Environmental justice champion Diane Takvorian, the granddaughter of Armenian Genocide survivors, whose organization has helped empower low-income residents seeking a healthy and sustainable quality of life for their neighborhoods, is the KPBS and the National Conflict Resolution Center's Community Hero for environmental sustainability.
Takvorian is the executive director of the Environmental Health Coalition, which she helped found in 1980. The coalition’s focus is environmental social justice, defined by the notion that everyone deserves a safe place to live, work and play, said Takvorian, who has been drawn to civil rights issues since her youth, KPBS says.
“I realized that in addition to housing discrimination, employment discrimination and racial discrimination in all forms, that there is also environmental racism going on in these communities,” said Takvorian, explaining the origins of the coalition. “There was a lot of pollution and there were really no solutions. We tried to bring this up to the authorities and we got very little response.”
That was in the beginning. More than three decades later, the coalition can claim many victories, all listed on the organization’s website. The National City-based nonprofit collaborates with community leaders in neighborhoods such as National City and Barrio Logan. Working in multiple arenas, the coalition’s overarching goal is environmental justice that leads to healthy and safe neighborhoods. Over the years, the coalition has worked to relocate commercial polluters that impact children’s health, reroute truck traffic off neighborhood streets and push for community plans that provide for more green space, affordable housing and sustainable transportation.
These victories are slow and steady, Takvorian said. Working within the political system, it can sometimes take 10 years to effect change.
Takvorian’s successes have caught the attention of important people. Former president Barack Obama is one of them. In 2009, Obama appointed Takvorian to the Joint Public Advisory Committee for the NAFTA Commission for Environmental Cooperation. In July 2008, Takvorian received the James Irvine Foundation Leadership Award for her effective and inclusive approach to creating a healthier environment for low-income communities in San Diego and across the state. In 2016, Takvorian was appointed to the California Air Resources Board, a state board charged with protecting the public from air pollution and developing programs that fight climate change.
Takvorian credits her passion for social justice to her own family’s travails that stretch back to the early 1900s. Her grandparents survived the Armenian Genocide in 1915 and came to the United States two years later. Takvorian and her parents lived in Pasadena, where she says she experienced some discrimination because of her ethnic background.
“As I grew I began to see that was happening to other people in my community,” she said. “My history, my grandparents’ history was the motivation for me to really do the right thing by people who are suffering now. That was my introduction to the civil rights movement and then ultimately the environmental justice movement.”
Takvorian says the hallmark of her organization is that it is a grassroots collaboration. She believes strongly that people can speak for themselves. Living in a democracy, people can gain power, she said, and that is her hope for the future.
“My legacy would be to see hundreds of thousands of empowered community members who have a voice and lift it up and demand the changes they want to see in their community,” she said.