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From Classrooms to Sacramento, Fatima Iqbal-Zubair Takes on Environmental Racism in South Central LA

The answer to environmental justice isn’t reform — it’s a systemic overhaul.

Courtesy of Fatima for Assembly

Co-written by Alison Cary and Jack Manning

There’s one through line of Fatima Iqbal-Zubair’s campaign for California State Assembly: a sense of urgency. This time last year, she was making lesson plans for her juniors and seniors in Watts, where she taught chemistry, environmental science and robotics. “The most important aspects of teaching are feeling connected. It is something that I’m at peace doing, and my students inspired me.”

Now, she’s challenging the three-term incumbent in the district. She fights for deep and systemic results as opposed to the incremental reforms her opponent offers, summed up in a trademark of the campaign: “We Can’t Wait.”

With her students, Fatima studied pollution in South Central LA. It was as a teacher that she first learned that her community had some of the worst air pollution rates in California, partly as a result of the four nearby refineries and many oil wells (there are over 5,000 in LA County). You don’t have to look far from the classroom to see environmental injustice at work: just this summer, LAUSD filed a lawsuit against a metal recycling plant that was directly adjacent to Fatima’s school for endangering students with sharp projectiles.

“Near the school, there are a lot of toxic sites. The kids first brought it up to me, talking about lack of access to clean water in the school. The water hardly ever came out clear from the water fountains and was always cloudy. My kids couldn’t use the football field because of the arsenic toxicity in the soil. It’s beyond unsafe.”

Watts is part of California Assembly District 64, which also encompasses nearby areas like Compton, Wilmington, Carson, and North Long Beach. District 64 contains 25% of the state’s oil refineries and ranks in the top 5–10% most polluted communities in California. Fatima saw firsthand the impact of these statistics in her classroom. Too many of her students suffered from asthma and other health issues. Soon, Fatima found herself becoming increasingly enraged by the environmental racism she and her students were experiencing. “Watts has the lowest life expectancy in all of LA county and it’s not by accident. It’s environmental racism at work.”

Fatima with the Robotics Team, courtesy of Fatima for Assembly

Fatima’s work in the classroom quickly led her to Watts Rising, a collaboration dedicated to improving the quality of life and the environment in Watts. “I was in the leadership council as a community stakeholder with some of my students interested in environmental justice. I saw firsthand how broken the lines of communication were between the community and the city officials, how much distrust had built. Their voices weren’t heard for far too long.”

Last summer is when things really changed for Fatima. As she got more involved in the community, she began delving more and more into local environmental policies. After some frustrating encounters while serving as the Education Commissioner for the local State Assemblymember, Mike Gipson, Fatima began looking into state environmental policy and her own representative’s record.

“When I found out about his voting record, I had tears in my eyes. How could he sleep at night, doing this for seven years? The sad part is, Gipson is continuing to uphold this cycle of toxic air and water in our district. He recently did not vote yes on AB3030, which requires protection for 30% of California’s land and waters by 2030. The truth is he is not progressive when it comes to environmental policy, and it is hurting our district.”

Mike Gipson is a former cop and District 64’s current State Assemblymember, an office he’s held since 2014. He voted against AB1328, which strengthens emission reporting requirements on abandoned wells, and SB100, which set a goal of 100% clean energy in California by 2045. He also voted absent on other environmental bills such as AB2447 (provides information to residents who are potentially impacted by pollution in their native language), AB2447 (provides funds to cities most impact by pollution) SB64 (requires state agencies to identify ways to reduce air pollution), and AB127 (would have mandated the closure of Aliso Canyon gas facility). Fatima also discovered that he accepted tens of thousands of dollars from many of the local oil and gas companies like Chevron, Phillips 66, and Exxon Mobil.

When Fatima learned about these bills, she thought of her students and the lack of access to good schools, clean air, clean water, and something shifted. “I want them to see someone they trust in office. Someone who has community engagement and their best interests in mind. Someone who wants to work to end the decades of systemic racism and create thriving communities.”

Since then, Fatima has been hard at work. She officially launched her campaign last fall and began attending dozens of community meetings every week. Many of the groups she went to noted that no elected official had ever come to a meeting. When she started door-knocking for the primary, many neighbors said the same: no elected official had ever come to their door to explain their election or ask them to vote.

Fatima with her students, courtesy of Fatima for Assembly

This motivated Fatima even more. By her estimates, she knocked on tens of thousands of doors in the primary along with the help of dozens of volunteers. She earned 33% of the vote in the primary and pushed straight into the general election. When COVID-19 hit the community, she immediately turned her campaign into a mutual aid network, mobilizing volunteers to call elders across the community and connect them to needed services, delivering masks and food boxes to dozens of community members across the district. “In capitalism it’s always about how we can advance ourselves and our self interests, but why is my husband or mom or son more important than my neighbors? We are a speck of dust in the universe. Why is our life and loved ones more important than our neighbor’s loved ones? I needed to step up because that’s what our campaign represents. We need to lead with compassion, love and justice for all.”

Since then Fatima and her volunteers have slowed down their mutual aid work and returned to focusing more heavily on spreading awareness about her candidacy. She has been endorsed by several local activist groups, including DSA-LA, Ground Game LA, Sunrise Movement LA, and Our Revolution.

“Our community has been organizing for a better environment for over 40 years. And still, over 48 fracking permits have been approved in California since the start of the coronavirus pandemic, and there’s been no reduction in air pollution. We have a lot of state control over our environmental policy, and this is simply unacceptable.”

And while ending environmental racism is Fatima’s top priority, her campaign is pushing an entire slate of progressive policies — defunding the police and investing in public schools and social services, health care, jobs and housing. The foundation of these policies is a real investment in the people of her district — demonstrated by her refusal of Corporate PAC money. Fatima says, “As a candidate, I only want to be beholden to one group — the people of my district.”

Over the course of his six years in office, Mike Gipson has taken tens of thousands of dollars from police unions and oil and gas companies.

Fatima along with a host of local activist organizations including DSA-LA, DSA-Long Beach, Ground Game LA, Sunrise Movement LA, Sunrise UCI, and Sunrise LA Youth (SLAY), Carson Alliance 4 Truth, and others will march to demand Mike Gipson return his police and fossil fuel company donations.

The march will occur on Sunday August 30, at 2 PM in Wilson Park in Compton.

March with us as we ask: Which side are you on, Mike? Because WE CAN’T WAIT for people-centered leadership. We can’t wait to end neighborhood drilling. We can’t wait to end corporate bribery in our politicians.

[Editor’s Note: Iqbal-Zubair has been endorsed by KNOCK.LA and our larger organizing structure, Ground Game LA.]

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