Vanessa Perkins, left, and Neda Deylami charging an electric car at Plant Chicago.
Vanessa Perkins, left, and Neda Deylami charging an electric car at Plant Chicago. Credit: Audrey Henderson

Advocates working to electrify transportation in Chicago’s disinvested communities say new state and federal policies will give them a much-needed boost.

BIPOC and other environmental justice communities have traditionally borne the double-sided burden of disinvestment and disparate impact of environmental harm. In Chicago, these communities are largely concentrated on the city’s South and West sides. 

However, organizations like the Community Charging Initiative pilot, funded by a Keeling Curve Prize for Global Warming Mitigation grant, are working to remedy the lack of public charging stations outside of the city’s downtown and affluent White neighborhoods on the North Side and along Lake Michigan.

To that end, Community Charging Initiative works with woman-owned peer-to-peer charging software app developer EVMatch, along with local companies, to install charging stations in BIPOC communities and other charging deserts in and around the city.

The organization installed a community-based electric vehicle charging station with two Level 2 chargers at Plant Chicago in October 2021 using the services of two local Black-owned companies — AMB Renewable Energy, owned by Arthur Burton, and W. Terry Electric LLC, owned by Wendell Terry. 

Plant Chicago is a nonprofit aquaponics grower located in Back of the Yards, a predominantly Latinx community on Chicago’s Southwest side. The charger can be reserved by community residents on their mobile devices through the EVMatch app.

“This is one of the hugest solutions; not the solution, but it’s one [solution],” said Vanessa Perkins, one of the organizers of the Community Charging Initiative. “Electrification is one of the biggest ways we can reduce climate change impacts and emissions.” 

Timely boost

The passage last year of the Illinois Climate and Equitable Jobs Act was especially timely in enhancing the mission of the Community Charging Initiative. Legislation like the Climate and Equitable Jobs Act and the newly enacted Inflation Reduction Act provides momentum for initiatives like the Community Charging Initiative. 

Likewise, the recently instituted Illinois EV Rebate Program provides both incentive and financial resources for people who might be inclined to purchase an electric vehicle but who are put off by their high up-front costs. As of July 1, Illinois residents who purchase new or used all-electric vehicles — other than electric motorcycles — from an Illinois licensed dealer are eligible for rebates of up to $4,000. Purchasers of new or used all-electric motorcycles are entitled to a maximum $1,500 rebate. 

At the same time, the organization isn’t waiting for the Climate and Equitable Jobs Act or other legislation to take full force before moving forward, Perkins said. 

“According to science, we have a timeline to tackle climate change and our air quality is bad now, you know? This is taking a step towards that time limit,” Perkins said. “And so, I would just encourage people who are like, ‘Oh, well, we’re going to get reimbursed for EV infrastructure later on’ — I personally feel like we’re out of time.” 

Plant Chicago was eager to take advantage of the opportunity to make a desired change that was not immediately forthcoming.

“For us at Plant Chicago, this was kind of a, I don’t want to say back-burner goal, but it was definitely a long-term goal for us to have a charger at some point in the future,” said Eric Weber, circular economy operations specialist. “And this really just was wonderful that it happened to fall into our lap in a way where we were able to implement it long before we ever saw a need.” 

Urgent need

The need for electrification has become more urgent in recent years with the increased number of vehicles on the road, according to Elizabeth Kócs, Ph.D., an adjunct assistant professor at the University of Illinois Chicago College of Engineering.

“From 2015 to 2019, greenhouse gas emissions from electricity generation versus the transportation sector switched places,” Kócs said. “Our electricity generation became cleaner, but our transportation sector became dirtier. Not that it became dirtier, but there was just more of it. More transportation — because of more passenger cars, more freight, more shipping, more travel — in just a few years made transportation the most emitting sector in the United States.” 

According to a recent study, urban industrial neighborhoods like Little Village, another predominantly Latinx community on the city’s Southwest side, are subjected to some of the worst air quality in the city. Little Village has been the focus of recent controversy stemming from the botched demolition of the Crawford coal plant and the location of a large Target warehouse, which critics claim would also exacerbate poor air quality in the community.

Hazards from exhaust emissions have been also exacerbated by the coronavirus pandemic, according to a 2020 Harvard University study, which linked higher rates of death from COVID-19 to areas suffering from high levels of air pollution. Air quality in Back of the Yards does not fare well either, due to its proximity to Little Village, according to Perkins. 

‘Reverberating effect’

Incentives that make electric vehicles more affordable will have a knock-on effect of improved health outcomes for BIPOC and environmental justice communities as gas-powered vehicles are replaced by electric ones, according to Terry Travis, co-founder and CEO of EV Hybrid Noire. The Atlanta-based organization is devoted to promoting electric vehicle ownership among Black and Latinx drivers.

“If you electrify your transportation factor, it has a reverberating effect,” Travis said. “One of the things that is very apparent, and the reason that we prioritize Black and Latinx communities, is the fact that those are the communities that are impacted first to worst. So, if you think about the fact that an African American child in metro Chicago, living in an urban core and living in underserved communities, is 10 times more likely to die from asthma [or] respiratory-related illnesses than their White counterparts — that is why we can’t wait on this. 

“For our communities, for Black and Brown communities, it’s a matter of life. And so, we need to electrify all segments of the transportation sector because that is the largest contributor to carbon emissions.” 

Placing electric vehicles within financial reach of working-class individuals and families will also improve their general quality of life by making it easier to get to work, buy groceries and travel to fulfill other necessities — not to mention entertainment and social life, according to Neda Deylami, an EV owner who founded a group called Chicago Electric Vehicles. 

Deylami observed early on the disparities between the experiences of residents in the working-class neighborhood where she grew up versus those of White students living in more affluent areas of the city.

“My parents were immigrants from Iran. The neighborhood I lived in is predominantly other immigrants and refugees,” Deylami said. “[When later] I would go to high school and college, [I learned] how segregated Chicago actually was. I didn’t know that, for example, there were so many White people in Chicago. I thought everyone was an immigrant like me, because all of my friends had foreign parents. 

“My high school was 3 miles away from my house, and it took me 45 minutes to get there [by bus]. But a lot of my friends that had parents who could drop them off or had cars and were able to drive to school had a much easier time. I think that that also affected how I saw school because I slept less. I had less time to study and I was also working for a time after school. It just framed a lot of my lifestyle.” 

‘Paradigm shift’

Projects like the EV charging station at Plant Chicago are designed to provide economic development and local social benefits through building community-owned EV charging infrastructure, along with reducing automobile emissions with the increased adaptation of electric vehicles. Plant Chicago was eager to get on board with the installation.

“Our vision is that we envision a paradigm shift in production, consumption and waste driven at the local level, generating equity and economic opportunity for all residents,” said Jonathan Pereira, executive director of Plant Chicago. “So, we’re very focused on making sure that, as we transition away from infinite extraction towards renewable energy, removing ourselves from fossil fuel consumption, that there is an equitable access and outcome.” 

Stacey McIlvaine, an electrician and certified solar installer working with W. Terry Electric, is excited about the transition. 

“When you get more variety to choose from, and it becomes more affordable, and once the infrastructure’s there, it makes it even more positive for somebody to jump into an electric car than it does a gas vehicle,” McIlvaine said. “I personally think it’s going to happen and eventually you won’t see any gas vehicles. They’ll be like collectors’ items.” 

Community-led solutions

Sustainability and resilience initiatives are frequently marketed as luxury enclaves or initiated with little or no input from BIPOC voices. Installations like the Plant Chicago EV charging station can tie economic development and local social benefits from building community-owned EV charging infrastructure.

There is also the need to ensure that federal funding is focused on the needs of communities, rather than a top-down approach that may garner favorable press — but offers little or no actual benefit to impacted residents. Organizations like the Community Charging Initiative are committed to a community-based approach, which is the right way to go about the process, according to Kócs, the University of Illinois Chicago professor.

“When we think about sustainability, when we think about economic development, when we think about just transitions, those are all the foundations for creating that,” Kócs said. “And it’s a long process. It’s not something that happens overnight. But it is one where Plant Chicago has shown progress in this space, both from an economic perspective, a community development perspective, and also from an environmental perspective. I think that their approach both internal and external has been one that can be used as an example … [for] other locations taking the model and translating it to a different context as well.”

Audrey is an independent writer and researcher based in the greater Chicago area with advanced degrees in sociology and law from Northwestern University. She specializes in sustainability in the built environment, culture and arts, policy, and related topics. Her work has been featured in Wallpaper magazine, the Chicago Reader, Chicago Architect magazine, Next City, Transitions Abroad, Belt Magazine and other consumer and trade publications. Her coverage focuses on environmental justice and equity.