Frances is finishing up her last few months as a graduate student in both Asian American Studies and Community Health Sciences. Her life revolves around Chinatown in Los Angeles where she volunteers with Chinatown Community for Equitable Development, a grassroots organization rooted in building the power of working-class immigrant communities and fighting for truly affordable housing. She also loves to hang out with the elderly.
What does ‘sustainability’ mean to you?
It’s a working definition because I’m still learning, but right now it means not taking more than Earth can provide or restore. My views on sustainability align with community spaces and people. We shouldn’t look at Earth as a commodity or something we can profit from, but as a place with environmental, social, and spiritual value.
Can you explain what you mean by ‘spiritual value’?
It goes back to my Buddhist faith and thinking beyond myself as an individual; valuing the people around me and the interactions I have. Spiritual values are the emotions I feel when I think about Earth and what it has provided for us so that we can live the life we want.
When did you become aware of your impact and how have you acted upon that?
I’m glad I can reflect on this now that I’m older. I really do believe my elders had a huge impact on me, mainly my parents, grandmas, and aunt. They really taught me how to take care of the environment, to be more frugal, and to be less wasteful. I became aware of my impact on Earth and the things I consume when I started grad school. I’m currently studying Public Health and obtaining a Food Study Certificate; it’s been interesting because these courses have made me more critical about food – something we interact with every day, but don’t think much about. I’m more critical about what I put in my body and the conditions and ethics surrounding the people who grow it, pick it, prepare it, and cook it.
Has the experience made you more conscious of your waste?
A lot of folks who grow our food are undocumented immigrants who don’t have the best working conditions and are oftentimes exploited, given our current food system. For me, to throw food away feels like an insult to the folks who put so much labor into it. Going back to my childhood, my parents always told me to never waste food. I think that speaks to their working-class experience. Both of my parents grew up in very poor areas in Vietnam. My grandma used to pick up rice from the ground and worked really hard to provide food for our family. I’m privileged to be able to afford nutritious food and it would be disrespectful to their experiences if I didn’t appreciate what I have.
“My elders had a huge impact [on my views], mainly my parents, grandmas, and aunt. They really taught me how to take care of the environment, to be more frugal, and to be less wasteful.”
How have you incorporated those values when trying to live a more sustainable lifestyle?
I want to be more intentional with the purchases I make. This year, I’m trying to commit more to slow fashion and to not buy anything new, especially because I already have so much stuff. I’ve been repurposing my mom’s old clothes and creatively incorporating the items she grew up with into my style. If I do need something new, I’ll purchase clothes from ethical companies like Everlane or small local businesses led by women or people of color. These include small shops in Chinatown as well as shops like Proclaim and Conrado. With beauty, I’ll look for products with natural ingredients or ones that don’t have harsh chemicals. With food, it’s really about not being wasteful, choosing healthier options, and purchasing locally grown produce.
Have you encountered any struggles with trying to shop more intentionally?
In terms of sustainability, a lot of the things I do is on an individual scale. It’s important to understand not everyone can make lifestyle changes for various reasons. For example, my parents are accustomed to the things they use because it’s familiar and it’s cheaper. But this is where we need to demand companies to commit to ethical practices, produce products without harsh chemicals, and make changes on a community and policy level.
Your work is very focused on the Chinatown, Los Angeles community. Has that affected your views and actions on sustainability?
Lower-income communities and communities of color are definitely negatively impacted by environmental issues. There are a lot of health disparities, but there’s a need for more quantitative and qualitative data about the health impacts on communities like Chinatown. This can make it hard to research and organize new programs. I’ve spent a lot of time talking with folks about their living conditions and you really begin to see what they have to go through. They have a need for more resources. They have to travel out of town to go to a good doctor or to find quality foods. They live near lots of pollution or in houses that are old and moldy.
“I think people who work on housing or the transit system need to work with environmentalists and grassroots organizers. There needs to be a more diverse group of people at the table when they create plans and make decisions that affect the community.”
What are some ways Los Angeles can become more sustainable while still keeping its lower income and people of color (POC) communities in mind?
Based off of my own experience, many working-class POC are left out of the decision-making process. I think the way the system is set up is just inaccessible. Public input meetings are held at times when the working class is working, like on a Monday at 1:00pm. Meetings are held in English. Notices that get sent out are in English. Sometimes fliers have a Spanish translation, but it’s usually a small blurb that doesn’t provide a lot of information or context. I know Los Angeles needs to improve our transit system, but transit-oriented developments are usually built near lower-income communities, which displace the very people who use them the most. That doesn’t make sense to me. I think people who work on housing or the transit system need to work with environmentalists and grassroots organizers. There needs to be a more diverse group of people at the table when they create plans and make decisions that affect the community.
If our readers wanted to help, what is the best way to get involved?
There are pros to the system, but I think it’s important to not be limited by the options provided in city government. We can do a lot of different things to address inequity. There are a lot of nonprofits and grassroots organizations that are fighting for more accessible decision-making processes, equitable development, and social justice. Center your research and actions around the experiences of lower-income communities and communities of color.
Are you hopeful about a more sustainable future?
I’m hopeful, but I’m also scared. I’ve been trying to balance hope, fear, anger, and so many emotions with our current government. The truth is, we live in a capitalist society, and I don’t think capitalism is sustainable. The things we’re doing, how we produce our food, and our ways of doing business are not sustainable. These practices disproportionately and negatively impact working-class people of color because businesses profit off of them. Still, I’m hopeful because I see a lot of progressive organizations and individuals who demand we change these systems to make them more sustainable, just, and equitable. All I want is for everyone to be able to live healthy and happy lives.
Any last words?
I think it’s important to think beyond ourselves as individuals and to think about the people and the spaces around us. For me personally, sustainability ties into everything I do at school, in Chinatown, and at home. My actions and my lifestyle affect you and yours affect me. How we exist as individuals are interconnected with everything and everyone.
Read more about our Zero Hour Story: What’s It All About series.
*This interview was modified for the purpose of the series.