water quality the state was documenting, and as I went door-to-door in the communities, the story was very similar.” Residents said they didn’t drink the tap water and instead bought bottled water for drinking, but still had to pay their water bills. She found out that they didn’t know their tap water contained dangerous contaminants. “Nitrate is a primary contaminant and we see it in a lot of our systems,” De Anda explains. “We don’t smell it, we can’t taste it, but it’s linked to the blue baby syndrome … it’s linked to cancer, to spontaneous abortions.”
The statistics are alarming. “Studies show that if you are low-income and a person of color, you have a higher chance of having polluted water,” she says. “This is not happening in Hollywood or in San Francisco because people have higher incomes and more resources.”
Water contamination is coming from sources that can be prevented. These poor water conditions are often found around agricultural land, where fertilizers and pesticides are used without the necessary regulation and thus pollute the ground water. “Nitrate comes from chemical fertilizer used to grow food,” De Anda adds. She also emphasizes that the infrastructure of water pipelines needs to be improved because “it’s old and dilapidated,” and drinking water sources need to be protected from contamination. “We are working with impacted residents and they are at the forefront of change,” she explains.
De Anda grew up in a farmworker community in Salinas. “I would go to recess time in school believing I was playing with fairy dust, and I realized in college that it wasn’t fairy dust — it was pesticide dirt coming from the lettuce field near our school,” she recalls. In college, where she took environmental study and geography courses, she learned about environmental racism and it resonated with her. “As a professor was defining it, I was making the connection: ‘Wait a minute, he is talking about me and my family, my people,'” she says. “Corporations and polluting entities tend to be very strategic in where they are going to become established. If you are Catholic, low-income, Spanish-speaking and Latino, we are going to dump pollution there.”
Her journey led her to activism and her current role at CWC. “I want to be portrayed as a Latina that is able to address justice and show that we are part of that fabric of change,” she says. “As Latinas in this world of social justice, we need more of us to show up and help each other.” She encourages everyone to get involved in protecting our planet’s vital resources. “We are part of positive change and we can live in a world that is just,” she concludes. “We can thrive and enjoy life’s greatest gifts, which include water.”