The Central California Environmental Justice Network (CCEJN) is a group with member organizations across the Central Valley whose mission is “to preserve our natural resources now and in the future, by seeking better ways to minimize or eliminate environmental degradation in Central Valley communities. This is crucial because rural communities in California’s Central Valley suffer a disproportionate amount of negative health, social and financial impacts.”
In 2016, Public Lab hosted the Regional Barnraising in Val Verde, CA where I met Nayamin Martinez, Director of the CCEJN. Nayamin’s work and the work of CCEJN was an inspiration to those who attended the event for both their the deep community organizing (highlighted in this interview below), and for the power and productivity their network has been able to exercise on hard local environmental issues. CCEJN works on everything from assisting community environmental reporting, to health impact studies, environmental monitoring, and efforts on anti-fracking campaigns. It was CCEJN’s efforts to educate on EPA visual monitoring techniques that inspired others across Public Lab to learn and take on visual monitoring methods around industrial and mining sites.
I was so grateful to loop back in with Nayamin and meet Gustavo Aguirre Jr who works as CCEJN’s Kern County Coordinator.
Nayamin and Gustavo’s interview below:
What kind of support do you look for for your community organizing activities?
Gustavo: We often look for support from bigger organizations or entities and the communication power they have. It’s a good support system to communicate with others outside of our immediate reach. Aside from outreach, we also look for community groups and leaders that need additional assistance or guidance on issues they are advocating for, such as identifying pollution hotspots and monitoring these locations.
Nayamin: Everytime we go to do some type of monitoring, we rely on the expertise of scientists. Having access to researchers is key for us but sometimes limited. Some curriculum can strengthen our work, for example, building the environmental literacy among our community members. Also, the makeup of the San Juan Valley where we are based, has a huge latino population who don’t read english, so we often need translated resources.
Are there any resources for your environmental work that you’ve found to be helpful? Such as guides, monitoring resources, websites, trainings, network, or otherwise?
Nayamin: Might sound ironic, but when we have had the access to researchers it has been very valuable. Having legitimization of a research institue behind our work is helpful. I also think we have done a good job of collaborating with a lot of the enforcement agencies.
Gustavo: Researchers, academics, regulatory agencies are our main focus. Useful information provided by these organizations is very valuable. Different groups bring different specialities to the table. But our specialist if you will are the residents that live and work in our communities that are often fence-line to major industries.
What do you these resources could have done for you, but didn’t?
Gustavo: Larger NGOs and state agencies with more funding and resources need to actually fund the work. We need community organizers who are part time or full time with these groups, so we end up with more dollars and resources on the ground. Lots of people have ideas about how organizations could work better, but to me, it always comes down to how their organizers work. There’s a lot of great work that institutions do, but very little of that work has been shared, little of the the information trickles down.
When you, or your group, is learning something new, what is the best way for you to receive information? What is your preferred method of sharing information?
Nayamin: I prefer being in person for learning. Here in California, we have large distances. Even within our region, lots of rural communities and it’s not easy for them to travel. Access to webinars has been very helpful so far, and the internet has become a very powerful tool for gaining information. In terms of sharing out, we have a robust listserve that we use strategically to distribute our projects, activities, and events. It has a combination of environmental justice advocates, grassroots groups, and regulatory agencies.
What methods of sharing or learning do you or your group find challenging?
Nayamin: We have been using the listserv a lot. It has been more challenging to keep up with the websites to make it a resource tool. We haven’t had the time or manpower. Sometimes expertise to use the website and the social media in a more strategic way is helpful, but when the target audience is the community we serve, those methods are not the needed dissemination tools. For example, they may not speak the language, so we are always mindful of who we are trying to communicate with. We rely a lot on oral presentations at community meetings. Not powerpoint, nothing sophisticated. We know an oral presentation with clear and simple information will go a long way.
Gustavo: Our strength is our access to the community. We know the community groups and the community leaders. That’s the main way we put out and get back information. It’s a weakness in that there’s no one channel, we have a network, and we talk to community folks in an daily, weekly, monthly basis which makes us strong.
Would being in a network of people from different backgrounds discussing environmental questions and collaborating on how to address them be useful to you? If so, in what ways?
Nayamin: I think it would. My background public health. Gustavo has more expertise on environmental sciences; our skills complement each other. It’s not always the technical information that’s important, bringing in public health and sociology -- other skills and perspectives to understand the problems of the community where we are working is really important.
Gustavo: Yes, networking! People flourish and get reenergized through networking.
What would you want to be able to do, find, offer, or receive through interacting with this network?
Nayamin: We have had our share of mistakes, so why not help others who are starting their work to not start from zero, but use our experiences as a platform to build upon for their own work. For example, right now, there’s an organization in Southwest Fresno, one of most polluted areas. They have done work with youth, but never focused on environmental issues. They met with us before they submitted a proposal to USEPA and they wanted to know what to do with the youth, so we started talking about how you do community monitoring.
Who would be important people for you to be able to engage with?
Nayamin: People from academia, scientists that have skills to analyse / interpret data of air and water pollution, whatever we are monitoring.
Gustavo: Decision-makers, assemblymen, having personal time with them one on one, and having them coming down to the community, that’s something we need more of. We need access to them. Researchers forget that community leaders are there, and are people who have flourished on positive change. We need to give community leaders more tools and access to helpful resources.
What would be important values or practices for the networking space to hold?
Nayamin: Sounds simple and common, but respecting everyone’s opinions and knowledge. As Gustavo was saying, a lot of time we don’t invite or value knowledge that community members have, but they are really the experts. Who is more knowledgeable than them? At the same time, I have been inside a regulatory agency doing a presentation and the agency people get frustrated because community members are asking so many questions, and talking for too long, so I go back to the need for being respectful.
End of interview
Thanks again Nayamin and Gustavo! So excited to follow CCEJN and the amazing work being done across the Central Valley.
**This post is part of a series with Grassroots and Environmental Justice Community Organizers. Read more on the series here or follow the blog tag to get updates on new posts.