As a child, she playing in Leon Creek, a meandering stream that crosses Kelly Air Force Base in the southwest side of the city.
But as Diane Lopez grew up, she become keenly aware how the specter of contamination at Kelly had changed the creek, her neighborhood, and her city. It was the necessary betrayal of a dear childhood memory that would help create an activist.
While high school advisers recommended she join the U.S. Air Force to sate her interest in flight, Lopez went another direction, taking up with the community justice organization, the Southwest Workers Union
In 2007, she helped mobilize the community and successfully fought off the construction of two million-gallon diesel tanks on the East Side.
To celebrate, Lopez and others at SWU launched what would grow into the “Roots of Change Community Garden.” It was that effort that took Lopez to California last week and saw the 20-year-old honored as a 2009 Brower Youth Award
From the Earth Island Institute’s press release:
In October 2009, Earth Island Institute’s Brower Youth Awards will celebrate its tenth anniversary of spotlighting North America’s boldest young environmental leaders. Lopez will join five other environmental leaders under the age of 23 in receiving the Brower Youth Award and a $3,000 cash prize for their achievements, while being recognized at a gala celebration in San Francisco on October 20, 2009, with 900 individuals in attendance.
The six winners were chosen from more than 125 applicants for their creative and effective work tackling problems ranging from food justice to deforestation, global warming to pollution. The thirteen judges for the award are leaders in business, journalism and the nonprofit sector, including Josh Dorfman of The Sundance Channel’s “Lazy Environmentalist”, Judith Helfand, the director of the global warming film “Everything’s Cool”, and Philippe Cousteau, CEO of EarthEcho International and grandson of Jacques Cousteau.
Lopez has been studying aviation, hoping to better understand the contamination issues at Kelly while also working toward securing a pilot’s license. But with her new perspective, she wonders why the military option was pushed on her as aggressively as it was.
“The alternatives were there, they just weren’t given to me,” she said. With SWU, she “started learning about my community — the liver cancers, the environmental racism of just where I lived. You don’t really notice it’s embedded in the community.”
That awareness has also helped propel Lopez into an outspoken critic fighting against the proposed city investment in two new nuclear reactors in Matagorda County.
While the gardens have required a lot of work — broken glass and syringes to be carefully exhumed and disposed of, for instance — volunteers from area schools, including St. Mary’s University, have helped.
Beginning next year, Lopez hopes to hold more community events at the "Roots of Change" garden — that it will evolve into a safe, thriving corner for all in the area to sit and discuss issues of social justice and the struggle for equality.
The soothing beds of eggplants, chiles, kale, and cabbage have even inspired her most recently to change her major to agricultural studies. “I started gardening and I figured out I was really good at it,” she said. “It’s been really interesting how I’ve been developing.”
Obviously, she isn’t the only one who thinks so.