Photos showing at the Fresno Regional Foundation

I got word today that the photos in my 25 Stories from the Central Valley collection have been hung and are already generating good conversation at the Fresno Regional Foundation.  I haven’t seen how they look yet so if you are visiting their offices while they are on display over the next six months, snap a photo of them and send it to me!

Meet Greenaction’s newest board member… me!

Last week I was formally voted onto the board of directors at Greenaction for Health and Environmental Justice. I’ve been interested in board-memebership ever since I first started working in the non-profit sector, so I’m looking forward to this new role.  Greenaction is an environmental justice organization that works with poor communities and communities of color threatened by high pollution levels. I see them as a sort of “green” version of the Red Cross that works with communities in distress to help them get relief.

I first began working with Greenaction when I was conducting my master’s research at UC Davis.  I approached Greenaction’s executive director, Bradley Angel, as well as leaders at a number of other organizations active in the Central Valley, to pitch them my research project and ask for help finding people to interview.  Bradley became a member of the advisory committee that later helped me develop the 25 Stories from the Central Valley project, and we’ve stayed in touch since.

My new role on the Greenaction board will provide interesting new opportunities and challenges.  The risk for scholars who are actively involved with the populations that they research is that they might find it difficult to step outside the group’s dominant views on their research topic to pursue their own analysis.  On the other hand, more intimate involvement often provides researchers access and insight into their research topic at a level that far exceeds what is available to more distant observers.  So far I’ve felt that the benefits outweigh the risks in my own work.  I’ve been explicit with my new colleagues that the opinions I express in my writing may not always agree with their own.  Certainly activists groups are very familiar with internal disagreement, so in a way this is nothing new.  Still, UCSC Prof. Flora Lu and I are the first scholars to ever sit on Greenaction’s board, so we’ll be taking things one step at a time.

Greenaction just celebrated their 15 year anniversary, and I’m looking forward to learning more about the rich history of West Coast environmental justice activism of which they’ve been an integral part. I’m also excited about this opportunity to give back to the community that has shared their lives and stories so generously with me.

Greenaction board members, staff and friends. Dec. 9, 2011.

Participatory action research for environmental justice

The UC Davis Center for Regional Change launched their newest report yesterday: Land of Risk/ Land of Opportunity: Cumulative Environmental Vulnerability in California’s San Joaquin Valley. The report documents how exposure to environmental pollution tends to go hand and hand with social vulnerability, creates maps that visually depict this relationship, and provides several case-studies.

This report was created by the authors with partners from the San Joaquin Valley through the San Joaquin Valley Cumulative Health Impacts Project.  I attended one or two of the group’s earliest meetings several years ago and have tracked their progress through conversations with the lead author (my former advisor Jonathan London) and the environmental justice advocates that are part of my own research.  I also donated a few of my photographs for use in the final report.

When I give guest-lectures on divisions between campus-community divides, I often use this project as an example of ways that scholars and activists can work together productively.  In particular, I find it helpful to show students the detailed agreements that the group worked out ahead of time to guide their collaboration.  Because the work of scholars and activists are judged in different ways, these kinds of guidelines can go a long way toward anticipating and resolving the tensions that often come up.  You can see their agreements (shared with the lead author’s permission), in this post.

Introducing Ruth Martinez

Ruth Martinez is a community organizer who lives in the small town of Ducor in the San Joaquin Valley. I interviewed her several years ago for my Master’s thesis and wrote the story below based on what she told me about how she came to be an activist. I stopped by her house this morning to get her permission to share her story.  Ruth was keeping off her feet after having broken her foot on a recent United Farm Workers of America (UFW) march to Sacramento.  Besides her involvement with the UFW, Ruth is also active with the Center on Race Poverty and the Environment, the Community Water Center, and the Asociación de Gente Unida por el Agua

Ruth’s story begins with her marriage at 15.  Her husband was a farm worker who was active in the UFW.  She joined him on the marches and political campaigns that were connected with his work.  Ruth had always wanted to be a nurse, but from a young age she had epileptic seizures.  As she told me, “César Chávez never said, ‘No, you can’t.’  That’s why his slogan was ‘Si, se puede,’ because yes, you can.”  Ruth’s husband took her to a UFW meeting at 40 Acres in Delano, which had a clinic for farm workers at that time.  Ruth saw the nurses and said, “Oh, I always wanted to be a nurse.”  César heard her and said “Well, why aren’t you?” Ruth said, “Because I can’t.  I get seizures and everybody’s told me I’d never be able to be a nurse because of my seizures.”  César said, “You can be anything you want to,” and helped her go to nurse’s aide training.  Ruth worked as a nurse’s aide until she finished college and received her nursing degree.  She was a nurse for 30 years before retiring.  After one month of retirement she became tired of not doing anything and went back to work.  Now she works at a unionized (UFW) rose farm, taking out the thorns that get stuck in the farm workers hands, face and eyes and seeing to other health problems as well.

During her years as a nurse Ruth would go on the UFW marches to take care of people who got sick or who had too many blisters on their feet from marching.  She remembers one march from Delano to Sacramento in particular.  She got upset because the organizers put her in a van to tend to the sick but she wanted to be out marching.  She describes the impact of starting with about 20 people in Delano and ending in Sacramento with thousands.  She remembers how the Teamsters and just about everyone else worked against them on that march, and how different it was from a march from Merced to Sacramento that they did around 1990 or 2000.  This time the Teamster’s lent them their hall in Sacramento to sleep in; the police provided an escort; and truckers stopped to get them sodas and water to drink as they marched.

Ruth and her family moved from a home surrounded by a grape orchard to the small town where she still lives.  Her family, and many of the neighbors, had “self-help” houses built for them because of their low-income status.  Early on there were problems with the water supply in town, and residents were told not to flush their toilets at certain hours, and to only take showers at other hours.  Ruth felt this wasn’t right and asked her sister, who worked at a regional non-profit, to send a legal assistant over to help resolve the problem.  Ruth began collecting signatures in town to replace the private water company with a community service district that the whole town would co-own.  The campaign was successful and very personally meaningful to Ruth, who years later ended up on the water board for the town.

For a time the water system worked well and provided them with clean water, albeit sometimes at low pressure.  But later the town began having problems with their water again.  This time it smelled terrible and in many houses came out looking brown and muddy.  Ruth had already been introduced to the environmental justice organization nearby, and began working on the water problem with one of their organizers.  They formed a committee for people in the San Joaquin Valley with water problems, and went to Sacramento, Fresno and San Francisco to attend various water board meetings in an attempt to resolve their problem.  Ruth faced strong opposition from her local board when she brought bottles of the smelly brown water collected from neighbors’ homes as examples of what they had to live with.  Ruth and the other neighbors still had to pay for the poor-quality water that they were receiving. She used bottled water to cook with but bathed in the tap water, although she used bottled water to wash her hair so it would not retain the sewage smell of the tap water.  Ruth’s grandchildren would come to visit and Ruth would bathe them, but then her daughter would find rashes on the children, which they decided must have been caused by the water.  During this time several of Ruth’s old UFW friends joined the nearby environmental justice group, and began inviting her to meetings that they were organizing on pesticide buffer zones and the possibility of receiving a grant to put in sewage lines in her town.

Ruth’s father died when she was young.  Her mother spoke little English, and Ruth credits her with very little influence in terms of her own work as an activist. Somehow she and her sister ended up being the only ones in their family who were “a little pushy”, and tried to fix things when they thought something was wrong.  She thinks the female movement must have had a lot to do with it.

Toward the end of our interview I asked Ruth if she has any children, and she told me that she has four.  Ruth’s first child is the healthiest, and she was born before Ruth and her husband moved to a home in the middle of a grape orchard.  Of the second two children born on the ranch, one was born with only one kidney* and one has high blood pressure and diabetes.  The fourth child has a serious case of asthma.  Ruth attributes the child born with one kidney and the other child’s asthma to the pesticides to which they were exposed.

Now, at 65 or a little older, Ruth is still working as a nurse.  She works on local and regional water issues, and continues to support political campaigns that are backed by the UFW.  Most recently, she went to Los Angeles to support Antonio Villaraigosa’s campaign to be the first Latino mayor.  She walked the streets and talked to the voters on election day.  She also works with Catholic Charities registering new people to become citizens.  Her husband died 12 years ago of a heart attack and diabetes.

* Ruth’s daughter passed away in November of 2010.

Action research syllabus collection

Although all academics hope their research makes an impact in the real world, some take extra steps to make that outcome more likely.  This small but vibrant sector of academia talks about their work with terms like action research, participatory action research, public sociology, engaged scholarship, activist scholarship, applied research and more. I’ve recently acquired three fascinating syllabi in this genre and added them to my collection.  Two are intended for graduate students and one for undergrads.

I must say blogging is a great way to share my various little treasure chests of these sorts of things.  I hope you enjoy them too!

This collection also has a permanent home under the “Teaching” tab on the menu at the top of this site.

Blogging in the classroom

I’ve always been interested in learning about ways that teachers link what they do in the undergraduate classroom to real world events.  I’ve seen this include asking students to bring in news clippings that relate to the course content, developing collaborative research assignments on new local city policies that are then presented back to the public, archival work, creating and testing environmental education curricula for partnering community organizations, and a variety of other service-learning projects.

So I was very interested today to see the results of a public sociology course taught by my colleague Prof. Alison Alkon at the University of the Pacific.  Over the course of a semester Alison trains her students to identify sociological concepts in the media, find press coverage of current events that lacks a sociological perspective but could benefit from its inclusion, and then create a media piece that uses sociology to help explore an issue of their choice.  The class projects have resulted in the following two blog posts:

Creating writing assignments that students can later submit to a blog of their choice seems like a great way to engage them in issues they are passionate about, with the extra motivation that comes from writing something that could be read by people other than their teacher (both posts generated spirited debates in the comments sections that follow them).   I hope Alison will keep us informed as more of her students get published!

More blogging ideas:  See sample assignment ideas for working with the Sociological Images blog here.  See Alison’s public sociology syllabus here.  See the website of a professor whose students write guest-posts on his own blog here.

Spanish language teaching tools for environmental justice

Yesterday one of the excellent tech masters at UC Davis uploaded the most recent addition to the 25 Stories from the Central Valley website: Teaching tools in Spanish (click the ‘en español’ icon in the upper right corner if the link pulls up the English version).  The tools were designed to help college-level teachers introduce basic environmental justice concepts in the classroom, but I imagine some of them could be adapted to work in other settings as well.  Three of the tools depend on English-language documents and data available online, but I decided to include them also in the hopes that others might know of Spanish-language equivalents to use.  Enjoy!

Thank you to Mateo and Roy at Berkeley Interpreting, Transcription and Translation Services for doing the translation, to Silver Cruz for updating the website, to Ed Reed at the UC Davis John Muir Institute of the Environment for getting it online, and to the UC Humanities Research Institute for paying for it!