Eddie Ahn: San Francisco’s environmental justice warrior

‘The thing I love about my work now is that it is constantly changing’

For Eddie Ahn, environmental justice takes on many forms.

On some days, it looks like installing air monitors in the Tenderloin, giving residents real-time access to air quality data. On others, it means advocating for clean energy technologies or fighting for equitable job creation in emerging sectors like offshore wind. During the pandemic, it meant delivering thousands of meals to help combat food insecurity among underserved communities.

For Ahn, the executive director of Brightline Defense, an environmental justice nonprofit based in SoMa, it also takes shape in more quotidian ways. It’s the quiet work at the neighborhood level that’s easy to miss, like counting the number of cars speeding around street corners to track pollution pressure in neighborhoods or giving career counseling to young people.

“Environmental justice – it’s like a sprawling sphere. It covers a lot of different subjects,” said Ahn.“The thing I love about my work now is that it is constantly changing, so I get to explore new and interesting questions.”

When wildfire smoke smothered San Francisco in an apocalyptic orange haze last summer, Ahn’s thoughts immediately turned to residents living in Single Room Occupancy housing, commonly known as SROs.

He’d seen how the pandemic ripped through these buildings, infecting tenants who often share kitchens and bathrooms, making isolation nearly impossible. Now, on top of COVID risks, residents living in cramped and often poorly ventilated spaces were forced to breathe smoke-choked air.

“It’s a triple threat,” said Ahn. “They can’t go outside or even leave the room because, in theory, they’re supposed to shelter in place. Then you have heat waves brought on by climate change, so they’re essentially baking in the room. But then if you have wildfire air quality impacts, you can’t even open up your window to try to cool it down.”

Eddie Ahn, executive director of Brightline Defense, an environmental justice non-profit, installs an air monitor on a lightpole along Seventh Street in South of Market amid poor air quality due to wildfires on Thursday, Sept. 10, 2020. (Photo by Daniela Cortes)

Eddie Ahn, executive director of Brightline Defense, an environmental justice non-profit, installs an air monitor on a lightpole along Seventh Street in South of Market amid poor air quality due to wildfires on Thursday, Sept. 10, 2020. (Photo by Daniela Cortes)

In July, Brightline issued a report examining such threats within the SRO community – the oldest and densest housing stock in San Francisco. It found that while more than half of residents suffered from chronic health problems that can be exacerbated by poor air quality, only a small percentage could afford an air filtration system.

Ahn’s work has not gone unnoticed. This month, the California Energy Commission, the state’s primary energy policy and planning agency, inducted Ahn into California’s Clean Energy Hall of Fame.

“He’s visionary,” said David Hochschild, the chair of the California Energy Commission. “A lot of times environmental justice organizations around the state are built to stop things because there’s a lot of environmentally threatening projects and developments… and that’s a hugely consuming task. But what I appreciate about him is (Brightline) is also looking at the big picture and has gotten involved with things, for example, like offshore wind.”

Ahn has been out front in the push to bring renewable energy and equitable job opportunities to low-income communities in the Bay Area and beyond. In addition to campaigning for equitable solar power, Brightline published a report outlining how the development of offshore wind projects could create thousands of full-time jobs and add millions to the state’s gross domestic product.

If we want to retire the use of polluting power plants and ensure good-paying clean energy jobs, said Hochschild, work like Ahn’s is critically important to transition to a clean energy future. “The way that change happens is from the bottom up,” he said. “It’s local leadership that inspires state action that then inspires national action.”

In an acceptance video for the CEC award, Ahn cited his grandfather, who worked as a translator for the United States Army during the Korean War, as a wellspring of inspiration for the work he does now.

Ahn was born in Austin, a child of South Korean immigrants who moved to the Lone Star State to attend graduate school at the University of Texas. His mother had plans to become a pharmacist, his father an electrical engineer. After graduating, the couple opened up liquor stores where Ahn worked until he went to Brown University to study political science.

While Ahn talks fondly of his time at Brown, New England didn’t quite take. The frigid Northeastern winters chilled his southern bones. And he was surprised by the frequent and blatant racism he encountered just walking down the street.

After college, he found himself struggling to decide between going to law school or pursuing a master’s degree in teaching. He moved to the Bay Area for an AmeriCorps program where he worked as an afterschool coordinator at an elementary school in Oakland’s Chinatown.

“My parents were disappointed at the time,” he said in the acceptance video. “They immediately asked me how much money I made – and of course it was not a lot.”

Shortly after, Ahn began his legal career at UC Hastings College of the Law. The plan was to become a highly paid attorney. But it was there that he was introduced to Brightline through a grant program and catapulted him into environmental justice work.

“I’ve always wanted to do it,” he said. “But I just didn’t know how to get there.”

More recently, Ahn has been pushing the state to expand its definition of what constitutes a “disadvantaged community” within CalEnviroscreen, the state’s environmental justice mapping tool.

“Even five years ago, it was a huge struggle to get the state to recognize Bayview Hunters Point,” said Ahn. And still, he said, parts of the Tenderloin, the Mission District and Chinatown have been left out.

“There’s a lot of low-income households that will disproportionately feel the effects of climate change that I think are deserving of resources,” he said. “That’s why it’s so important to me that Brightline try to improve this tool.”


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