Tulare County, in the San Joaquin Valley, is a place most Californians pass by without much reflection on the drive between San Francisco and Los Angeles. Sprawling over the flatlands and foothills east of Highway 5, it claims the title of the world's center of milk production. Until recently, the county's 400,000 dairy cows outnumbered its humans.
Tulare's 300 dairies produce wealth for some, but not for the majority of its residents, more than half of whom are Latino. Four in ten local adults never graduated high school. According to the 2000 U.S. census, Tulare has the highest poverty rate of any county in the state.
"When local residents are not at the public meetings, nobody speaks to their issues. But when they're present, they can speak for themselves, and have a greater chance of sharing in Tulare County's future prosperity," said Caroline Farrell, managing attorney in the Delano office of the Center on Race, Poverty and the Environment.
Residents often must endure unhealthy air. The San Joaquin Valley has the state's worst smog, and particle pollution from the dairies is likely a factor in Tulare residents' exceptionally high rates of asthma. Schoolchildren have become ill from pesticides sprayed on fields close to their classrooms. On summer days, when temperatures commonly exceed 110 degrees, dust from the traffic on unpaved roadsides fills the air.
In short, life could be much healthier in most of Tulare County. Creating a healthier environment for the county's low-income residents is the goal of five hard-working activists in a mustard-colored wooden building down the street from the county courthouse in Delano.
The activists two lawyers and three community organizers work for the nonprofit Center on Race, Poverty and the Environment, which for the past 18 years has helped give voice to low-income people and people of color throughout California's Central Valley. With training and support from the center, Central Valley residents have organized community groups, such as S Se Puede (Yes, We Can) and La Voz (The Voice), to press local officials for improvements in air and water quality, schools and other infrastructure. The center's attorneys also wrote landmark legislation that regulates agricultural air pollution, and have helped halt evictions of undocumented field workers.
In June, the Irvine Foundation made a $300,000 grant to support the center's work in Tulare County for two years. The grant is part of the Foundation's Mobilizing Californians priority, which seeks to foster dialogue between underrepresented communities and public officials.
"CRPE offers assistance to residents both on environmental health issues as well as community organizing strategies in a way that is entirely respectful and encouraging of community-led initiatives," says Amy Dominguez-Arms, director of Irvine's California Perspectives program.
This is the Foundation's second grant to the center. "Working in partnership with residents, CRPE has demonstrated a strong track record of achieving local policies that better protect residents' health and well-being," says Dominguez-Arms.
Environmental hazards, such as the dairy pollution, are much more likely to be prevalent in areas with predominantly low-income, ethnic residents than in other areas, says San Francisco attorney Luke Cole, who founded the center in 1989. Straight out of law school, Cole says, he knew he wanted to work on the environment from a poor person's point of view. But he says he got blank looks both from poverty lawyers and big environmental-group lobbyists when he told them he wanted to work with poor people and the environment.
"I realized there was a gap in consciousness among the two communities, and a gap in coverage," he said. "If you were a poor person with an environmental problem, you were basically out of luck."
Tulare County is now at a particularly opportune juncture for addressing important environmental health concerns. For the first time since the 1970s, officials are reviewing their general plan. This 25-year blueprint for local development will dictate where new businesses and homes will be built and where public services will be offered. The last plan, according to Cole, ignored the needs of the mostly Latino farmworkers living in trailers and small wooden homes in geographically isolated "hamlets" in the flatlands. "It explicitly listed 15 communities as 'not having an authentic future' and denied them public services, such as waste-water treatment plants and sidewalks. But they're still there."
Not only that, but they have a distinct vision for their future, and increasingly are organizing into pressure groups devoted to working toward it, says CRPE attorney Caroline Farrell, who directs the center's work in Delano. So while county officials reach out to the wealthier communities, such as Visalia, the county seat, Farrell intends to use the Foundation support to help other residents be heard, teaching them how the county planning process affects them and guiding them to develop their own vision for the community and communicate it to local officials.
"They're concerned about water quality; and they need road improvements, sewer systems, streetlights, and parks. They also need better schools, and more police protection from gangs," she said.
Farrell, a top graduate of her class at Golden Gate Law School, has worked in Delano for the past seven years. "I grew up in Boston, and I never knew such a place existed in California, she said. Its really a justice issue, one more way that poor people get burdened by the system. They're told that being concerned about environmental health is a luxury. That shouldn't be the case."
The Center on Race, Poverty and the Environment receives funds from several philanthropies, including the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation and The California Endowment, with the support from Irvine central to the work in Delano, according to Farrell. "Without it, the residents might well continue to be ignored and forgotten," she said. "When they're not at the public meetings, nobody speaks to their issues. But when they're present, they can speak for themselves, and have a greater chance of sharing in Tulare County's future prosperity."