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California Recycling Bill Highlights Rift Between Mainstream Environmentalism and Environmental Justice Movement

OAKLAND POST — When a group of liberal lawmakers in the state capitol in Sacramento recently proposed legislation that would raise the amount of recycled plastic required in bottled beverages sold in California, many environmental activists lauded the move as a much-needed step in the fight to curb plastic waste.

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By Khalil Abdullah

(TriceEdneyWire.com) – When a group of liberal lawmakers in the state capitol in Sacramento recently proposed legislation that would raise the amount of recycled plastic required in bottled beverages sold in California, many environmental activists lauded the move as a much-needed step in the fight to curb plastic waste.

But as debate over the legislation begins to take shape, critics say that it is becoming increasingly clear that the proposed recycling requirement would, if enacted, have an unintended consequence that hurts one group in particular: low-income Californians, particularly those in African-American communities around the state.

The bill, AB792, would mandate that plastic bottles be made with 25 percent recycled plastic by 2021 before it steadily increasing the recycling requirement to 75 percent by 2030. The bill faces a major test in early July when the Senate Environmental Quality Committee considers whether to send it to the full Senate for a vote.

To supporters, the bill would put in place necessary targets to accelerate a reduction in California’s overall plastic use. But consumer advocates worry that the bill would create new production costs that average Californians would have to pay for.

A major concern is that the bill would unintentionally discourage bottled water consumption at a time when research shows that water is key for better nutrition and a successful diet.

The health implications are especially significant for African-Americans, who have experienced higher rates of diabetes than white Americans partly because of poor diet. The proposed legislation also comes at a time when studies have consistently shown black and Hispanic Americans are more inclined to drink bottled water than other ethnic groups.

In addition, research suggests that minority families without access to clean drinking water are more likely to turn to less healthy sugar-sweetened beverages. With African-Americans and Hispanics making up more than 60 percent of Californians suffering from obesity, some advocates say creating new barriers to healthy drinking options could put these individuals at an even greater risk of developing chronic conditions.

Therefore, experts and advocates are asking state lawmakers to slow down the pace of the bill in order to identify unintended consequences of the recycling legislation, regardless of its lofty goals.

The recycling bill has also had unintended consequences politically. It has exposed a rift between mainstream environmentalists and environmental justice advocates.

Specifically, some in the environmental justice movement complain that many mainstream environmental organizations have focused on high-profile issues like climate change and bottled-water recycling while largely neglecting the day-to-day environmental hazards that communities of color face in many American cities.

These environmental hazards largely stem from a number of factors, including rampant industrial development and unwise land-use policies in many cities. The toxic legacy that these communities confront include incinerators, landfills and contaminated water.

In fact, mainstream environmentalists have drawn heavy criticism for their relative silence during the water-contamination crisis in Flint, Michigan, a predominantly African-American city where there is now a pressing need for bottled water.

The differences between the mainstream environmental movement and the environmental justice movement appears to have deep roots: research that has shown people of color and low socioeconomic status have been historically excluded from preeminent environmental groups, many of which are largely white and enjoy the support of wealthy funders.

In 2014, researchers conducted one of the most comprehensive studies examining the intersection between race and environmentalism in environmental institutions. Their conclusion: An overwhelmingly white “green insiders’ club,” with racial minorities occupying less than 12 percent of the leadership positions in the environmental organizations studied.

Dr. Dorecta E. Taylor, the study’s primary author, is a graduate of the Yale School of Forestry & Environmental Studies and is presently professor of environmental justice at the University of Michigan, where she also serves as the program director of the Multicultural Environmental Leadership Development Initiative. She is also the university’s director of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion.

Taylor says White environmentalists are ignoring pressing environmental justice demands due to their failure to move outside of their own insular communities. She said, “One of the things they should be doing is stop being so afraid of people of color, and meet them, interact with them, cultivate them, and start recruiting them.”

Khalil Abdullah, is a Washington, D.C.-area writer and editor. He staffed the Committee on Transportation and Environment for the National Black Caucus of State Legislators before and while serving as executive director. As a national editor for San Francisco-based New America Media, he edited and occasionally wrote on environmental issues.

This article originally appeared in the Oakland Post.

Community

Students, Community Organizations Ask Judge to Order Mental Health Services, Internet Access

Arguing that appropriating billions of dollars alone will not ensure action, community organizations and parents from Los Angeles and Oakland are asking an Alameda County Superior Court judge to order the state to immediately provide computers and internet access and address the mental health needs of children who have borne the brunt of the pandemic.

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Sigmund/Unsplash

Arguing that appropriating billions of dollars alone will not ensure action, community organizations and parents from Los Angeles and Oakland are asking an Alameda County Superior Court judge to order the state to immediately provide computers and internet access and address the mental health needs of children who have borne the brunt of the pandemic.

The May 3 request for immediate relief comes six months after the plaintiffs sued the State Board of Education, the California Department of Education and State Superintendent of Public Instruction Tony Thurmond. Now, they are seeking a preliminary injunction to force the state to respond. Superior Court Judge Winifred Smith has set June 4 for a hearing.

“The state cannot just write big checks and then say, ‘We’re not paying attention to what happens here,’” said Mark Rosenbaum, a directing attorney with the pro bono law firm Public Counsel. Public Counsel and the law firm Morrison and Foerster filed the lawsuit on behalf of 15 children and two organizations: The Oakland Reach and the Community Coalition, which is based in Los Angeles. 

In their initial, 84-page filing, they claimed the state had shirked its responsibility to ensure that low-income Black and Latino children were receiving adequate distance learning, with computers and internet access the Legislature said all children were entitled to. Instead, they argued, children “lost precious months” of learning, falling further behind because of poor internet connections, malfunctioning computers and a lack of counseling and extra academic help.

“While the COVID-19 pandemic was unavoidable, these harms were not. Yet for most of this period, state officials constitutionally charged with ensuring that all of California’s children receive at least basic educational equality have remained on the sidelines,” the plaintiffs argued.

Angela J., of Oakland, whose three children are plaintiffs in the case, elaborated on the difficulties they encountered during a year under distance learning in a declaration filed with the latest plaintiffs’ motion. 

Although she is president of the PTA, her school has been uncommunicative and unresponsive to requests for technical help and lesson plans, she wrote. Her children are falling behind and “suffering emotionally,” she said. Her third-grade twins are supposed to be doing multiplication and division but are struggling with subtraction. “They are supposed to be able to write essays, but they can barely write two sentences.”

The Oakland Reach and the Community Coalition have stepped in with technical help and support for hundreds of families that district schools should have provided, the plaintiffs’ motion said. The Community Coalition hired tutors and partnered with YMCA-Crenshaw to provide in-person learning pods with 100 laptops on site. The Oakland Reach hired 19 family liaisons, started a preschool literacy program and offered online enrichment programs for students.

Months passed, infection rates declined, schools made plans to reopen, and then in March, Gov. Gavin Newsom and the Legislature appropriated $6.6 billion in COVID-19 relief that school districts can put toward summer school, tutoring, mental health, teacher training and other academic supports. By June 1 — less than a month from now — districts and charter schools are required to complete a report, after consulting with parents and teachers, on how they plan to spend the money.

But the plaintiffs argue in their latest filing, “this funding comes with no oversight, assistance, or enforcement to ensure that the funds will be used properly to address the issues relating to digital devices, learning loss, and mental health support.” And there’s no requirement that districts begin this summer to address the harm that the most impacted students have felt, the statement said.“Schools are indeed ‘reopening’ to one degree or another, but absent a mandate that all students receive what they need to learn and to catch up, or any guidance from the State that would help them do so,” the filing said.

In a statement, California Department of Education spokesman Scott Roark acknowledged that the pandemic has disproportionately impacted those who “are vulnerable by historic and systemic inequities,” and cited the department’s work obtaining hundreds of thousands of computers, expanding internet access and providing guidance to educators on distance learning for highest-needs students.

“As we work to return children back to the classroom, we will maintain a laser focus on protecting the health and safety of our school communities while providing the supports needed to ensure learning continues and, where gaps persist, is improved,” the statement said.

In passing legislation accompanying the state budget last June, the Legislature laid out requirements for distance learning that school districts must meet to receive school funding. They included providing all students with access to a computer and the internet. 

Missing, however, was an enforcement requirement, like the monitoring that’s used to verify that students in low-income schools have textbooks, safe and clean facilities and qualified classroom teachers. That system was set up in 2004 through a settlement of Williams v. State of California, in which low-income families sued the state over its failure to assure safe and equitable conditions in schools.  

At the time, Rosenbaum was a lead attorney for the ACLU of Southern California, which brought the lawsuit with Public Advocates and other civil rights organizations.

Despite efforts by Thurmond and districts over the past year to get technology in place, Thurmond estimated in October that as many as 1 million students lacked devices or sufficient bandwidth to adequately participate in distance learning from home. Between federal and state funding, districts have plenty of money to buy computers, and the Legislature is considering several bills to fund internet access statewide (see here and here). 

They won’t solve the immediate challenge, but they could become relevant if there were to be a settlement in this case, as in the Williams lawsuit.

Among their requests, the plaintiffs are asking the court to order the state to:

  • Determine which students lack devices and connectivity and ensure that districts immediately provide them;
  • Ensure that all students and teachers have access to adequate mental health supports;
  • Provide weekly outreach to families of all low-income Black or Latino students to aid in transitioning back to in-person learning through August 2022;
  • Provide a statewide plan to ensure that districts put in place programs to remedy the learning loss caused by remote learning.

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Community

Greenlining Institute and RePower LA Coalition Applaud Gov. Newsom’s Relief Plans

Unpaid Utility Bills Threatened Hundreds of Thousands with Shut-Offs


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Gov. Gavin Newsom/Wikimedia

With utility shut-offs for hundreds of thousands of California families struggling with COVID-19-related economic hardships, The Greenlining Institute praised Gov.  Gavin Newsom’s announcement on Monday. The California Comeback plan outlines the administration’s commitment to relieving families burdened by mounting water and energy bills.

“With millions of Californians either unemployed or with greatly reduced incomes due to the pandemic, hundreds of thousands of households face having their electricity, gas or water shut off June 30 without bold state action,” said Carmelita Miller, Greenlining’s senior director of Climate Equity. “This proposal, along with vitally needed help for renters, will help keep struggling families afloat as our economy revives. We’re glad the governor listened to LAANE, Greenlining and other advocates who pushed for this help, and it’s critical that the legislature move quickly to adopt these proposals in its final budget.”

The RePower LA Coalition, anchored by the Los Angeles Alliance for a New Economy and SCOPE, has been working with leaders on the ground in Los Angeles on issues of energy justice.    

Utility debt has long been a concern for low-income ratepayers, and the COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated existing disparities. As of November 2020, residential customers of LADWP had over $469 million in arrearages for water, power, and sewage bills. 

This is impacting over 500,000 customers in Los Angeles, the majority of them being low-income ratepayers. Similar scenarios have been playing out up and down California with more than 800,000 households at risk of service disconnection statewide.

“LAANE and our coalition partners have been uplifting the issue of utility debt since the beginning of the pandemic. Low-income communities and communities of color are most impacted by utility debt,” said Agustin Cabrera, the director of RePower LA, “We heard from our partners on the ground that utility debt was a growing concern for many low-income Angelenos, and that’s why we started our campaign. We realize that there are limitations on publicly-owned utilities, like LADWP; additional resources are especially important. We are eager to work with the State Legislature and the governor to move this proposal quickly.”

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Bay Area

Residents Celebrate 510 Day, an Oakland Holiday

The holiday started in 2016, when a group of long-term Oakland residents felt that, in the face of Black and Brown native Oaklanders being displaced through the city’s gentrification, a celebration of their cultures was necessary.

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Neptune Jenkins, Tiny Matthews and Zay Coleman at Oakland's 510 Day celebration today near the Lake Merritt Amphitheater. Photo by Zack Haber on May 10.

Demetrius Coats with his legs over his bike’s handlebars as he rides in the bike caravan around Lake Merritt at Oakland’s 510 Day celebration today.
Photo by Zack Haber on May 10.

Over 40 people gathered around Lake Merritt on Monday to celebrate 510 Day, an Oakland-based holiday that honors Black and Brown cultures of the city and their resilience against displacement each year on May 10.

“For us, it’s a protest and a party at the same time,” Leon Skyes, a Black Oakland native who helps organize 501 Day celebrations, told The Oakland Post. “Rather than being targeted, today we’re being celebrated.”

The holiday started in 2016, when a group of long-term Oakland residents felt that, in the face of Black and Brown native Oaklanders being displaced through the city’s gentrification, a celebration of their cultures was necessary. The 415 Day, a San Francisco holiday where residents gather every April 15th in Dolores Park to celebrate against and protest the removal of native SF families, was 510 Day’s inspiration. Both holidays get their name from their city’s respective telephone area codes.

In the years since the first 510 Day, several incidents at or near Lake Merritt have shown the area as a contested place where long-term Black and Brown residents’ acts of celebrating, music making, barbecuing, or simply existing have been under threat.

In the fall of 2016, a woman who lived near the lake called police on Aaron Davis, an 18-year-old Black Oakland native, to file a noise complaint about him playing his drum set. Soon after, Oaklanders rallied behind him with drums of their own to protest the complaint.

In mid-May of 2018, after a viral video showed white Oakland resident Jennifer Schulte calling police on Black Oakland resident Kenzie Smith for barbecuing near the lake, many Black Oakland residents came out to protest the incident by participating in the “BBQ’n While Black” celebration. Later that year, a white jogger threw a Black Oakland resident’s belongings in the lake. The city began evicting many Black and Brown homeless residents from the area and enforcing no camping rules in 2018 as well.

Since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic the lake has become a contested site for informal Black and Brown businesses after residents who live nearby have filed complaints against Lake Merritt vendors selling merchandise without permits.

“Gentrification has created a hostile environment for us where we can’t even just exist without getting the cops called on us,” Needa Bee, who helped start 510 Day and organize its Lake Merritt celebrations, told The Oakland Post.

Bee, also known as The Lumpia Lady, has lived in Oakland for about 30 years and has sold lumpia, a traditional Filipino food, for about 10 years at Lake Merritt. She served free lumpia to those who came to the 510 Day celebration.

The celebration included a bike and car caravan that circled the lake about one and a half times. Bikers, many of whom rode fixed gears and did tricks, lead the way. Demetrius Coleman put his legs up on his bike’s handle bars several times as he rode. 

 At one point, Zay Coleman sat entirely on one side of his bike, only using one pedal to move it as he biked down Grand Avenue with both his legs and his face pointing towards the lake. Cars that had signs attached to them supporting defunding the Oakland Police Department and against gentrification followed along, honked their horns loudly, and blared Oakland musicians like Too $hort. Motorcyclists rode along and revved their engines. Two roller skaters also joined the caravan.

After the caravan, participants gathered at the Lake Merritt Amphitheater to eat food and take photos while some of the bikers continued to do tricks. Neptune Jenkins stood on the frame of his bike while grabbing the front wheel, pushing and pulling it back and forth while continuing to balance. Signs honoring historical Oakland events and famous Oaklanders like basketball player Bill Russell, activists Elaine Brown, Bobby Seale, and Fred Korematsu, musician and dancer Kehlani, and rap groups Hieroglyphics and Digital Underground were lined up in a row at the amphitheater.

Nicole Lee, an Oakland native who helped organize the celebration, described 510 Day as a way to “assert joy at the same time that we’re protesting around Oakland natives and Oakland culture being displaced.” 

The politics of 510 Day were present at the amphitheater, as organizers encouraged participants to sign a petition to be sent to City Council, Mayor Libby Schaaf and county and state leaders to support the #WeStillHere Oakland Platform which outlines nine demands including shelter for all and Oakland’s non-cooperation with Immigration and Customs Enforcement.

While people celebrated at the amphitheater with music and some drank alcohol and smoked cannabis, the celebration stayed calm, the crowd was not densely packed, and people left well before dark. Although in years past 510 Day in person celebrations included larger, dense crowds and live DJs spinning loud music, organizers intentionally kept this year’s in person celebrations low key as a precaution against spreading COVID-19. The organizers hosted a party on the internet later in the evening with local DJs Kleptic, AbelDee and DJ Fuze.

“While this isn’t physically the largest [510 Day celebration], this has been one of the best ones, just by the heart of the people, the will of the people, and the vibe,” Skyes told the 510 Day celebrators at the Lake Merritt amphitheater. He looks forward to hopefully returning next year with a larger in person party/protest.

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