Image of a group of activists in high visibility vests posing together, against a pink background and with the IV Equity logo, tagline, and the blog post title.

Everyone is IV Equity

The Rise of One Community Power Group to Ensure Community Benefits from the Lithium Rush in Imperial Valley, California
ByAustin Mendoza, ERI Data Analyst

This is the first installation in a series focusing on environmental and climate justice organizers and researchers. We hope to amplify the stories and circumstances of communities that have been and continue to experience environmental racism, particularly in California. Stay tuned for more on this environmental justice series and check out the broader ERI blog


As the temperature neared 100 degrees on a blistering early June afternoon in the desert of Calexico, California, I walked into the small Hope Cafe, about 500 feet from the US-Mexico border. Dr. Manuel Pastor and I were here to interview Daniela Flores, a young organizer from the Imperial Valley. Our goal was to gather insights for Dr. Pastor’s  upcoming co-authored book, which explores the economic and environmental justice implications of a rising lithium industry in southeastern California. Over the next two hours, Daniela gave us an abridged education on several topics: the Imperial Valley Equity and Justice Coalition (IV Equity), the advocacy organization that she had co-founded a few years earlier; the local political scene; the dynamics of the nascent lithium development happening nearby; and her hopes for the future of the region.


As it turns out, hope is a recurring theme in the development of lithium in Imperial County. The Salton Sea sits atop a major potential source of lithium, a key component of electric vehicle (EV) batteries. With state and federal policies encouraging a speedy transition from traditional gas-powered vehicles to EVs in the next decade, there is pressure on places like Imperial County to quickly develop lithium extraction and battery production industries to meet increased policy-driven demand. This pressure arises from the requirement that EV battery components, like lithium, be sourced either domestically or come from a small list of allied countries.These policies reflect a hope from state and federal governments that the United States can be a leader in the global green economy, and keep the economic benefits mostly within its own borders. Automobile manufacturers both foreign and domestic hope to reap those benefits by opening new EV production plants in the US – which nets them a lot of federal subsidies, in addition to the profits of selling expensive EVs to American customers. Of course, the global threat of climate change underpins all of these actions, with the hope from policymakers and auto manufacturers alike that government action can chart a different path into our collective planetary future – while still making money for U.S. automakers in the process.


While these hopes are not entirely misplaced (after all, who doesn’t want to save the world?), they often fail to consider the effects that lithium extraction and other parts of the EV supply chain could have on local communities – or the hopes that these communities have for their own futures. That’s where Daniela and IV Equity come in. Founded by a group of young organizers in 2020, IV Equity got its start helping their community during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic – blocking proposed local exemptions from statewide lockdown rules and helping small businesses secure over $100,000 in relief funding. From the start, the organization has been driven by grassroot efforts, which led them to advocating around lithium when a group of interns expressed interest in conducting a survey to gain community perspectives on lithium development in 2022. That survey was ultimately developed and led by local high school students in conjunction with IV Equity and Dr. Veronica Terriquez at UCLA. They found that local youth largely linked lithium development with the potential to address other local issues like housing availability, workforce development, and improved transportation infrastructure. According to Daniela, however, these perspectives do not entirely align with the already-determined priorities of Imperial County officials.


The politics of Imperial County have been, for the most part, quite conservative over the past century since its incorporation in 1907 out of the eastern part of what was then San Diego County. Ever since, agriculture has played a large role in the local economy. According to local activists, agricultural interests and individual landowning families have held sway over Imperial County politics and sought to keep the status quo in both exploitative labor practices and the underrepresentation of Latinos in political offices over the past century. Today, Imperial County officials hope to secure the mining piece of the lithium industry pie – but have also acted to increase the region’s odds of landing lithium battery and EV plants.


Local communities have seen this movie before – solar farms, meatpacking plants, and even other attempts at lithium extraction have come into the region and promised massive benefits. However, they always either skipped town or failed to distribute any economic benefits like jobs or investments to local communities. As Daniela, IV Equity, and other young organizers in the region see it, the County is not doing enough this time around to secure “community dividends” from all of the lithium development either. It’s an open question as to whether many long-term jobs will result from any potential lithium activity in the region, or whether other potential economic benefits will be accessible or exist at all. As Daniela puts it, “It doesn’t matter if a billion-dollar lithium industry comes to town if the community doesn’t see the benefits.” 


IV Equity, for its part, certainly hopes that the communities that they serve can actually benefit from lithium development. To help move this hope closer to reality, IV Equity submitted 130 responses to their community survey as public comments to the County of Imperial regarding SB 125, which passed and imposes a per-ton excise tax on lithium extraction in California that is mostly funneled back into County government coffers. According to Daniela, those submissions represented 75% of the total public comments submitted to the County as they take input about the spending priorities for the tax revenues – input that was only possible due to public pressure to take community perspectives into account as County officials work to provide an updated framework on how to spend SB 125 funds. IV Equity also acted as a lead witness in the state legislature in support of SB 797, which also became law and is establishing a citizens oversight committee on the lithium tax revenues. They’ve also worked in solidarity with Comite Civico del Valle, a relatively large and powerful organization that has advocated for local environmental justice for decades, to raise public awareness about lithium and its potential impacts on the region.


Such advocacy showcases how Imperial County residents have started to build the power to be heard when it comes to the future of their own region. Because of the established powerbrokers both within and outside the halls of power, many groups like Latinx residents, farmworkers, and youth have been shut out of Imperial County’s power structures – something that folks like Daniela hope to change.


And while IV Equity’s impact in state and local politics so far has acted as a hopeful case study of young progressive activism in an often-forgotten corner of the state, Daniela hopes for more lasting structural change. She hopes that civic participation amongst marginalized folks in Imperial County can increase and shape policy decisions. She hopes that extractive industries will take into account not only profits, but the environmental and economic impact that they have on surrounding communities – and consider whether they should act in the first place. Most of all, Daniela hopes that amidst the whirlwind of lithium speculation, the voice of the people “can speak loudly and for themselves about the future of Imperial County” – lithium or otherwise.



Article written by Austin Mendoza based on an interview of Daniela Flores by Dr. Manuel Pastor and himself (both of the USC Equity Research Institute) on June 2, 2023. Updates and edits by Daniela in May 2024.