“We need a government that is truly of, by, and for the people. That means being represented by elected officials who share the experience and values of the collective whole. It’s having government agencies enforce public health laws without fear of repercussions from powerful polluting industries. And very critically, it’s when government goes to the community to listen with an active ear in the process of making decisions.” – James Parks, Chairman, Yakima NAACP Youth Work Committee
Members of Washington’s Environmental Justice (EJ) Task Force are continuing to learn about life on the frontlines of climate change and pollution. Last November, they went directly Yakima to hear from community members at Henry Beauchamp Community Center.
Local residents were well prepared to share their stories thanks to a pre-meeting the Yakima NAACP Chapter organized a week before. The NAACP provided a comfortable space for folks to gather, talk about their environment, and shape their stories. Nuestra Casa and Community Health Workers Coalition for Migrants and Refugees encouraged folks from their network to attend both meetings. This ensured the vital voice of farm workers, in one of the nation’s leading agricultural producing regions, was heard – laying the groundwork for the transition to a just and healthy Washington.
Following the community conversation led by local organizations, the State’s Environmental Justice Task Force held a regional meeting in Yakima. This was an opportunity for our coalition and local frontline member organizations to participate in a unique partnership within the State’s government process.
As Front and Centered, we see our role as providing opportunities and breaking down barriers to participation in the public comment portion of these meetings to help inform the Task Force’s recommendations. The Task Force must consider this public input in developing its recommendations on how State government can prioritize EJ in a report to the Governor and Legislature that’s due by October 2020 (see page 180 here).
To ensure the input received is truly representative of the community the Task Force experimented with a creative approach to public comments through a new format called a Community Conversation. For the meeting’s final three hours, Task Force members ate dinner with the public, allowed attendees to address the crowd, and then broke out into groups for a rich dialogue.
Some of the main issues raised included:
- Air pollution enforcement is weak: The Yakima Regional Clean Air Agency neglected enforcement of burn bans and laws preventing agricultural emissions.
- Cattle farming produces significant harmful pollution: In one example, during a recent winter freeze over a dozen dairy farms allowed hundreds of cattle to die. Instead of composting their bodies, they were dumped in a landfill that created contamination. Separately, poorly regulated dairy waste dumping continues to pose a significant threat to local water supplies.
- Drought harms our people the worst: Shrinking public groundwater levels are expected to harm low-income families who can’t afford to buy private water and drill wells. Multiple types of competing water users and climate change make this a dreaded and serious concern.
- Industries wield too much influence and the people too little: Government meetings where the public can comment on draft environmental rules are typically flocked by the representatives of polluting industry. Meanwhile, vulnerable communities are left out of the conversation for a number of reasons, such as poor communication about the meeting, limited resources to participate, and a simple lack of trust.
- Farm worker welfare is not a priority of business or government: Safety protocols are followed in a lackadaisical manner by businesses with little government oversight. Without preventative care and measures, pesticide exposure creates health harms.
This new format allowed for folks to go deep into their personal struggles in a way that a traditional 2 minute presentation may not. Many solutions on how government can make communities healthy were also brought up during the conversation. They included:
- Government should actively track and maintain employer records pertaining to employee health and safety procedures. The existence and active monitoring of such records can be evidence that farm workers are operating under safe conditions.
- Open public meeting should be held when it is easy for farm workers and others who can’t easily leave their jobs to attend. The meetings should be intentionally advertised to reach Spanish language speakers through relevant radio and print materials.
- Government can build public trust by recruiting and hiring employees who are from our community.
The mission of the EJ Task Force and the work we are doing to drive it forward is pioneering. While the journey to achieving that in Washington is long and hard we’re taking real steps forward by shaping the Task Force recommendations and planning to advocate for their passage into law in 2021. Stayed tuned for more updates!