No fight is more titanic than that of grassroots organizers against large corporations. But for Andrea Vidaurre, a Peruvian-American from Southern California, standing idly by in the face of the environmental crisis was not an option.

Now, the 29-year-old organizer has won the prestigious $200,000 Goldman Environmental Prize. She was recognized for her fight to protect her predominantly Latino community from air pollution.

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According to NBC News, Vidaurre is one of six grassroots activists honored Monday night. The award recognizes people on six continents who take “extraordinary actions” to protect the planet.

Andrea Vidaurre and the fight for the right to breathe

Andrea Vidaurre was born and raised in California’s Inland Empire. The region, an hour east of Los Angeles, has some of the worst air quality in the country.

Like many of her neighbors, Vidaurre initially didn’t recognize the industry’s impact on his community. “Many of our families work in the industry. We live close to these places, and for much of my life, it seemed normal,” she said in an interview with Earth Justice. “As I grew older, I started to travel more out of the area and started seeing the differences between cities. There were certain cities where industry seemed nonexistent. You wouldn’t see as much trucking, freight shipping infrastructure, or warehouses as you would see in the Inland Empire. You also didn’t see many people of color living in these places.”

Vidaurre saw how the region’s green hills changed in recent years. Homes and schools were quickly replaced by warehouses, and the clean air began to be polluted with diesel truck fumes.

“One day, you’re looking at a beautiful green field. The next year, you’re seeing giant concrete walls with trucks coming in and out all day, every day, spewing toxic diesel,” Vidaurre told NBC News.

Today, the hard-working immigrant community, like Vidaurre’s family, struggles to breathe. “These experiences shaped my understanding that there was something specific happening in our communities versus others. I wanted to get involved,” she said.

Andrea Vidaurre with her colleagues at the People’s Collective for Environmental Justice (Photo: Goldman Environmental Prize)

An activist to reckon with

In 1980, there were 234 warehouses in the Inland Empire. Today, there are more than 4,000. This boom in recent decades has radically transformed the quality of life for communities of color. According to Calmatters, the situation is synonymous with the “galloping triumph of globalism that is streamlining the shipment of goods across America while hammering some of this region’s residents.”

Although the construction of warehouses in the region has increased job opportunities, the cost has been very high. According to two recent studies, diesel exhaust has contributed to worsening air quality. Today, the region has the nation’s highest concentration rates of ozone. 

“We’re breathing these toxic chemicals every single day,” Andrea Vidaurre told NBC News. “And more people are being exposed to it because there has been so much encroachment and expansion of warehousing.”

So, in 2018, the young activist began talking to her neighbors and calling attention to the smog surrounding the community. Two years later, she co-founded the People’s Collective for Environmental Justice. She also began lobbying top officials to see the industry’s impact firsthand.

Image Courtesy Goldman Environmental Prize Organization.

A well-deserved recognition

Vidaurre and her community’s hard work achieved the first victory in 2023. The People’s Collective for Environmental Justice succeeded in getting California state officials to adopt two transportation regulations to limit transportation emissions. Moreover, the initiative seeks to “create a path to 100% zero emissions for freight truck sales by 2036,” NBC News reported.

“This is going to transform the transportation sector,” Vidaurre said. “We’re not going to see it in a day, but in 20 years, we are going to have a completely different system. We’re going to have completely different neighborhoods.”

Vidaurre knows, however, that this is a David versus Goliath struggle. The activist said the biggest challenge she and members of her community faced in passing the regulations had to do with going up against an industry that is “very well funded” and can persuade decision-makers.

As the Goldman Prize committee said, throughout the campaign, Andrea was able to bridge the complexities of emissions policy and the environmental justice movements of local communities.

Although the EPA has not yet approved the new regulations, and although legal challenges from the industry remain, the new regulations have encouraged the trucking industry to begin phasing in new zero-emissions mandates in 2024. In addition, at least eight states have signaled their intent to adopt the new trucking standards once they are approved by the EPA.

The impact of the new California standards that Vidaurre and her team achieved will increase exponentially as other states adopt the new standards, which are significantly more stringent than the federal regulations.