Ode to my web designer(s)

One of the really fun parts of my work over the last few years has been getting to work with web designers to build the 25 Stories from the Central Valley website.  In 2008, Derek Hunziker from the John Muir Institute for the Environment at UC Davis built the current site, and over the last few months I’ve been working with his replacement Tyler LaGue to add more content and revamp the site’s look and organization.

Derek built me a beautiful site that I loved.  I had a blast dreaming up ideas and seeing him bring them to life, only better.  The only problem was that it was really hard to update.  When we launched the site, clicking on one of the key menu items brought up the optimistic message “Coming soon!”  Three years later, the message still hasn’t changed.  : (

In the meantime, I met Aspiration’s tech guru Allen Gunn at the Greenaction holiday party last year.  He immediately diagnosed the problem as having created a custom-built website that locks me into relying on a programmer to make changes instead of a pre-fab one designed for people like me to be able to manage.  That meant that any small correction or addition I wanted to make had to wait to be addressed until I could fundraise more money to hire another programmer to make the changes.  That conversation launched my experiment with WordPress and this blog.  I had a great time browsing among the many looks available and and setting it up to appeal to my aesthetics.  It’s a much more whimsical, personal site than the 25 Stories site, and the look reflects that.

Now, Tyler is rebuilding the 25 Stories website to reflect the best of both worlds.  It’s a WordPress site that I’ll be able to update on my own, but he is using his programming magic to make it do more than I could.  We’ll finally do away with the “Coming soon!” message and replace it with an interactive collage  that features excerpts from my interviews with women environmental justice leaders of the San Joaquin Valley.  We’ll also have a slide show of the project’s playback theater performances by Kairos Theater Ensemble, and a media feed that collects and archives coverage of San Joaquin Valley environmental justice advocacy.

The whole process has been a blast, and a great way to balance out the other kinds of work I do.  I get to dream up what I want, bounce ideas around with Tyler, and then see how he magics them into existence. It’s richly creative and entirely satisfying.  Plus, how many times in your life do you get to hear someone say, “Whatever you want, we can make it happen.” ?!?  Stay tuned for the final product!

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.

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!

Playback Theater for environmental justice – slideshow

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Over the last two years, I’ve been part of several Playback Theater performances designed to honor environmental justice advocates and share their stories.  Not as an actress, mind you, but as someone helping to bring together the actors, activists and audience so the magic can happen.

Playback Theater is a unique type of theater that asks audience members to shape the performance by sharing stories from their lives.   The director solicits personal stories from the audience, invites a volunteer up to the stage to tell their story, and asks a few follow-up questions to get more details.  The story-teller then choses one of the actors to play herself, the actors take a moment to wordlessly soak up the story, and then re-enact it on stage. It is all based on improv: nobody knows who will share what stories or how the actors will interpret them until it happens on stage.  In some cases the director will also ask for reactions to the story from the audience, and the actors briefly interpret those reactions too. When it works it is electrifying.

I can’t say what it was like for the environmental justice activists who shared their stories to see their lives retold on stage. But I know from seeing my own stories brought to life during rehearsals that having so much respect, care and attention given to your own experiences can be deeply meaningful.  And I can attest that a number of the audience members unfamiliar with the issues found the performances profoundly moving, and still carry those memories with them.

The idea for doing these shows came from my very talented friend John Chung, who some of you know as Jiwon. John and I were having dinner at a great Korean restaurant in Oakland one night while I was chewing over the usual grad student dilemma of how to do research that actually has some real impact in the world.  I had already developed the basic idea of doing oral history interviews with women environmental justice leaders from the Central Valley, which I could analyze for my academic writing and also edit into stories to help educate the public (more on this later). John suggested adding Playback Theater performances into the mix,  and I thought it was a great idea.   I had some familiarity with the technique through having seen him perform as part of the Living Arts Playback Theater Ensemble, and from having attended a workshop series on Theater of the Oppressed taught by John and other members of the Bay Area Theater of the Oppressed Lab. (Those of you familiar with popular education will be particularly interested in Theater of the Oppressed. It was developed by Augusto Boal, a Brazilian contemporary of Paulo Freire.)

The photos above were taken by Peter John Olandt and myself.  They depict three separate performances at:

Putting this slideshow together has been a lovely way for me to remember what a special experience the performances were.  I hope they give the rest of you a taste of what transpired.  Thank you again to the Kairos Theater Ensemble for making it all happen.  Their work is truly a labor of love.

Kairos Theater Ensemble:

Ben Rivers (Actor)
Dara Kaufmann-Ledonne (Actress)
Deborah French Frischer (Actress)
Jason Agar (Actor)
Veronica Haro (Actress)
John Kadyk (Musician)
Jiwon Chung (Artistic Director – contact him at jiwonchung at sksm dot edu to schedule your own performance.  Or try and get into one of his Theater of the Oppressed classes at the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley)

New article by yours truly!

I’ve got an article coming out today in the inaugural edition of the new UC Press journal Boom: A Journal of California.  I wrote it with one of my Master’s advisors from UC Davis, Julie Sze.  I’m excited because Boom is designed to be a cross-over publication read by scholars and the general public alike, so among other things, it looks beautiful and some of the articles are available for free online (hard-copies are also for sale in some news outlets and bookstores).  The editors also tried to make it “count” for academic contributors by putting it through the usual scholarly peer review process.  I wish this new publication every success and hope to see more like it in the future!

Our piece features a short article on environmental justice in the Central Valley, some of my photos from the 25 Stories from the Central Valley exhibit, and excerpts from my interviews with Teresa DeAnda (Earlimart), Mary Lou Mares (Kettleman City) and Debbie Reyes (Fresno).  I’ll be attending one of the launch events at the Oakland Museum tomorrow night.

Here’s the intro text:

When Californians think of the Central Valley, they often think of its problems: poverty, pesticides, disputes over the allocation of irrigation water, farmworker deaths, and, most recently, a cluster of babies born with birth defects in the small town of Kettleman City. These are some of the ways this region makes the statewide news. But the Central Valley also has a rich history of community organizing and its own stark beauty. These photographs by Tracy Perkins and the oral histories she collected to accompany them document an important aspect of life there: environmental-health problems and the diverse network of advocates who are fighting to solve them.

Practically speaking, the Central Valley is all but invisible to those who live outside it. Over the course of the twentieth century, legislators and growers turned this 500-mile-long stretch of land into one of the most intensively farmed regions in the world, watered by one of the world’s most ambitious irrigation systems. Although California leads the nation in agricultural production, many Californians have little sense of what goes on in the agricultural regions of their state. This invisibility helps to explain why California has located two of the state’s three hazardous-waste landfills and many of its prisons there, while also continuing to allow high levels of toxicity in the air and water…

Read the complete article for free on the Boom website here, or to get the full impact of the beautiful print version, download the pdf here.

Photo exhibit!

This Friday opens the latest exhibit of my photos in the “25 Stories from the Central Valley” collection.  They are already online here, but there’s something extra-special about seeing them “in the flesh” too.  I dropped them off on Sunday and had a good time deciding how to group them in the space they’ll be displayed.

The exhibit is hosted by the San Joaquin River Parkway and Conservation Trust at their scenic headquarters in Fresno.  I’m excited about the show for two reasons.  First, this is the first conservation group (as opposed to environmental justice group) that I’ve had contact with in the Central Valley, and I’m happy the photos can serve as a small bridge between these two facets of environmentalism.  Second, we’ve already shown the photos on the campus where the project started, UC Davis, and this will be the first time they are shown in the region where they were actually taken.

I’ll be attending the exhibit’s reception this Friday (details here).  Hope to see you there!