Success Stories

Youth-Led Local Solutions Cool the Planet

PODER – Common Roots (2012 Cycle)

By Corinne Smith

From the local to the global, we are all struggling to recognize and face the climate crisis to create lasting, viable solutions and connectivity among communities. For youth in southeast San Francisco, many are living the direct connection between the effects of climate change in their home countries in Latin America and with their families and neighborhoods in the city. With PODER – People Organizing to Demand Environmental and Economic Rights – youth are leading efforts to advocate for environmental justice and build community health and well-being.

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Armed with knowledge and skills, PODER youth organizers decided to create a project to engage youth in their neighborhoods in activities that would promote the reduction of car and truck emissions in southeast San Francisco, encourage youth to participate in co-ops, and inspire them to organize for community parks and gardens, affordable housing and jobs. The youth created community resiliency biking tours to highlight environmental health hazards and community organizing victories in their neighborhoods while at the same time promoting sustainable transportation through biking.

The tours have grown and evolved in the past five years. In 2007, young people in the Common Roots program, a cross cultural collaborative between PODER and the Chinese Progressive Association, planned and hosted a toxics tour that educated other youth, media, and policy makers about the environmental hazards present in their neighborhoods. Small teams organizedto find and point out sources of pollution, build awareness of toxic exposure and its lifelong health impacts on the community. They marked these locations as stops in the toxic tour. They led the toxic tour throughout the city each one highlighting a different issue, from air pollution to sewage, incineration and industrial waste, to see how the mix of toxic chemicals is immediate and taking a severe toll on community health.

The youth-lead effort calls out environmental racism in San Francisco and how it is growing up in low-income and minority neighborhoods that don’t receive the same attention from government officials that more prosperous locations do. The bike tours marry environmental awareness about pollution and health behaviors with reducing transport carbon footprint through direct action organizing and collaborating with local businesses – entirely designed and mobilized by San Francisco’s young people.

For Edgar Molina, the benefits of this project are clear: “By becoming part of a co-op like the Bike Kitchen, not only do we get a bike at the end, but we gain skills and access to materials to fix and maintain our bikes to transport ourselves throughout the city without having to worry about whether or not we have bus fare. Also, by working on the bike resiliency tour of the Mission not only are we physically exercising and promoting alternative forms of travel but we are also educating our neighbors about the injustices our neighborhoods face and our victories that create change.”

Democracy in Action

Union de Vecinos (2012 Cycle)

By Corinne Smith

Water justice is beyond the science of contamination and clean up, it is about democracy.

For the members of Union de Vecinos, this truth has mobilized and empowered their struggle for clean, healthy water for the city of Maywood, a small, working-class community in southeast Los Angeles County. For years whenever residents and members of Union de Vecinos protested the dirty tap water, they were told that they needed to do more specific studies of the different chemicals in the water, follow protocols for sampling and look at the water reports. Community leaders were frustrated because knowing what was wrong with the water was not enough to solve the problem.

One day one of our leaders Rafael Castro said, “The problem with the water is not that it is dirty, but that we have no control of it. If it was our water company we’d start cleaning and we’d stop asking why it was so dirty. What we need to do is take control of the water company.”

That is when Union de Vecinos’ campaign changed from a campaign about science to a campaign about democracy.

The right to clean and safe drinking water is a fundamental human right. Recognizing this right is not just a battle to avoid drinking dangerous water, it is also a fight for justice.

The balance of power regarding water issues is changing in Maywood. The problem with the city’s water is that the people who make the decisions don’t drink the water, bathe in it, or cook with it. The mutual water companies are controlled by absentee landlords in a city that is 75% tenants. Despite resource laws and national media coverage of their water’s known toxic chemicals and their dangerous health effects, Maywood is still plagued by foul-smelling and tasting, brown tap water.)

Numerous tests on Maywood’s tap water, including by the CA Department of Public Health have found dangerously high levels of manganese, which can disrupt the nervous system and is linked to Parkinson’s disease. There is no health standard for manganese and therefore no legal incentive for companies to purge it from the water supply. Another chemical contained in Maywood’s water supply is trichloroethylene (TCE), a byproduct of industrial waste that is known to cause cancer and liver damage. In addition there are documented dangerous levels of lead, mercury, and di (2-ethylhexyl) phthalates, a manufactured chemical commonly added to plastics. The mile radius of Maywood is also afflicted by the nearby Pemaco Superfund site, a chemical plant that burned down in 1993, that left a legacy of toxic contaminants.

Public officials continue to claim that dirty brown tap water is merely an aesthetic issue, not a public health risk. But Maywood residents continue to pay double for their water: to the water companies and vendors, or for store-bought bottled water to drink.

For years Union de Vecinos partnering with Comité Cívico del Agua and the Environmental Justice Coalition for Water have been working hard to organize and collaborate with community groups, local water boards, utilities commissions, state and local agencies to create a public water system in Maywood. Union de Vecinos is actively organizing trainings for the new water board, ongoing community forums, and outreach and support to residents.

This year they organized a meeting of water and land use experts in California to provide technical assistance to their Water Justice Committee to address several of the critical issues impacting the Water Companies, such as chemical filtration, cleaning up corroded infrastructure and financial resources. Leaders and advocates of Union de Vecinos are hopeful and excited so that they, the residents of Maywood, can begin to clean the water as soon as they control it.

Democratizing the water system will place the power over this precious resource directly into the hands of the residents, and guarantee the basic human right to have clean, healthy water for the future generations in Maywood.

Deadly Chemicals in the Beauty Industry

California Healthy Nail Salon Collaborative (2011 Cycle)

By Chella Strong and Samantha Kanofsky

If you are one of the millions of Americans who have received a salon manicure, pedicure or if you have even walked by a nail salon on the street you are surely familiar with the powerful noxious odor that wafts through the air. It is an odor that can cause lightheadedness and headaches for the recipient of a brief 20-minute manicure. For nail salon workers, the unpleasant odor is far more than a simple workplace annoyance. It is the byproduct of a deadly cocktail of chemicals emitted by solvents, glues and nail care products. These chemicals, with long-term exposure, have deadly effects. Many of these nail salon workers are young women of child-bearing age, and immigrants who do not have adequate access to healthcare. This exacerbates the risk of serious health problems—including cancer, respiratory illness, and reproductive harm—triggered by the toxic chemicals commonly found in salon products.

The California Healthy Nail Salon Collaborative (CHNSC) is a group of environmental and community-based advocates who united in 2005 to address the urgent health and safety concerns of nail salon workers, owners and consumers. They demand the advancement of a preventative environmental health agenda for the nail salon sector in California. The Collaborative joined forces with allied groups to present a powerful and persuasive case to policymakers for the protection of nail salon workers, owners, and consumers.

They first helped to coordinate face-to-face meetings between members and allied groups for collective strategizing around the CHNSC mission. Over 100 nail salon community-members in Oakland, and more than 200 in Orange County, participated in these community forums to tell their stories and express their concerns. These allied groups were then able to dialogue directly with regulatory agencies about their needs, demanding change with a strong, unified voice. Not only did the Collaborative’s expanded outreach help to establish crucial relationships with powerful state agencies like the Board of Barbering & Cosmetology, CalOSHA and the Department of Toxic Substance Control, but the Collaborative’s work also led to empowerment within the coalition by revitalizing and expanding membership.

By spreading the word about the toxic chemicals threatening the health and safety of nail salon and beauty communities in California, the Healthy Nail Salon Collaborative is helping to blaze a trail toward a strong environmental agenda for worker health and justice and safe beauty products in California.

Paying for Poisoned Drinking Water?

Committee for a Better Alpaugh (2011 Cycle)

By Chella Strong and Samantha Kanofsky

If your drinking water contained sand, a strong odor, high levels of chlorine, and at least 8.5 times the legal limit of arsenic, would you accept a rate increase of $20 per month? Neither would the residents of Alpaugh, an unincorporated town in Tulare County, California. When the residents of Alpaugh, the majority of who are low income agricultural or prison workers, found out that there were dangerously high levels of arsenic in their drinking water due to contaminated groundwater and dilapidated infrastructure, they decided to make their voices heard.

The Committee for a Better Alpaugh (CBA) is a grassroots, community-based organization that works to improve the environment, health, safety, and community welfare of all residents of Alpaugh. When the Alpaugh water board proposed a rate increase that would put a strain on low-income residents without taking care of the problem of toxic water, the community of Alpaugh loudly voiced its opposition. Through CBA’s organized advocacy and resistance, residents convinced the water board to increase rates only by $10 instead of the proposed $20 increase.

CBA was also instrumental in persuading the board to work with the community to develop a more just pricing structure through the use of tiered rates. This exciting landmark compromise represents the first time in recent history that the notoriously conservative water board was willing to alter its actions in response to the organized voicing of community concerns.

CBA increased education and awareness about the various health and justice issues impacting the lives of Alpaugh residents by focusing on achieving four major goals. These include continuing education and community outreach, building new leadership within people of color residents in the community, strengthening existing alliances and coalition building with other environmental justice organizations, and improving internal organizational capacity within CBA.

While there remains a great deal to be done to achieve healthy, clean water in Alpaugh, the CBA was able to help create a strategic plan for the Committee’s continued growth, ensuring sustained, vocal opposition to environmental injustices in Alpaugh.

Holding Chevron Accountable for Pollution Worldwide

FACES (Filipino American Coalition for Environmental Solidarity) 

By Chella Strong and Samantha Kanofsky

Next to a quiet park where children play looms a landscape of giant Chevron oil storage tanks. At first glance, the two seem to coexist as unrelated entities. Upon closer investigation you’ll see that the sewage drains contain oil slicks, the trees are dying, the children suffer from asthma, the air is heavy with pollution. Aside from what is immediately visible is the fact that the refinery is a time bomb waiting to explode in the form of spills, leaks, toxic gas releases and air contamination. This scene is not one of a kind. It could be Richmond CA, Pandacan, Phlippines or one of the many other communities worldwide whose health, environment and livelihood Chevron has ravaged. The Chevron Corporation undoubtedly has a formidable team of lawyers protecting its interests around the globe. So who is there to demand Chevron’s accountability?

FACES, or the Filipino American Coalition for Environmental Solidarity has stepped up to the plate. Formed in February 2000, FACES is an intergenerational organization that works for environmental justice within communities in the United States and in the Philippines, and builds partnerships through advocacy, education, service, and organizing.

FACES organized and developed the multifaceted CAREnow! Campaign in 2008 to demand reparations and accountability for the actions of the Chevron Oil Company that endanger human health and the environment. FACES began to facilitate CAREnow! Workshops using a transnational environmental justice lens to draw parallels between Chevron’s environmentally-destructive activities in Pandacan, Philippines, and the toxic burden it dumps on local communities in California’s Bay Area. In March of 2009, FACES launched a letter-writing drive asking Chevron to “Go Green” for St. Patrick’s Day, and in April 2009, it joined a peaceful march at the Richmond Chevron refinery to protest Chevron’s planned refinery expansion that would increase toxic pollution in Bay Area communities.

At the annual Chevron shareholders meeting, FACES showed up at the gates of the Chevron World Headquarters in San Ramon, CA to advocate for global communities from Ecuador, Burma, Nigeria, and Richmond, CA,. In October, FACES representatives spoke at a series of events and press conferences during a landmark jury trial of Chevron in San Francisco, supporting the proceedings brought by the Nigerian plaintiffs against Chevron’s human rights abuses in Nigeria.

Aside from advocacy work, FACES has also coordinated and lead a Face2Face trip for young Filipino/Americans to travel to the Philippines and meet with grassroots environmental justice organizations and communities.