Undercurrent Interview of Rey Leon (early 2008)

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.

UC:

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.

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We, Children of Farmworkers, are Environmentalists by Rey León

We contest the remarks from both sides, the individual who had a rotten slip of the tongue as well as the conservatives and the agriculture industry who are trying to use this as an opportunity to leverage their efforts to backtrack environmental health gains. We will not stand for racism, be it institutionalized in the educational system or political system, or in the careless comments of individuals. We will not support the efforts of industry as they continue to impose pollution on our communities and practice environmental racism with meager economic benefits that at the end cannot match the public health costs, but rather infringe on the future successes and opportunities of generations to come!

This is a new day of solidarity to achieve social, economic and environmental justice. The truth is that if the people called environmentalists, farm workers, immigrants, youth, organizers, advocates, teachers, doctors, lawyers and workers of every industry do not stick together and energize a momentum for the respect of human dignity, then the plight of the industries seeking super profits while burdening the health, economy and education of their employees will persist. The tolerance and acceptance of a region living under a master has been perpetuated for much too long and the primary benefactors of this have been the polluting industries, in some cases with the assistance of the government and their agencies. All those that care-not for healthy families, speak with a forked tongue and jump at any opportunity to create division between the people and do so with primeval intentions. Dominance over society has been simply done in that way, dividing to conquer.

The strategy of “divide and conquer” has been a very effective mechanism to maintain control over millions. It has been used throughout history and continues to be the preferred tool amongst the fear mongers, war profiteers and polluters. We’ve seen it implemented or imposed in the dividing of the the “Triple Alliance” in the Americas and many other Native coalitions. It happened during the sixties and early seventies with the use of COINTELPRO (Counter Intelligence Program), a Police and FBI collaborative to break up young activist groups organizing for self determination. While Machiavelli created a guide on how to effectively divide and conquer for Dummies, he merely noted the reality of the then modern Europe. Of course, this was a telling of the news while it shared the recipe for conquest and abuse. Meaning, it was an old game, even then.

Now, here we are in the modern America. Not only is this “divide and conquer” strategy still being used, the history on how it has been used to perpetuate the inequalities to this day is not part of the materials provided at the schools. If that was the only issue our educational system, its scales and bars, had to confront, our worries would be fewer.

This lack of, or mis-education, is critical if you want to have the right ingredients to impose a successful “divide and conquer” strategy. The reason being that the substance of such a strategy counts on lies, mis-statements and more lies. If people know the truth, then it spells danger for the power hungry and abusers of authority. Growing up on the west side of the San Joaquin Valley I observed the raw reality of the farm workers plight. At the age of thirteen, my orphaned father was working as a man in the fields from Indio to Huron, to Woodland as a migrant farm worker. Fourteen years later he would become a resident through the Bracero program and a decade after that, would run and eventually own his own business in the farm worker community of Huron. My father would ultimately invest over twenty years of his life in agriculture, primarily as an irrigator. This story of success is not uncommon in our communities.

As an offspring of farm workers I had the opportunity to attend a public University, UC Berkeley, with the conviction of returning home to struggle for the economic and environmental justice, education equity and community political empowerment of Latinos and specifically farm workers. Unfortunately, such a higher education opportunity is not availed to all. Statistics show the inequities in graduation, A-G attainment and API, most notably associated with low-income communities and under-funded school districts. Only a few leave to pursue a higher education, whether because of luck or because it was already expected of them from their university graduated parents. That was not the case for me; I was a lucky one because I was not tagged early on as a troublemaker, or guided away from obtaining the necessary courses to be on the college track. That is more than I could say for many of my friends. Most shockingly, when I graduated from the university and began to do outreach in the valley for the UC system, I found that I was never included in the presentations that I would share to my alma mater high school and many others in the San Joaquin Valley. I would travel over an hour to share a presentation at a diverse high school with a healthy student body composed of Latinos. The bothersome part about it was that I would expect a large crowd of students, as I had experienced when a student at Avenal high school for special presentations. Of course, that would not be the case at many of the schools. I would find myself being escorted by the school counselor to a room where there would be a handful of students, all seniors and all white and many times children of the ranchers or industry heads, waiting for the presentation on how to get to a four year university or learn of how to get there on the community college route. It was most disillusioning to find that my efforts to minister higher education to all students, particularly farm worker students, would once again be nil fifty to a hundred miles away from Fresno. Those students whose parents would not be able to tell them about it for they never made it beyond third or six grades were luckless due to a counselor’s reductionist, exclusionist or racist mentality. I began to learn that this was most common in communities that were heavily agriculturally driven. Realizing this, it became obvious that the elite of those mini-societies were perpetuating a social structure that worked well to provide them a good quality of life while it left the workers, and their generations to come, on the fringes of survival and at the mercy of the farmers.

For the last fifteen years I have worked at a grassroots level to advance the public health of Latinos and educational advancement of students. The past years have been productive in the arena of environmental justice and air quality through legislative development, systems change and advocacy. It would be false to assume that I am a recent environmentalist, as I was the founder of the first earth day celebration as a senior and student body vice president at Coalinga High School. The Exxon Valdez spill opened my eyes to environmental degradation imposed by human activity and our petroleum dependency.

As a Cal student I surfed through various majors. Initially, within the Environmental Sciences program and ultimately majoring in Chicano Studies, emphasizing in public health, which essentially meant, as I reflect today, Environmental Justice. Engaging in the EJ Movement in the San Joaquin Valley, I learned early on that there was a significant difference from the white mainstream environmentalism to environmental justice or EJ as we call it. EJ is more in tune to the impact pollution has on people, primarliy the impact to the politically and economically disenfranchised.

The need to focus on solidarity is more important than ever before. The call goes out to all that would like to see a strong economy, clean air and water and healthy communities. We have finally approached the cross roads where industry jobs and environmental health cross paths. In 2008, with a handful of visionaries, we established a regional coalition for green jobs for the San Joaquin Valley. A green economy is the antithesis to the old “Green Revolution”, as it was called in the 40’s where it was founded on the exploitation of the land and other elements to extents that have allowed or stream rolled us to our current reality.

We are currently in rehab, learning a different way. Learning not how to exploit but to seek and respect the sacred elements that provided for a sustainable life in millennia past and could do it once more with the advanced technology we have been blessed to have engineered. At our door and on the move is the Green Movement, a movement not just of technology but of culture. A daily practice of living where we recycle, reduce, reuse and refuse toxic products as well as practice efficiency, conservation and participatory democracy. With these practices alone we relieve the pressure of our need to exploit and burden while we create the space needed to unfold the clean and green technology that will fuel the new generation of industry, jobs and a respect-for-dignity-driven sustainable culture.

The Regional SJV Green Jobs Coalition is working to envision what this would look like for the Valley. A moderate process with a few green radicals engaged. Our mission is to enhance healthy and sustainable communities in the San Joaquin Valley through the creation of green jobs. We support the empowerment of communities to achieve socio-economic and environmental equity through the development and regeneration of resources. Currently, at the table you will find many cultures, colors, income brackets, focuses and perspectives but regardless of ideology there are three facts we must consider. The first is the fact that the San Joaquin Valley has the dirtiest air in the Nation and our planet is facing a warming crisis. Second, our region is the poorest in the nation, the least educated and unhealthiest (as identified in the “Measure of America: Human Development Report). Third, we have as a resource one of the greatest sources of energy in the universe, a bright Valley sun. One thing we can agree on regardless of angle is that the Green Movement has a huge Green Back. Especially with the stern green vision President Obama has put forth, resources to fuel a new industry are in the pipeline. I can only hope that the good will of humanity can stand at the forefront of this effort to ensure that there is equity of the good for all, or even a disproportionate impact of the good for those communities that have endured the burden of the accumulation and disproportionality of the bad for all these decades, centuries. This opportunity of a green industry can help resolve the inequities in a system that has long overlooked inequities whether it was due to racism, class discrimination or cultural chauvinism. Let’s embrace solidarity for human dignity, peace and a participatory democracy so that we make it into a serious part of our human culture. This cannot happen without what some people call, “work”. I prefer to call it my community conviction or existence responsibility. If we can live a better life, let’s all live a better life, together. Organize for justice! Plant an organic vegetable garden instead of a front lawn. Work humbly and effectively with communities to fight against toxics imported to the Valley, city or neighborhood. Don’t do it because it is in a front yard or back yard, but because toxins have no place near people. We need Green Jobs in our neighborhoods, cities and Valley. EJ for All! Que Vivan los Campesinos y Ambientalistas!! Que Vivan mis Padres y el Pueblo! Que Viva la Justicia, Dignidad y Democracia!

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Rey León is a community activist with MAPA (Mexican American Political Association) and is the founder and director of San Joaquin Valley LEAP (Latino Environmental Advocacy and Policy). Mr. León can be reached at sjvmapa@gmail.com or sjvleap@gmail.com.