Monday, March 21, 2022

Activist Profile: Columba Sainz of Moms Clean Air Force

Photo of Columba Sainz
by Karina Cordova

The following is an excerpt from my book, "From Changing Diapers to Changing the World: Why Moms Make Great Advocates and How to Get Started." In addition to lots of stories and quotes from mom-advocates, my book features six mothers in particular whose stories highlight different aspects of advocacy. Columba Sainz, a volunteer for Moms Clean Air Force, is one of these powerful women. In this section, I invite everyone to consider how different policy issues can intersect and affect families greatly. 



SOCIAL ISSUES TEND TO be presented like competing problems
we’re supposed to work on separately. In reality, most people

experience layers of interrelated problems. Columba Sainz’s story

of environmental activism demonstrates how pollution, poverty,

race, immigration, health issues, and even transportation problems

combine to make life difficult for families.

While raising two young girls and a baby boy in Phoenix,

Columba has struggled to improve her family’s health. Only two

months after moving from Tucson in 2018, Columba’s two-year-old

daughter, who had no known medical issues, started wheezing

at night and feeling very ill. Doctors prescribed asthma medicine

without hesitation, but Columba was uneasy about the side effects

of constant medication and wondered if something in the environment

was causing such a sudden onset of symptoms.

She soon began worrying about the health of the rest of her

family. Her four-year-old daughter developed respiratory problems

as well. Columba became horribly sick during her entire

pregnancy with her son. Researching her family’s personal health

mystery, she learned that other families like hers were also suffering.

“That’s when I discovered that a disproportionate number of Latino children

[in Phoenix] have asthma in comparison to white people. I started

to connect all the dots. If I live here, who else lives here? Who can

afford to live here? What’s happening in my surroundings?”

Columba discovered her family was living in an air pollution

“hot spot” in downtown Phoenix, where emissions from specific

sources expose the population to high risks of adverse health

effects. Busy freeways surrounded her home in one of the fastest-

growing counties in the country. Two huge nearby parking lots

housed city and school buses each night, creating concentrated

sources of diesel fumes as the buses left and returned each day.

And she was only five minutes away from the busy Phoenix Sky

Harbor International Airport, ranked thirteenth for traffic in the U.S.

“On top of that, the topography of this area is like a big bowl

combining it all with high heat,” she explained. Each July, Phoenix

averages a daily maximum temperature between 104 and 107 degrees

Fahrenheit. “In the summer, we have constant high polluted days. So,

me taking my daughter to the park right in front of my house for two

or three hours was the worst thing I could do as a mother.”

Data from the American Lung Association’s 2020 State of

the Air report aligned with Columba’s experience. 

(American Lung Association, “Most Polluted Cities")

It ranked the Phoenix area as having some of the worst air in the country. 

Specifically, Maricopa County—where Columba’s family continues to

live—received an F grade with far more alert days for high levels

of harmful ground-level ozone than anywhere else in Arizona.

Although Columba was not sure how to use this information

to help protect her family, she was well aware of the power of

Congress to address problems like pollution. Working with Mi

Familia Vota, a civic engagement organization, she understood

how to unite communities to elect candidates for change. But the

idea of working on legislation with lawmakers was new to her

until she learned about Moms Clean Air Force, an organization of

over 1.4 million parent activists with a mission to protect children

from air pollution and climate change.

Columba shared their vision for a safe, stable, and equitable

future where all children breathe clean air. With them, she learned

to speak from her heart to advocate with lawmakers for just and

healthy solutions to air pollution. Those in-person conversations

with parents were critical to convincing legislators to take action.

“We go to meetings not as experts or scientists, but as moms,”

Columba explained. “As moms, we know the impacts on our


Columba shows elected officials how seemingly separate

issues overlap. She wasn’t aware of the hot spot phenomenon

when she was looking for a home, but low housing prices suggest

the real estate industry had a good idea something undesirable

was happening there. The polluted area is home primarily to people

of color, which means the neighborhood’s pollution problems

feed racial injustice. And because those living in the hot spot are

low-income residents, they are less likely to have good health

insurance or adequate resources to cope with the health challenges

caused by the pollution.

For example, filtered air conditioning in a hot Arizona summer

provides indoor relief, but it’s a financial burden many can’t afford.

Columba affirmed, “A bill of electricity [with air-conditioning]

is really expensive. Sometimes it’s the same amount you would pay

for a one-bedroom apartment. Imagine having no work during

the pandemic summer of 2020, having no health insurance, and

having asthma without air conditioning in your house.”

Even worse than the lack of funds for air conditioning is the

lack of healthcare. Columba advocates alongside families who

don’t have money to cover an emergency visit without insurance.

In addition, the immigrant population worries about confrontations

over citizenship. Columba encountered a little girl whose

single father was undocumented. She tried to keep her asthma in

check just by sheer will alone to protect him.

“I don’t know how this kid did it!” Columba marveled. “When

she had an asthma attack, she would do her best to control herself.

Sometimes our children are afraid to go to an E.R. because

we are afraid that they will ask, ‘Where are your papers? Where

is your social security?’ I think that’s horrible, you know? When

you need to go to the emergency room, you need to go. When

you don’t have the papers, they won’t take care of you because they

know they can’t charge anyone for the medical assistance. And it’s

expensive. It’s really, really expensive.”

Today, Columba and her family live ten minutes outside of

the downtown Phoenix area where they suffered so many health

problems. Even such a small distance makes a significant improvement

in air quality. Yet she continues to work with mothers in

places where she used to live and keeps their stories close to her

heart. Once she met a desperate mom who was running away from

one area to help her child with severe respiratory issues. But she

stopped to rest in a park in the hot spot, which was worse. It was

as if that mother was running from an invisible monster with no

idea which way to turn.

“She had everything in her car,” Columba remembered. “She

said, ‘I drove all the way here because I thought I was going to

find clean air. And now I don’t know where to go. Can you tell me

where to go? Do you know where the air is clean?’ Her story was

even worse than mine . . . like life or death. That’s the desperation

of a mother who has been exposed to air pollution.”

“What gives me the fuel to do this with all my heart,”

Columba insisted, “is that, as a mother, I want my children to grow

connecting with nature. I keep doing it because I want my children

to be able to breathe clean air. We have data that agrees that

if we don’t take action in thirty-five years, we’re going to be living

with a lot of things we don’t want. We’re living with them even

now! I want to leave a better planet for my children’s children."