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How This Community Fought for $70 Million in Cleanup Funds — and Won

Southwest Fresno has California’s worst air quality and greatest concentration of disadvantaged neighborhoods. The inspiring story of residents who mobilized to claim the state funds to redress these ills.

Story by Johnny Magdaleno

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When wind pours into San Francisco from the Pacific Ocean, it flows along the city’s famous hills, over the streaming highways that cut north into the peninsula, and then over the water, into the densely populated counties on the inner rim of the bay. Along this course, it picks up exhaust from the Bay Area’s five oil refineries and 6.7 million cars. Then it penetrates inland.

The wind fractures and its current disperses east towards the Sierra Mountains, and south. The current that heads south sweeps along a mess of Bay Area contaminants into another mess of air contaminants hovering up from the Northern San Joaquin Valley’s 1.4 million cars. From there, it dives further south, marching into the wide-open heart of California’s central valley.

Tangerines, almonds, walnuts, pistachios, milk, grapes — chances are, if you like these things, they were harvested in California’s central valley before landing in your kitchen. The wind that started from the Bay Area streams above the flat planes where these crops are cultivated. Then it’s trapped by mountain ranges to the east, west, and south of the valley. That air circulates in a ring around the horizon, mixing with exhaust from the valley’s farm vehicles, dog food processors, poultry plants, and the diesel trucks perennially hauling tons of cargo up and down Interstate 5.

The air sits there. Sometimes for days.

During summer, this emissions cocktail adds to the valley’s nationally outstanding ozone pollution. During winter, bad air particles carried on the wind often fall from the still air and dust the streets of Fresno, the valley’s largest city. Springtime adds pollen from valley farms to the mix. When the wind kicks up again, it rustles the magnolia trees in front of Mary Curry’s house and causes her lungs to fill with phlegm.

“When you can’t breathe, nothing else matters,” says Curry, cutting into a stack of pancakes at a diner at the northern tip of downtown Fresno, where the 87-year-old says she holds her meetings. Her oldest daughter, Venise, now a doctor and local activist, suffered the same debilitating asthma in her younger years. In high school, when Venise was dead set on running track and field, Curry would stand in suspense at the finish line. “I’d be there counting every breath, hoping she wouldn’t pass out,” she says.

Mary Curry speaks to a reporter from local Fresno news channel KSEE-24. (Screenshot courtesy KSEE)

She’s reluctant to call her work activism, but her brand of activism has made her a local icon. In the 1970s she led the California Office of Civil Rights to investigate Fresno for deteriorating public schools. The following decade, she pushed the city to create a computer technology academy at the southwest’s only high school, which at the time was close to being torn down. More recently, she led the drive to relocate out of her neighborhood an animal rendering plant that has choked the area with noxious fumes.

In 1982, Rosa Parks came to Fresno to give her an award for community service.

The waitresses at Curry’s regular diner know her by name. Throughout Fresno, so do city officials, non-profit groups, the clergy, even patrons of the library at a residents’ center in the southwest, her home neighborhood.

Contesting injustice has been Mary Curry’s raison d’être. Asthma is her kryptonite. In these parts, she’s not alone: at least 550,000 people in the San Joaquin Valley have intractable breathing problems. Strange weather patterns, month-long stretches of high air pressure, and decades of vehicle emissions have blemished this inner slice of California with the worst soot pollution in the United States.

But when you blend air-quality data with other socioeconomic data such as poverty and educational attainment levels, the city of Fresno stands apart from its regional neighbors. Southwest Fresno, in particular, is an arrowhead-shaped neighborhood of homes, vacant lots, working-class families, economic hardship and industrial pollution. In the past 100 years, no part of Fresno was hit harder by redlining. Its growth, by the city’s own admission, was stunted by municipal disinvestment. Its families have been stressed by decrepit housing and air that tastes roasted year-round.

In 2013, the California government declared that no urban area in the state is more affected by that one-two punch of poverty and pollution than south and southwest Fresno. So the state gave Fresno $70 million to redress both ills.

A CalEnviroScreen 3.0 map of the Fresno area, showing the pollution burden. The areas shaded dark blue represent a burden in the 90 to 100 percentile. (Credit: California Office of Environmental Health Hazard Assessment)

Mary Curry has lived in southwest Fresno since 1956. When news of the $70 million came from Sacramento, she, along with nearly two dozen other Fresno stakeholders interviewed for this article, expected city leaders would see the funding as a boon for the downtown revitalization of Fresno that local administrations have been promising for decades.

“We knew that, if we wanted any of these TCC moneys [to go to the southwest], we’d have to fight a battle for it,” says Curry.

So in October 2017, after a drawn-out community-engagement process, Curry and about a dozen other southwest Fresno residents convened a closed-door, late-night meeting at Pastor Booker Lewis’s Rising Star Missionary Baptist Church. That meeting changed their neighborhood forever.

Mapping Pollution and Inequality

Where did that $70 million come from? Four years earlier, in 2013, the California government converted quality-of-life data into an interactive, statewide map, and put it online. The platform, called CalEnviroScreen, marked a milestone in data transparency. No state in the country had seen anything like it. At its core was a state outline in which California’s nearly 1,800 zip codes were color-coded based on 18 pieces of environmental and socio-economic data. Zip-code areas colored light beige experienced comparatively little pollution and socio-economic struggles such as poverty. Those colored deep blue, on the other hand, were burdened across all 18 categories.

Fresno was engulfed in dark blue. It had three of the top ten most burdened zip codes in the state.

Over the next four years, the state updated CalEnviroScreen to look at 20 pieces of quality-of-life data and broke that data down even further into California’s 8,036 census tracts. (An interactive map of the 2018 results is below.) With the new analysis, Fresno’s profile gained nuance. In CalEnviroScreen’s 2017 edition, the city shows up five times among the top ten most burdened census tracts. “Fresno literally has the highest concentration of disadvantaged [neighborhoods] in the state,” says Randall Winston, former director of the state’s Strategic Growth Council.

The CalEnviroScreen data pulls from multiple sources, from regional air monitoring stations to community water reports to EPA data from 2011 to 2013, so it doesn’t carry the same rigor as an on-the-ground inspection of pollution levels in specific census tracts. But the state aggregated that data for one reason: to pinpoint where people were likely suffering the most, and to invest in those areas. These scores are used to prioritize funding for a suite of programs called the California Climate Investments, which are funded through the State’s Cap-and-Trade Auction Proceeds. It was within this framework that the Strategic Growth Council rolled out a $140-million grant package in 2016, called the Transformative Climate Communities (TCC) program, earmarked for cities with troubling CalEnviroScreen scores.

Los Angeles and Ontario would each receive $35 million. And Fresno, because of its remarkable scores, would collect the majority $70 million. Over the next year, these cities were required to invest in projects that reduced greenhouse gas emissions while improving public health and economic opportunity in the struggling census tracts. They also had to attract outside funding equal to half of the grant amount, to act as a kind of guarantee for the state’s investment.

The local stakeholders charged with assembling the application for funding were required to “actively engage” community residents during all phases of the process. They also had to ensure that most of the grant money was funneled into areas where CalEnviroScreen scores were particularly bleak.

In September 2016, outgoing mayor Ashley Swearengin held a press conference announcing that Fresno was guaranteed to take home $70 million in TCC grant funds. It was the heftiest state investment Fresno had ever received — a behemoth award, though not necessarily an estimable one. “It was a slap in the face from the state,” said Morgan Doizaki, a business owner in Fresno’s Chinatown. “Like, ‘What the hell have you been doing down here?’”

Those inside City Hall celebrated. Curry and her neighbors, however, would soon be fighting tooth-and-nail to make sure that money went to the very neighborhoods the program was designed to heal.

Trust the Process?

Back in January 2017, a local group called the Central Valley Community Foundation took the reins on the TCC proposal selection process. Leading that foundation was now-former mayor Ashley Swearengin, whose legacy, in her own words, was largely built on her efforts to revitalize downtown.

Nearly 530 residents had participated in the three-month-long community process that included four key meetings in which they debated and scrutinized the ins and outs of each proposed plan. Yet through each of those meetings, it became evident that trust between southwest Fresno residents and the Foundation had fractured beyond repair.

Emails and documents obtained through California Public Records Act requests help explain why southwest residents felt an off-site meeting at Pastor Lewis’ church was a necessary last resort.

At the start of 2017, after Swearengin left office and started her new job at the foundation, she and the city designated a steering committee of about 30 Fresno residents and political officials to select projects for the $70-million TCC grant. Pastor Lewis was part of this group. So was current mayor Lee Brand, City Councilmember Oliver Baines, and California congressman Jim Costa. In the end, more than one-quarter of the committee were government employees.

During the first steering committee meeting, Genoveva Islas, program director of the health non-profit Cultiva La Salud, expressed concerns that residents would not be included in the decision making. She later told Next City that despite the diverse set of stakeholders at that meeting, the dialogue felt skewed. “This money had come down on the backs of communities of color in west Fresno that were having to endure a lot of inequity and pollution,” she said (west Fresno and southwest Fresno are terms often used interchangeably). “But the language and the rhetoric in the room really wasn’t about them.”

What the rhetoric did focus on was downtown. In 2027, Fresno will become home to one of 15 stations for California’s $77-billion high-speed rail project, and the first TCC draft guidelines were built around that investment. Since the high-speed rail station sits on the train tracks that divide southwest from downtown, that means southwest and Chinatown occupied half of the eligible investment space, and downtown, the other half.

But as Islas suggested, officials seemed to have their targets set east of the rail tracks. The southwest, despite its deep history of disinvestment, didn’t seem to take priority.

In an email sent on February 14, 2017, Swearengin suggested to Mayor Brand, councilmember Baines, and other city staff that they should “persuade the state to be as flexible as possible with the way they score matching funds.” She refers to the roughly $35 million in external money that would need to be solicited as a condition of receiving the TCC grant. Swearengin made the argument that downtown-focused projects that contribute towards the same environmental end goals as the TCC program “ought to get counted” by the state. (Swearengin did not respond to Next City’s multiple email and phone requests for an interview.)

Even though this does not equate to diverting TCC funds away from southwest, for Pastor Lewis and other residents, it was hard not to believe that history was repeating itself. “A lot of people in Fresno have a hard time trusting the city, even when the city’s not doing anything wrong,” he says. “We’ve watched public funds go to projects across town for so long that it’s difficult for us to even believe when something like [the TCC program] happens.”

The haze of pollution is evident in this 2017 photo of rush hour along Fresno's Highway 99.  (AP Photo/Gary Kazanjian)

Meanwhile, the southwest was still beset by neglect. Downtown Fresno has attracted more than $100 million in private investment in recent years; southwest Fresno has a single grocery market and multiple liquor shops. The southwest has a life expectancy 20 years less than the wealthier Woodward Park neighborhood, thirteen miles northeast; contributing factors are likely a deficit of places to buy healthy food, coupled with the pollution from agricultural production and industrial sites within and adjacent to residential neighborhoods in the outer southwest.

So at the fourth committee meeting — and just days before the city had to submit their application to the state government — Curry and Lewis strategized a separate, residents-only hail-mary meeting to try and salvage the process.

Fighting the Good Fight

There were successes along the way. In April 2017, 50 Fresno residents boarded a bus and headed to Sacramento to talk with lawmakers. At issue was a proposal being considered by the state that would lock the $70-million grant into a one-mile radius around the incoming high-speed rail station. If enacted, that proposal would preclude the majority of southwest Fresno from receiving any part of the money.

“Like most kids I have asthma. And on most days the air is too dirty and stinky to go outside,” said 12-year-old Dyami Hunt, one of the 50 residents who offered a public comment during a Strategic Growth Council meeting. “Please do what you can to help me and everyone in southwest Fresno to have a healthy environment.”

The community’s pressure paid off. When the state published a subsequent draft of TCC investment guidelines in the summer of 2017, they’d ceded to residents’ requests, and expanded the radius from one square mile to five square miles around the high-speed rail station. Southwest Fresno was now well within the $70-million frame.

What changed the minds of state officials? “The advocacy on the part of the residents resonated,” Winston said unequivocally. “Without question.”

Around the same time, in the spring of 2017, as Lewis and other stakeholders met for the city-designated steering committee meetings, participants began to build pressure on city staff and the Foundation to engage a wider public.

“Very early on, when the TCC project was first announced in Fresno, it was presented as if it was already a done deal and the investment decisions had already been made,” says Sandra Celedon-Castro, a manager at Fresno Building Healthy Communities, who was part of those early committees. “That was very confusing, and not entirely accurate.”

By July 2017, the Foundation and the city acted on these concerns by organizing a public voting committee. Anyone was allowed to join, as long as they lived, worked, or owned property in the southwest, downtown, and Chinatown. But the process raised eyebrows. About a dozen Fresno residents interviewed for this piece said that the public steering-committee meetings were tainted by lobbying. As they worked together over four sessions to compile distinct project packages, residents allege public organizations and businesses which had proposed projects, such as the Fresno Housing Authority, were designated voting power in the very groups deciding on their projects. “There were huge conflicts of interest,” says Lisa Flores, a Fresno resident and former environmental and transportation planner for the state’s Department of Transportation.

Preston Prince, executive director of the Fresno Housing Authority, acknowledges that the Authority had seven representatives who participated in the four steering committee sessions. “We advocated, like any other applicant that put together a [project] proposal and then attended the steering committee meetings,” he says. “The rules were laid out, and we just followed them.” (Prince points out that the Fresno Housing Authority project that was included in Fresno’s TCC application — a mixed-use affordable housing building in Chinatown — was vetted with Chinatown residents before it was submitted for consideration.)

As the fourth committee meeting wrapped up, Curry and Lewis set in motion a fifth and final meeting, before the vote. And they mobilized residents to meet outside the steering-committee framework. “We were kind of tired of having people who didn’t live or have a daily experience in [south]west Fresno telling us what [south]west Fresno needs,” said Lewis.

Inside the 11th-Hour Meeting: “Why Don’t We Just Start Over?”

Southwest Fresno’s Rising Star Missionary Baptist Church, a compact, pink-beige stucco hall fronted by tidy rose bushes, has long been a point of mediation for the neighborhood. Pastor Lewis has reconnected estranged church members who fell out of grace with one another. He gathered police officers, along with the city’s Office of Independent Review, to talk policing practices after Sacramento cops shot and killed Stephon Clark, an unarmed African-American man, in March 2018.

“It’s not magic,” he says, of his relationship-bridging efforts. “It’s just being concerned about people.”

On the evening of Monday, October 2, people began arriving at the church around 7 p.m. Pastor Lewis was already there. Then came Mary and Venise Curry. Artie Padilla, a local pastor. Tate Hill, who runs the Fresno Metro Black Chamber of Commerce, and at least six others.

They found city officials and their allies waiting outside. Soon, representatives from the Leadership Counsel, a legal non-profit that has long advocated for southwest Fresno residents’ rights, pulled up to the church.

None of this was part of the plan. Curry turned to Pastor Lewis. “This is your church,” she told him. “So I expect you to ask them to leave.”

On that October evening, southwest Fresno was a neighborhood on the verge of receiving millions of dollars in state funding. Curry, Lewis, and the others who lived in the neighborhood had assembled at Lewis’ church to figure out where that money would impart the biggest impact. And with only 48 hours until the final vote, they didn’t want external forces influencing the conversation.

The advertisement they’d circulated at the most recent community meeting about the TCC grant was clear: an ad hoc meeting was planned at Lewis’ church for southwest Fresno residents only. No city staffers, no city officials. Not even community groups who had, over the previous 10 months, pushed the state to allocate most of the $70 million to southwest Fresno.

City staff and the uninvited community groups heeded their request and left the church. The small group of residents who remained settled in to the purple chairs that made up the church’s frontmost row, proposals laid out on whiteboards and flipcharts in front of them.

Not one of them had an urban planning degree, or the training to critique LEED-certified architecture. What they did have was an encyclopedic knowledge of the neighborhood’s needs, and four proposals already designed by those with planning and architectural expertise.

Mixed-use housing projects, permaculture gardens, solar panels for low-income households, a new community college — the substance for a diversified $70-million investment was there in the proposals. The task was to figure out which of those four packages would most substantively redress the neighborhood maladies.

Then, according to Lewis, someone in the small group spoke up. “Why don’t we just start over?”

It was a radical proposal, but not a surprising one. They agreed that the plans in front of them were solid. But that the community process out of which they came was not.

A restart would mean reconfiguring the work of hundreds of residents who had participated in the process over the past four meetings. It would mean approaching the foundation, city officials, and more than 100 residents in the final voting round, just two days away, with a new, unvetted draft.

They started over anyway.

The residents dissected each of the four plans while talking through what they did and did not want in their fantasy version of the neighborhood. Affordable housing towers were nixed; residents felt that the city had spent the past half-century lifting up low-income housing projects in the southwest without buttressing the attendant social and economic supports those residents need. Pedestrian trails and new bike paths got the green light. One project received unanimous support: the Fresno City College’s West Fresno Satellite, which would be the first higher-education facility in the neighborhood.

Everyone agreed that this new, hybrid plan, called simply “Plan 5,” had to incorporate downtown and Chinatown projects from the other four proposals. Not doing so would eliminate investment in those two promising but nevertheless struggling areas. Southwest, to them, had the greatest need, but every neighborhood would lose if any neighborhood was allowed to fall into disarray.

Additionally, if other residents rejected Plan 5 because it was too focused on southwest Fresno, community bonds could atrophy and residents would risk losing the power they’d gained over the past year.

After two hours of work, a viable alternative took shape. Plan 5 included an armada of investments that would touch on southwest’s every environmental, social, and economic struggle. But it risked getting shot down; 14 of the plan’s 25 projects took place exclusively in the southwest. “I was pretty hesitant about us even mentioning [Plan 5] at the final meeting,” says Artie Padilla, a local pastor who was at Lewis’ church that evening. “I felt like, the city, the Strategic Growth Council, they put all this energy into the process, and [now] they’re going to let us submit something new?”

Nevertheless, the next morning, Curry and Lewis made the rounds. They brought the proposal to Swearengin and her team, to council member Baines, to community leaders in Chinatown and Downtown. Each gave Curry and Lewis their blessing.

Twenty-four hours later, Curry and Lewis stood in front of the final voting audience with microphones in hand. They discussed how the long, turbulent process, taxing for all in the room, inspired them to gather off-site, and only with residents whose day-to-day lives intersected the southwest. The audience gave Curry and Lewis its blessing to submit Plan 5 for consideration.

And when the issue finally went to vote, Plan 5 swept the field: 125 of the 126 committee members shot their pink voting cards into the air.

Mary Curry stands with Fresno City Councilmember Oliver Baines at an October 2017 meeting. (Credit: Tim Sheehan/The Fresno Bee)

Craig Sharton, a local leader representing downtown, was one of the first to stand up and address the room after the vote. The audience, he says, looked on expecting a rebuke of the southwest-dominant plan. “But I thought it was important to say we supported the compromise and to set that tone.”

Morgan Doizaki, a business owner and one of the leaders representing Chinatown, was visiting family, so he watched the vote on Facebook Live. Plan 5 included some choice investments for Chinatown. “I was jumping up and down in my hotel in Fukuoka [Japan],” he says.

Moving Forward with Plan 5

One month after the final TCC voting session, Next City spoke to Danielle Bergstrom, the Central Valley Community Foundation employee who facilitated both the private TCC steering committee at the start of 2017 and the public one that emerged later on. In the more than 240 emails Next City obtained between foundation staff and city staff, Bergstrom seemed to be the one lifting the heaviest loads: researching, consulting, apologizing to the community, planning meetings, apologizing to the community some more.

“People kept waiting for us to fail,” she said, periodically gazing down into her desk. The community’s resilience astonished her. She praised them for keeping the foundation in check. But she emphasized that the foundation “stepped in as a volunteer to do this work.”

“Volunteer” isn’t quite right. Public records requests reveal that the city of Fresno paid the foundation $5,000 in March of 2017 to design and manage a TCC website. It became the official repository for all things related to Fresno’s portion of the grant, including project proposals and steering committee schedules.

(The City of Fresno declined to provide Next City all matching documents for the public records requests that were submitted: one for paid contracts between the City of Fresno and the Central Valley Community Foundation, the other for all emails between the two entities.)

Today, Fresno is working with a committee of residents and the state government to finalize the projects submitted as part of Plan 5. But if the process in Fresno was so easily prejudiced, what does that mean for future TCC grants? And what does the state plan on doing differently because of how the program rolled out in Fresno?

“A lot of things, we’re thinking,” says Winston, of the Strategic Growth Council. He doesn’t give specifics but says the community involvement process could be one area of revision. “I want to hear from the Mary Currys of the world about what we did wrong and what we can do better in the next rounds.”

“I don’t want west Fresno to come off like a dismal, unkind place to live,” Curry says. “It isn’t really. A lot of people work really hard in this community.”

Curry is part of the steering committee to finalize Plan 5. She doesn’t know what the final investment portfolio will look like. But she does say that the Fresno City College’s West Fresno Satellite has magnetized the most buy-in, including from the community-college administrators. That project alone won’t cure the pollution. But it’s enough to kickstart the types of future investments that could.

“I’m reaching the age where I probably won’t be able to see some of this come to fruition,” says Curry. “But I’m hoping someone else will.”

UPDATE: This article was changed to clarify that Randall Winston is now the former director of the Strategic Growth Council; that the TCC program was a function of the larger California Climate Investments program; and that the subject of Ashley Swearengin’s quoted email was to solicit matching funds for the TCC project, not to seek to divert TCC grant funds from southwest Fresno.

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Johnny Magdaleno is a journalist, writer and photographer. His writing and photographs have been published by The Guardian, Al Jazeera, NPR, Newsweek, VICE News, the Huffington Post, the Christian Science Monitor and others. He was the 2016-2017 equitable cities fellow at Next City. 

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