There is No Environmental Justice Without Racial Justice

Written by: Shanley Mitchell
Edited by: Lauren Barnum

There is no environmental justice without racial justice. The systems of power and privilege that destroy the environment also deprive Black, Indigenous, and People of Color (BIPOC) of their humanity – and too often, their lives.⁣⁣⁣⁣⁣⁣⁣ Since Jan. 1, 2015, 1,252 Black individuals have been shot and killed by the police. We are outraged by the racist murders of, Eric Garner, Ezell Ford, Michelle Cusseaux, Tanisha Anderson, Tamir Rice, Natasha McKenna, Walter Scott, Bettie Jones, Philando Castile, Botham Jean, Atatiana Jefferson, Eric Reason, Dominique Clayton, Breonna Taylor, George Floyd, and so many others. 

Here at the Tuolumne River Trust we stand in solidarity with Black and BIPOC people everywhere. All too often racial justice is left out of environmental action. It is no secret that communities of color are disproportionately affected by every climate crisis. Fighting for a healthy Tuolumne River is not only necessary for the health of our environment, but it is necessary for the survival of our communities who depend on the Tuolumne for clean drinking water, growing food, and safe spaces for recreation. 

Because of violent and racist acts, our friends of color often do not feel safe recreating outdoors. In fact, Ahmaud Arbery was outdoors doing what he loved, running when he was murdered by three white men simply because of the color of his skin. Enough is Enough. Safe access to the outdoors as a refuge for recreation and play should not be determined by race. Sheltering in place comes with its own set of challenges, and no one, under any circumstance, should feel unsafe to leave their house for a few hours of nature and fresh air. 

Our environment can’t survive without biodiversity, in the same way that we can’t survive or thrive without racial diversity. Our mission at TRT is to protect and restore the Tuolumne River and its watershed for present and future generations. We want the communities who benefit from the Tuolumne’s clean drinking water and world-class recreation to reflect the beautiful diversity that makes up our country. This is one reason why racial equity and decreasing social and economic barriers to river access is important to us. 

We will hold ourselves accountable as we dedicate resources toward a more intersectional approach to our work. To us, accountability means having the difficult but necessary conversations about white privilege as a majority-white team, uplifting stories told by people and communities of color, dedicating more time and financial resources to our programs for underserved communities, educating ourselves about systemic racism, continuing equitable hiring practices, and diversifying our team. Standing in solidarity is not just the right thing to do, it is our responsibility.  We will hold ourselves accountable for our shortcomings and put in the work to help create more just and inclusive movement. 

Should we care about conservation during a pandemic?

Written by: Shanna Edberg 

Published by: The Hill

Now, more than ever, we need nature and the benefits it provides. COVID-19 has both revealed and exacerbated deep inequities in access to green space. Those of us who are fortunate enough to be at home, away from the frontlines, appreciate the mental and physical health boost provided by walks and nature views even more.

Those in less privileged communities find themselves in a double whammy of air pollution making the disease more severe, while lacking the green space that is so necessary to resilience, health and wellbeing.

A lot of things have changed with the pandemic and many of us are gleaning a sliver of hope from the news of cleaner airlower carbon emissions and the resilience and rebound of nature and wildlife in the face of human retreat to our homes. But one thing hasn’t changed: Even with vehicle and industrial emissions falling, the climate crisis remains as huge of a threat as ever.

Another way to protect and expand our green spaces is with the movement to conserve 30 percent of U.S. lands and waters by 2030. This “30×30” initiative could take its first step with state-level bills and programs, like the ones that have been introduced in CaliforniaSouth Carolina and Hawaii, to conserve 30 percent of the state’s lands and waters by 2030. Seventy-three percent of Western voters support the national initiative, as do 82 percent of Latinos.

COVID-19 will not be the last disaster we face as a society. But we can lessen its effects, and those of future disasters, with holistic conservation policies that include pollution reduction and land and water protection and restoration, with equity and access for all.

Shanna Edberg serves as the director of conservation programs for the national nonprofit Hispanic Access Foundation. Follow her on Twitter: @shannaedberg. 

Parks for the People: Safe Routes to Recreation in Modesto

Written by: Edgar Garibay

Edited by: Lauren Barnum

Living in a safe community and being able to access family spaces such as parks are priorities for many families. Maybe you have a favorite local park or special outdoor place that holds your family’s memories like birthday parties, quinceañeras, or your annual camping trip. What do you remember about that special place? Was it clean and safe? Were there amenities like bathrooms and picnic tables for you to use? Unfortunately, that’s not the reality many of our communities face when they go to their local park. 

“When we first arrived to the neighborhood five years ago”, Noemi Baylon shares, “my family and friends told me that I was putting my family in the wolf’s mouth by living in that community.”

“That community” is Modesto’s Airport Neighborhood. This underserved community is faced with crime, loose animals, illegal dumps, and lack of access to open spaces. Despite this, leaders and youth from the Airport Neighborhood in Modesto have worked hand-in-hand with TRT to change the negative perception of this community and our shared open spaces and parks.

In other words, they have been leading a community transformation.

The grassroots community transformation commenced 10 years ago in collaborative partnerships with community leaders, TRT, and Orville Wright Elementary School. Griselda Manzo recalls the early days: meetings were organized in the homes of community members and formal presentations from community-based organizations or public agencies were conducted at Orville Wright. Through consistent planning and organizing, the first major project in the neighborhood was the construction of the Airport Neighborhood Community Center.

Building off of that success, TRT launched the Charlas Comunitarias (Community Chats) meetings, where resident leaders can collaborate with pubic agencies and TRT to develop community projects that improve safety and access to places like parks and schools. The Safe Routes to School effort resulted in road re-pavement, sewer infrastructure, installation of stop signs, and lighting in the neighborhood – major safety improvements that help parents get their kids safely to and from school. 

Now, we are focusing our efforts on safe routes to parks. Future infrastructure projects such as sidewalks, paved paths, bicycle lanes, a learning theater pavilion, and an outdoor education classroom are part of the guiding vision we are working toward to create safe routes to outdoor spaces in the community. These outdoor places are important for residents’ physical and emotional health. We’ve all felt the benefits of being outside during this new era of sheltering-in-place. 

In light of the rapidly changing circumstances caused by COVID-19, community leaders have been motivated and energized to continue their work virtually. While we practice social distancing, the leaders in the community are quickly learning how to use available technology and public data tools that inform how we continue this work. 

Thanks to the support of Safe Routes Partnership (through the initiative of the JPB Foundation) and the continued generous support from donors like you, we can continue the decade-long legacy of building safe and equitable access to our community parks together. 

 

Equitable Community Engagement in the Time of Social Distancing

Read the original blog post written by Natasha Riveron here.

While traditional community engagement activities like neighborhood walk audits are not possible during COVID-19, there are creative ways to continue equitable community engagement during the time of social distancing.

We spend a lot of time talking about what equitable community engagement looks like. (For some examples, check out these community engagement cards with arts-based activities, a factsheet about community engagement’s core role in equitable Safe Routes to Parks, a checklist for facilitating equitable engagement in the park visioning process, and a webinar about how youth can support policy change.) However, most of the best practices we usually recommend are not feasible in the time of coronavirus. For example, a community meeting with lots of face-to-face conversation, hands-on activities, and a shared meal is the last thing we should be doing right now. We imagine that many of you are asking yourselves the same question: How do we meaningfully and equitably engage communities in planning and decision-making processes in the time of social distancing?

Technologies like video conferences and online surveys are great tools, but simply moving planned content to an online platform isn’t going to be effective at engaging the folks who are already left out of traditional approaches: older adults, non-English speakers, immigrants, people living unsheltered, people of color, people with disabilities, low-income service workers, and other people who don’t have reliable access to the internet. These are the people who are continually excluded from the traditional decision-making process, and sticking with go-to methods in an online format, perpetuates the status quo. The COVID-19 pandemic offers us an opportunity to re-center equity in our work and maintain our commitment to dismantling the systems that continually disregard and oppress these groups.

This is easier said than done, but to offer some concrete suggestions for how to equitably engage community members in the time of COVID-19, we consulted our staff and our 2020 Safe Routes to Parks Activating Communities grantees. Based on those conversations, we have outlined three general themes to guide how we are thinking about engagement and contributed to a crowdsourced collection of engagement strategies that you can also share and add to.

FRAME ENGAGEMENT NOT JUST AS A CHECKBOX, BUT AN ESSENTIAL PART OF THE PROCESS

We may be tempted to move projects forward by doing basic virtual engagement and then circling back later for engagement with specific populations. That is not enough if we are truly concerned about incorporating equity into these processes. Community engagement and community voice are an essential part of projects that are meant to serve the community. Consider adjusting your timeline and deliverables if you can. If that isn’t possible, focus on going above and beyond to reach out to underrepresented populations.

Throughout the process, emphasize and help community members understand the value of their experiences as important data for planning and decision-making efforts. Their stories and experiences are qualitative data that should carry weight in how we decide to move projects forward. Show that in your approach to engagement as well. We usually advise against community meetings where community members are just talked at for an hour, so why would we do that now on a digital platform?

Think about how you can share power during meetings; co-create agendas using google docs, ask community members what they want to do right now and implement what they choose, and hand over facilitation to different community members. Reach out to residents early through multiple channels to make sure they are informed about remote options for public meetings, topics that will be discussed, and how they can participate. Send any relevant preparatory materials before the meeting so people are ready to participate. This also allows people to submit questions and comments before the meeting.

BRIDGE THE DIGITAL DIVIDE

Tuolumne River Trust in Modesto, California was trying to figure out how to reach community members virtually, but first needed to understand whether their community members had access to the internet at home and the technical knowledge for engaging on digital platforms. They used this survey to assess the number of people with home internet access, their level of comfort using online engagement platforms, and the tech skills they would like to develop. They also asked community members whether this still felt like an appropriate time to be working to improve park access, or whether that needed to be placed on the backburner for now. This first step meant that they knew what resources to provide to make sure that they brought as many people as possible into their ongoing work to increase safe and equitable access to parks. As a result of that survey, they are now holding meetings twice a month with a core group of community advocates. For each meeting, half of the time is focused on building technical skills and the other half is dedicated to working on park access projects.

To apply this in your community, figure out how people can and want to connect, whether it is via zoom meetings or phone trees. If you settle on a more technically challenging medium, consider doing phone calls to walk people through setting up their computer or other device for video conferencing so that they feel comfortable and ready to fully engage. For public meetings, consistently provide an adequate telephone option and ensure that comments can be shared via phone. Give ample time and opportunities for the public to submit comments before the meeting’s start time, such as via email or by leaving a voice message at a dedicated phone number. Read these comments aloud on the record during the meeting for the whole group.

Take steps to specifically accommodate people with disabilities in your virtual engagement. Check out this page from the University of Minnesota to see ways to make virtual meetings and presentations accessible to people with vision or hearing impairments.

For people who will not be able to connect via the internet, consider sticking with phone calls to build relationships, hear people’s stories, and simultaneously connect them to any resources they may need. In Holyoke, Massachusetts, advocates who are working on Safe Routes to Parks are also using this time to call older adults to check if they are feeling isolated and if they have enough food and medication. Community engagement is about relationship; showing up for people when they need help is part of an equitable process.

MEET PEOPLE WHERE THEY ARE

Active transportation and public space may not be top of mind for most people right now. Be sensitive to people’s needs and concerns; it may not be the time for asking them to fill out a survey. However, mobility and public space advocates can use their specific skills and resources to support communities during this time while also building relationships and momentum that support further work aligned with their advocacy goals.

For example, this time can be a great opportunity to help community members build technical and community advocacy skills that can organize and sustain mutual aid networks right now while also building skills for people to advocate for their community’s needs and desires in future planning and decision-making processes. In Flint, Michigan, Crim Fitness Foundation is holding live-stream “community conversations,” digital lunches, and teaching people how to use Zoom and other remote technologies.

This time of crisis has highlighted and exacerbated issues of access and equity that have been there all along. Now is a great time to acknowledge those interconnections. Here is a blog post where we list out pressing issues like getting people to fill out the census and supporting access to food and how active transportation advocates can be allies to those causes.

Now is the time to act on our commitment to equity, support the communities we work within the ways they need it, and not rush the process of community engagement to create Safe Routes.

The 2020 Great Race for Saving Water: A Trip Down the Memory Trail

Palo Alto Baylands – April 25, 2020

By Peter Drekmeier

Despite our disappointment the Great Race for Saving Water had to be cancelled this year due to the coronavirus, Amy, Aidan and I were not deterred. Donned in face masks, we set out early to walk the 5K Great Race course in the spirit of Earth Day. The Palo Alto Baylands Nature Preserve was closed to cars, but open to hikers, joggers and cyclists. We were optimistic we finally had a chance of placing in the Race.

As with past events, we started our adventure walking down the levee trail along San Francisquito Creek, reminding us of its rich history. The Muwekma Ohlone tribespeople were the first human inhabitants of the area, hunting, fishing and enjoying life in the watershed for thousands of years. In 1922, a Stanford student dug a human skull from the bank of San Francisquito, and carbon-dating proved it to be more than 4,000 years old. The skull belonged to the oldest known human to have lived on the San Francisco Peninsula – although it’s believed people have inhabited the region for much longer.

In 1769 – seven years before the Declaration of Independence – Gaspar de Portola and his expedition camped beneath the famed El Palo Alto redwood tree along San Francisquito Creek shortly after “discovering” San Francisco Bay. The stretch of creek between El Palo Alto and the Bay has become very familiar to me after 30 years or organizing clean-ups and habitat restoration projects. To this day, the Creek continues to provide important habitat for threatened steelhead trout, red-legged frogs, western pond turtles and myriad other species.

Interestingly, San Francisquito had once been considered a source of drinking water for the City of San Francisco. Searsville Dam was constructed by Spring Valley Water Company in the late 1800s, and was later purchased by Stanford. The water smelled bad due to a high concentration of organic material, so the water has only been used for campus irrigation.

 As we approached the confluence of San Francisquito Creek and the Bay, the trail turned sharply to the right with a southeast heading. It was along this stretch that we came across the “Unnamed Slough.” Here, an outfall releases about 20 million gallons per day (mgd) of treated wastewater from the Regional Water Quality Control Plant.

I recalled a conversation I had about a dozen years ago with a hero of mine, Phil Bobel, who operates the wastewater plant. He asked me to remind him how much additional water the SFPUC wanted to divert from the Tuolumne River at the time. It was 25 mgd. “That’s interesting,” he responded, “because we release about that much treated water into the Bay” (it was higher then due to less conservation).

Thanks to the leadership of Phil and others, last fall the Cities of Palo Alto and Mountain View entered into an agreement with Valley Water to build two new facilities at the wastewater plant, one to produce 9 mgd of advanced-purified water for human consumption, and the other to produce 2 mgd of desalted recycled water for irrigation. The 2 mgd project will take a little pressure off the Tuolumne, because that water will be used in the SFPUC service area. The 9 mgd project will serve Valley Water customers, so it might take some pressure off the Delta, unless it’s just used to offset population growth.

We saw all sorts of wildlife during our stroll, including wild hares, Canada geese and too many ducks and other water fowl to name (not that I’m an accomplished birder). A mocking bird reminded me that I’m not very good at bird calls either. We had no problem identifying the swallows that utilize the dedicated nesting boxes under the eaves of the Nature Center.

As we approached the Lucy Evans Nature Center (named after “Baylands Lucy” – a pioneer in the fight to protect the Baylands from development), I was reminded of the time I caught my first gopher snake right there along the levee (I loved snakes when I was a kid, and still do). I took it home, built a cage, added soil, plants, a small log and a tray of water, and then headed to the pet store to buy a feeder mouse. The gopher snake, which I had yet to name, took refuge under the log, but the mouse was very active, tunneling around and keeping busy. I decided to return the snake to the Baylands, and keep the rodent. My dad named him Marcel Mouse (after the famous French mime), and that launched my small mammal phase of pet husbandry. 

When I was a kid, my family spent a lot of time at the Baylands. We loved the Nature Center with its catwalk traversing the pickleweed (habitat for the endangered salt marsh harvest mouse) to the bay shore. We also enjoyed feeding the ducks at what had once been a salt water swimming pool, but had been converted into a bird refuge. Palo Alto also had a yacht harbor, but it was closed in the 1980s after a passionate battle between boaters and conservationists.

Historically, San Francisquito Creek flowed out through the yacht harbor, naturally moving sediment out to the Bay. But around the 1930s, the Creek was relocated to its current location to the north to make land available for an airport and golf course. Without the Creek’s inflow, the harbor began to silt up, and the public no longer wanted to fund the dredging necessary to keep it viable. Plus, the dredged mud had been piling up on marshland, which was not popular with the electorate.

As we passed the old yacht harbor site, I recalled the time my old group, Bay Area Action, had organized a habitat restoration project in the area for Earth Day 1996. That day I was looking out over the old harbor site and saw two large animals swimming in a circle. At first I thought they were seals, but on closer inspection they turned out to be salmon. They were likely hatchery fish that had strayed into the small estuary looking for a creek to spawn in.

Across from where the yacht harbor had been is a pleasant little picnic area shaded by trees that until recently had served as a rookery for black-crowned night herons. I checked to see if the birds had returned, but without luck. We did notice a large number of rabbit droppings on the road, suggesting wildlife was enjoying the absence of cars, as were we. Perhaps the night herons will return to a more peaceful refuge.

We then passed the old Sea Scout building where I had spent a lot of time in my high school years. Our troop was known as Ship Intrepid, but the Intrepid – a 120-foot long former navy vessel – had since been retired and replaced by The Boxer – a 65-foot former mine sweep. We spent many days out on the Bay, and it was through Sea Scouts I first discovered the Sacramento/San Joaquin Delta during our annual week-long Summer Cruise.

After the yacht harbor closed, the Sea Scout building – designed to look like a ship – fell into disrepair, and was close to being condemned. Environmental Volunteers – a wonderful environment education organization – stepped up and raised an impressive amount of funding to give the historic building new life, converting it into their EcoCenter.

As we entered the final leg of our trek, we passed the wastewater treatment plant, an underappreciated community asset. It reminded me of a 2008 campaign in San Francisco to rename the Oceanside Wastewater Treatment Plant the “George W. Bush Sewage Plant,” as a lasting insult to the departing President. Activists qualified an initiative for the ballot, but after receiving an education on the critical role such facilities serve for the health and welfare of our communities and the environment, the electorate voted the measure down. They didn’t want to bestow such an honor on Mr. Bush.

In 2011, 65% of the Palo Alto electorate voted to make 10 acres of the former landfill adjacent to the wastewater plant available for a facility to convert sewage sludge, and possibly food waste, into biogas and compost. The proposal was controversial because it pitted park advocates who wanted the entire landfill site to be converted to parkland against sustainability advocates who wanted to convert organic waste into environmentally-beneficial resources. Palo Alto has yet to determine whether to move forward with a waste conversion facility, but as a result of the awareness raised by the citizens’ initiative, last year the City retired its sewage sludge incinerator – the largest contributor of local greenhouse gas emissions.

As we approached the finish line, we reflected on how fortunate we were to live in such an environmentally-aware community. What a great way to celebrate the 50th anniversary of Earth Day! And to cap it all off, guess who won the 2020 Great Race for Saving Water?

Special thanks to Catherine Elvert from the Palo Alto Utilities Department for spearheading the Great Race for Saving Water and Earth Day celebration since 2013.