Community-Based Action

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As communities of color continue to be targeted by extreme environmental conditions, they are finding unique and creative ways to express their opposition to further environmental degradation. They are also educating youth and kids about environmental issues to ensure a more aware and conscious citizen population. One very interesting project has been lead by Seattle’s community members and is outlined in Clayton Aldern’s article, “Seattle’s new environmental justice agenda was built by the people it affects the most.” Some of their environmental justice agenda items include increased citizen participation and green careers:

  1. “Design environmental policies and programs that acknowledge the cumulative impacts of environmental, racial, and socioeconomic burdens, such that Seattle ensures “clean, healthy, resilient, and safe environments” for communities of color, immigrants, refugees, people with low incomes, youth, and those with limited English.”
  2. “Create opportunities for “pathways out of poverty through green careers.” One strategy, for example, advocates for “support structures for people of color to lead in environmental policy/program work through positions in government and partnerships with community organizations, businesses and other environmental entities.””
  3. “When crafting environmental policies and programs, ensure that affected communities have “equitable access, accountability, and decision-making power.””
  4. “Center community stories and narratives and “lift up existing culturally appropriate environmental practices” during the decision-making process.”

As someone who is interested in community organizing, especially in the environmental justice field, I enjoy learning what strides communities are making. I strongly believe that if someone is invested in creating change in a community, it is vital to immerse oneself in the community and let the community members guide your response to the problems they face. Going into a community with an “I am going to fix all of your problem’s” attitude and not understanding the dynamic of the community is a problem that many engineers face. I try my best to learn from the people first, then impose my thoughts onto the situation at hand, so reading these steps helps provide insight into a community’s needs.

 

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Video on Privilege in Environment Issues

For my final project in this class, I created a short video that explores the role of privilege in environmental issues.

My Biology teacher in middle school once asked me, “Have you ever wondered why all the oil companies and industries are located in low-income neighborhoods with majority people of color?”

This question led me on a journey into grassroots community action to shut down a refinery in my hometown of Pittsburg, California.

Hear more about my personal exploration into privilege and environmental issues through this video:

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Environmental Racism in the Bay Area

unnamed“Have you ever wondered why all of the oil companies and industries are located in low-income neighborhoods with majority people of color?”

When my 9th grade Biology teacher asked our class this question, I was perplexed. Yet, being in an environment where students did not always challenge the authority nor immerse themselves in learning outside of the classroom, I was never really able to significantly ponder that question until 11th grade, when reality came crashing down.

As I mentioned in my last blog post, Freedom Breathers, I became very acquainted with my city government, grassroots organizing, and, most importantly, knowledge, understanding, and questioning of complex and institutionalized injustices. From that experience, I learned that Pittsburg, California was only one of few marginalized communities that faces a large amount of industry, and thus, pollution, toxic plumes, and poor health conditions. I also learned that gentrification, income, skin color, education, and other factors are all linked, a concept that my freshman year Biology teacher had hinted at.

When reading the article, “Pollution, Poverty, People of Color: The factory on the hill,” I noticed a very interesting and important point: white people did not want African Americans entering or living in the same neighborhoods as them. This discrimination occurred during the World War 2 era, and still continues to this day. In fact, the tech boom has caused further acceleration of gentrification in most of the Bay Area.

Young, often white tech workers moved into San Francisco because of the many tech companies that house their headquarters in the city. The young tech workers are attracted to the city, and its abundance of food options, nightlife, and culture. Unfortunately, they are also affecting the local culture in a negative way, by pushing rents costs up. These higher costs can be afforded by the tech workers, but not the long-standing members of the community who are now being displaced out of San Francisco. These displaced people are often African Americans or Chicano/Latinos who have contributed to much of the culture and livelihood of the neighborhoods in San Francisco, such as the Mission District or Clarion Alley.

Where are these displaced people moving? They’re all being pushed more inland, to places like Oakland, Richmond, Pittsburg, and Antioch, where the population is predominantly low-income and from minority groups. They are being forced to live in places with limited resources and poor health conditions, which further divides the white population living in clean, healthy neighborhoods from the people of color living in – what should be -uninhabitable spaces.

These forced migrations into unsafe areas are definitely aspects of environmental racism. The fact that citizens in Porter Ranch, who are predominately white, received government help only a few months after a gas leakage, while communities of color facing environmental injustices continued to be ignored, even after years of asking for help. In many ways, discrimination against people of color is institutionalized and furthered by poor political practices.

I stand with the people of Richmond to increase more citizen level representation in city council and places of power, because only those who can identify with the issue can take the steps needed to fix it. By doing so, I hope that questions such as the one my 9th grade Biology teacher posed could be understood and discussed at an earlier age.

 

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.