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El Monte environmental justice advocate discusses parks, bikes and access to the San Gabriel Mountains

The following post was written by intern Maggie Su as part of a series of profiles of API members of the community.

Amy J. Wong fell in love with nature in her family’s backyard, where her grandmother had planted fruit trees of all sorts: jujube, kumquat, guava. It was among those trees and more that she grew up hearing stories of her grandmother’s past in Cambodia and Vietnam. But it wasn’t until her college days at the University of California, Berkeley, that she discovered the world of environmentalism and environmental justice.

In addition to the sustainability initiatives that the Berkeley community embraced, Wong was introduced to case studies of cities such as Oakland and Richmond in environmental health classes. She learned about such cities as places in need of environmental justice, not realizing until she returned home from college that her native El Monte was the perfect example of an environmental justice community.

El Monte, located in the San Gabriel Valley, is a particularly park-poor neighborhood. In addition to its lack of green space, the city is surrounded by freeways and has some of the worst air quality in the nation, according to Wong.

“We’re surrounded by the 10, the 605 and the 60,” Wong said. “[The freeways] become like the clogged arteries of the neighborhood.”

The parks that El Monte does have are often flanked by one of these surrounding freeways. Fletcher Park, for instance, is directly adjacent to both the 10 freeway and the El Monte Bus Station — what Wong described as the largest bus station west of the Mississippi.

The San Gabriel Valley Greenway Network is an initiative intended to restore balance to the area, hoping to transform storm channels, washes and creeks into a network of multi-use paths. The paths, in addition to providing space for residents to walk and bike, would connect neighboring communities — and the parks in those communities — lessening the need for cars.

“Parks are so important to restore the needed nature balance in our cities in the San Gabriel Valley because of the other environmental barriers,” Wong said. “Because we have so many freeways and it’s a car-centric area, we need alternative options for our communities to get around and to access open spaces.”

The Greenway Network initiative, which has a target completion date of 2025, is supported by groups such as BikeSGV and San Gabriel Mountains Forever (SGMF) — a coalition of organizations working together to protect the San Gabriel Mountains. Wong works toward SGMF’s mission to provide access for all and to create the next generation of environmental stewards as a coalition coordinator, and also leads BikeSGV’s Women on Wheels program.

As part of her work for BikeSGV, Wong runs People Bike SGV, a blog and pet project of hers where she shares stories of people who bike. She asks people questions such as how they started biking, their earliest cycling memories and their favorite places to bike. Wong hopes that by featuring women and people of color, the blog will draw attention to the diversity of the bike world.

BikeSGV’s Women on Wheels, a women-only biking group, is similarly intended to make cycling more accessible to underrepresented populations. In addition to being the minority in the bike world, women also face barriers or safety concerns such as catcalling.

“We started out a couple years ago because we found there was a need for a safe space for women to bike,” Wong said. “Men dominate the biking scene by at least two to one.”

Women on Wheels has hosted about 15 rides so far in efforts to empower women to bike. In addition to biking as a group, participants are connected to resources in the region and use biking as a means of accessing other parts of the community. For example, one ride incorporated yoga in a park. Another ride ended in a hike at Fish Canyon Falls.

Although many residents of El Monte do bike, it is usually out of necessity rather than recreationally. Many ride on sidewalks, despite it being illegal in the city of El Monte. But residents have an unspoken understanding, Wong said, that doing so is often necessary due to a lack of biking infrastructure that makes riding on the street unsafe.

Wong herself has positive childhood memories of biking, riding around her neighborhood — on the sidewalks — with her father and sister.

“It was that spirit of community and family that made it extra fun,” Wong said. “Biking in itself is already fun, but when you’re biking and playing games with your sibling or family, that encouraged me to go out and bike more often than not.”

She did not bike while at college in Berkeley. As an Asian American, Wong did not feel included in the predominantly white bike culture there. But she got back into cycling once she started volunteering with BikeSGV, realizing that she ought to take advantage of local resources such as the Emerald Necklace.

“We have the Emerald Necklace as a totally protected bike route away from cars that leads from the mountains to the sea,” Wong said. “It’s a very valuable example of what open space that has multimodal connections can do.”

Wong’s experience with a lack of diversity in the bike and bike advocacy world was not limited to her time in Berkeley. She spoke of the League of American Bicyclists’ 2015 hiring of Alex Doty as their new executive director — a decision that prompted a letter from advocates demanding that the organization adhere to more inclusive hiring practices and search for a more diverse group of candidates.

“We believe that any organization that values equity, diversity, and inclusion should begin with intentional hiring practices that seek to ensure a diverse pool of candidates,” the letter said.

Although some in the environmental movement have already made great progress toward prioritizing environmental justice and equity in their organizational framework, some groups would benefit from a greater emphasis on diversification. Wong recalled discovering that the board members of a national foundation — the organization for which she wrote a first-place blog entry about the San Gabriel Mountains — were predominantly white.

“I think there’s definitely a need to diversify the environmental justice movement and to continue co-powering people of color to get involved and to want to do this work,” Wong said.

She finds it especially important that a diverse group of people work on issues in her region. The San Gabriel Valley is the largest combined Latino and Asian population in the country, according to Wong. El Monte in particular is now about two-thirds Latino and over a quarter Asian. The fact that the San Gabriel Mountains — designated a national monument by Obama in 2014 — are in close proximity to urban communities of color in the San Gabriel Valley makes it even more crucial that they be protected. The San Gabriel Mountains are one of 27 national monuments whose status is currently being reviewed by the Department of the Interior following an executive order from the Trump administration.

“How many of those national monuments are so close to urban, low-income communities of color?” Wong said. “What we have is unique community with unique needs and cultural fabric. It’s very important to be cognizant of that when we’re doing our work.”

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