Freedom Breathers

Staff Photojournalist

Manisha Rattu, 16, a junior at Pittsburg High School, speaks during a student protest against the proposed WesPac oil storage and transfer project in Pittsburg, Calif., on Thursday, Feb. 27, 2014. (Dan Rosenstrauch/Bay Area News Group)

Pittsburg is a city of 63,000 residents located on the San Francisco Bay Delta, a stretch of waterfront dense with industry. Home to industrial sites operated by DOW, Praxair, USS POSCO, and K2 Industries, Pittsburg is also located downwind of several nearby refineries. Over the years, chronic exposure to air pollution has had a deleterious effect on the health of residents of this high-poverty California city.

I have been a resident of Pittsburg all of my life. Headaches and breathing problems are symptoms that I’ve had to deal with since I was a child. Only when I was older and able to explore did I realize that having bad air quality and high health risks was not normal; these risks and harmful agents were strategically placed in underrepresented, minority communities where the governing agencies believed they would receive no backlash. Once we were aware of the injustices, the health defects, and the environmental hazards of large, polluting industries in my own community, we, the youth of Pittsburg, stepped up.  

As a group of high school students, we formed a coalition, dedicated to improving our community’s air and stopping a company named Wespac from storing its crude oil in our city and on our Delta. We organized rallies on campus, spoke out at city council meetings, and completed interviews with television and radio stations. We even joined up with Global Community Monitors and conducted our own air monitoring in the community under the moniker, Freedom Breathers. After two years of constantly debating, monitoring, and communicating, our community achieved a very large success: Wespac, and its dirty oil, was no longer entering our community or Richmond’s community. This success was not just for the citizens of Pittsburg, but it was for the county, the Bay Area, and, of course, the world.

Nonetheless, all across the US and the world, low-socioeconomic communities like Pittsburg continue to suffer the consequences of dirty air and a lack of data. Respiratory illnesses caused by poor air quality lead to thousands of premature deaths each year in the US alone, but an inadequate network of monitors and spotty regulation has led to a failure by government to stop these preventable deaths or improve overall quality of life in communities such as Pittsburg.

In order to combat poor leadership and fossil fuel energy, citizens must step up and create a movement. I seized the opportunity to lead a movement while I was sixteen and that has shaped my perspective on government, grassroots organizing, and community for a lifetime. I believe in the power of the people and in their potential to create change. For me, environmental justice is about being raw, honest, and true; this concept applies to both the self and nature: we need both true and just people making policies and we need clean, renewable energy powering the work we do. A shift in balance is necessary, so that our people, especially those from low-income communities, have a voice in government and a healthy life on this planet.

The Freedom Breathers from across the world in small, underserved communities must step up and take action to ensure that they and their future generations enjoy breathable air.


Gardens and Growth

carrots“When you teach someone to grow a vegetable, you teach them to grow and change in life, and teach them to transform themselves as well as the land.” ­–Wanda Stewart, Director of People’s Grocery

The first time I stepped onto the Stanford Farm and walked through the neat rows of crops, I was captivated. There was something magical about such an open place in contrast with the buildings and construction work I usually pass on my rounds around campus. I felt distinctly present in the moment and grounded to the Earth. I was reminded that I was part of a larger world beyond my school life.

When I help out at the Stanford Farm today, I always find something very satisfying about digging and pulling at weeds until they finally give way. Even though my immediate actions are small, I know that the work I do will likely have a bigger significance down the line. With that personal experience, the stories of other community gardens in the Bay Area and how they impacted their visitors really resonated with me.

In East San Jose, a school garden serves as a respite from the struggles of the surrounding community, as well as a validation of cultural experiences that are often trivialized by those with more wealth and power. Similarly, the community gardens run by the People’s Grocery in West Oakland are not only a means to address the lack of nutritious, fresh produce in the midst of a food desert, but also a place for members of the community to come together to learn and grow and share their culture.

All of this leads me to believe that community gardens can perhaps be an effective place for building empathy and a better understanding of people with different experiences and backgrounds, as gardens have a special way of impacting people no matter their circumstances or location in the world. They remind us that, in the end, we all depend on the Earth; we are all a part of it and have the power to impact it in our own way.


3 Food Initiatives That Could Transform West Oakland’s Food Desert

The Garden Teacher- Part 1


The Two Bay Area Stories

101 Highway

            As a Computer Science student at Stanford who is planning to join the tech industry in Silicon Valley, I enjoy discussing the sustainable future of the Bay Area. I am particularly interested in learning about gentrification and food insecurity in the Bay Area, and I hope to develop potential solutions throughout the quarter. This week we discussed a fascinating article, East Of Palo Alto’s Eden: Race And The Formation Of Silicon Valley by Kim-Mai Cutler. I’ve learned about how Intel, Google, Apple, Facebook, and many other tech companies were formed, but I did not know the equally important story about how small policies had multi-generational consequences on communities like East Palo Alto.

It was very eye opening to learn that about fifty years ago, white homeowners in Palo Alto refused to welcome a black family into their neighborhoods, which caused a division between neighborhoods. The federal government made this division even stronger by building the 101 Highway—a physical division between a white and black neighborhood—that has since then separated East Palo Alto from Palo Alto. Then 1975, a year before Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak founded Apple in Los Altos, two Nairobi schools got fire bombed and burned down, just seven miles away from the garage that Apple was founded. Black (and other minority) families in the Bay Area faced discrimination and segregation unnoticed by the rest of society, while, at the same time many entrepreneurs were building the tech companies that are now known globally.

I enjoyed learning about how East Palo Alto was formed and I look forward to discuss the solutions that will allow us to construct a more just and sustainable Bay Area. I believe we can find a way for tech companies to continue growing while also benefiting the Bay Area community as a whole.



Food Insecurity and West Oakland

Welcome to West Oakland

Oakland, CA (11/7/10) Mob HQ

I’m from Monterey Bay Area, which isn’t quite the same thing as the San Francisco Bay Area, but it’s pretty close and I’m familiar with the vicinity. I’ve known that West Oakland was a low-income area without a lot of resources – the average income in West Oakland is $20,000 less than the rest of Oakland – but I never realized that such a large portion of its residents live in what qualifies as a food desert. A food desert is a place without adequate access to food, usually do to a lack of grocery stores or the like in impoverished areas. That this is allowed to continue in an area that is one of the wealthiest in the country is absurd. The People’s Community Market strikes me as a great way to combat this and further the fight against food insecurity in the region.

A resource created by people in a community – to specifically serve the needs of that community – is one of the best possible ways to combat community problems that I can think of. There are often problems with well-meant interventions conducted by outsiders, due to a lack of understanding of the culture and people in that community.

For instance, when designing a store in a lower-income community, an owner may try to make the store appear as nice and high quality as possible. Some people, however, are likely to be discouraged by an expensive-looking store, even if the items inside are not costly. They may chose to not even go inside, impairing the stores ability to serve the community and stay afloat. This kind of design failure happens when someone with good intentions is not familiar with the people they are trying to help or does not do their research properly.

This means that interventions from within the community are the best way to combat issues because of their intimate knowledge of the people and customs. For instance, the creator of Peoples Community Market was doubtful of another, much more large-scale investor’s plan for a massive grocery store in Jack London mall because of its out of the way location and the fact that it doesn’t account for the very limited time many people in Oakland have to get food.

I’m hopeful about the potential for the People’s Community Market to help the residents of West Oakland and bring some much-needed resources to the food desert there.


Veggielution Class Trip

It was such a pleasure to get to visit Veggielution during our Food Justice unit.

We were treated to a tour of the garden and a discussion about urban agriculture, followed by two hours of meditative weeding in the orchard. Check out photos from our trip in this short gallery:

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To learn more about Veggielution and their work days, visit:

Having a “Food Desert” Home


In the past week, our class learned about the presence of food deserts in the Bay Area, as well as a few examples of actions that are taking place to combat this problem. One of the most interesting reads for me was an article about three different ongoing plans of action taking place in West Oakland, a community that is categorized as a food desert. Before reading these assigned articles, I had never thought too much about the definitions of a “food desert” or “food security.” Of course I am well aware of the existence of hardships that come with not having resources or access to food, but these terms have given me a look into the different definitions that can come with them and the varied instances in which they apply to a given area.

According to the USDA, a “food desert” refers to “parts of the country vapid of fresh fruit, vegetables, and other healthful whole foods,” and is “usually found in impoverished areas.” This term has two parts in this way; one being the accessibility to food, and the second concerning the health of the food available. In this article about the food desert of West Oakland, we see the existence of these problems as many residents live without easy access to a grocery market where they can buy fresh produce and food. While this problem exists, luckily there are movements that are trying to fix it.

However, in looking more into where else food deserts exist, I found that my home of the Navajo reservation is reportedly one of the largest areas in the U.S. that has the highest level in categorization of a food desert. While this was my first time I had looked at this problem through statistics, I have always known it to exist. Many times while on the reservation, I have taken the long 2 hour drives to the nearest Bashas’ just to pick up the cheapest food for our family and sheepherder. On those trips we rarely find ourselves in the produce or meat sections, because fresh foods like that will not be able to survive the long trip back, let alone stay in our refrigerator-less home. Normally our cart is instead filled with boxes of soda, bottles of water, bags of potatoes and flour, and heavy cans of other non-perishable food. Nutritional value is rarely a concern, because the limited amount of money is greater. This is the case for my family members that currently live on the reservation, and it’s a problem I have struggled to witness every time I go home.

After realizing the Navajo reservation’s categorization as a “food desert,” it makes sense, and it’s a harsh reality. But now looking back in comparison at the food deserts of the Bay Area, it upsets me even more. How could a community that is seemingly surrounded by so much wealth and urbanism also be in the same category as the Navajo reservation where even resources such as fresh water and electricity are so far out of reach? The wealth that surrounds these areas has created a problem of neglect and misrepresentation. When people think Bay Area, they do not see the communities like East Palo Alto and West Oakland that struggle in the same ways as my community on a reservation do, and this is a serious issue.

As a recent member of this regional community here in the Bay, I have realized that I too was victim to this blindness for a long time. But luckily, I still have time to change and increase my awareness of these societal issues that plague the local area. Taking this class, and reading those articles has made me realize that while these problems are large in scope, I can still do something to help the movement in changing their existence. This  weekend, we will be going to a local farm called Veggielution, and I look forward to learning more about their initiatives. This week has been informative, inspiring, and mostly motivating, because no one should have to call their home a “food desert.”

Gentrification in the Bay Area


The tech industry boom has made the Bay Area one of the most popular places to live in the US, leading to a huge population influx. Not only has the housing market not expanded adequately to account for this influx, but there seems to be little intent or commitment from developers and government to do so. However, there is no easy solution to the Bay Area’s housing crisis. Should people not be allowed to move here? Should there be more affordable housing?

It seems to me that affordable housing is a fair and commendable way to provide housing for low-income residents in the face of gentrification, but it doesn’t address the root causes and is not realistic on the scale that is necessary to solve the housing crisis. It is understandable that the housing market hasn’t been able to keep up with the growth of the tech industry over the last years, but in the long run an increase in the supply of housing is the only thing that will stabilize and bring down housing prices, since they are being driven up by high demand and insufficient supply.  This means however, that people in the Bay Area will need to reevaluate what their neighborhoods looks like, and should look like in the future. Palo Alto is no longer a cute little town on the bay – that picture is simply incompatible with the presence of companies like Facebook and Google right next door.

I don’t think that industrial growth, in this case the tech industry, or the accompanying population influx are inherently bad. The problem lies in the decades of racial and socio-economic segregation in the Bay Area, as well as the wealthier population’s desire to preserve their suburban style towns from urbanization while welcoming industrial growth, which is driving up housing prices and pushing low-income families out of their homes.

Combating Cancer through Environmental Justice

1024px-Prostate_cancer_with_Gleason_pattern_4_low_magIn Robin Johnson’s article, Cancer Disparities: An Environmental Justice Issue for Policy Makershe discusses the positive correlation between environmental toxics and incidents of cancer. He notes that “(l)ow-income populations and people of color have disproportionately high rates of cancers and are more likely to die or be diagnosed at advanced stages of disease.” Based on his findings, it is apparent that policy makers need to create policies that improve environmental conditions as well as the health care system in these environments.

As I’m interested in pursuing a career in pediatric oncology, I found this article very informative and significant to my interests. Cancer is a horrible disease. If it is possible to reduce the occurrence of this disease by improving the environment, we should do so. Not only would improving the environment possibly help reduce the occurrence of cancer, but it would also positively impact a population’s overall health and agricultural practices. This article examines an important environmental justice issue and I urge policy makers to implement methods to improve the current situation.


Article Spotlight:

Dr. Robin Johnson

Cancer Disparities: An Environmental Justice Issue for Policy Makers

Physicians for Social Responsibility