Young LeadersLeveraging Social Media for Environmental Justice: Gia Chinchilla

Leveraging Social Media for Environmental Justice: Gia Chinchilla

Karl Dickinson
Karl Dickinson
Change matters. It takes courage. As a writer - and citizen - I am inspired by stories of those who challenge the 'we've always done it this way' attitude. We can do better - it's time to listen to those who go against the grain.

If you’re looking for inspiration, look no further! Meet Gianella Chinchilla, a 24-year-old climate activist and clean energy consultant from Los Angeles, USA. We can learn a lot from this founder of a popular environmental justice digital media platform and are proud to have her as an Urban Future 2020 Young Leader. Let’s take some time to get to know Gia, find out what makes her tick, and discover the link between biophilic design and equity in our cities.

Inequity Through a Child’s Eyes

Behind every CityChanger is a defining moment that launches them into urbanism. For Gia, it was seeing as a child how different life was for her inner-city relatives.

“What truly sparked my interest was my heritage”, Gia told us. She was born in the USA to Latin immigrant parents and raised in the suburbs an hour outside of LA. “In the suburbs I had access to so many parks. I walked to school safely and have memories of going on hikes. Everything involved a relationship with being outdoors.” Not everyone had it so idyllic.

In something she likens to a double life, Gia would visit family in the city centre. The quality of life was in “stark contrast”: she noticed the crime, violence, even the abundance of junk food outlets. It was “unsafe for us to run around on the street. We couldn’t even play in front of the street because that was a busy intersection”.

Even then Gia knew that “just because someone lives in an urban area shouldn’t mean that they have a poor quality of life”. Unsurprising then that Gia has developed a penchant for green spaces and a passion for equitable access.

International Influence

“LA is always going to be in my heart”, Gia told us. It’s home; the city she knows, the neighbourhoods that ignited her CityChanger’s passion. But she recognises how much Los Angeles can learn from other cities, especially those “from the global south that are already tackling so many mounting climate and sustainability issues”.

An interest in urban and biophilic design prompted Gia to make an extended trip to Mexico City. “When I was there, the planning of urban mobility was something that I felt was at the focus of a lot of their policy, or a lot of their redevelopment of the city.” There are, she says, green spaces were abundant. It’s easy to forget you’re standing in a bustling urban metropolis.

If there was one take-home from this, Gia says, it was “just making sure that we’re including green spaces when drafting up or planning a city”. Although there has been a clear rise in “advocacy for parks, for public spaces, for shade, for transportation” in LA’s greater urban centres over the past decade, Gia expects more. She has seen it first-hand. And she’s making it happen.

A Progressive Professional

Gia asked herself a question: “How can we create systems and structures in our urban design, or through our policy, that’s going to support not only equitable development, but equitable access to health and good quality of life?”

The answer was to take her environmental ethos and make it a career. Gia is now a Senior Programs & Creative Associate at GNA – Gladstein, Neandross and Associates – a consultancy specialising in clean transport, technology, and renewable energy projects. She advises on funding opportunities to help clients “adopt zero-emission technologies in order to reduce their carbon emissions”.

Given what prompted Gia’s CityChanger beginnings, it’s no surprise that she’s so proud of one project in particular, one with massive “positive human impact in the community”. Specifically, she’s overseeing the transition from diesel engines on freight trucks that serve the Port of LA to electric ones. They drive through local neighbourhoods, which have until now been “disproportionately affected by negative air quality, because of all of that goods movement”. Not any more. It’s “really exciting, because we’re already seeing a massive reduction in emissions and an improvement of the air quality in those communities outside of the port”.

Highly admirable. And that’s just the start!

Voice of the Young

While in her senior year studying politics and environmental studies at the University of California, Los Angeles, Gia worked at the City of Los Angeles’ Office of Sustainability. The Green New Deal had just been released and Gia was tasked with the marketing outreach campaign.

For all the stakeholders the strategy was targeting, Gia realised one was absent. “The one voice that I felt was missing in our campaign, in our outreach, was the voice of youth, which was crazy to me.”

I feel that the environmental movement, the sustainability movement, is really championed by young voices.

Proactive to the core, Gia approached the department head with an idea: a digital marketing side project to directly engage young people and universities. They took the bait. It soon grew to be more than just about the Green New Deal: “I decided I wanted to take this on more robustly,” Gia remembers, to “create an online space where young people can discuss climate issues that were happening in the city”.

That’s how Gia founded Climate Action LAb.

Climate Action LAb

Gia knows personally how Gen Z gets their news: “I would be lying if I told you that I didn’t check Twitter or Instagram first thing in the morning.” That’s why Climate Action LAb (CAL) uses Instagram to connect with, educate, and inspire young people – primarily 18- to 25-year-olds – in the LA valley. It’s a perfect fit for someone with such strong leadership and story-telling credentials.

People are hungry for it! The team that runs what Gia describes as “an environmental justice digital media platform” has expanded. The 10 volunteers, all under 25, use digestible content, memes, and videos to spark interest in environmental issues and local climate stories.

And they are local. Los Angeles sits in a geographical bowl, thus creating a “unique” microclimate. The effect of climate change “happens so intensely, because we are in such a small space, a small parameter”. Ultimately, the CAL team seeks to empower the 8,000-strong online community with “actionable steps”; to take a stand when it otherwise seems “too intimidating or daunting”.

While it has so many issues, I think the one positive side to social media is that it really can be a gateway to issues that you did not know about.

That’s the point: raising awareness. But while Climate Action LAb’s posts are well-informed, Gia encourages critical thinking, for looking at a range of sources to fact-check any story we hear on social media: it is “not the only education one should have about a topic”. Everyone should be “taking the onus of responsibility on yourself to do more research beyond the social media sphere”. It’s this transparency that makes CAL so trustworthy.

Stop and Listen

Hearing Gia speak about her activism with such infectious enthusiasm, it’s easy to understand why Climate Action LAb has attracted so much attention in just two years. Alongside numerous local organisations, CAL has teamed up with the City of Los Angeles’ Office of Sustainability, the NRDC (Natural Resources Defense Council), and the EDF (Environmental Defense Fund). The list continues! As a Youth Climate Activist, Gia spoke at the United Nations’ Global Climate Action Summit. And she delivered the following TED talk:

Image credit: TEDxPlaceMuseuxSalon / Gia Chinchilla

But it’s not all about getting information out there – being open to receiving is just as important.

“When I first began Climate Action LAb,” Gia told us, “I thought the skill that I needed to have was using my voice, stepping up and being a leader, advocating for others”. But as time progresses, “what actually feels more important to me is the power and the skill set of listening”.

Gia makes time to “sit down and listen”. To people. To “the stories of founders – listen to the stories of frontline workers and community leaders”. And to anyone advocating for change. In this way, she can truly understand the layers of their story, what they want to achieve. “And through that I’m able to then write a more honest take on their experience, and I noticed that our audience and our community members really are better receiving that content more.” By opening our ears, we tell a better story when we open our mouths.

Advice – Poles Apart

Gia was happy to share some words of wisdom with us. And some… let’s say, not-so-wise words she’s been told, too.

“The worst piece of advice that I ever received, was that you always have to choose one or the other. That life is binary.” It’s true that the path to sustainability often requires gradual steps – education, discussion, activism, innovation, negotiation, action. Solutions aren’t all-encompassing straight off the bat. That “seems so preposterous”. Gia sees the value of gradients:

“I have found that there is so much richness in the grey and the in-between, and that there’s no such thing as black or white.”

And the best advice she’s received? This came from Gia’s mentor at the City of Los Angeles, former Deputy Chief Sustainability Officer Dominique Hargreaves. She’d say: “As difficult of a movement as this is, don’t take yourself too seriously. No one person can solve it alone. We’re gonna figure it out collectively over time.”

Not easy to take it all in your stride when the world is effectively relying on your career and passion project to turn around climate change. At least, that’s how crushing the pressure can seem. But “it’s not just one person’s job, it’s not just one organisation’s job, this is a communal effort”. Solving the climate crisis needs collaboration and a collective voice. That’s advice worth remembering for all of us.

A big part of making this work is a support network. “In the middle of what feels like overwhelming days, I know that I can lean on colleagues and friends in this space for support.” Many of them are “beautiful relationships and friendships that I have made and collaborations that I’ve built, through this movement”.

A La La Land of the Future

Los Angeles is an exciting city. It must have an exciting future ahead. For one thing, it’ll host the Olympic Games in 2028. This has been a springboard for a lot of development. While disappointed it’s not the needs of the planet and a people-friendly outlook that has kickstarted the investment, Gia is enthusiastic about the change and what it means for equity in the city.

“LA is finally tackling its weird attachment to car culture” which has persisted for so long “because our city has not been set up in a way that allows for public transportation to really be the main mode of getting around.” This will change within the decade as bike and pedestrian lanes and a number of new transit lines are built “to connect folks all across the board over the 12 miles space that makes up Los Angeles”.

It’s this improved accessibility, and that “Los Angeles is finally stepping up to the housing crisis” that will realise Gia’s life-long dream of a more equitable city.

If it went her way, Gia would see the city administration go a step further and offer “free public transportation for all Angelenos” as well as “just and safer, equitable housing” that’s affordable to those on “the minimum wage”, making sure it “is not outpricing folks outside of their salary”.

But most of all, Gia would love to see “more equitable access to green space within cities”.

Keen on Green

Gia’s extended family lives in what is still “a disproportionately marginalised community; its mostly Latino Americans, mostly lower- to middle-income class”. When asked if things have altered in these communities since her childhood, Gia’s response was honest: “I don’t see a change necessarily in that specific part of the city”.

They are still denied “that true connection to nature” outside their door. The beach is only 5 miles (8 km) away, but it’s a stranger to them. They never visit a park because they’d have to make a concerted effort to do so.

“I think having that relationship to nature is so important for our mental health and our mental wellbeing, and really adds to our quality of life.

This is Gia’s focus now: improving the quality of life for Angelenos. Green spaces in policy and the fabric of how the city is built, she believes, are the answer.

“That’s really what drives me. I think everybody deserves an equal right to a clean, happy, and healthy environment that sustains you.”

Be Sociable

Whether you’re a resident in LA and want to be part of the movement, or are simply looking for inspiration for your own city, we highly recommend you check out Climate Action LAb’s website and follow them on Instagram.

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