Los Angeles, CA

Teachers When Necessary and Students Always: Civil Rights, Environmental Justice, and Health Equity Advocate Erica Flores Baltodano  

Robert Garcia

Los Angeles Historic State Park, 2013 courtesy Katrina Lashley

We had just launched The City Project when Erica Flores Baltodano first started working with us as a UC Berkeley law student. We were developing creative legal and organizing strategies to help Black, Latino, and low-income people fight for equal access to healthy parks, schools, and recreation. After she worked on litigation to help foster children, I asked her to return the following summer to work on green justiceIt was evident to me Erica had what it took to become a skilled attorney and community leader. Erica was committed to doing justice and not just practicing law. The City Project’s mission is equal justice, democracy, and livability for all, and we are a non-profit civil rights organization based in L.A. 

When she returned to Berkeley, she was one of only a handful of classmates who scrounged together stipends and scholarships to support her public interest work. It would have been easier to follow the crowd to a high-paying job with a private law firmErica asked her Dean of Students if it would be career suicide to spend both summers doing public interest work. The dean cautioned her not to expect a full-time offer doing public interest law after graduation because such jobs are so hard to come by. Erica took a gamble. We all won.   

Armed with a coveted fellowship from the American Association of University Women, and a Minority Fellowship in Environmental Law from the American Bar Association and the State Bar of CaliforniaErica spent her second summer  working with The City ProjectWe offered her a fulltime fellowship upon graduation. She graduated from Berkeley with honors, earning the prestigious Francine Diaz Memorial Award for her steadfast commitment to public interest lawShe became a Staff Attorney, and laterAssistant Director and Counsel. She served as a skilled advocate and organizerhired and managed staff, and helped raise money through  foundations and donations. She grew to love all aspects of her job. Erica deserves credit as a co-founder of The City Project. 

LA River Master Plan kick off

Erica was a leader in The City Project’s flagship project to create what is now L.A. State Historic Park in the last, vast open space in downtown L.A. The site could have been warehouses. Instead, it’s a park. We argued the warehouses violated civil rights, fair housing, and environmental laws, exacerbating the legacy of discriminatory land use, housing, and economic polices that have long deprived people of color and low income people of equal access to quality parks, recreation, schools, jobs, and housingErica helped develop cutting edge legal, policy, demographic, and historical reports, organize diverse community coalitions, and conduct strategic media campaigns. We reshaped the environmental justice movement from focusing on the unfair distribution of environmental burdens like toxics to a more inclusive vision for the fair distribution of environmental benefits, including parks, school fields, rivers, beaches, and forests.  

The community victory creating L.A. State Historic Park led directly to stopping a power plant in the Baldwin Hills Park in Black L.A., Río de Los Angeles State Park, revitalizing the L.A. River, and coastal justice. The 52-mile river was drowned in concrete in the 1930s for floodcontrol purposes. Today, a progressive vision promotes active healthy living along the river. Parks, schools, jobs, and deeply affordable housing to overcome green displacement can generate many benefits – improved human health, better academic performance, reducing polluted water run-off to the ocean, and alleviating the urban heat island effect that contributes to global warming, for example. Erica helped shape this vision. 

Soon after Erica joined full timewe were asked to testify in Sacramento about coastal access. We were developing the policy and legal arguments that beaches, like parks, are compelling civil rights, environmental justice, and health equity issues. Beaches, like parks, are public resources for all, not just the rich and famous who can afford beachfront mansionsErica was nervous about testifying because she felt too inexperienced and young. I had every confidence Erica was the right person to speakShe reluctantly testified alongside California Coastal Commissioners and mainstream environmentalists. She gave voice to people who are consistently ignored in environmental decision-making. Erica and I later published the seminal article Free the Beach! in the Stanford Journal of Civil Rights and Civil Liberties and changed the public conversation about coastal access forever. Years later in 2016, Erica again testified before the Coastal Commission on their need to do more for coastal justice. This in turn led to strengthening the California Coastal Act and state law on equal access to beaches and other publicly funded resources. 

The City Project with the US Environmental Protection Agency and others sued the City of Los Angeles on behalf of Concerned Citizens of South Central Los Angeles – one of the first Black environmental justice groups in the nation – and AfricanAmerican homeowner groups for violating the Clean Water Act through noxious odors and sewer spills that disproportionately harmed them for decadesThis was the first time attorneys used sewer odors as a clean water justice issue under the Act. After years of litigation and negotiations resulting, we reached a historic $2 billion settlement agreement that created a communitybased Advisory Board. We tapped Erica as the community facilitator. The city finally grasped the need to work with the people to fix the odors, smells, and violations, and create multibenefit blue and green projects. Civil Rights Park in Baldwin Hills, for example, is the only park in L.A. dedicated that celebrates the movement. South L.A. Wetlands Park transformed a bus yard into a natural park and a planned future home of LACMA, L.A. County Museum of Art. Now experts travel from around the world to study this best practice clean water justice victory. 

Erica frequently served as The City Project’s face, eyes, mouth, and ears at community meetings, agency hearings, and meetings with the media. A passionate but measured leader and advocate, she prepared thoroughly for every public meeting, and followed up with persuasive advocacy and effective organizing. She thrived doing through her excellent research, writing, and analysis, relentless editing, and keen attention to detail, including meticulous record keeping. 

Erica married and had two childrenOne day, she said she wanted to resign to raise her family. I would not accept her resignation. She agreed to take an extended family leave. She continued working with us later. After ten years of working by my side leading The City Project, Erica and her family moved to San Luis Obisbo to live, work, learn, and play near parks and beaches in the kind of community we would all like for our families. Erica and her husband started their own civil rights law firm. Her husband recently became a Superior Court judge, and faces re-election in June. 

Erica has made financial sacrifices to do the work she loves on behalf of economically disadvantaged and traditionally underserved communities. She remains a tireless advocate for environmental justice and civil rights. In less than seven years, Erica’s law firm became the most respected plaintiff-side employment practice on the Central Coast, recovering millions of dollars on behalf of wronged workers. The firm received the 2017 Access to Justice Advocate award from San Luis Obispo Legal Assistance FoundationShe teaches elementary school students about persuasive writing telling stories about the urban park movement in L.A. She voices concerns on behalf of Native Americans before her county board of supervisors. 

She writes a column Mommy Esquire relating her experience as a civil rights attorney to her experience as a mother. “It is incredibly clear to me that my role as a lawyer and social justice advocate extended deeply into my role as a parent,” she explains. She eloquently and humorously merges lessons in the law with lessons in parenting, highlighting issues of race, class, gender, inequality, and their nuanced intersections. 

Today, when students considering law school ask her if women can truly have it all, Erica responds: “Yes, but not necessarily at the same time, and it helps to a have partner who is equally prepared to share the working parent juggle, and a supportive work place.”  

Erica delivered the keynote address at the Women’s March in San Luis Obispo in 2017. Organizers hoped 300 people would show upErica delivered her keynote address to an audience of 10,000 marchers. It was the largest gathering of any kind at any time in the city’s history. Erica spoke passionately as the daughter of a Mexican-American father and Jewish immigrant mother, small business owner, attorney, and advocate for workers’ rights, social justice, civil rights, and environmental justice. She called for people to join together in all their diversity and to be assertive and remain engaged in local, state, and federal decision-makingOur diversity, our strength in numbers, and our very humanity will be our force and our power,” she proclaimed, reminding us all to “educate ourselves and our children and be teachers when necessary and students always.”   

About Robert Garcia

Robert Garcia was an attorney who engaged, educated, and empowered communities to achieve equal access to public resources. He was the Executive Director, Counsel, and founder of The City Project, a non-profit legal and policy advocacy organization based in Los Angeles, California. He received the President's Award from the American Public Health Association in 2010 and Hispanic Business Magazine recognized him as one of the 100 most influential Latinos in the United States in 2008, "men and women who are changing the nation." Mr. García had extensive experience in public policy and legal advocacy, mediation, and litigation involving complex social justice, civil rights, human health, environmental, education, and criminal justice matters and influenced the investment of over $41 billion in underserved communities, working at the intersection of equal justice, public health and the built environment. He graduated from Stanford University and Stanford Law School, where he served on the Board of Editors of the Stanford Law Review. Mr. García’s work in the past decade focused on equal access to park, school, and health resources throughout Los Angeles and California.  A nationally recognized leader in the urban park movement, bringing the simple joys of playing in the park to children in park starved communities, he helped communities create great urban parks and preserve public access to beaches and trails in Southern California.