The environmental injustices of San Francisco’s southeastern waterfront neighborhoods are well chronicled. Yet the neighborhood also boasts miles of hiking trails, wetlands, and abundant wildlife, much of it fought for, developed, and restored by people in Bayview-Hunters Point. The neighborhood’s shoreline is home to the first urban State Park in California, a new bayshore campground with one of only two tent camping sites in the city, and a natural marsh where you can find one of the Bay’s rarest wetland plants. Behind those projects, and the continued greening and community stewardship of the neighborhood, is the 22-year-old nonprofit Literacy for Environmental Justice.
As the United States holds an urgent and overdue conversation about social and environmental justice, Bay Nature talked to LEJ Executive Director Patrick Marley Rump and Development Director Nicole McClain about what LEJ has already done, what community environmental programs look like in San Francisco’s last predominantly Black neighborhood, and what they see as the future of environmental justice in a rapidly gentrifying area.
Bay Nature: I wonder if you can start out by telling me a bit about the origins of Literacy for Environmental Justice.
Patrick Marley Rump: In the San Francisco Bayview-Hunters Point neighborhood 20 years ago, the environmental justice movement was being built out of other social justice movements. Lots of citizens had concerns about the PG&E power plant, and the disproportionate pollution it was causing. There are 300-some toxic sites within a very small community, including a federal superfund site at the naval shipyard.
The founding executive director [Dana Lanza] saw there was not a way to involve youth in this work. She realized there needed to be a mechanism for the next generation to get involved in this. It can’t just be older activists who’ve lived with this for years.
Some of our first early projects were going to schools, teaching about environmental justice, teaching about environmental rights, talking about the legacy of environmental racism, redlining, and the disproportionate impacts that the Bayview-Hunters Point neighborhood was facing.
As an organization that’s worked for 20 years on environmental justice, what do you make of this current moment, between the COVID-19 pandemic and the Black Lives Matter movement, where so many people are talking about systemic injustice?
PMR: We’ve seen more community use of our local open spaces in response to shelter in place. While that’s been a bright spot, we’ve seen less operations maintenance and safety support for the open spaces as compared to other open spaces in San Francisco. I think it really highlights the need to advocate and build strong urban parks.
And in relation to Black Lives Matter, I think I would say, brown and black parks matter as well. It’s unfortunate that things had to get this bad, and the set of conditions with COVID and George Floyd resulted in the pain that people had to go through, and continue to go through. But it’s shining light on something that’s been there for 300 years.
Nicole McClain: COVID-19 really illuminated the disparity in terms of the trash that congregates around Candlestick Point State Park. The fact there’s no easy public access in terms of a bus. There are dozens of RVs parked outside the park. It’s like a forgotten zone. That existed before, but COVID illuminated that no one’s really taking ownership of the park…. shelter in place has illustrated how deep the divide is between Candlestick and other open spaces in the city.
Equity and open space is poised to make a big breakthrough now, because people realize racism is in every facet of life. It’s built into the system. It’s not just a matter of leveling the playing field, but building a different one.
PMR: I’ve been at Candlestick for 15 years. Working and doing community programming and making park improvements. It’s worse. I have to say, things are worse. Worse than they were five years ago.
Can you give an example of what’s worse?
PMR: Lack of staffing for the open spaces. Maintenance. I hate to use the word law enforcement, but law enforcement. Regulating the park to ensure that illegal activities don’t happen in the park. I’ve seen that stuff go backward a little bit. You’ve got this in the context of huge redevelopment work happening. On the one hand you’ve got stadiums coming down and new development plans, and then just this deteriorating infrastructure of the state park.
What do you want to see change, or see more of?
PMR: It’s not like big tech is going to save us, or redevelopment is going to save us. It has to come from us. So I think where we’ve had success is when LEJ has gone out and raised the money through grants and philanthropy to build campsites and run school programs. Now we’re trying to do that with other organizations that have those same ethos and values. It’s exciting to work with groups like BMagic and the Bayview-Hunters Point Parks Prescription Program.
NM: Patrick’s talking a lot about what we’re doing on a macro level. That’s necessary because one organization can’t do it on their own. But on a micro level, we’ve made a deep investment in youth. We started our Eco Apprentice program two years ago, a retooling of our Bay Youth for the Environment program. The environmental field is very white. As part of our commitment to diversity, equity and inclusion, we’re helping train the next wave of environmental activists. We’re taking youth, in the 18-24 age range, that already have an inclination that they’re interested in the environment. We’re giving them the hands-on tools to get jobs in the field. They can go out and shape that conversation, and really not just participate but ultimately change the direction of the field.
PMR: When I reflect on two decades of programming, staff have come through LEJ, a lot of those staff entered the field in their transitional age. Now those folks are all throughout the country and region in leadership capacities.
We’re really proud that, during COVID, our Eco Apprentice program didn’t have to shut down. I think this cohort of interns we have right now have been extremely thankful to be out of the house. Working with plants, seed collecting, going out to the Bay, working in our nursery. We’ve been out in the park doing restoration and maintenance work. Community members seeing us in the park has lit up really positive feelings on both ends. People were really excited to see young adults of color doing work in the parks, and the Eco Apprentice team was like, “I’m out in the park doing something for my community and my environment.”
We pay our youth minimum wage, or more. If they’re doing a year-long apprenticeship, that translates into high dollars. It’s expensive. That’s a commitment we’ve made on our part. So when I have these conversations with funders, they say, “That’s really great, but it’s really expensive.” I agree with you, but we’re making this investment for their long-term future.
So many places are talking about community-based approaches, and environmental justice, and systemic problems. Do you get a sense that people are recognizing the work that you’ve done?
NM: It’s an interesting question. We pay our youth minimum wage, or more. If they’re doing a year-long apprenticeship, that translates into high dollars. It’s expensive. That’s a commitment we’ve made on our part. So when I have these conversations with funders, they say, “That’s really great, but it’s really expensive.” I agree with you, but we’re making this investment for their long-term future. It’s important to us. Our program stands out for its depth, its length, the needs of the individual.
PMR: A lot of what Nicole is saying is we don’t fit into any single model, and we still haven’t seen the true potential of scale that is needed for meaningful impacts at the community level and the environmental level. Those need to scale up if this world is going to be different. I think we’ve got a tangible model that could be scalable, but we have yet to see that truly invested in.
If we’re talking about real societal outcomes, there needs to be more societal investment in the community, in the development of youth, in the accessibility of park-based experiences. As well as the scalability of tangible environmental improvements, be it habitat restoration, green infrastructure, recreational amenities in communities of color, and urban parks. Adequate paths, trails, transportation. We need to start seeing that investment. Are we just going to give lip service to this work, or is it going to scale up to the outcomes that the planet needs, and humanity needs?
I’m hoping social justice experts are listened to, the environmental experts are listened to, the education experts are listened to. There’s a high degree of people who have ideas about how things could be better, it’s just listening to them.
What are the obstacles?
PMR: I think it’s both investment and other obstacles. It seems really clear that there’s an inability to listen to experts. COVID really highlighted that. The inability to coordinate and listen to experts about real things that need to be done for the safety and well being of people. I’m hoping social justice experts are listened to, the environmental experts are listened to, the education experts are listened to. There’s a high degree of people who have ideas about how things could be better, it’s just listening to them. Listening to communities. And not just listening but carrying through on those actions.
NM: For a long time people have been made to feel like the parks aren’t for them. Part of our work is to change the dialogue. Not just listen to the community, but let them know this space is for everybody. This park is for them. Not just what amenities do they want, but what access they want. As a brown person, you just don’t see a lot of other brown faces when you go to the parks. Sometimes people will look at you a little funny. Public lands belong to everybody. And we need to get a point where everybody can be out in nature.
PMR: A lot of what people are asking for are not majorly complicated things. We’re talking about people working in the parks, people from the community being hired to work in these parks. A lot of it isn’t putting people on the moon.