In an interview on January 26, 2021 for Public Lab, Gustavo Aguirre Jr. shared his experience taking action against the major industries situated within California’s Kern, Tulare, and Kings Counties. Gustavo is the Kern County Director of Central California Environmental Justice Network (CCEJN). In 2001, CCEJN founders recognized that their target communities were located throughout the San Joaquin Valley, and so the network expanded to work in partnership with groups from across the region. CCEJN was established in 1999 and is an environmental justice non-profit organization whose “mission is to empower our communities and secure our children’s future by eliminating negative environmental impacts in low income and communities of color in the Central Valley.” Since their beginning, CCEJN has fostered strong working relationships with grassroots groups, regulatory agencies, and academic institutions.
Growing up Gustavo shared he was surrounded by his parents and their friends who were United Farm Workers (UFW) labor organizers going back to the 1970s. This community environment exposed him to political advocacy early in his youth and deeply instilled his commitment to community health. In his interview, Gustavo described, “My father worked for UFW...he had an organizing lifestyle: picket lining, workshops with other advocates, backyard barbeques.” Naturally, Gustavo learned that building healthy communities requires frequent communication, collaborative dialogues, and efforts that are intentionally intergenerational.
Over the years, Gustavo and his CCEJN colleagues have developed effective community-centered programs, and he admitted that while reaching residents can be tough especially during COVID-19, in a typical year they are able to get people to keep coming back to their workshops. He described the effectiveness of framing any given environmental health issue around the family, and building opportunities for local youth to not only learn but apply their knowledge through hands-on activities and local advocacy channels. Gustavo has been integral to the development of CCEJN’s environmental reporting and environmental monitoring efforts.
When I asked him to reflect on his own pathway into community science, Gustavo described his earlier years learning alongside Jessica Hendricks and Denny Larson of Global Community Monitor (GCM) in 2014. Gustavo’s time with CGM allowed him to learn how to use the Bucket air monitoring tool, receive direct mentorship, and support collaborative air quality monitoring efforts. “We put together a document on QAQC [quality assurance and quality control] protocols, compared varying methodologies around community air sampling…” and “...there’s a need for these [community air sampling] methods to be respected.” In his year with GCM he learned how do-it-yourself monitoring tools, mostly meant to capture data about place and local informational events, had the potential to create bigger projects -- and bring accountability to regulatory agencies. Once at CCEJN, where Gustavo has proudly been for 7 years, he was encouraged to carry on his community science and organizing work. “The Bucket has served to capture the narratives of the [San Joaquin Valley] communities and support the residents here to see and question what’s going on around them.” He continues to introduce local youth to the power and tools of community-led science and inquiry.
When I asked Gustavo about the key elements of CCEJN’s programming, he emphasized that they spend significant time organizing communities and neighbors by facilitating culturally-grounded education workshops and offering environmental justice literacy curriculum. These workshops help explain environmental science and policy jargon, offer translation, and break down what regulatory agencies are. Gustavo emphasized that their work is to enable residents to see the entire web of contact among regulators and communities, and encourage them to use their community-based reporting platform. This reporting platform is based at CCEJN with emphasis on reporting environmental concerns and observations. “We give them a green card with the phone number and share how to use the website.”
In CCEJN’s earlier years, the community was quick to start bringing their concerns. They reported the local oil rig/tanks in their neighborhoods, and CCEJN asked them, “What can you tell us about this?” This initially got them interested in noticing odor, smog, and when the oil rigs were moving. As more visual scenes were reported, nothing would happen. “Then we’d go out and collect Bucket samples.” With these community air quality samples, CCEJN would identify an academic institution and research team in their partnership network to lend support. “With the samples in a University of Washington report, all of it together, gave our efforts a whole different level of energy.” Through their programs, CCEJN supports community members to see how they can use data: understanding how and what data is, who controls it, and how they can create their own with accessible instruments and tools – then create their own narratives with it.
Gustavo mentions that one of CCEJN’s successes is, “We meet the community members and leaders that really have that spark. Have them keep coming back. We build those relationships. It’s all long term. We can take it to the next level, we just have to keep at it. You may not get to see the benefits right upfront, though after some time the trends do appear.” To learn more about CCEJN’s programs, visit https://ccejn.org/category/projects/.
This interview is part of Public Lab’s efforts to update information about the Bucket air monitoring tool and share stories from community groups currently using it all over the world. To subscribe to updates, visit: https://publiclab.org/notes/Shannon/05-14-2020/the-bucket-updating-and-open-sourcing-a-community-air-monitoring-tool
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