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Conversations on Climate Justice – Elizabeth Torres

Elizabeth Torres

Last year we had the opportunity to interview Elizabeth Torres from Proyecto Bienestar by Northwest Communities’ Education Center, Radio KDNA based out of Central Washington / Yakima Valley. As the weather heats up in the city our minds swirl thinking about the hot weather that radiates throughout the central valley and the farmworkers out in the fields who pick the food that we eat. Read this late 2016 interview with Elizabeth on health disparities, climate change, and resilience in the Yakima Valley.

Question: Can you introduce yourself?

My name is Elizabeth Torres, and I’m the Research Project Coordinator for Proyecto Bienestar by Northwest Communities’ Education Center, Radio KDNA. It’s a partnership between the University of Washington, Heritage University and Farm Workers Clinic, and Radio KDNA. It’s an environmental justice project, and everything that we do is very focused on how the environment affects the health of the farm worker community in the Yakima Valley.

We are very focused on doing research by what we call a Collaborative Participatory Research or Community Participatory Research, which means that the community is part of the research from the ground up, instead the researchers coming in and telling us what they are doing, the community is actually giving their feedback, and telling the researchers this is what we need. In that process, we kind of developed focus groups with the community.

Q: Can you give me a little history of the project?

Proyecto Bienestar started in 2002, and it was an idea of looking at the environment’s effects on our community. Four groups came together to look at how we can partner to create awareness, and at the same time have data that supports the true problems that we have in the community that is affecting the environment, and then how that impacts the health of people. I had been working with Proyecto Bienestar since 2010.

The community forums generated four priorities that the community wanted us to focus on. The first is water quality. Especially in the Yakima Valley we have a high concentration of nitrates in the water. Then air quality, we have high levels of ammonia in the air. The third is pesticides — our community is very exposed to pesticides in the air, and in the workplace. And the last was workers’ issues, such as illness, ladder safety, and heat-related illnesses.

Q: Can you tell me more about the health issues and injuries?

Agriculture has a huge variety of injuries, from people cutting their fingers to people who have fallen from the ladder and not been able to work again. These are people who pluck apples or fruit so the ladders cause a lot of injuries. Also, a lot of people have developed carpal tunnel sorting vegetable or fruit because sometimes they’re in a very cold area, or sometimes it’s really warm where they’re at.

Further, they work very long hours and are exposed to a lot of different chemicals, pesticides, preservatives, wax and things like that to make sure the apples look nice and shiny. So all those things are impacts on the workers’ health.

Q: Can you tell me more about the pesticides issue?

The pesticides are a huge issue because the community has a lot of exposure to pesticides. Proyecto Bienestar is in collaboration with the Pacific Northwest Agriculture and Safety Center from the University of Washington. We do community-based research, education, and outreach to our community.

Q: Can you give me a couple examples of your programs and outreach?

Three years ago we started a project on sexual harassment because it’s a big issue within our community. The documentary Rape in the Fields brings up a little bit more of all the sexual harassment that our community goes through as workers. One of the incidents that are in that film happened in Yakima. There was a lawsuit from 19 women that accused a farmer of sexually abused them. And they lost the case, which that indicated that there is a need to do something.

Out of that, we developed two focus groups with women who work in the fields and work in the warehouses to see what was their perspective on sexual harassment. Out of those focus groups, we developed an outreach campaign – three different informational announcements that focus on the community—the workers, farmers and managers, and then one for the owners about sexual harassment. We also developed a radio novella on sexual harassment.

We are currently are in the process of producing a training video on sexual harassment  — how to be aware of it, know the symptoms, how to prevent it, how to report it, what the process is, what are the responsibilities of the manager and owner. It’s one of the issues that our community faces every single day in the workplace.

Another project started six years ago when we got a grant from the National Institute of Health to study asthma in kids and how the environment affects it. The research follows 75 kids with severe asthma. We’re looking at indoor contaminants and how to minimize the indoor contaminants to prevent some of the asthma attacks for kids. We have six visits with the kids. One is at the clinic, where our principal investigator, Dr. Catherine Karr meets with the kids and does the initial testing, and then they get an allergy testing. They get a NIOX, which is a nitro oxygen which measures the inflammation of your lungs. That’s the first visit. Then we go into the home and set up filters that collect some of the air. We’re looking at ammonia and other chemicals that are in the air like pesticides.

We have an intervention group and a control group. The intervention group gets two HEPA filtered units, one for the bedroom where the child sleeps, and one for the living room. So what we hope is that they over a period of time, the exposure and the contaminants of the air will reduce with this HEPA filter cleaner. The control group does not get the filters to see the difference between the two.

The Farm Workers Clinic staff are doing an asthma education program for the families. It’s a series of different education portions from how to use their medication properly to what some of the chemicals are or what cleaning supplies to use at home — there’s a lot of homes that have mold.

Radio KDNA is a non-profit public education radio station that is in Spanish 24 hours a day. The primary goal of Radio KDNA is to educate and bring information to our community. Everything we do on the air is in Spanish, but has an educational message from health to depression, to housing, to education, etc. We develop programs for senior citizens, for kids, for adults. It’s a variety of different programs but every single one is an educational program. It has music. Some of them are very lively. But they have that focus on education. We’re also like a referral agency. We help people to find resources and serve as the hub for other organizations. But our main purpose is to help our community to get access to the services that are available in the community and they need to be aware and make informed decisions, so always bringing the right information is very important for our organization.

Q: What are the challenges and barriers the farm-worker community face?

We are very agriculture-based, but the dairy industry is growing too. And that’s another set of exposures because the dairies are more exposed to bacteria and micro-bacteria and things like that, so that’s another different issue that we haven’t even started getting into. The dairy industry is a very powerful industry, so of course, the workers are the ones who are going to suffer.

Next, there are no unions. They get paid the minimum wage. The other thing that’s happening more often is the owners and managers are bringing H-2 workers who take the place of the workers that are currently here. Even though there is work, sometimes the H-2 workers get the job. They also get exploited.

Additionally, it’s a seasonal work, so they only have from February to October to work. The rest of the time, there is no work available and they’re unemployed. And so while they have work, of course they are going to work long hours to save money for the wintertime. Our community makes $20,000 to $25,000 per year, many with big families — three or four children.

Then, there is a huge issue of housing. A lot of families that live in very deplorable conditions. And then with the immigration status of some of our community members, and the sexual harassment, we have a high percent of single women who are supporting their household. Those are some of the main barriers in our community.

Q: When we talk about solutions how do we create a transition where they can have a livelihood and a standard of living, but transition away from the industries destroying our planet?

When we talk about climate justice, I think the best way to create awareness is to look at the social issues we have, there are communities who live below poverty level. How do we address those issues? How do we help our community? And then start creating awareness. A high percent of our community already works in the environment but they get exposed to pesticides, or nitrates in the water, or ammonia in the dairies, or bacterias.

We have to bring information to our community about what they can do immediately to start reducing the incidence of, for example, if you spray pesticides as part of your job, what do can so you don’t bring the pesticides into your home.

We’re currently doing the asthma project, and it’s very sad to walk into some of the homes, and the first thing you can smell is the mold in the home. How do you tell a person who lives in that home that is penetrated with mold that she needs to take care of the environment when she can’t even take care of her own house?

In November, we’ll start getting a lot of people here looking for services so they can pay their electric bill because they can’t even afford to pay their electric bill because they have a very low energy efficient heaters. Last winter we went to one of the homes and it had a wood stove. That was the only way they could warm up their home and unfortunately, the wood stove didn’t have proper ventilation to the outside.

So from the moment you walked into the home, it smelled of fumes. We walked out of there, and one of the staff members from Farm Workers Clinic said, “I was almost having an attack, couldn’t breathe. Imagine a child that has asthma that lives in those conditions.” But how do I come into that home and tell that family you need to turn it off? It’s the only way they have to warm up their home. And so how do you tell the person you are contaminating our environment with all these fumes from the wood stove?

And so I think when we look at the environment and our community of color, we have to look into what are the things that we can do for our community to start elevating these issues and do a project that integrates their current living situations into making a change in the environment. If we have resources, I could walk into a home to educate a family on the climate and say okay, we can get rid of your wood stove, and here is a different way to warm up your home. And it’s safer, and it’s more energy efficient. It’s more environmentally friendly.

Sometimes when I hear people say, let’s go organic, well, it’s wonderful if we can afford to go organic. But the reality is that some of our community, like for example, during the wintertime, they survive based on food banks that are offering canned food, not fresh food or fruit. So how do we tell a person that cannot afford food it’s like you need to become organic because that will help our community. So we need more resources and we need alternative sources of income.

Q: What about wildfires? How much of that is a threat?

This year we saw more than previous years, and very close—I mean they just finished one. They just control one in Natchez, just outside Yakima. And so this year in my perspective, we had more wildfires than any other year — one right after another, and at one point, there were multiple at the same time, and very close to home, which that’s something that also you think about. We’re running out of water. Our land is getting drier. Our environment is changing. This year the winter ended up earlier. The spring started very early. Summer started very early. And it looks like fall has been here for a couple weeks now instead of just starting. Our community pays attention because it affects their working conditions and income. If the season for crops starts early, that means they’re going to end earlier, so that means longer time without a job. And that means they will have to look to other resources that are available in the community, which are limited.

Our communities used to move from season to season but not anymore because they’re settled, they want their kids to go to school. And sometimes it’s hard to tell a person you have to take care of the environment when they’re thinking about how am I going to provide food for my kids this week? We can create awareness and educate our communities to have the information to be able to make educated decisions, but at the same time, we need to think about all the barriers they face.

Q: Are the youth also entering the same industry for employment? Do you think that should change?

I remember when I graduated from high school, more people were going into the agriculture instead of going to college. Now we see more students going to college but there are still a lot of our youth that go into agriculture for many reasons. It could be their immigration status, or not qualifying for financial aid or lack of knowledge of the different resources available for kids.

I personally think that kids of color have great opportunity. They’re very smart, and they can do a lot of things. Unfortunately, sometimes because of the economic barriers and the lack of information, they don’t pursue their higher education. And many times, it’s harder for a student of color to survive in a higher education if you don’t have somebody who’s always pushing you and supporting you. And I can tell you because my daughter is in college currently, and it’s hard for her even though she was born here–there’s still that differential that your color of skin makes a difference on some people. And so it makes it a little harder to thrive and survive in college. You always need that support.

Parents definitely want to support their kids but there is still that lack of information of how the system works and how we can help our kids to succeed in the higher education system. That’s another thing that we need to work on.  There’s a lot of things. But I think when we look at our environment from the perspective of how it’s affecting our community, and look into if there is a small change I can do myself to help the environment, then I should be doing it, whether it’s recycling or carpooling with somebody else, or whatever the solutions are, and to look at how do we help our community to start transitioning.

We are not going to be able to do it from the top down. We have to do it from the bottom up by listening to our community. And you’re going to hear about all the different issues that are affecting them right now. Then maybe we can start making a change and it’s going to take years and years. It took years to get to this point so it’s going to take longer to be able to make a change because of all the barriers that we have.  But I do believe that we do need to do something about it, and I think we all must try to do it in different ways.

I’m a firm believer of the impact of environment on health, it’s a big issue. And if we can start creating awareness in our communities on how the environment affects them and affects their health, we’ll start making slow changes because then I will think about okay, so if I’m exposed to pesticides, I’m going to bring those pesticides to my house. It’s going to affect my children. It’s going to affect me. What are some of the things that I can do to minimize that? And maybe that will start creating awareness so we can start using fewer pesticides in the farms.

When we start creating awareness, educating our community in general; our community informs the community that is affected, to the industry that it’s creating some of these issues because we’re consumers. We develop demand and if we demand that change we will see the change we want.

We all have that responsibility to create awareness at all levels, from the workers, the growers, the retail stores, the policymakers, and the community. We have the power and we must start making the changes.

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