August 8, 2008

Environmental activist recognized for her work with Latino communities

By Pablo Jaime Sáinz

A local environmental justice leader has received a prestigious award for her work helping low-income and Latino families in San Diego County improve the living conditions in their communities.

Diane Takvorian, executive director and co-founder of Environmental Health Coalition (EHC), based in National City, was one of 12 community leaders selected for the 2008 James Irvine Foundation Leadership Award, which recognize extraordinary leaders for their success tackling some of California’s most critical challenges.

The awards seek to share their effective approaches with policymakers and others who can apply the lessons from these promising models.

And the model that Takvorian and her team have developed since 1979, the year in which EHC was founded, has proven that it works. Whether it has been used to get rid of toxic waste in Barrio Logan or Old Town National City, EHC tries to empower community members so that they themselves can fight against discrimination and gain environmental justice.

“People in communities know best what the problems are and how they should be solved,” Takvorian said. “We put that together with training so that they can be effective advocates for improving their lives.”

This year’s award recipients include 12 Californians from six organizations, including Takvorian and EHC, working to improve the health of minority communities, reduce the impact of climate change, rehabilitate gang members, advocate for foster youth and give low-income workers better access to mainstream financial services.

“At a time when Californians are hungry for new, practical ideas for solving everyday problems, these award recipients represent the gold standard for innovation and leadership,” said Jim Canales, Irvine President and CEO. “They are tackling the most daunting issues, from gang violence to climate change, and delivering cutting-edge solutions that other communities and leaders can replicate.”

Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger joined the Foundation in congratulating the 2008 recipients for their achievements.

“I’m once again honored to be standing with these visionary leaders, and we are privileged to call them fellow Californians,” he said. “We all can learn from their positive spirit and their successful approaches in their respective fields, and I thank them for their valuable contributions to our state.”

The Irvine Foundation will award $125,000 to each of the recipients’ organizations to advance their work.

Takvorian said that the EHC will use those funds to continue their environmental justice programs, which have already crossed the border and are being implemented to help poor colonias in Tijuana.

The majority of EHC members are low-income parents who are constantly looking for better living conditions for their families. They can be Latino immigrants who might not be fluent in English, but who have the heart and courage to step up to racism and put an end to social discrimination.

In the meetings and demonstrations in Barrio Logan, National City or Chula Vista, one can see mothers with babies in their strollers in one hand and holding a sign that reads “Stop Childhood Lead Poisoning.”

“I’m constantly inspired by the people in our communities, who are working two jobs and raising a family, and still make the time to participate with EHC to fight for justice,” Takvorian said.

Takvorian came to San Diego decades ago to earn a master degree in social work from San Diego State University after being involved in the civil rights movement in Los Angeles. In 1979, she cofounded the Environmental Health Coalition with a group of activists after noticing that minority groups such as Latinos and African-Americans were living next to toxic waste dumps.

Takvorian pointed out that the award is not just recognizing her work, but the work of the EHC staff and armies of volunteers who dedicate themselves to improving the communities they live in and stopping what she calls “environmental racism.”

“I’m just part of a team that’s constantly challenging discrimination and looking for environmental justice for everyone in our communities,” she said.

To learn more about Diane Takvorian and how you can get involved with the Environmental Health Coalition, please visit

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