By: Claudia Gonzalez, Aqueela Starks, and Guadalupe Reyes
FRESNO, Calif.— “I ask that we work together to bring awareness [to this issue] so that our valley will not die,” Maura Fabian told attendees at a conference focusing on the environmental health of the Central Valley last week in Fresno.
Fabian, a resident of Selma, said if we fail to act the future of the Central Valley would look like the desolate setting depicted in the Disney film “WALL-E,” where the Earth has become a dry and arid planet with no life.
Over 250 people attended the forum, the Environmental Dignity Campaign for the Care for Our Common Home. The event was held at St. Anthony Mary Claret Catholic Church and was organized by NEXTGEN Climate, Faith in the Valley (FIV), BHC Fresno, and the Roman Catholic Diocese of Fresno.
“Our future is in our hands,” said Tom Steyer, founder of NEXTGEN Climate and guest speaker at the event. Seven out of ten Californians live in counties with bad air quality, he noted, while three million people in the state suffer from asthma. Among cities, Fresno ranks at bottom in the state air pollution and water contamination. Steyer added that only by working together to create effective policy could we begin to reverse the damage.
The forum came just days after Pope Francis traveled to Bolivia for the World Meeting of Popular Movements, an event that brought together social and community activists from around the globe. Approximately 1,500 hundred civic and community organizers attended.
A cohort of five representatives from California made the four day trip to South America. Silvia Camarillo from Ceres, Monsignor Raymond Dreiling of the Fresno Diocese, and Carmen Medrano, the FIV Regional Organizer, represented the Central Valley.
Medrano, 29, said the trip to Bolivia was a life changing and eye-opening experience.
“We came back with this message of integral ecology,” she said. “ It means that everything is interconnected, especially social and environmental movements.”
Echoing statements by the Pope, Medrano pointed to the unbridled capitalism eroding our planet’s health and leaving millions of poor vulnerable to the effects of climate change. “Unless we change our economic system, we cannot care for the most vulnerable people in our communities. They are the ones who are being the most affected by climate change.”
According to NEXTGEN and the Leadership Counsel for Justice and Accountability, the communities most impacted by climate change and pollution in California are in the Central Valley.
Medrano also stressed that while environmental issues are becoming a bigger problem in the Central Valley, not enough information is reaching the public.
“No one is publicizing the bad air quality,” continued Medrano. “Only schools put up warning flags, but what about people that do not have children or attend college?”
In nearby Merced, an emerging youth-led campaign is seeking to address the information gap. Youth4Change, part of the Merced Organizing Project (MOP), says it hopes its efforts can serve as a model for young people in communities around the state.
“The goal is for youth to learn more about environmental issues and begin working with public officials and allies,” said Medrano, who will be working closely with the group.
Jeanette Partida, 26, leads Youth4Change. She said members of the group identified climate as the number one issue impacting them and their community.
“In Merced, our primary concern is not only the drought and bad air quality, but also the lack of recycling in the city,” explained Partida.
She noted her group intends to begin campaigning for two new pieces of legislation aiming to protect California’s climate.
SB 350, introduced by Senators Kevin de Leon (D- Los Angeles) and Mark Leno (D- San Francisco), aims to stimulate innovation and sustainability in the state by reducing petroleum use by 50 percent, increasing energy efficiency in buildings by 50 percent, and increasing the Renewable Portfolio Standard by 50 percent by the year 2030.
SB 32, authored by Senator Fran Pavley (D-Agoura Hills), would set a clear climate pollution reduction target by 2050, while also stimulating job creation through technology innovation and regional policy collaboration.
David Mejias, 23, is an auto service technician. He attended the event and says he sees first-hand how bad our pollution is in the valley.
“[Environmental issues] are affecting our jobs, affecting our health, affecting everything,” said Mejias. “As long as we are living in this area, we will continue to be affected.”
“If you live here … you’re sick, your relatives are sick, and when I come here I get sick,” said Becky Rose, 37, an organizer for NEXTGEN. “People are aware [of the issue], but I think making that connection in their head is what is really important so that they can answer the call for action.”
Organizers of the event are hoping the Environmental Dignity Campaign prompts similar activities in communities across the Valley, from Bakersfield to Stockton. They are inviting community members to continue the work and urging them to respond to Pope Francis’s call to “care for our common home.”
Two Environmental Dignity meetings will be taking place in the following weeks.
In Merced, Youth4Change will host a meeting on Friday, July 31st from 6pm-7:30pm at the MOP office located at 415 W. 18th St. Those interested in being part of the conversation can contact Jeanette Partida at (209) 355-9503 or [email protected].
In Fresno, St Anthony Mary Claret will host a meeting on August 20th at 6pm. For more information you can contact Faith in the Valley Organizer Thomas Wei at (760) 899-0544 or [email protected].