One in every nine children in Maricopa County is asthmatic. The Arizona county, home to Phoenix, has some of the most polluted air in the country. At least 13 percent of Maricopa residents under 65 lack health insurance; 12 percent of the county’s population lives in poverty. But Maricopa is also home to the state’s first 84-seat electric school bus.
That’s in large part thanks to community organizer Teo Argueta and a group of local moms. Organizing with Chispa Arizona, a program of the League of Conservation Voters (LCV) based in Phoenix that seeks to build political power in Latino communities, Argueta worked with Cartwright Elementary School District mothers and other community members to push through the passage of a school bond last year that would help underwrite the bus in question.
When the bond passed and the district secured a matching federal grant, Cartwright was able to finance the purchase. “It was hard,” said Cartwright Superintendent LeeAnn Aguilar-Lawlor. “But there was never a time where we said we’re not going to make this happen.” The school district plans to put the zero-emissions bus into action this fall, when students head back to in-person classes.
At least 95 percent of the country’s half-million school buses run on diesel, a known carcinogen that can exacerbate asthma and other respiratory ailments. Nationwide, 60 percent of low-income students ride the bus to school (versus 45 percent of higher-income students).
Maricopa County might be peppered with statistics, but the community power being built in the Cartwright school district offers the potential for a new narrative.
And the bus is just the beginning. The $60 million school bond will also support building and infrastructure upgrades. “Not only do we need electric school buses, but in order for school buses to survive and to actually thrive, they need good infrastructure,” said Dulce Juarez, co-director of Chispa AZ.
LCV’s Chispa — “spark” — works for a broader form of infrastructure: the kind that comes from civic engagement, voter participation, getting a seat at the table, and being recognized for environmental leadership. The program’s bet is that sparking the movement begins with organizing. Cartwright’s electric bus is the newest proof that they’re right.
The story of Chispa and the “Cartwright Moms” is the centerpiece of a new film directed by Pita Juarez, an Arizona-based filmmaker and LCV’s Chispa National Communications and Creative Strategies Director. Juarez believes that “as the country is reckoning with racial and environmental justice, there is an opportunity to tie together our narratives to show how systemic these experiences of environmental injustice are, and accordingly, how intersectional our solutions must be.”
Juarez’s film, Community Power Arizona: En Nuestrxs Manos (In Our Hands), is part of a new series of short films by The Redford Center, showcasing community power and storytelling in a collective call for civic engagement around clean transportation.
“Having this electric school bus tells me again: Things happen because this community has power,” said Argueta. He’s optimistic about the next chapter. “Once the community knows there is power there, they will exercise that power.”