The new face of the Valley’s environmental movement

UPDATE: Read ‘People of color defend Earth’ here.

A new type of environmentalist has emerged in California, panelists said during an ethnic media briefing hosted by New America Media last Wednesday in San Francisco.

“People of color are the strongest environmentalists in the state of California,” said Roger Kim, executive director of the Asian Pacific Environmental Network, which fights for environmental and social justice in low-income Asian immigrant and refugee communities.

“You name the issue, people of color want the highest level of concern and also want stronger action from our government,” Kim said. “It’s the fact that Asians, blacks and Latinos are really bearing the brunt of the burden of environmental pollution in this state.”

That trend holds true in the San Joaquín Valley, too, said Sarah Sharpe, Environmental Health Director at Fresno Metro Ministry. “The communities that bear the brunt of our pollution are getting involved because they don’t want to put up with it anymore,” Sharpe said.

Regional poll results from the Public Policy Institute of California’s July 2011 survey, ‘Californians and the Environment,’ further underscore this shift in the environmental movement. According to the poll:

  • 35 percent of Valley Latinos and blacks, and 21 percent of Valley whites, believe air pollution is a very serious health threat to their families and communities;
  •  57 percent of Valley Latinos and blacks, and 28 percent of Valley whites, believe air pollutions is a more serious health threat in low-income areas;
  • 60 percent of Valley blacks and Latinos, and 45 percent of Valley whites, support the state government addressing the issue of global warming, separate from the federal government.

So who are the faces of the Valley’s environmental movement?

Rebecca Quintana, of Seville, won the regional EPA’s 2010 Environmental Justice Champion award for her efforts to improve drinking water quality in Valley communities.

Magdalena Romero, of Kettleman City, and Maria Saucedo, of Avenal, became strong advocates of environmental justice after their babies were born with birth defects and died.

The members of Latinos United for Clean Air traveled to Sacramento last year to push for improved air quality in the Valley.

Concerned Citizens of West Fresno is asking the City of Fresno to force Darling International to obtain a conditional use permit for its rendering facility.

Herminia Arenas, of Líderes Campesinas,  pushed for pesticide buffer zones, and protections against pesticides, in Madera County.

Read more about the changing face of the environmental movement in an upcoming edition of Vida.

Investigating youth homelessness: A journey for two reporters

This winter, I collaborated on a reporting project exploring youth homelessness and education with Marcus Vega, a formerly homeless youth and reporter for The kNOw Youth Media. The series of stories, which were supported by a New America Media fellowship, are currently running on NAM’s website.

Our collaboration represented the first time NAM had paired an ethnic media reporter with a youth reporter to work on an in-depth series of stories. From our first person pieces below, I think it’s obvious that both Marcus and I learned a lot about each other, ourselves, journalism, and homelessness during this unprecedented reporting journey.

Please read Marcus’ first person piece here.

When I first started working on a series of stories on homeless youth with Marcus, a homeless youth and a reporter for The kNOw Youth Media, I was curious to see how our partnership would work out.

Any doubts I might have had were immediately erased when we conducted our first interview together at the Fresno Rescue Mission Emergency Family Shelter.

During the interview, I asked three homeless women to describe the importance of – and challenges involved with – getting their children to school, while residing at the homeless shelter. The women opened up to us, and happily answered all of our questions.

Then Marcus asked a few questions he had typed into his cell phone. They were questions I hadn’t even thought to ask, since I had never been in their shoes. “Do you receive any county assistance?” he asked the women. And: “What do you plan to do to improve your situation?”

Marcus never told the women of his background, but it was almost like they could tell – not from his voice or his hooded sweatshirt, but from his knowledge, empathy and understanding of their situation. They spoke with him directly, in a less formal tone than they had used with me.

As we left the homeless shelter that morning, Marcus expressed pleasant surprise that the women seemed so comfortable sharing their story with us. I, myself, was excited by how well our partnership had worked that morning, and how Marcus could play an important role in keeping the series of stories relevant and honest.

After that first interview, Marcus and I worked together for about two months. Throughout that time, I tried to teach him journalism tips and techniques.

One afternoon, we sat in Vida en el Valle’s conference room inside the Fresno Bee, and talked about how to effectively structure an interview. Then, with those tips in mind, Marcus led an interview with a 20-year-old formerly homeless youth who is now a student at California State University, Fresno. (Marcus’ story about Daniella can be read here.)
And during our collaboration, Marcus taught me about the challenges and realities of being a homeless youth in Fresno.

One morning, Marcus and I went searching in downtown Fresno for homeless youth to interview. From his life experiences, he knew where to look. We visited the downtown library, and Fresno’s Tower District, both places where homeless youth often hang out. We also visited the Fresno County Economic Opportunities Commission’s Transitional Living Center, a shelter for homeless youth where Marcus himself had lived, and still had friendly contacts.

We didn’t find youth to interview that day, but under his guidance, I learned to see Fresno from a new perspective.

Working closely with Marcus brought alive the issues of youth homelessness, and the challenges homeless youth face in accessing education.

One afternoon, Marcus was at the Fresno Bee to work on the project. On the way out, he asked if we could check out the job openings at the company. Marcus,  who is very close to earning his high school degree, was frustrated to realize that even manual labor jobs in the Bee’s warehouse required at least a high school diploma.

He is a good writer, and had even mentioned to me, on the way to one of our interviews, that he is interested in pursuing a career in journalism. But realizing that his opportunities would be restricted until he finished his studies underscored the focus of our stories: Education truly is a path out of poverty, but it can be so difficult for homeless youth to achieve.

Read our entire series, Young and Homeless, on New America Media:

The American Dream… of Health Care

UPDATE: “The Eternal Optimist” can be read here. The video about Georgina González, produced by Jacob Simas of New America Media, is below.

About three years ago, Georgina González left her three siblings, three children, and three grandchildren in Puebla, México and immigrated to Fresno in search of better economic opportunities.

What she found here, though, was an opportunity to receive health care after she was diagnosed with breast cancer last year.

“I have seen that God brought me to this country to be cured,” González told me. “It’s possible that in my country, I would not have had that opportunity.”

González’s story – which will be in next week’s edition of Vida en el Valle – is so personal, and so universal at the same time. (A video, created by Jacob Simas of New America Media, will accompany the story!)

González is a petite woman who has confronted her breast cancer diagnosis, and resulting surgery, physical therapy, and radiation treatment, with faith, optimism, and inner strength.

When she squeezed her palm into a tight fist, and over the chatter of a Fresno taquería declared, “I’m not going to cry” – I believed her.

Her story also has a larger meaning: As a low-income immigrant, González is one of the many women who have benefitted from the state’s safety-net health programs. Many of these valuable state programs, though, could be cut when Gov. Brown releases his proposed budget on Monday.

Through the Every Woman Counts cancer detection program, González received a free mammogram – and learned she had breast cancer. The Every Woman Counts was a victim of budget cuts last year, but it was reinstated in December. Some people suspect it will face more cuts when Gov. Jerry Brown releases his state budget on Monday.

And through the state’s Breast Cancer and Cervical Cancer Treatment Program, González has received temporary Medi-Cal benefits that have covered all of her cancer-related treatment and medication. A spokesman for the state Department of Health Care Services said he does not expect budget cuts to impact this program.

Though we began this story thinking it would be about González’s journey through the health care system, we realized it’s also about a different type of American Dream: having – and possibly losing – the opportunity to receive quality health care.

“If it weren’t for (those programs), I truly don’t know what I would have done,” she said.