A LEAP Forward for Environmental Justice in the Central Valley:
An Interview with Rey Leon of the Latino Environmental Advancement and Policy (LEAP)
UC: Tell us about why you saw the need to form this organization.
RL: I have been organizing in the San Joaquin Valley for the past fifteen years, the last five have taught me a lot about policy and the role I must fulfill. LEAP is that role. Because of the realities of life in the Central Valley for so many: Poverty, Pollution, Poor Health, and Political Disenfranchisement, and the lack of institutions effectively attending to these issues as they relate to environmental justice. LEAP will work most closely with the Spanish speaking communities and the youth.
UC: How does your organization seek to address these problems?
RL: By creating awareness, leadership development, building capacity and connectivity. I say “connectivity”, meaning creating networks between the various rural communities and urban neighborhoods that face the same sort of inequities; lack of economic opportunities, burdened by accumulated sources of pollution, ever-increasing public health problems, and political disenfranchisement. Connectivity also to orgs already engaged in the debate of pollution impacts on health and policy advancement.
UC: What exactly do you mean by political disenfranchisement?
The fact that the democratic system we currently have is not effectively taking into account all the issues impacting a great majority of Valley residents, regardless of citizenship, therefore, not so democratic. If we have a system we can call a democratic one then it would be more correct to categorize it as an elitist democracy. This sort of democracy is not solution-based, we need to develop and strengthen a real democracy, a popular democracy. To make that happen, a strong endeavor of working alongside communities will be critical, especially those that have been disillusioned, to activate or re-activate them to the political process, thereby creating a more substantial democracy that people can embrace. Such an accomplishment will have fantastic results for all of us living in the Valley and in a society striving for equality, dignity and freedom.
UC: Can you tell us about your experience growing up in the Valley and how it relates to the work you’re doing now?
RL: I grew up in an Environmental Justice (EJ) community; yet at the time, I didn’t know really what that was. I didn’t know about pesticides surrounding me and how they were affecting my health, or the pesticides in the water surrounding the town that me and my friends used to swim in. I do not recall any campaign to inform anyone about what it was, why it was there, or who had brought it. Essentially, families have been suffering in silence, assuming their illness was due to whatever other reason, but not knowing that the environmental factors were artificial.
I am proud to say that in the past years I organized numerous forums on air quality and EJ in Huron, implemented a leadership institute and swayed my late employer to invest resources in a pesticide drift campaign, also in Huron. In addition to my efforts, Huron is the recipient of the first air quality monitor on the west side of the Valley. I thank Assembly member Juan Arambula and many of my colleagues for that victory.
UC: Tell us about some of your experience with Environmental Justice issues in the past few years.
RL: The past five years, I have met a number of colleagues and leaders who have shared their expertise on issues from pesticide drift, water contamination, particulate matter pollution and most recently energy. To this day I continue to learn a great deal. I have a lot of respect for leaders like Teresa DeAnda, (the humblest super-hero I know) from El Comité de Bienestar de Earlimart (Committee for the Wellbeing of Earlimart), who has been a real warrior in fighting against pesticide drift in her community and in our region. It’s people like Teresa who really inspired me in this movement. I want to help evolve this movement to it’s full-fledged maturity.
Currently, we are completing the establishment of the first ever environmental justice advisory committee at the air district. It is not yet final but the composure is EJ strong, as designed to be. The EJAC will serve as a tool to watchdog from within.
The Environmental Justice issue has been going on for a very long time. César Chavez was one of the first EJ leaders who stood up to fight and eliminate the use of the pesticide DDT from a people’s platform. This magnificent movement has gone unmatched even from his legacy, the UFW.
UC: Your last job was as a policy analyst on environmental health. Tell us about that.
While my title was policy analyst, a good part of my work was community engagement and advocacy. In the beginning, not so much to the liking of the “mother ship” in SF but it was critical that they understood Valley dynamics were considerably different from those in the Bay Area. Momentarily, the organization took note until more shifts occurred. I worked to get the people’s points of view across and related the need for change and recommended social policy. In the beginning, it was really great, because I was presenting to and having good conversations with Latino low-income communities; mostly farm workers, mostly moms. Of course, I made sure that one of those communities was Huron. What I knew, yet confirmed on paper with primary and qualitative data, was that they were all essentially the same community, facing similar issues, and for the most part disillusioned with the political process and their civic leaders. So after creating awareness on environmental health with these communities, what I wanted to do was somehow bring these communities together. A network needed to be developed to facilitate the development of leadership, but my employer thought it too costly and therefore impossible. The truth is, in retrospect, that the org was not set up to support such work, as an intermediary policy advocacy non-profit. But for the next phase, two communities were chosen to begin the leadership development: Huron and Addams (A community in Central West Fresno near McKinley and Freeway 99). I would have loved to have done a third or more but didn’t feel the regional office I was in would be afforded the support needed.
UC: What are some of the lessons you’ve learned over the time you’ve been engaging with these issues?
RL: One thing that I’ve learned is that if you’re going to engage with a community in information exchange, that engagement should follow through in a way that empowers that community specifically. Not just with information or policy, but with skills, so that the reality they’re facing that is harming their wellbeing and degrading their future opportunities can be confronted and transformed.
After my five years of experience and time of investing in policy analysis, I came to the conclusion that what was lacking was not good laws necessarily, but rathe, the population forcing industry and regulatory agencies to respect the already existing laws. It could be said that laws could be strengthened and regulations created to prevent more pollution in the Valley, and to not allow the continuing accumulation of pollution sources in low income communities, which tend to be for the most part communities of color. Nonetheless, if the people know nothing of those policies, players or the process, the laws on the books mean nothing for us. The effort is to connect the people to policy, only then will it be meaningful.
After having co-founded one of the strongest air quality coalitions in the state (possibly in the nation)
I feel that there are enough eyes on the policy to give me the space to focus on working with communities that have not yet exercised their talents and resources to contest the pollution in their communities. I feel very strongly that a social justice infrastructure needs to exist in the region that is home for over 1.4 million Latinos. And that’s what it’s about, because the communities know what the issues are, but sometimes aren’t privy to the science and the information that will connect their children’s asthma or their own illnesses to the conditions that have been surrounding them for decades. And the fact is, that we can live in a world that isn’t contaminated. But that will never happen if people don’t start talking about what that would look like and how to get there.
UC: How is LEAP different from other organizations out there working on EJ issues?
RL: LEAP is the only Latino environmental organization in the Valley. Second, the methodology of LEAP will be to work with communities to build a culture of popular participatory democracy for action on environmental and other related issues. The MO of most organizations is usually reductionist: only to focus on environmental issues without realizing how it connects to other parallel issues (in particular poverty and political disenfranchisement). LEAP is about working comprehensively with communities to achieve EJ while the assessment of other issues are taken into account, so that they may be attended to through partnerships with other organizations and leaders.
UC: Are there any particular resources or websites people should check out who are interested in learning more about these issues?
RL: www.calcleanair.org , the website for CVAQ, is a great resource that will connect you to lots of other organizations and resources.
RL: at the present time LEAP (with one full-time staffer, myself and volunteers) is focusing on three topics: (1) energy (2) the equity, and (3) environmental justice. It is undeniable that the globe is heating up at a mind boggling rate and that fossil fuels are going to be the death of us if we do not shift over to clean renewable technologies as soon as possible to eliminate our carbon foot print with out voo-doo economics. It is for that reason that we are working to promote clean energy and opposing fossil fuel based energy plants (Parlier 565 MW). Green Economic Justice will be critical for the Valley’s future and will assist in alleviating our poverty crisis, prevent further degradation of health and environment as well as stimulate a new scholasticism to empower Valley students. We must ensure that our youth become the next wave of intellectual leaders, engineers and inventors. Our decisions today and the energy and imagination of our youth will unfold a new era for a courageously Green and just world.
EJ is power to the People, civil and human rights! All of us have the responsibility to develop leadership, build communal capacity and advance campaign strategies for sustainable and healthy land-uses.