Empathy the Environmental Way

The din of traffic on an eight-lane road in downtown Concord made it nearly impossible to hear. But that was part of the lesson that the Greenbelt Alliance’s David Reid wanted to get across: He was comparing this corner to a corner a mere block distant, in Todos Santos Plaza, a small urban park.

Our group of twenty gathered on the sidewalk, craning our necks, cringing as the cars zipped past. Reid explained that walkers feel much safer when traffic speed is slowed and a row of parked cars insulates them from moving vehicles. He pointed behind us at an unpainted cinder block wall that further alienated people negotiating the sidewalk. By contrast, at the plaza, Reid had pointed out the details in the built environment that people prefer—plants, lively storefronts, and sidewalk tables help make an urban area experientially palatable. After shouting questions we gratefully left the noisy corner to head for the next presentation in our day of learning about housing, land use, and sprawl.

Facilitated by the Ecology Center’s environmental resource director Beck Cowles and tech editor/longtime activist Arl Nadel, the East Bay Environmental Training (EBET) program is a six-week immersion course designed to help students appreciate the breadth of environmental and social justice issues. Oakland resident Nadel was inspired by the Environmental Forum of Marin’s 18-week course; creating the EBET training was her final project for the Marin sessions.

The Saturday classes centered on specific issues presented by five to seven experts. On weekday evenings, films related to the topics were shown at the Ecology Center. Students were asked to present projects of their own on the last day.

Day one started with a bang as Karen Pickett of the Bay Area Coalition for the Headwaters talked about what it means to be an activist. Most students agreed that activism covered a range of projects, and that some people might not identify or think of themselves as activists. This discussion set a welcome and inclusive tone that lasted throughout the training.

The rest of the day’s program included presentations on environmental racism, air quality policy, and grassroots organizing to combat toxics. Having always thought of risk assessment as the logical way to manage environmental toxicity, I was surprised by UC Berkeley’s Michael Wilson’s presentation. Wilson described the complexities of risk assessment; because of exposure to multiple chemicals or the interaction of the toxin at different stages of life, results can be inaccurate. Wilson also noted that risk assessments often slow down community efforts to reduce toxic discharge.

The presenters brought a variety of approaches to each class. Tiffany Golden, co-manager of Farm Fresh Choice, an Ecology Center program, used interactive role-playing to explore social tensions. Golden gave no explanation as she laid out food in three different locations in the classroom—junk food in one corner, a good meal on a table, and a gourmet dinner on another table. Everyone was handed a different color dot; some received a note with secret instructions. People were grouped by dot color and placed by one of the tables, representing the level of nutrition available to their class and community. They were then asked to play out several scenarios dealing with power, class, exploitation of the poor by the rich, and access to nutritious food.

One scenario involved the lower class group boycotting jobs hauling toxic waste—but one participant took the job because she needed the money (as instructed by her secret note). Members of the group tried to talk her out of taking the job, and we felt frustration attempting to stand fast while contending with market forces and individual need. At the end of the session Golden asked what emotions the exercise had provoked. Helplessness, anger, and fear were common responses, and Golden pointed out that minority communities undergo similar stresses. The session moved the class into a deeper understanding of the mechanisms of environmental racism.

For me, one of the most interesting results of hearing from a variety of activists of different ages was learning about the complexity of environmental issues. For instance, Janice Schroeder of the West Berkeley Alliance for Clean Air and Safe Jobs discussed the need to balance respect for the workers at Pacific Steel Castings with the importance of pressuring the company to reduce pollutants. I developed a new admiration for the consensus-building and diplomacy that working on environmental issues requires.

Then it was time for student projects. One man began showing slides of the front lawn of his suburban home. He surprised everyone by showing the same yard planted with a cover crop and then sheet-mulched. He explained how he was building the soil and planting the yard with drought-resistant plants. There were slides of an organic garden in the back yard. The show ended with him reclining with four enormous squash sitting behind him like a chorus line.

Given the seemingly endless environmental problems we are facing, the question “What can I do about it?” can seem daunting. The EBET training provided a chorus of answers. At times I was overwhelmed by the information covered over a day, but ultimately I was left inspired by new perspectives. The EBET training can serve neophytes to long-term activists who want to broaden their scope. And the enthusiasm on the last day was infectious, a good sign for the future of EBET and East Bay activism.

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