Slideshow: The faces of public participation

As part of my second research trip to Los Angeles, on Saturday I attended a hearing at the South Coast Air Quality Management District (SCAQMD). At issue was the Exide Technologies battery recycling facility in Vernon, and the lead and arsenic it is emitting into the air. The decision-makers heard from lawyers on both sides of the case, and then opened the hearing up for testimony by residents and other interested parties.

Public participation is a key part of much environmental decision-making, and over time advocates have convinced many decision-making bodies to provide translation services. This helps the many Spanish-speaking residents who live near polluting facilities to participate in the environmental decisions that profoundly affect their lives. Being able to participate in environmental descision-making does not necessarily mean that that their voices will actually influence decisions, but it is an important first step.

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See coverage of the hearing by the Los Angeles Times here, and its broader coverage of the company here.

Research trip to Los Angeles

On Wednesday night I got back from a week spent visiting some of the most polluted parts of southern California, and in some cases the country. These are communities surrounded by ports, refineries, freeways, train tracks, warehouses and other industrial facilities.  They live with air pollution, asthma, cancer, dust, flares, the constant rumbling of machinery and trucks, and bright lights at night. Over the course of the week I heard stories of what it is like to live there. I heard about explosions, fires, police checkpoints, and the not-so-distant history of the Klu Klux Klan. But I also heard stories of improvements made, lawsuits won and protections put in place.

My dissertation research covers the growth and changing nature of environmental justice advocacy in California over the past three decades. Although I’ve been working loosely in this field for much of the past 14 years, my prior work has focused on the San Joaquin Valley and the international arena. And as a dedicated northern Californian, I find I have little knowledge of the southern half of my home state. So, this trip was an important opportunity to expand my understanding of environmental justice advocacy, and to connect across the gentle rivalry that sometimes divides north from south.

I’ve included photos and a description of my trip here in the hopes that through my eyes you too might better understand my state and the problems we face.

César Chávez National Monument

Day 1: Instead of driving south over the I-5, I went up and over the mountains that divide the Central Valley from Los Angeles through Cajon Pass. I wanted to visit the César Chávez National Monument in Keene, which President Obama dedicated just last year. Environmental justice advocates in the San Joaquin Valley have rich ties to the United Farmworkers of America, and César Chávez continues to be a potent political symbol there.  The national monument houses his grave, a garden, and a visitor’s center that was showing a photo exhibit of the 1965 Delano grape strike the day I visited.

National monuments are administered by the National Park Service. Because I associate the park service with national forests and camping trips, it was jarring to see their familiar signage next to images of César Chávez, farmworkers, and artifacts from the picket line. I’m pleased to see César Chávez and the farmworkers’ movement get this level of attention and legitimacy, but also uneasy to see a memorializing process that makes it easy to think the problems they worked on are things of the past.

César Chávez National Monument

César Chávez National Monument

The drive through the rest of the mountains was beautiful. The Santa Ana winds had blown the air pollution away so I had an uncommon view of the stunning desert vistas around me. I didn’t see them again for the rest of the trip.

I ended the day happily in Riverside at a 35th Anniversary Gala Event for the Center for Community Action and Environmental Justice (CCAEJ). CCAEJ got its start through a fight against the Stringfellow Acid Pits above Glen Avon. The site contaminated local groundwater, and on several occasions released liquid hazardous waste into a canyon that carried it into the streets of Glen Avon. Activism around the site led to the creation of the California State Superfund Program and to the birth of CCAEJ. It is still being cleaned up.

Day 2: On Friday I woke up to soak in the beauty of a nearby desert rock formation visible from my motel. Then I drove to the Los Angeles Port to attend the Harbor Community Benefit Foundation‘s public meeting in San Pedro. The LA Port is the largest industrial port in the country, and the diesel exhaust from the ships, equipment and trucks that operate there are the largest source of air pollution in the region. The Foundation was funded by the port after years of activism by local residents and a lawsuit over the negative impacts of the port on the surrounding communities. The day I visited the board was discussing the $506,000 worth of grants they were giving to support local community initiatives.

The view from San Pedro

The view from San Pedro

After leaving the port I drove north to Pacoima, where I had a great time interviewing Veronica Padilla and Yvette Lopez from Pacoima Beautiful. They’ve offered to drive me around Pacoima to see their work in person, so I’m looking forward to seeing them again on my next visit!

My car

Day 3: Saturday was a welcome day of rest.  I organized my notes and audio files, scheduled more interviews, and hung out with my cousin at his office in Glendale (where I slept for the majority of the trip). I had it on my list to clean out my car too, but didn’t quite get to it.  You know you’re a Ph.D. student when you open the car door and books fall out!

Day 4: On Sunday I headed back to the area around the Los Angeles Port to interview Jesse Marquez from Coalition for a Safe Environment. Jesse grew up in Wilmington and works to protect his community from the pollution released by its neighboring ports, refineries and other industrial operations. While he printed out reports and campaign materials for me, I poked around his office. There were water samples and soot in jars, maps of the area with callouts pointing to the various projects of industrial expansion, and lots of books. I always find it instructive to peruse people’s bookshelves, and Jesse’s were no exception. The vast quantities of highly technical environmental impact reports spoke volumes about the maze of government regulations and science that he navigates in his day-to-day work.

Wilmington

The bookshelves at the offices of Coalition for a Safe Environment.

After leaving Wilmington, I headed to Maywood to sit in on a meeting between residents and their lawyers at the local Denny’s.  Maywood residents have been engaged in a long battle against a polluting battery recycling plant run by Exide Technologies. The plant has been repeatedly cited for releasing lead and arsenic into the air above legal limits. See coverage by the Los Angeles Times here.

Downtown Huntington Park

Day 5: On Monday I made my first trip to Huntington Park and strolled through the downtown, which was bustling with activity. I met with Strela Cervas from the California Environmental Justice Alliance, a coalition of six California environmental justice groups. We discussed the challenges and opportunities of scaling up local battles into statewide policy work in Sacramento. I heard more about their campaign to pass a Green Zones initiative and their support of AB 1330, which would increase enforcement of environmental law in communities overburdened with pollution, and also channel more resources to them. I also learned more about about their “Solar for All” campaign to provide clean energy and jobs in low-income communities through investment in rooftop solar energy production. The need for environmental clean up as well as jobs in the communities in which environmental justice advocates work was poignantly underscored when I passed by long lines of people outside the Social Security Administration building on my walk back to the car.

Line at the Social Security Administration building in Huntington Park

The Los Angeles River

I had a bit of free time before my next meeting, so I drove by the Los Angeles River to take a few photos. It looks more like an industrial flood channel than a river, but I found it strangely attractive nonetheless and enjoyed taking photos of it. Check out long-term plans to revitalize an 11-mile stretch of the river here.

The Los Angeles River

My next interview was with Felipe Aguirre from the Comité Pro Uno in Maywood. Over the din of the trucks passing outside, we spoke about his many years of activism, his role on the Maywood city council, and the air pollution and contaminated drinking water faced by Maywood residents. Felipe told me that he first got involved in environmental justice advocacy when he found out that pollution where he lived was so bad that an administrator at a local school made a habit of referring the kindergarteners from his neighborhood to doctors who screened them for lead poisoning.  

Day 6: On Tuesday I joined a visiting group of environmental justice activists from Houston on a tour of the ports, railroads, freeways and warehouses in Los Angeles and the Inland Empire.  This transportation system moves a vast quantity of goods every day. The neighboring communities suffer the consequences through air pollution, asthma, cancer and sometimes even fires and explosions. Over the course of the day we:

Picket line in front of Green Fleet Systems

Teamsters Local 630

Truck drivers taking a break from the picket line (names withheld by request)

Tracing the infrastructure of the global “logistics industry” from sea to mountain was daunting.  I already knew that environmental injustices are deeply embedded in global commerce, but watching the massive quantities of goods moving through the area brought it home in a concrete way I’ve never felt before. These lists of exports and imports through the area give a taste of just how deeply entrenched our society is in the international flows of goods:

Top imports coming through the LA and Long Beach ports:

  • Clothing
  • Furniture
  • Auto parts
  • Electronics
  • Shoes
  • Crude oil
  • Plastics
  • Chemicals

Top exports exiting through the LA and Long Beach ports:

  • Food
  • Scrap metal
  • Scrap paper
  • Animal feeds
  • Cotton
  • Resins
  • Petroleum coke and other petroleum products
  • Coal
  • Chemicals

Cargo ships at the Port of Los Angeles

The Los Angeles and Long Beach ports

Railroads cary cargo inland from the ports

Over the course of the day we used the buddy system to make sure nobody got left behind when we got back on the bus after each stop.  My buddy for the day was Juan Parra of Texas Environmental Justice Advocacy Services. We discovered we had a few friends in common, and I enjoyed hearing about the early days of environmental justice advocacy in Texas and the Southwest from him. We also spent part of the drive looking at the Google Map on my smart phone.  We used the satellite view to zoom in on the port of Houston and the neighborhood of Manchester where some of his group lives. Juan pointed out a house that we could see was surrounded on three sides by oil tanks and other industrial facilities.

The irony of spending the day driving and using electronics to learn more about environmental justice problems that result in part from pollution due to driving and electronics manufacturing was not lost on me. But although we’re all implicated in the planet’s environmental crisis, some of us are less implicated than others.  Low-income communities of color usually contribute less to the problem while suffering its impacts more. And like all advocates, we do the best we can with the tools at hand while working towards something better.

Day 7: On Wednesday I joined the group from Houston again as they met with an array of local environmental justice advocates and scholars.  After our morning meetings concluded, we went on one final “tour.”  Alicia Rivera from Communities for a Better Environment drove us through Wilmington, mostly to parts of the town I had not seen before. At one of our stops Francisco Vargas saw us and came out of his home to talk with us. He lives next to the Warren E & P urban oil-drilling site we were looking at. Francisco described how the drilling shakes the earth and has cracked his home’s windows and foundation. He told us that in response to his requests for financial help fixing the damage the company offered him vouchers to get his car washed instead.  In spite of his hardships, Francisco shared a few laughs with us before we went on our way. See page 6 of this report for background information on the drilling site.

View from the car in Wilmington

DSC_0033Francisco Vargas and Alicia Rivera at the Warren E & P drilling site in Wilmington

The immensity of the powers arrayed against communities trying to protect themselves from the pollution I saw in LA and the Inland Empire was staggering.  That’s why it was so inspiring to learn about the issues alongside the group of advocates from Houston, who are anticipating port expansion projects of their own. They were here to get a sense of what port expansion can mean, trade ideas, and learn from what California advocates have been able to accomplish. Although I’ve lived in California since I was five, the fact that I was born in Houston made me feel a special kinship with this group.  I’m grateful to them for sharing their learning experience with me, and to the Los Angeles environmental justice community for their hospitality and warm welcome.

The Houston group

The buddy system: The best thing I learned in preschool

Another old post rescued from my “drafts” folder that stands the test of time.

***

My sister and her family used to live in Amish country in Western Pennsylvania.  When I visited I was impressed by the prosperous looking farms and the teams of horses out plowing the fields.  On one visit, my brother-in-law pointed out a nice home as we drove by it.  He told me the original house had recently burned down, tragically killing several of the family’s children in the fire.  My brother-in-law drove that road regularly and watched as the Amish community came together to rebuild the house – finishing it within a matter of weeks.

I’ve often thought it would be nice to feel the strong sense of community support that seems to be a part of some religions. But I turned down my own opportunity to join a church when I was a teenager, and am not likely to change my mind now. In my own small, secular ways I try to create other kinds of support systems.  They’re not romantic, and often involve making dates to do things with others that I might not do alone.  I definitely wouldn’t have spent last Friday afternoon working on the paper for my upcoming qualifying exam, or going to the gym after that, without having a standing date with my writing buddy and another with my gym buddy!

Every now and then I also miss the sense of shared purpose that can come from having a job that actually involves people all working on the same project.  Academics are mostly doing their own thing, and PhD students are certainly not allowed to co-author their dissertations.

Here’s some of what I’ve already tried and found helpful:

  • Weekly writing dates – in groups or pairs (just to write, not to workshop our writing)
  • Grading get-togethers – for moral support!
  • Exercise buddies – mostly gym time and walks
  • Soup exchanges – everyone makes a soup at home, divvies it up into containers, and gets together to trade soups so we can stock our freezers with a variety of yummy homemade soups! I try to do this each winter.
  • Friday lunch dates at the college cafeteria – thanks Bernie!
  • Project buddies – I finished my master’s thesis with the help of weekly phone meetings with two other friends working on their own theses, and did the early stages of work for my qualifying exam supported by regular coffee meetings with another fellow student (thanks Brandi!). I both cases we didn’t read each other’s work or talk about the content of our projects, but used the time to set goals, troubleshoot, and get moral support.
  • Brainstorming buddies – I have found that most of my academic advisors tend not to be productive people to brainstorm with. They’re much more useful at providing constructive criticism on ideas that are already fairly concrete. But concrete ideas are necessarily preceded by the messier work of making sense of fuzzy thoughts, general interests, and gut feelings, which for me needs to be done in a criticism-free environment, constructive or otherwise. Hence, one fellow student and I have periodically gotten together for brainstorming sessions related to our work. This usually involves big sheets of butcher paper, markers,  lots of post-its, and lots of encouragement. : )
  • Future projects partner – all of the ideas above can be done with people who have a wide variety of research interests. In addition, I have one friend whose research interests are very closely aligned with my own, and we have a shared google doc with a ever-expanding wish-list of future research and writing projects to do together. Now, it may be a long time before we get to any of them. I’m diving into my own intensive dissertation research, and my friend is wrapping up research for a post-doc at the same time that she begins a new teaching job. Still, having this running list gives me a place to cultivate the pleasure of dreaming up new projects; provides a sense of myself as a career academic who will get to work on a wide variety of projects over time, even though my dissertation currently seems interminable; and helps me trust that the future that will allow more collaborative work than my current status as a Ph.D. candidate.
I’ve heard of others who get together to do their house-cleaning in groups, taking turns with whose house they focus on, but I’ve never tried it. I also keep thinking it would be fun to do a monthly “cook for the freezer” day with a friend. You know what they say, many hands make light work! Or, at least, work that is more fun.

New article out

The article based on the master’s research I began at UC Davis many moons ago was finally published this week!  Here’s the abstract and citation.  To read the full article, you need to connect to the journal’s website through a university server.

Abstract:

This article explores women’s pathways to participation in environmental justice advocacy in California’s San Joaquin Valley. Many scholars find that women become environmental justice activists according to a common set of experiences in which apolitical women personally experience an environmental problem that launches them into a life activism to protect the health of their families. Although a small group of the 25 women the author interviewed fit this description, overall the interviews reveal a much more diverse array of paths into environmental justice activism. The author’s data complicate the idea that environmental justice activism is the first political activity for most women environmental justice activists and that they are motivated to become activists primarily in order to protect the health of their families. The author discusses the significance of these findings and concludes with a call for scholars to revisit the question of women’s pathways into environmental justice activism.

Perkins, Tracy. 2012. “Women’s Pathways into Activism: Rethinking the Women’s Environmental Justice Narrative in California’s San Joaquin Valley.” Organization & Environment 25(1):76-94.

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.

On the limitations of knowledge

I turned in my first federal grant application today, and just wading through the endless instructions felt like a real accomplishment! This particular grant asked me to provide the ‘expected answers’ to my research questions.  Given that I haven’t actually started the research yet, this felt a bit like putting the cart before the horse.  But hypothesis testing, as it is called, is one standard approach to social science research.  It wouldn’t be very convincing to the granting agency, but I was tempted to include this poem in my application:

Be patient toward all that is unsolved in your heart
and try to love the questions themselves.
Do not seek the answers, which cannot be give you
because you would not be able to live them.
And the point is to live everything –
Live the questions now.
Perhaps you will… gradually,
without noticing it, live along some distant day into the answer.

– Rainer Maria Rilke