Teaching Environmental Inequality: Class research project

This is the fourth post in a series about the Environmental Inequality class I finished teaching in December. The first post shared the syllabus and class project, the second described how I’ve used the documentary Come Hell or High Water: The Battle for Turkey Creek, and the third described the first of two field trips we took – a boat tour of the Anacostia River. This post describes our class research project, undertaken in collaboration with the Smithsonian Anacostia Community Museum, Empower DC, and ANC 6D commissioner Rhonda Hamilton. Here is the project overview from the course syllabus:

This semester we will work on a collaborative research project with the Smithsonian Anacostia Community Museum, Empower DC, and ANC commissioner Rhonda Hamilton from the neighborhood directly adjacent to Buzzard Point in Washington, D.C. Buzzard Point is an industrial neighborhood that is currently being redeveloped. It will be the site of the new DC United Soccer Stadium and many other new construction projects. Our work will involve conducting oral history interviews with residents living near Buzzard Point to document their family history in the neighborhood, relationship to the community and to the adjacent Anacostia River, and experiences with pollution and gentrification. We will host guest speakers as well as go on field trips and conduct off-campus research activities as part of this project. The Smithsonian Anacostia Community Museum will then add the transcripts to their archives and create a booklet based on your interviews to distribute to research participants after the class ends. When the booklet is ready (early 2017), there will be an optional reception at the Smithsonian Anacostia Community Museum to which you will be invited. This effort is a pilot project to upon which I hope to build a longer-term research relationship with our off-campus partners.

After working with the various groups involved to plan the project, I scheduled a number of “Class Project Days” in my syllabus to move the project forward. Here’s what we used them for.

Preparatory assignment: Research Ethics and the Institutional Review Board

Howard University requires all research plans, including research conducted by students as part of their coursework, to be approved by the campus Institutional Review Board (IRB). This process is designed to protect “human subjects,” or people that are the target of academic research, from potential harm. Accordingly, the students’ first assignment was to complete the IRB’s two required online short-courses on research ethics. They then submitted their certification of passing grades, along with their resume, to me. See the assignment prompt here. I submitted their certifications and resumes along with the rest of the paperwork for the proposed study to the IRB early in the semester. This was stressful as there was no guarantee that the campus IRB would approve the project in time for us to start and finish our work within the limits of a single semester. It worked out in the end, but I would recommend others submit and complete the IRB paperwork in the semester or summer before the class whenever possible. Then at the beginning of the class in which the research will be conducted, merely do the necessary paperwork to add students to the project as extra research personnel. I recommend this process even if your university does not require IRB approval for research conducted by students as part of their coursework. Going through the IRB approval process is educational for the students, reinforces the importance of taking seriously their interactions with the public as researchers, and enables the faculty member or students to publish out of the research they conduct.

Preparatory assignment: Practice interview

After covering the fundamentals of oral history interviewing, students were assigned a practice interview. They divided into pairs and interviewed each other outside of class, using modified versions of the same questions we intended to use with our real interviews later. Students had to record the interviews, write short papers about the interview (its form and content), and turn both in. See the assignment prompt here. In class we then discussed what worked well and what they would have done differently in order to improve their interviewing skills. After they conducted the practice interviews with sample questions I gave them, we also had a class discussion about what other questions ought to be added before we conducted our “real” interviews and I edited the list accordingly.

Guest speakers

On two different class days, I hosted guest speakers from our collaborating organizations to come tell us about their work and describe what they hoped to get out of the class project. Kari Fulton, Empower DC’s environmental justice organizer, spoke on the same day the students did a reading on the concept of cumulative environmental impacts – or the way multiple pollution sources add up to a cumulative health burden that is poorly understood by science and poorly addressed by regulation. Katrina Lashley, the Urban Waterways project coordinator at the Smithsonian Anacostia Community Museum, spoke to the students on the same day they read about oral history interviewing.

Field Trip

We also took a field-trip designed to help students better understand the local environment by taking a boat tour of the Anacostia River. See photos and a description here. Although many of the people living near Buzzard Point that we interviewed later in the semester had little contact with the nearby Anacostia and Potomac rivers, the field-trip still helped the students locate themselves and the project within Washington DC environmental concerns. If I teach this class again with the same research project, I hope to schedule a field-trip to the Buzzard Point neighborhood in place of, or in addition to, the river tour.

Readings

The topical readings of the course were relevant to the research we conducted. In addition, we read things designed to educate the students on the research process. These included the following:

  • Hunt, Marjorie. 2012. Smithsonian Folklife and Oral History Interview Guide. Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution. Retrieved August 21, 2016 (http://www.museumonmainstreet.org/education/Oral_History_Guide_Final.pdf)
  • Cable, Sherry, Tamara Mix, and Donald Hastings. 2005. “Mission Impossible Environmental Justice Activists’ Collaborations with Professional Environmentalists and with Academics.” Pp. 55-75 in Power, Justice and the Environment: A Critical Appraisal of the Environmental Justice Movement, edited by D. Pellow, D. Naguib and R. J. Brulle. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press.

In addition, two other “Class Project Days” featured readings specific to our local research topic. One on the Anacostia River and was assigned the day before our river tour. The others included press coverage of the redevelopment efforts at Buzzard Point, neighborhood that was the target of our research. See the syllabus for details.

Outcome

By the time we got to conducting the actual interviews, the students were well prepared to do so professionally, though of course they still have room to improve their interviewing skills, as does any novice researcher. Our class traveled together to the Syphax Gardens public housing units to conduct the interviews after a meeting of the residents’ council. Some of the people there had been notified by our host, Rhonda Hamilton, that the interviews would be taking place, and others learned of our project for the first time that evening. Eight residents stayed after the meeting to be interviewed. The students individually reviewed the consent forms required by Howard and the Anacostia Museum with the residents before proceeding with the interviews. I floated through the two rooms in which the interviews were taking place to make myself available if any of the residents had questions the students could not answer.

In our next class, we discussed the following questions as a group to prompt the students to reflect on the interviewing experience and began to analyze the interviews themselves:

  • What went well?
  • What could be improved?
  • What did you learn in your interview?
  • What new questions did the interview leave you with?

After discussing these topics, I then linked the above questions to the methods, findings, and future research sections of the final papers that they would write.  But before writing their final papers, the students had several other assignments. They wrote and sent thank-you notes to the people they interviewed, uploaded the audio files of the interviews to our course management system, and transcribed the interviews. Then they wrote final papers in which they analyzed not only their own interviews, but the interviews conducted by the entire group.

Overall, I’m pleased with how the project went. It was a good opportunity to learn more about ongoing environmental justice work in Washington D.C. for both myself and my students. The fact that many of the residents brought up similar issues that the students had read about during the course made everything more real to them. The students also seemed to enjoy the opportunity to take their learning outside of the university walls. For their part, the residents we interviewed seemed appreciative of the students’ interest and professionalism.

This semester, I continue to work on the project with one of my graduate student research assistants (Jesse Card), and one of the undergraduates from that class who has stayed on as a spring research assistant (Amanda Bonam). They did quality control on the student transcriptions by listening to the interview recordings and correcting the transcriptions as necessary, and then sending the corrected transcripts to the Smithsonian Anacostia Community Museum to place in their archives. Jesse is also sending copies of the transcripts and signed consent forms to all the participants. We are also conducting more interviews with other Syphax Gardens residents that were suggested during our first round of interviews. As a group, we will be reading through all the transcripts and recommending excerpts to feature in the booklet that the Smithsonian Anacostia Community Museum is making. My undergraduate research assistant is also communicating with the project partners about organizing a spring event to launch the booklet, and establishing a review process for the creation of the booklet. Between the three of us we have been attending ongoing public hearings about the development of Buzzard Point and its impact on neighboring residents. Amanda has adopted the project for her senior honors thesis, and Jesse will lead us in writing one or several academic articles out of the interview data, which parallels his own master’s thesis research. After this spring, we will revisit the project with all partners to discuss to potential of continuing or expanding it with my next batch of Environmental Inequality students in the fall.

See photos of our interview outing, and links to the class syllabus and assignment prompts ,below.

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My students waiting for the residents’ council meeting to end and interviewing to begin.

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Project partners Kari Fulton (Empower DC) and Rhonda Hamilton (ANC 6D).

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Student Brittany Danzy interviews Ms. Mildred Young.

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Students Tyla Swinton and Joseph Dillard are having a good time interviewing Ms. Michelle Young.

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Students Ravelle Matthews and Romie Michel interview Ms. Mary Wilson.

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Students Angelyna Seldon and Amanda Bonam interview Ms. Gloria Hamilton.

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Kari Fulton’s son kept the students entertained when they weren’t otherwise occupied.

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The view from Syphax Gardens public housing.

Class syllabus and assignment prompts:

Overcoming Corporate Threats to Academic & Community Research on Industrial Animal Production

I chaired a panel discussion on “Overcoming Corporate Threats to Academic and Community Research on Industrial Animal Production” earlier this month at the annual meeting of the Association for Environmental Studies and Sciences. The panel was organized by Zoe Ackerman at the the Rachel Carson Council. It focused on the experiences of people whose health is impacted by the North Carolina hog industry. More specifically, panelists discussed industry intimidation and legal tactics designed to suppress research on the health impacts of concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs) on their nearby human neighbors. Steve Wing, the leading scholar on this topic, was part of the panel design, but in the end was unable to join. However, the following panelists gave a great overview of the issue and how it relates to broader threats to research in the public interest.

Keep an eye out for more work to come on this subject coordinated by the Rachel Carson Council. Also look out for announcements about the North Carolina Environmental Justice Network’s annual summit. In the meantime, the video below provides a short overview of our conversation. See also the following pinterest board where I collected articles I used to inform my framing remarks, which are not included in the video. I linked Steve Wing to Ignacio Chapela, William Cronon, Tyrone Hayes, and Anita Sarkeesian, who have all experienced serious push-back from the industries and social groups threatened by their research. Like many of the other panelists, I emphasized how industry relation against scholars has a chilling effect on the kinds of questions that we ask.

 

Trash as a renewable resource?

Over the last few years I’ve been involved with a multi-campus group thinking about the many different ways that the concept of sustainability is used. Under the able leadership of Miriam Greenberg, this group recently launched an collection of digital essays called Critical Sustainabilities: Competing Discourses of Urban Development in California. It features short case-studies to show how the idea of sustainability is used for competing political purposes. It also features essays about key-words that underpin sustainability debates. The project’s focus on Northern California complicates the ways in which the area is often seen as a model of sustainability efforts.

My contribution, with co-author Lindsey Dillon, analyzes efforts to create a policy mechanism by which energy created from trash could qualify for sale as renewable energy in California. This poses the strange prospect of categorizing trash as a “renewable resource.” We locate this debate in the small farmworker town of Gonzales. A proposal to locate what was alternatively called a “waste-to-energy plant” or an “incinerator-in-disguise” was recently defeated there. Though the case center on Gonzales, the broader conflict is happening nationwide. You can read our piece here.

Those of you with overlapping research interests may be interested in submitting a paper to the group’s proposed panel at the 2016 annual meeting of the Association of American Geographers.

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Workers cover the existing landfill at the site of the proposed “waste-to-energy” facility in Gonzales.

The Environmental Justice Legacy of the United Farm Workers of America

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I’m happy to share my digital essay “The Environmental Justice Legacy of the United Farm Workers of America: Stories from the Birthplace of Industrial Agriculture.” It is published on the new “Humanities for the Environment” web platform funded by the Mellon Foundation, the Consortium of Humanities Centers and Institutes and by Arizona State University’s Institute for Humanities Research. I’m particularly excited to share the reflections of activists Lupe Martinez, Mary Lou Mares, Sarah Sharpe and Enrique Martinez in it. Thank you also to Zachary Singer for allowing me to use his photos of environmental justice activism in the 1980s and early 1990s.

Note (6.15.16): The Humanities for the Environment website continues to be redesigned. Find the latest url to my contribution here.

Publishing your first academic article

I’m speaking in one of my department’s professionalization panels today on the subject of academic publishing for graduate students. The increasingly competitive academic job market requires students to begin publishing early, so I’m looking forward to sharing what I’ve learned so far and hearing what the other participants have to say.  Here’s what I plan to discuss:

1. Different kinds of publications

There are a variety of publishing genres in academic life. Book reviews, encyclopedia entries and book chapters in edited volumes are just some of the opportunities that may come your way while you are a student. I’ve written one book review, one book chapter (coming out in April!), one article in a cross-over magazine meant to be read by scholars and the general public alike, and several online pieces (stay tuned for the launch on of the Critical Sustainabilities project!). I’ve learned a lot from all of them, and in future years I hope to try my hand at writing reports and opinion-editorials as well. Still, publishing peer-reviewed articles in academic journals remains the gold standard of academic writing and is the kind of publication that will help you the most if you hope to pursue a career  in academia after graduation. I’ve had one of these published so far and a have a second going through the submission and review process. The rest of this post focuses on these types of publications.

2. How to pick a journal

The first official journal article I published grew out of my master’s research. Since this project involved collecting new data and making my own argument about it, it was a good  fit for publication. Other opportunities may come to write more theoretical pieces out of field-statements written as part of the qualifying process, or perhaps from class papers. Once you know what writing you want to publish, the next step is to figure out where to publish it.

Trying to find the right journal for your article can be daunting. My strategy was to ask several different advisors and published peers about the journals that they follow, and for recommendations on where to submit my own work. Then I spent time looking these journals up online to get a feel for their content. Usually this meant purusing recent tables of contents. It is also wise at this point to think about the subfield of your discipline in which you hope to specialize, and to target a journal within that field so that your writing will get in front of the eyes of the subgroup of academics whom you hope to join. Again, getting this kind of information requires talking to people who know your field well. Keep in mind that you can only submit your draft to one journal at a time.

I submitted my article first to Social Problems. The editor quickly got back to me with nice things to say about my work, but recommended I seek out a more specialized journal as my piece was too narrowly focused to be able to make a contribution to their larger theoretical themes. I then resubmitted my piece to Organization and Environment, where it was accepted after two rounds of revisions.

Over time, I’ve developed a better sense of the different journals in my field as I see my peers publish in them and as I read more of them myself. I have also found it helpful to subscribe to the “table of contents” e-mail alerts at a variety of journals that interest me. That way whenever they publish a new issue, I get an e-mail that lists the new article titles and their authors.  Even without reading most of these articles, over time the e-mail alerts have given me a much better sense of what kinds of articles are appropriate for which journals.

You may also hear about journal “impact factors.” This numerical score reflects how widely cited the articles published in the journal are. The higher the impact factor of the journals in which you publish, the more “successful” you will be considered by the academic establishment. Nonetheless, I’ve largely ignored impact scores at this early stage of my career and focused instead on getting published by the journals that are best suited to my work.

3. Editing your work to fit the journal

After completing my thesis, I whittled my 70-odd page paper down into something closer to 20 pages. Doing this forced me to pick one of the several arguments in the original work on which to focus, to get to the point much faster, and to be vigilant about cutting text that did not explicitly support my main argument. Next I revised the piece to fit the requirements of the journal to which I was submitting.  These requirements are usually available on the journal’s website under a heading that says “Submit a Manuscript,” “Author Guidelines” or something of the sort. Revisions often include changing the citation and reference style, editing your work to fit within page or word-count limits, or formatting tables and appendices in specific ways. You may also decide to revise your work substantively as well by emphasizing themes most relevant to that particular journal.

4. Submitting your writing

The actual submission process itself is usually fairly straightforward – simply create an online account and follow the journal’s instructions. In addition to your final article, you will input your personal information, keywords for the article, an abstract and a second version of the piece without your name and other identifying information. Your article will go through a “double-blind” review process intended to keep you from knowing who your reviewers are, and to keep them from knowing who you are.

There is often also a space to include a letter to the editor. When I submitted for the first time I just wrote something short and generic such as “Dear [editor’s name], Please accept this article for consideration. I look forward to hearing back from you.” However, I’ve since read other opinions on how to use this space. See here and here for more information.

5. Revisions

After you submit your work, one of two things will happen. The editor will reject the article without sending it out for review, or will contact other academics with expertise in your topic to read and comment on your work.  If the first happens, you will likely hear back from the editor fairly quickly. If the latter happens, it will likely be several months before you hear anything. If the article does get sent out for review, you will hear back that it has been rejected outright, that it needs to be revised and resubmitted for a second assessment, or that it has been accepted with few to no revisions necessary (this last option is extremely rare).

When you hear back from the editor about the status of your submission, look at the brief note that tells you whether it was rejected, critiqued with a request for revisions, or accepted. Then, ignore the e-mail for a week or so. I’ve found that I can better tolerate the sting of the critiques provided by the peer reviewers if I separate the time between finding out the status of my submission and actually reading the detailed comments.

In my case, my article was sent out for review by the second journal to which I submitted, and I then received a request to “revise and resubmit.” One of the critiques of my work was that I had overgeneralized my findings as well as overstated their significance. I’ve heard from several faculty members that this is a common problem amongst graduate students, so be on your guard for these problems. I revised my paper accordingly and resubmitted it, after which it was sent out for review again. One of the reviewers was satisfied with my changes, and the other requested further revisions. I made further revisions and submitted the paper for the third time, after which it was accepted by the editor without being sent back out to the reviewers.

This revise and resubmit process can be tricky. You want to make all of the revisions suggested that you believe will strengthen your work, or that can be made without taking away from your argument. You also need to decide which revision requests you will not fulfill because they conflict with the argument you are making or with the overall direction of your piece. You’ll need to then write a letter to the journal’s editor explaining the changes you have made, and justifying those you have not made.  It may be wise to have a friend or colleague read this letter before you submit it. I asked someone else to read mine to help me edit out the defensive tone that snuck its way in there despite my best efforts to respond professionally to critiques of my work. Although journal publishing is meant to be double-blind, either the author or the reviewer will often know who the other person is by the content of their writing. Academia is a small world and you will likely be interacting with your reviewers in other settings in the future, so it is best to remain cordial and focus on how the process helps you improve your work. Here are the first and second cover-letters that I wrote to the editor during revisions process. Comments by the reviewers are redacted as their writing is not mine to share.

When your piece is finally accepted, it will be copy-edited by the publishers for typos. Nonetheless, it is important for you to read the final version of your work before it gets published. This may be another good time to recruit a friend’s help.

See Tanya Golash-Boza’s blog post for more details on how to manage this stage of the publishing process.

6. Timeline

Publishing takes a long time! I finished my master’s thesis in 2008 and published the article based on that research in 2012. However, much of that lag was due to the fact that it took me a long time to get around to revising my thesis into an article. To speed things along, be sure to resubmit your article to a new journal in a timely fashion if it gets rejected.

  • Submitted to first journal- April 2011
  • Rejected by first journal – May 2011
  • Submitted to second journal – May 2011
  • Got first revise and resubmit request – August 2011
  • Submitted second version of article – October 2011
  • Got second revise and resubmit request – January 2012
  • Submitted third version of article – March 2012
  • Article accepted – March 2012
  • Article published – May 2012 (even though the citation is for March)

7. Final thoughts

Don’t forget to celebrate your progress at each turn! Did you submit an article? Turn in a revision? Get something published? Find ways to celebrate these successes!

 Other resources:

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