Ernesto Arevalo: East Oakland Communities for A Better Environment

Ernesto Arevalo is the Northern California Program Director for Communities for Better environment (CBE). In this interview with Jess Clarke he talks about CBE organizing for Green Zones planning for neighborhoods in East Oakland, California.

Jess Clarke: So here we are at Solidarity to Solutions Summit, in San Francisco on a nice, sunny afternoon. I’m with Ernesto from Communities for a Better Environment. Ernesto, tell me about how you first got involved and what drew you to CBE.

Ernesto Arevalo: I first got involved with CBE about three years after graduating from college. I wanted to find a place, an organization where I could, one, learn about the ways that I could support my community with what I knew and, two, help make a change in a place that I’ve known as home forever.

Also, in joining Communities for a Better Environment, I started to denormalize the industrial lands around me. For so many years, I thought it was normal to have all these warehouses next to where people live, to have these train tracks in my community. It wasn’t until I went to see the changes in Davis and the biking culture and then coming back and trying to bike but always falling because of potholes in my community that there was a shift in my thinking that, you know, what I’m experiencing is not normal. There’s a reason behind this. I had to un-train my mind, and a lot of that I did through CBE, where, over time, I learned from the organizers and with interactions with the other organizations that we ally with in Oakland because we understand that the issues that we face don’t just affect us at once. It’s all at once.

So that’s why there’s a lot of work across organizations in Oakland where I started with the Oakland United Coalition around a Coliseum-specific plan area for where the Raiders and A’s wanted to develop before. This is when we had a rich developer from San Diego that was interested in that area. What’s important about this space is that it is public land, and we want public land to serve the public good and, for that, we need labor at the table, we need the community members, that is, environmental justice, but that is also housing justice, that is having affordable rents and also affordable housing for people, that is having affordable transportation and access to the spaces that we’re visiting. It also means good jobs, good jobs that people can retain. So that’s why I got engaged, because I saw that we were working together with everyone to find solutions.

One of the things that I helped do towards the end of my volunteership was help organize a visioning session with that coalition of 200 people to think of what we want that space to look like because we realized that the talks between the city and that developer fell through. There was a change for us to dream, to envision what we want to see as a coalition of people representing different issue areas and what we want to have built and demand that the city build as part of public land for the public good.

Clarke: A lot of the audience wouldn’t necessarily know the geography of Oakland. Maybe if you could drop us in, kind of sketch out what this neighborhood of Oakland looks like.

Arevalo: We tend to talk about the tale of two cities, where we have the downtown area, which is experiencing revitalization, but also the hills, where not only are they above a freeway that runs where the hills begin in Oakland parallel to where the hills are, but also there is another freeway that is parallel in the flatlands. It’s the 880. That one, you’re allowed to have diesel trucks used, but the 580, they’ve prohibited any diesel trucks from going on there, and that is near the hills.

And when we talk about the flatlands, we’re talking about basically flat lands. These are the lands leading up to the hills where there are historically richer folks. In the flatlands, we’ve had industrial lands, we’ve had low-income communities, and historically we’ve had black folks that have lived in East Oakland. When we look at the health issues, there’s a 15-year difference in life expectancy when we’re comparing flatlands to the hills of East Oakland. People living in the flats, like me, we live 15 years less than those living in the hills. That is due to several different factors, but one of them really is exposure to pollution.

Even looking at information from the air district, when we compare all parts of Bay Area to East Oakland and West Oakland, anything following that corridor of the 880 freeway, cancer rates have not decreased since 2005. When they’re looking from 2005 to 2015, that is the one area of the Bay Area where cancer rates did not decrease, and they were still high compared to the rest of the Bay Area. So that’s why I’m really engaged around the issues related to converting industrial lands into healthier spaces.

One thing that we’re working on is our transformative climate communities. We applied for a grant that was available through the Strategic Growth Council, and this is monies that is set aside that is specifically for those communities that are within the top 10 percentile of disadvantaged communities, so those most impacted from the state. These are specifically our environmental justice communities. So what’s that giving us is about $170,000 to do a neighborhood planning effort led by community organizations that do this work, like the Original Scraper Bike Team, The East Oakland Collective, which is working on the Black Cultural Zone, Communities for a Better Environment, where we’ve been doing years of community-based participatory research, from diesel trucks to air monitoring. We have Planting Justice, which gives local people in Sobrante Park, as well as the formally incarcerated, jobs related to planting, and several other organizations that have been supporting, like HOPE Collaborative, around neighborhood plans and Acta Non Verba, which holds a youth farm.

We’re working with 15 organizations and really challenging the city of Oakland in terms of how they’re approaching their planning efforts and really telling them this is the way you need to work with community, because already we’ve had some missteps with the city in terms of how they want to sign contracts, in terms of how they want to talk to us. It’s really refreshing to have these people around the table because we’re all people of color, mostly black around the table, even though I’m one of the Latinos around there. But it’s mostly black leaders that are at this table telling the city this is how you need to discuss with us and collaborate with us if we’re going to do a planning effort that is led by what the community wants and what their ideals are. We will be having three meetings through six different neighborhoods over the course of a year.

Clarke: In this case, the city of Oakland owns the land under the Coliseum. Is that part of the Port of Oakland or is it straight city-owned?

Arevalo: Yeah. That’s kind of related to the TCC, Transformative Climate Communities, because in East Oakland we’re going to be looking at six different communities, and one of those communities has public land that is owned by the city of Oakland and partly by Alameda. That’s specifically that Coliseum area. So that is within that planning area, but we also have other public lands that the city owns. The city owns several public lands, and we’re actually participating in this process around a public lands policy, so that way they prioritize affordable housing, good jobs, a healthy environment, and a community approach that has community engagement from the very beginning. That is currently what we’re looking at in October in terms of changing as a policy, and there’s several organizations and people engaged in that, including CBE.

Clarke: When you get back to this mortality, this difference in mortality of people who live 15 years less, can you talk about the quality of life and the health impacts that are suffering. What are the other kind of threats to people’s health that they’re dealing with, everyday?

Arevalo: We can begin with the air that we’re breathing. I did mention that there is a foundry just a block away from a school. Many of the members that we’ve had that have participated in our community-based air monitoring and odor logging studies, independently and with the air district, have joined because of the issues that the children have faced from breathing this air. So one of our members who joined has a daughter, and she’s recently told us that she can’t participate as much because she was diagnosed with Tourettes. In the last meetings that we brought her, her daughter was wheezing and taking new medication from a combination of the pollen and the pollution that she was breathing in.

This is the reality that many of our adults and the children are dealing with in this community. That’s just beginning with the foundry. When we’re talking about other parts related to quality of life, we have issues of illegal dumping. It’s such a large issue that we brought together six anchor organizations and others to form the East Oakland Congress of Neighborhoods to start reclaiming East Oakland, really demanding investment from the city of Oakland and the council members that tend to focus on Downtown Oakland, and say we don’t want illegal dumping in our community. Not just that, we want you to work on all this list of issues that we have at once, and we are demanding this, we are building our power, and we will be voting.

Clarke: Can you talk about what kind of leverage you have with the city and what kind of power you’ve exercised so far and how you intend to move them to meet your demands?

To begin with, when we started the Congress of Neighborhoods, we had 700 people. That’s a lot in terms of organizing folks over the span of about six months. Since then, we’ve had actions with over 200 folks around illegal dumping. It has moved council members because it was persistent in getting reality tours with them. Now, it is something that’s going to the ballot as a measure in terms of having a policy that would require vacant lots to pay a tax for not using their lots. These funds would go to addressing homelessness as well as illegal dumping in the community.

Arevalo: The other thing is that we’ve been working to be in solidarity with all of the issues. We just had a town hall on air quality where, with this leaders that are part of the Congress of Neighborhoods, we broke their bubble. We brought the members that have been dealing with air quality issues, and we’ve had members say, “I have realized that the air is important. Even though we’re working on illegal dumping, I’ve heard my sisters and my brothers speak today, and I want to participate and take action on our environment as well,” because everyone else had a preconceived notion of what the environment is.

It wasn’t until we had this meeting that it broke it down for them, and people said, yeah, I want to take action on the crematorium, because one of the things that has been making people angry is the fact that there was a crematorium that recently got their permit to operate in East Oakland. This would be burning 3,000 a year. That’s not normal. Usually, crematoriums burn 500 bodies. This is 3,000 bodies. We even learned once that there were some bodies coming from LA to our community. This is in a community that’s about 50% African American or black, 50% Latino, Chicano, Latinx. They did not take race into account any step of the way. The community has had no public participation. It’s all been us creating power, confronting them, and putting leverage against them.

I think one of the biggest leverages that we have right now is the Healthy Development Guidelines, which is going to be administratively included into the city’s code through the administration. It’s actually, right now, going to Community and Economic Development as we speak. We have some leaders there speaking on the Healthy Development Guidelines in the city of Oakland.

Clarke: I’m wondering if you’ve heard of AB-2447, which is a measure carried in this legislature which would’ve required that crematorium to give advance notice to everybody who lived within a half a mile in a language that they could read. Are you aware of that?

Arevalo: I am aware of that, and I hope it goes through because the way that we found out about that crematorium was actually through the business that is across the street from the crematorium right now. She runs a shop where they make badges, and many of the people that work for her are actually leaving her business because of their cultural beliefs about not being close to the dead and where they’re being burnt, so some businesses are leaving that area. It’s funny how we found out. Well, it’s not funny about how we found out that this crematorium was there because it was, I would say in Spanish, “A las escondidas.” It was hidden from us, and, all the way, we had to fight from the planning department to the Planning Commission, to the air district since 2011.

Now we have a crematorium that is operating, and we just have to keep the different agencies held accountable and remind them that you were not including race as part of your analysis when you gave the permit. You already know the impacts. You already know that there’s impacts of cumulative pollution, and yet you let this crematorium go. There needs to be some accountability for that, and you can’t explain it away to us, that it’s hitting the measures of allowable pollution, because that is not enough.

Clarke: Looking forward for the next year, what sort of demands and what kind of change are you guys going to be advocating? You’ve got one ballot measure coming up. What does it look like in terms of the city council’s reactions to your demands? Is there new leadership coming into the city council? Are you finding that communities are activated and taking on the political system, or is it the planning agencies that you’re mostly targeting?

Arevalo: We really hope that this neighborhood plan reflects, truly, what people want and what their ideals are and that it not only encourages the city of Oakland to continue a neighborhood and community-based approach to planning, but also pushes them towards investment and actually having an environmental justice element. We had SB-1000 pass last year which actually has that municipalities, including cities and counties, that they create environmental justice elements as part of their general plans, and Oakland is looking towards a general plan update. We’re hoping that what comes out of this planning process encourages the city of Oakland to take a stand for environmental justice, as they should, and create an environmental justice element and have that funded as needed.

Clarke: What kind of solutions are you looking for from your colleague organizations, and what kind of solidarity actions do you think that local community groups that are working block to block, neighborhood to neighborhood, congress to congress…how can you scale that up and change the way this state functions and the way this country functions and affect this global climate crisis?

Arevalo: Thank you for asking that question because at CBE, Communities for a Better Environment, is also part CEJA, the California Environmental Justice Alliance. Through our Green Zones work, which is a lot of the transition from gray, industrial zones into greener zones that are healthier, we’ve had a report. We’ve been in contact with people from National City, specifically Environmental Health Coalition, to learn from their work and what they’ve been able to accomplish with a similar type of environmental justice element in National City, as well as the efforts for amortization, transitioning out auto body shops and moving them out of the community somewhere else. That has been inspirational to the work that we’ve started to do in East Oakland, but I hope to learn so much more about land trusts because, right now, it’s so expensive in the Bay Area.

Even our organization has been displaced. We’re still looking for a space. We were working out-of-home for a bit in East Oakland. Right now, we’re working out of a temporary location in a recreation center. But what we need is land that is community-controlled. That is one of the most important things because we’re being priced out. We’re being left out of investment and decision-making, and the more ways that we can learn about that type of community control and setting up that infrastructure and actually getting the funding to have land trusts, I think that is one of the biggest things that we could achieve in East Oakland right now as we’re on the front lines of gentrification. We see those changes in businesses starting to leave.

Clarke: Can you talk about how the community knowledge is growing and being shared?

Arevalo: Just to correct that, we can’t work on things all at once. I’ve been told by other people, “Why don’t you just focus on one thing?” I tell them we can’t. We have to do all these things collectively and together and in solidarity. That’s why we work on creating coalition spaces where we have an understanding that we need all of these solutions to happen at once. If we do not get what we are asking for collectively, we shut it down, and that’s what we need to do. That is what solidarity looks like. We shut it down if we are all not getting what we’re demanding, and that’s specifically when we’re looking environmental justice, when we’re looking at affordable housing buildout.

That’s what I learned through my experience with the Oakland United Coalition, where it was a coalition of community groups, like Causa Justa, Just Cause, which works on tenants’ rights, as well as ACE, as well as local unions and building trades and environmental justice groups. We all bring layers of understanding as well as solutions that we all need to uplift together. I feel that, in Oakland, we could solve the issues of pollution, but it could lead to environmental gentrification and displacement if we do not do it for the people that are living there right now because they will take their respiratory illnesses to somewhere else. They will be another county’s problem, and that is not just. We need the solutions that’ll keep people housed, that’ll keep people rooted in their community. That is how we bring justice because people have already been moved for too far for too long.

We need to keep demanding spaces that are just, and that is part of it, working in solidarity and building up those types of communities where we are confronting the things that want to divide us, because there’s so many ways that they want to divide us. We’ve been challenged several times in Oakland, but we continue saying that we will stay together, that we’ll stay in solidarity. If we’re getting that, we shut it down.

Clarke: Well, that’s a great place to stop. In the hood, for the hood. Thanks so much for joining us today at Sol2Sol, solutions based on solidarity, here in San Francisco, facing up to the Climate Summit coming up. We’ll see what kind of solidarity we can bring and whether we could shut it down if it doesn’t work for all of us. So thanks for joining us today, and we’ll be looking more contact in the future.

Arevalo: All right. Thank you so much.