By Skyler Lewis, Climate Change and Communications Intern
This summer at CFJC I was tasked with compiling two weekly “Connecting the Dots” posts. Throughout my time here, I became increasingly aware of how engrained the concepts of interdisciplinarity and “connecting the dots” are throughout CFJC’s work. “Connecting the Dots” expands the narrative beyond a purely agriculture-focused food justice lens — from CFJC’s history in food systems work — to specifically address the age-old issue of race, power, and privilege; linked with the timely and emerging issues of environmental degradation and climate change.
I approached the internship with a background that already made many of these connections, but not in such an applied way. My Political Economy of Food class last semester connected agriculture to race, power, and privilege issues through discussions of globalization, trade liberalization, and the food justice movement. Environmental Analysis courses frequently addressed the Environmental Justice argument — that environmental harm is distributed in a fundamentally racist/classist manner — but, with the exception of one class, rarely connected the environment with the food system. Environmental Justice discussions of unequal burdens of pollution and environmental toxins excluded the issue of climate change, which instead tends to be approached as a global issue with global consequences without looking at the local side.
Right now, the western United States is in the midst of the third year of intense drought. The drought exemplifies — perhaps better than any other issue — these connections that CFJC forges. The science is not yet settled on whether this drought, the driest 18 months in California’s history, is directly caused by climate change, though some studies do suggest that this is the case. But if it is not directly caused by climate change, the drought remains undoubtedly a specter of things to come. As temperatures continue to increase, warmer winters will trade snowfall for rainfall, decreasing the snowpack whose melt is needed to provide water in California’s dry springs and summers.
And just as the drought demonstrates the connections between climate and agriculture, the human impacts of and response to the drought exemplify issues of race, power, and privilege. Compiling news articles to post on social media (for CFJC and for the Public Health Institute’s Center for Climate Change and Health), I found many stories of vulnerable communities suffering from the drought. Signs alongside Central Valley roads declare “Water Means Jobs” as farmworkers’ livelihoods suffer from the lack of water this season, as revealed in a photo essay on the lives of migrant Latino farmworkers in the midst of drought. Meanwhile, the wells of California’s small-scale Hmong farmers are drying up; with their irrigation water completely depleted, unable to keep growing their crops and feeding their families, many are contemplating suicide. Our Executive Director, Armando Nieto, spoke at a roundtable discussion with Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack in Fresno to bring attention to this perspective; we followed along in Oakland with a Twitter campaign. I also helped Armando prepare a slideshow on the subject.
The case of the drought’s impacts on small farmers leads me to an important takeaway from my summer at CJFC, which trained me to look for the community perspective in everything. Regarding environmental economics, my major at Pomona, it is relatively easy to find the solutions that “balance” on the macro level, but more difficult to find solutions that do not burden specific segments of the population (e.g., carbon regulation schemes like cap-and trade disproportionately impact low-income people, while alternate schemes like fee-and-dividend can be more equitable in their impact on consumers).
CFJC reminds you to check the impacts on individual regions, communities, and groups of people. It’s like Tom Steyer said in Risky Business, a report on the economic effects of climate change, on why to study regional trends instead of national ones: “Talking about climate change in terms of U.S. averages is like saying, ‘My head is in the refrigerator, and my feet are in the oven, so overall I’m average.’” The same is true of any issue — the local angle must be considered. Telling the story of this local angle — how individuals and communities are impacted from these interconnected issues, and how they are adapting — in an authentic way requires a careful approach. CFJC’s approach to authentic storytelling, authentic engagement, and creating safe space to work with communities proved one of the most novel facets of my internship.
A couple weeks ago, Courtney and Jessy held a workshop on storytelling, active listening, and facilitation, a practice for the sort of technical assistance that they provide to community-based organizations. One of the exercises was to listen, silently and giving no visual signals, to a peer telling a personal story. The excruciating difficulty of the exercise highlighted most people’s — including my own — natural tendency to interject our own thoughts, opinions, and preconceived notions into others’ stories. CFJC works to overcome this, championing the idea of creating a safe space when working with others from different backgrounds, incorporating Freirian education methods in its technical assistance to growing community organizations.
Even though within my scope of work I never directly participated in storytelling and direct engagement with community members, learning these principles was a lesson in listening, trusting, and understanding that applies everywhere. That’s listening to women worldwide tweeting #YesAllWomen (account /hashtag) because being male I can’t understand what it’s like to fear sexual violence while walking down the street at night but it’s my duty to listen. And that’s listening to the residents of Ferguson, Missouri and to the community rallying around #IfTheyGunnedMeDown (hashtag) in the wake of the shooting of Michael Brown because being white I can’t understand what it is like to be automatically suspected of being a criminal because of the color of your skin, but it’s my duty to listen.
So while I may not go into this line of work after I graduate, while I may follow my interests into a more technical environment-focused career, and while I’ve seen the real challenges of community-based work, my summer at CFJC has taught me to look for the connections, to see new perspectives, and to listen, and this is what will especially stick with me.