Luis Olmedo Velez knows what it is to feel disenfranchised.
Born in Mexicali, the son of a farmworker, his family moved to the Imperial Valley in the ’70s when he was a young boy and lived in tiny farmworker housing with outdoor communal showers. His family—poor but proud.
Life brought challenges. In Mexicali he thrived in school. Once living in the Valley, he had to start over. Learn English. Adapt to a new school. New culture. It would take time but eventually he would find his path and his voice.
Today, he draws from his past as he serves as executive director of the community-based organization, Comite Civico Del Valle, a nonprofit advocacy organization founded by his father, Jose Velez, in 1987. Through Comite Civico, he is giving voice to the disenfranchised on critical issues impacting their lives.
His goal is to have residents who might otherwise feel disengaged from government processes realize they can be involved.
“Comite Civico is an organization that focuses on building awareness on the importance of becoming civically engaged on issues of importance that relate to improving the quality of life in the Imperial Valley,” said the husband and father of three, who typically shortens his name to Luis Olmedo. “We do this through outreach, education, research, policy and advocacy.”
Through a series of grants, and working together with local partners, educational institutions and state agencies, the Brawley-based Comite Civico emphasizes the protection of public health. Programs implemented by the organization and its partners are meant to empower the community and bring about change.
One program has focused on asthma intervention among school-aged children through a partnership with the Clinicas De Salud Del Pueblo, San Diego State University and Impact Assessment. The program includes intervention on behalf of children through clinical services, community education and in-home services.
To further that cause, Olmedo’s organization received a grant for a school flag air quality notification program in which flags of different colors can be displayed at Imperial Valley schools to indicate whether air quality is good or poor. Depending on the air quality, schools may adjust the level of outdoor activities.
Community health concerns have also led Comite Civico, together with the Oakland based Public Health Institute and University of Washington to launch the community air quality monitoring network. A grant has funded the purchase 40 low-cost air monitoring stations, which will be placed near schools and other key locations utilizing U.S. Environmental Protection Agency Federal siting criteria. To date, 20 of the monitors have been placed.
The data collected will be made available on a web portal, IVAN-Identifying Violations Affecting Neighborhoods, and will be used to form an action plan for improving public health in the Imperial Valley.
“It’s about doing the right thing,” Olmedo said of his organization’s efforts to protect public health.
He added that in an area like the Imperial Valley there is a need for organizations like his to address matters of environmental, social and economic justice, in particular as much of the community struggles just to make ends meet and does not have the time to become involved in such issues—or feel like they cannot become involved.
“We live in a disadvantaged community,” he said. “Many of the jobs here are minimum wage and we find in communities like the Imperial Valley where there are those who cannot always participate in the community. They feel they have to accept conditions the way they are, and that is what we hope to change. We want to mobilize the community.”
Olmedo’s work with Comite Civico, in no small part, relates to the issues he faced growing up in the Imperial Valley and facing the challenges of transitioning from his life in Mexico to life in the U.S. He felt different. Even outcast. Like his family didn’t belong because they didn’t have much money. Starting over in school and learning a new language were added struggles.
He first attended Hidalgo Elementary School in Brawley and recalls his first teacher and a system she had of taking students who worked hard to McDonald’s for lunch. The day he earned his trip meant everything to him.
“To me, going to McDonald’s was like going to Disneyland,” he said, adding that when you do not have much, such moments as a meal at McDonald’s mean a lot.”
Olmedo did learn the language, in a sense providing a voice for his parents, as he became their translator from Spanish to English.
In 1987, his father founded Comite Civico with the mission of advocating for young migrant children. He built partnerships with the educational system to help those children pursue a higher education beyond high school.
Olmedo would help his father with the organization and eventually became co-director, though he was involved part time.
In the years that followed he also worked for Costco and eventually opened his own Raspados Cuchis franchise in Imperial. In 2005, he sold the business, left Costco and joined Comite Civico full time as executive director.
During his tenure, the organization has grown to have eleven employees, and its focus has shifted to community health issues, though its activities go beyond that. Every other week, Comite Civico provides nearly 400 boxed meals to those affected by California’s drought with emphasis on farm workers and landscapers.
The organization provides services to support immigrant families, and works with partners to conduct research on such issues as water and air quality, asthma and border health issues.
Every year Comite Civico holds its Environmental Health Leadership Conference to bring stakeholders together to discuss issues like asthma, air quality, and Salton Sea.
Comite Civico’s work often has Olmedo traveling to Sacramento and Washington, D.C., as part of advocacy efforts, in particular, to educate legislative leaders on issues important to the Valley and to pursue environmental legislation.
As part of his efforts on behalf of the Valley, Olmedo serves on state and federal advisory boards. Among them is the Good Neighbor Environmental Board, an independent advisory committee to the President and Congress on environmental issues, and the California AB32 Global Warming Solutions Environmental Justice advisory committee. His research efforts and writing have been published in the Public Library of Science’s Plos One Journal.
Olmedo said he and his staff will continue their initiatives in hopes of ensuring everyone in the Valley has a voice and understands they can have a role in the decisions that affect their lives.
“We are going to dedicate our time to this,” he said. “We want an informed and engaged community.”