Backyard Talk

Incarcerated Workers Among Hardest Hit By Wildfires

By: Shaina Smith, Community Organizing Intern
Massive wildfires fuelled by climate change have damaged millions of acres across California, Oregon, and Washington over the past few weeks. Some parts of California have an AQI of over 700. Air Quality Index (AQI) measures air pollution on a scale of 0-500. Any level above 200 is “unhealthy” to “hazardous”.
As residents evacuate areas threatened by the fires, let’s consider those who stayed behind. You might be surprised to learn that California uses prison labor, disproportionately people of color, to battle their wildfires. In fact, incarcerated workers make up to 80% of California fire personnel, including juveniles. The state pays incarcerated workers only 1 dollar an hour (or less if they owe restitution) to fight wildfires. 
With this perspective, prison doesn’t appear to be about justice or rehabilitation, instead about exploiting labor for profit. As exemplified by a question asked by a former corrections officer at one California inmate fire camp: “How do you justify releasing all these inmates in prime fire season?” 
Historically, once released from prison, California abandons their former inmate firefighters, preventing them from being hired as professionals. However, now that covid shutdowns have left no other option, California has passed a bill making it easier for formerly incarcerated people to become firefighters. 
Inmate firefighters work up to 48 hour shifts with 50 pound backpacks. The state does not provide goggles or respirators. It’s no wonder then that incarcerated workers are more than 4 times as likely to sustain an injury than a professional firefighter working on the same fire.
The smoke from these wildfires contains air pollution particles called PM 2.5. PM 2.5 exposure leads to worse coronavirus outcomes. These particles are so small that they enter the bloodstream through the lungs, and cannot be broken down by the immune system.
People residing in low income and minority communities are already disproportionately exposed to PM 2.5 from industry polluters, and are therefore more likely to have an underlying health condition. Underlying conditions exacerbate the dangerous health risks of smoke, specifically heart attacks
Immediate symptoms of wildfire smoke exposure include shortness of breath, coughing, sore throat, and eye irritation. Years following wildfire smoke exposure, lung capacity among residents decreased.
Wildfire smoke is linked to an increased rate of emergency doctors visits for respiratory and cardiovascular issues such as heart attack or stroke– specifically for adults over 65. Black people who live in areas where the poverty rate is above 15% were particularly affected
As this latest challenge demonstrates, climate change imposes the heaviest burdens on people of color. The evil of capitalism and racism in the United States is intrinsically linked even to crises in nature, such as wildfires and coronavirus.
Photo credit: Newsweek

Backyard Talk

Please Stop Screaming – Let’s Listen To One Another

Recently, I’ve been discussing presidential politics, as all of us have. Even if you try to avoid the conversations and the different opinions, they are everywhere on the news, in the paper, among your colleagues and friends. Such conversations are important, and often even helpful, to educate people on issues.  Hands down educated voters are best.
Lately, I’ve really been listening to what is being said about various candidates.  Listening to how the message, words are conveyed. Clearly, our country is more polarized than I’ve ever seen in my decades of voting. Unfortunately, most of these conversations have become rude, insulting, and/or dismissive. We are screaming at each other, criticizing or dismissing entire segments of society, and not hearing one another’s views.
I was in a meeting and someone said out loud, with no hesitation, that the Christian Coalition is a huge problem and working against us. A visibly angry young mother from Texas explained that she belonged to the Christian Coalition and doesn’t believe the Coalition supports poisoning school children with toxic chemicals. “People like you are the problem, not people like me.”
In another meeting, someone accused the workers of being the barrier to moving an issue forward, saying therefore, we needed to organize around the workers instead including them in our fight.
I’ve heard people use the words stupid, ignorant or other nasty descriptions of a candidate or a person who supports a different candidate. This is not limited to a single political party and it’s turning off people on all sides.
It’s time to stop the fever pitched screams and begin talking and listening to each other. When we listen and we share, it is amazing what can happen. Let me share a story.
CHEJ was invited to help an organization stop an incinerator in New York. The group we were working with expressed disappointment about how apathetic people in their community are. One member of the core leadership told me, “In this community people are self-focused, lazy and not too bright. I can not understand why they want to allow all this pollution.” I suggested that everyone may not care about health and inquired if she had asked people what they care about? She answered, “No, because this is the most important and frightening thing that’s happen now.”
Yikes, another scream, and narrow focus to the problems of winning real, deep seeded justice. What if you stopped yelling and trying to prove your point, and listened instead?
We were in a bar and I decided that instead of explaining the importance of listening and having a conversation to connect with people, I’d demonstrate the importance.  I got up and moved to sit next to a worker who was having a beer. He was watching the football game on TV and when I caught his attention, I asked what he thought about the plan for the new incinerator.
He replied, “I don’t care.” Showing him the flyer the group published, I followed up with, “What about cancer and other diseases that this flyer says may increase because of pollution?”
“Lady I don’t care . . . I’m watching the game” he replied a bit annoyed.
Waiting for a commercial break, I ask, “What do you care about? What bothers you?” He thought for a moment and said, “potholes.” He explained, he’s an independent trucker and the potholes cause all sorts of damage to his truck which he must pay out-of-his own pocket to repair. Secondly, he added, that traffic signal from hell on the corner. “There is no left turn light and so it takes forever, sometimes two cycles, for me to turn that corner.”
When the next commercial came around I suggested that what he cares about and what the group cares about are the same – – disruption of a beautiful rural community. There will be over 200 trucks driving down that same road making more potholes and a longer line of vehicles that need to turn left at that corner. You may not care about the pollution but there will be plenty of other disruption to the community if this incinerator is built. He agreed and we had a much longer conversation about community power and corporate greed.
My message to the group, then and to us all now, is to stop screaming about how right you are and how wrong others are. Instead, try listening and maybe, just maybe, you’ll see that you aren’t that far apart, and together you can create a better tomorrow.

Backyard Talk

The Halls of Capitol Hill

by Liz Goodiel, CHEJ Science & Tech Fellow
Capitol Hill is a busy epicenter of political movement and policy change. The halls of its buildings are flooded with congress men and women, staffers and schedulers hustling from one meeting to the next. Every few years, citizens across the country elect a representative that will fight for their constituency’s concerns. That man or woman will daily attend numerous meetings, conferences, debates, and state site visits all in an attempt to fight for their constituency’s concerns. To an outsider, Capitol Hill and all it beholds is something of a complex systematic mystery. Its infrastructure enables citizens to hold faith that their concerns are heard and being fought for. 
Over the last few weeks, members of CHEJ have met with dozens of Congress staff members, both within the Senate and the House of Representatives, Democrats and Republicans alike. From meeting to meeting, we entered the decorated conference rooms, sat in the neatly organized plush leather chairs, and discussed the intentions of our visit in a punctual 30 minutes. Our meetings were always with an office staffer, given that most Congressmen have extremely busy schedules. For most appointments, the script was similar. We introduced our work, specifically with Superfund, discussed our connections with their constituency, presented the problem and introduced a potential policy solution. The experiences and responses we received, however, could not have been more different.
In most meetings, the staffer came prepared with a business card, a note pad, and a few questions to ask throughout the meeting. Some individuals were highly engaged and gave positive feedback about our efforts. They were encouraged that their Congressman would support or in the least look at any materials we provided. All could not concretely speak on behalf of their representative; however, some staffers gave hope and optimism in working on a solution to a problem impacting most of their voter base. 
Most notable were the few meetings in which the staffer did not engage in conversation, ask any questions, or even open their notebooks. Their eyes glazed over in partial interest of our meeting and left with no intentions to follow up. Why were these particular meetings most noteworthy? We went into each meeting discussing a real problem that many of their constituency were facing. However, because of party alignment and committee membership, certain policy concerns were not even worth discussing with the representative. Although we did not experience many of these meetings, it was interesting to compare the staffers’ levels of involvement in our conversation over a substantial health issue. 
At the same time, I have been given the opportunity to speak with a handful of community leaders from varying states across the country (including Alabama, North Carolina, Texas and West Virginia) that are tirelessly fighting for the health and safety of their communities within the Superfund program. These leaders have fought for years for the cleanup of their communities and for the health and safety of the neighbors. They have stood in the streets educating their community members on the problem that is plaguing their residents and have consistently reached out to their political leaders for support. 
Having the opportunity to meet with a handful of the staff responsible for influencing our policy change was a very rewarding experience. It was exciting to experience a partial view of the mystery system that is our legislative body. However, it is still very hard to have a completely optimistic opinion on the outcome of our meetings. Although many staff members were open to understanding our work and sincerely interested in deliberating the matter with their Congressman, those meetings were clouded by the tough meetings from party members with no enthusiasm to experiment outside of party lines. After meeting with the community members from across the country, and hearing how policy change could absolve some of their most serious concerns, it is discouraging to see how political lines could run so deep that it prevents conversation and change. 

Backyard Talk

2019 – What Do Think Will Happen? Here’s some thoughts.

If you think the last two years were bananas, 2019 is going to be a real doozy.
My colleague, James Mumm at People’s Action Institute, wrote this insightful forward looking piece and thought I’d share it with you.  I spent the last few hours of 2018 thinking about what we need to do next year to defeat Trump and Trumpism. We played solid defense this year. We created a #PeoplesWave to take back the House and many states in the midterms. But Trump is still president and McConnell and the GOP have a stronger grasp on the Senate.
Here is what I know. Trump blames everyone but himself when things go wrong. Now that the economy is off the rails thanks to his erratic international and domestic actions, he is pointing fingers in every direction except where it belongs (squarely at himself).
Trump tries to act big because he feels small inside. His edifice complex will not bring him the love of his mother or father, nor the majority of the American people. Truth is, his world is very small. A shrinking circle of yes men and women, campaign rallies with diehard fans, and a chorus of Fox News right-wing extremists.
If you think the last two years were bananas, 2019 is going to be a real doozy. With an incoming Democratic majority in the House and Mueller’s investigation coming to a crescendo, the walls are closing in on Trump. His entire world is shrinking and that makes him panic.

  1. Trump will double down on anti-immigrant white nationalist populism.Trump is going to lash out with all the power of his office against immigrants, women, LGBTQ communities, people of color, low-income families. We will need to play ferocious defense against these attacks.
  2. The Trump 2020 campaign will swing into high gear and make us all fear that he could win again.I learned a hard lesson in 2016. Michael Moore and my mom both said that Trump was going to win. I scoffed. Well, I scoff no more. This could happen and it terrifies me (you too I bet).
  3. Trump’s instability and chaos will cause a recession.One year ago, Donald Trump, Mitch McConnell and Paul Ryan rammed their tax scam through Congress. The result? Big corporations gave CEOs and investors one trillion dollars in the form of stock buybacks. The tax scam did not create jobs; it made millionaires and billionaires wealthier while creating a mountain of public debt that the rest of us have to pay off. Trump took a lot of unwarranted credit for the economy when it was booming. Now Trump will have to own the coming recession. And the next Democratic president will have to do something bold (see next prediction) to pull America out of a spiraling crisis.
  4. The word of the year in 2019 will be “Green New Deal.”This is a bold idea that Democratic presidential contenders will be wise to endorse. A Green New Deal that is 100% Just is a total winner. 100% Just means 100% renewable energy and 100% equitable for the communities of color and low-income communities on the frontlines of climate change. This could be the answer to how we save people and planet at the same time.
  5. Lightning will strike twice and the #PeoplesWave will continue with thousands of fearless progressive women, people of color and young people running for (and winning) local office. There are thousands of city council, county, school board, and more elections happening across the country next year. The country is changing from the bottom up and there is nothing that Trump and the GOP can do about that.
Backyard Talk Homepage News Archive

We hosted a Candidate Forum in St. Louis that empowered constituents and held politicians accountable this election season.

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Just Moms Co-Founder Karen Nickel happily maintains control of the microphone while Sam Page, democrat running to maintain his seat for County Councilmen of District 2 responds to questions about West Lake.
Just Moms Co-Founder Karen Nickel happily maintains control of the microphone while Sam Page, democrat running to maintain his seat for County Councilmen of District 2 responds to questions about West Lake.

This past Thursday, August 18th, members of the St. Louis community came together to hold their candidates running for public office accountable for working towards a safe and permanent solution for the West Lake Landfill. I am one of the St. Louis team members of CHEJ. We have worked tirelessly all summer to help the grassroots organization Just Moms STL organize powerful, community-driven actions in order to move public officials who are responsible for the West Lake Landfill. The irony has not been lost on us that Dawn and Karen, founders of Just Moms, named simply because that’s their preferred career title description, have had to interact with the EPA and many government officials as if they were as stubborn and incoherent as young children.
We held a candidate forum. We invited every politician running for a position of power that has the potential to affect change for West Lake. A lot of politicians chose not to come, many citing that the Missouri State Fair’s Governor’s Ham Breakfast was on the same day, across the state. We had 11 candidates attend, running for local seats as city representatives, state legislation representatives, and two running for congress. We provided them with two pointed questions and three minutes to respond however they saw fit. We never handed them the microphone –– everyone in attendance of the meeting came to hear only about a West Lake solution, and keeping the mic gave us that control.
On Thursday we heard a lot of bipartisan support for a bill currently sitting in the house, HR-4100, that would transfer the EPA’s responsibility (or lack thereof) of West Lake to the Army Corps of Engineers, who across the country effectively clean up nuclear waste sites such as ours. This bill has experienced resistance in the house from politicians in the pockets of Republic Services (the company who currently owns the landfill), and from representatives who fear their own nuclear waste-sites high priority status will be jeopardized once a site as bad as West Lake comes on to the Army Corps plate. It’s been a mess at the federal level, so perhaps a state-level solution is the best– and only– way.
This event took a lot of coordination between CHEJ, Just Moms, and Missouri Coalition for the Environment. All three organizations worked together to come up with the questions, produce and edit literature, and fact-checked one another on all the information we presented at the event. We handed all this out in a booklet to everyone in attendance. One of the major successes of this handout was a candidate scorecard, which allowed the audience to write down and reflect on how the candidates responded to our questions. We used #WestLakeForum on twitter and facebook to document and share with those not at the meeting the various promises and ideas the politicians came up with. If nothing else, the community affected by the landfill now has a record of accountability for these candidates and can use this to decide how they’ll vote on November 8th.
Overall, this forum was a demonstration of the enormity with which the Bridgeton community cares for a resolution to the West Lake Landfill, and a powerful tool of documentation for the candidates vying for their support. It has been made abundantly clear that to win over the votes of their constituents, these politicians need to work together to come up with a safe and permanent solution for the residents around the West Lake Landfill.
We’ll be holding another West Lake Candidate Forum this month on August 31st. We have candidates running for seats like the U.S. Senate, Lieutenant Governor, and U.S. House of Representatives to the event. Check out the event page if you’d like more info.
Check out photos of the event here[/fusion_builder_column][/fusion_builder_row][/fusion_builder_container]