Discussing a Just Recovery from COVID-19

Panelists Rebecca Rojas, Dr. Kyra Greene, Sonja Robinson, Carolina Martínez, and Dr. Amrah Salomón were brilliantly moderated by Madeleine McMurray.

By: Louise Potash, SD350 Communications Volunteer

Within a week of joining SanDiego350, I found we were hosting a panel discussion on a just recovery from COVID-19. I myself have been confronting these questions and feeling daunted by the enormity and complexity of our current and future systemic challenges.

The Facebook Live discussion brought together a diverse group of experts: Rebecca Rojas (SD350 Board Member), Dr. Kyra Greene (Center on Policy Initiatives), Sonja Robinson (NAACP and SUN Host), Carolina Martínez (Environmental Health Coalition), and Dr. Amrah Salomón (Writer, Artist, Educator, and Activist for Indigenous and Tribal communities). Panelists contributed their expertise in policy initiatives, climate justice, environmental health, and Indigenous and tribal communities, to address issues and opportunities in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic.

How do we tackle environmental justice issues?

COVID-19 has given us an unfortunate but important opportunity to grapple with the potential economic and societal reorganization presented by this moment. The communities most directly affected by COVID-19 are the very same ones most affected by the climate crisis, social injustice, racism, economic injustice, and other adverse public health injustices. So, a truly just recovery from COVID-19 must address these intersecting issues.

The panelists also asked the audience to grapple with questions such as:

  • How has the San Diego tourism economy exploited land and people? 
  • What kind of labor do we envision in a just society?
  • How do we build a future for those who have historically been denied a future?
  • How can we shift to creating non-oppressive relationships between communities?

What would a just recovery look like and how do we get there?

The panel reminded us that while “recovery” implies a return to a previous state, the prior economic status quo was not healthy or just for all. Rather, we must re-imagine an economy with sustainable climate opportunities focused on communities of color. Moving forward, the needs and opinions of our frontline communities should be considered in the solution. As we restructure, we must engage with and listen to these community members.

To do so, we must be bold and push the dialog for regional change. Panelists suggested working with, and financially supporting, social movements based on intersectionality and voting on both local and national issues.

How can we as climate activists use this discussion to become engaged and effect change?

The panelists’ knowledge and experience were not only extensive and impressive, but I was most appreciative of their wisdom to ask questions of the audience and to ask us to be active participants. As to how we as climate activists can take action, the panel reinforced the importance of actions such as lobbying, petitioning, and voting.

This work is not new. This moment simply feels new in the light of the COVID-19 pandemic. We must always continue working toward a reimagined society and economy that eradicates the injustices felt by underserved communities. The resounding remarks from the Just Recovery Panel tell us that recovery cannot be a return to previous conditions. Instead, a true just recovery must redesign a new normal that supports communities at the forefront of current environmental, racial, economic, societal and health injustices.

Intersecting Causes in Environmental Justice

Image Source: Josh Hild, Pexels

By: Lorenzo Nericcio, SD350 Communications Volunteer

Those interested in environmental causes, like ecological protection or climate change mitigation, often consider issues of racial or economic justice as separate causes: While we work to protect the environment, others labor against systemic oppression. Though it has never been entirely true that they are separate, it is even less so now, and recent events have highlighted how inescapably intertwined these two issues have become. 

The concept of intersectionality allows us to understand the connections between environmental issues and those of racial justice. Each of us lives at the intersection of multiple identities: racial, economic, gender, ecological, and so on. Each of these identities becomes, in an oppressive system, a way by which a person might in some cases experience injustice, or in others, privilege. 

Systems of oppression built around one form of identity often spill over into others. For example, people of color more often bear the burden of environmental degradation, as explained by this 350.org article on the intersectional effects of climate change. This realization—that Black and Brown people are often first on the front lines of rising seas and temperatures—forces those in the environmental community to confront the fact that focusing solely on the environmental effects of climate change is not enough; one must also understand its intersectional social effects. 

Environmentalists of color have renewed their arguments for an intersectional approach in the wake of protests responding to the police murders of George Flloyd, Breonna Taylor, and countless others. In the pages of the New York Times, Black environmentalists called on the environmental community to address these issues more prominently in their advocacy. And many environmental institutions have listened, committing to fight for racial justice alongside the environmental causes they champion.

While this may be a new concept for some in the environmental community—and especially for those most privileged—it’s important to note that for people of color, fighting for their right to a safe, clean, and ecologically sound place to live has long been part of the fight for justice. Our contemporary conceptions of environmental justice owe their development to Black leaders, a history discussed in this article, also from 350.org

For those new to the environmental justice movement who wish to become more effective advocates and activists, it is important to start by learning. As a White person or other person of privilege, you should focus on becoming an ally: someone who is not the direct subject of oppression but who stands with and supports those who are oppressed. The first step is listening to the needs and views of those who directly experience oppression, as described recently by a guide in Vox. By listening, understanding, and acting strategically, environmental activists can learn to become effective allies, and stand in solidarity with those fighting for racial and environmental justice. 

If you’re interested, please take the time to read the articles linked within this piece. Additional readings are linked below:

Student Fieldtrip: Environmental Justice vs Oil

Twenty-one seniors from King-Chavez Charter High School’s Environmental Justice class made the long trek to Kern County in California’s  Central Valley to view the effects of the oil industry, and fracking in particular, on the land and the residents of the region.

SD350’s Peg Mitchell recently organized an eye-opening trip to the oil fields of Kern County for some of San Diego’s high-school students. Here are some excerpts from the report she sent back:

Friday, December 19th, was the last day of the term for students at the King-Chavez Charter High School in San Diego.  Twenty-one seniors from the Environmental Justice class trekked in the dark to board a school bus at 6AM for a long trip to the oil fields of Kern County.  They had signed on to witness for themselves the impact of of the oil and gas industry, and fracking in particular, on the communities nearby.

KIng-Chavez High School students gather after their five-hour bus trip from San Diego to Kern County.

KIng-Chavez High School students gather after their five-hour bus trip from San Diego to Kern County.

 

Tom Frantz from Association of Irritated Residents (Great name!) began the tour at the “Panorama Overlook”, breathtaking for its view of oil pump jacks in every direction as far as the eye can see. Among the rigs students could spot an occasional power plant, used for heating up water into steam to use in the “cyclic steam injection” process – an older method for releasing the tarry oil to flow up the wellhead an out to the pipelines.

“On many days of the year Bakersfield has the worst air quality in the country,” Tom told the students. “Why doesn’t anyone do anything about that?” asked one. Tom explained the connection between appointments to the air quality boards, the legislative representatives in that area, and the oil companies. “It’s all politics,” he explained, “so nothing ever changes.”

Tom Frantz's stories about the problems created by fracking hold the students' attention.

Tom Frantz’s stories about the problems created by fracking hold the students’ attention.

A retired high school Math teacher, Tom doesn’t accept this status quo. He spends his time traveling around the Kern County oil fields checking up on activities of the oil production industry. He has caught drillers illegally dumping highly polluted toxic “produced water” from fracking operations into fields; he has teamed with other organizations from Texas using special cameras to film methane and other pollutants as they leak from pump sites and compressor stations; and he has discovered leakage and resulting air pollution from open evaporation pits that contain all the waste from oil and gas operations.

Continuing on their bus tour, students witnessed oil rigs placed amidst agricultural fields and one right next to an elementary school, near the town of Shafter.  Next to the school, a gardener turned over soil in the community garden situated in the rig’s shadow. Children at the school suffer from numerous health problems, particularly asthma and respiratory issues.

Across the valley to the West, the tour drove through the heart of Kern’s agricultural areas. Students learned that not only are the oil and gas operations a hazard to public health but, incredibly, so are dairy farms – including one that had 15,000 cows on site, standing in their own waste as far as the eye could see. This waste is yet another hazard as it is moved into open pits where it is occasionally “stirred up” to help release 50% of the ammonia its decay generates into the air. The remaining solid waste is just piled up into mountains of  …

The last stop on the tour was a history lesson: the Belridge Oil fields and the towns of McKittrick and Taft are best known as being the location as well as subject matter of the movie “There Will Be Blood” – a movie about the beginnings of the oil industry in California and the cutthroat dealings that went on to secure land and drilling rights.

Asked about their biggest learning from their Kern County tour, the students’ almost unanimous reply was the proximity of oil drilling to where our food is grown.  The potential hazard to our food source raised great concern among the students. “No doubt the crops are contaminated, at a minimum from air pollution” Tom explained. “But no one really knows,” he said, “because no one tests for anything, because no one really wants to know.”

Because of what they witnessed, these 21 seniors from King-Chavez High School now have strong, disturbing images of the impact that industrialization of the valley has had on the nearby communities, the school children, and even the food they themselves eat. They also have a clear sense of what “environmental justice” means and are, therefore, determined to stay engaged in this issue and help SanDiego350 in future efforts to inform the public.