Stamina, endurance and perseverance are attributes that Monica Aceves and her teammates demonstrated while running track at Phoenix’s South Mountain High School. Aceves and her fellow South Mountain runners, Levin Escarcega and Erik Gómez Cruz, also displayed these qualities while convincing the Phoenix Union High School District to switch to electric school buses. Their perseverance paid off when the District unanimously voted in 2019 to purchase the first no-direct emissions electric bus – and launched a pilot program to add more.
The students’ path to clean energy started because of asthma and air pollution. Aceves learned about asthma’s dangers as a young girl when her brother’s asthma attack sent him to the emergency room. Later, as captain of the high school track team, Aceves witnessed a teammate collapse from an asthma attack, and saw another teammate bullied for selling potato chips to raise money to buy an inhaler. She knew that if her neighborhood’s air quality improved it would reduce asthma-creating triggers. Although Phoenix’s air quality has improved over the past two decades, the American Lung Association ranks the city as the 7th most ozone-polluted metropolis in the country.
While Aceves raised air pollution awareness in her high school, she knew her work couldn’t stop there. Aceves, Gómez, and Escarcega spent almost a year attending school board meetings to generate interest in their electric bus idea. Aceves and Gómez typically took on the role of public speaking; however, Escarcega (the youngest of the three) joined them at the crucial board meeting where members would vote on electric buses. He wanted to give voice to all of his hardworking neighbors who couldn’t attend. Phoenix Union School District Superintendent Chad Gestson later acknowledged that the students’ diligent efforts were a major reason for the board’s affirmative decision.
Exchanging one diesel bus for an electric bus might not seem like a lot; however, it holds both tangible and symbolic value. New electric buses are far more fuel-efficient than the school district’s older, diesel models. Coupled with having bus drivers curtail unnecessary idling, it could help improve air quality for school children especially vulnerable to air pollution’s effect on health. The school board’s decision also showed the South Phoenix students and community that their concerns were being heard by local officials.
Aceves and her teammates received support from their families, community members and teachers. Their track coach connected them with CHISPA, a nationwide Latino nonprofit whose projects include improving air quality in areas like South Phoenix. CHISPA’s Arizona Senior Organizer Teo Argueta recently saluted the South Mountain students’ game-changing advocacy for electric buses. The teens’ work continues to inspire their Phoenix peers. In May 2020, 14-year-old CHISPA Arizona volunteer Crystal Vega testified about her own asthma problems during the EPA’s hearing on Particulate Matter National Ambient Air Quality Standards.