Ground Truthing the Central Valley: Introduction to the Series on Student Environmental Ethnographic Journalism

By Dvera I. Saxton, California State University, Fresno, with contributions from Victoria Sanchez §

In September of 2014, upon first arriving to Fresno, Assistant Professor of Anthropology Dvera I. Saxton attended a conference hosted by an organization in California’s Central Valley that works with communities to help them identify and challenge environmental injustices. They do especially important work in the region given that it hosts some of the highest levels of concentrated poverty, food insecurity, contaminated water, and childhood asthma rates in the country. Community members from up and down the Central Valley convened in a church hall, and listened to talks by community-based researchers as well as community organizers and leaders, sharing knowledge, conceiving strategies, and further building the network.

At the conference, some scholars shared some interactive maps they’d created that highlighted patterns between regional demographics and high pollution burdens. It can layer different contaminants with different population indicators. It can also help to pinpoint the main causes of pollution in these specific regions, and support communities in their efforts to rally for stronger environmental and health protections.

But, interestingly, some audience members, especially those hailing from farmworker communities, seemed unimpressed. Saxton’s field notes from the day indicate a room full of frustrated people, who thought the researchers should be doing more not just to measure and map contaminants and hazards. They (mis)interpreted the researchers as indifferent government officials with the power to change their communities’ circumstances. One farmworker women urged (in Spanish) to the invited speakers: “Come to our houses, and see what it feels like to work in the fields while your lungs are burning, and to not be able to wash your dishes when you get home [because the water is contaminated]!”

The community’s angry response to senior community-based scholars at the conference raised some questions about the usefulness and applications of data in community-based research. The residents already know what and where their pollution problems are, and they deal with them on a day-to-day basis at home, at work, at school, and at play. What gets lost on the data-rich color-layered maps and the seemingly endless shit-lists that brand the Central Valley as the most polluted, most drunk, criminal, uneducated, and least developed are the everyday realities and environmental suffering—in which environmental toxicity exacerbates other inequalities—endured by Central Valley Communities, including Fresno State students. Tools and data intended to support communities in raising their voices around environmental injustices can have a silencing effect. They did not convey the human experience of living in one of those color-coded spots.

What is it like to be neighbors with a farm that over-pumps groundwater while your own well runs dry? A photo snapped by one interviewee in Madera County, Central Valley California.

Perhaps there is room on these maps and with these tools to add some more layers with human and ecological dimensions. Saxton contemplated this as she developed her first syllabus for teaching Environmental Anthropology at California State University, Fresno in Spring 2016. Instead of an exam or a term paper, students were tasked with doing public anthropology and creating a braided story: a piece of accessible writing well balanced with images, links to outside scholarly and popular sources, and their own rapidly collected data and analyses on issues that mattered to them, or things that they had been observing but wanted to know more about. The exercise serves to hone their ethnographic and research skills, to validate their knowledge and experiences and relationships, and to empower them to recognize the grave challenges their communities face while at the same time countering the broad narratives of the Central Valley and its peoples as inevitable wastelands, as  sacrifice zones unworthy of intervention or change.

The material culture of asthma, represented by a young community members’ nebulizer. Asthma medicines can cost Valley families upwards of $700/month. Photo: Edward Vasquez.

The stories presented here are personal and political. They are based a semester’s worth research, field notes, interviews, and visuals. Students used the method of ground truthing, by literally walking, biking, and driving to their chosen sites to get more holistic, and more complex, understandings of issues that our regional communities are facing. In some cases, they literally embody environmental injustices from lifetimes of living in the Central Valley, or they have a sense of what it’s like to live next to polluting industries by visiting their neighbors in different regions.

Students chose topics that are covered in the media and explored intensively by anthropologists,. They lend both emic and etic perspectives to urban and rural drought experiences, human-wildlife interactions, and race, class and water contamination beyond Flint, Michigan. They have already fostered deep thinking in their classroom environment, made the connections between environmental injustices and power inequalities, and also the human potential to prevent harms and address the damage being done, as evidenced by the following excerpt:

When asked how to they felt about Fresno, one person stated “underappreciated … because I feel that Fresno has a lot of potential but most people think of it as being the armpit of California. A place that they can’t wait to get out of.” Through our interactions with diverse people living and working the San Joaquin Valley, we began to understand more about the human experiences of bad air days [among other things], and we also learned about groups that are fighting to hold polluters and regulators accountable. The State of California is known for having pioneered a number of strong environmental policies, but their enforcement is selective in the Central Valley, where primary polluting industries also dominate Water Districts, County Boards of Supervisors, and other regulatory agencies like the regional Air Boards. Our survival and stability depends on the acknowledging interconnectedness of water, air, and land.  Our valley will continue to suffer unless together we treat these pollutions as a one large problem as a community to solve and prevent. –Victoria Sanchez, Anthropology Major

Our hope is to inspire other environmental anthropology students to do similar projects that create pieces that can speak to broad audiences and to spark dialogues and exchanges amongst anthropology students around the globe.

Dvera I. Saxton is an assistant professor of anthropology at California State University, Fresno. She is an activist and public scholar whose research focuses on farmworker and environmental health in the United States and Mexico.

Victoria Sanchez is a Fresno native majoring in anthropology at California State University, Fresno. She will be doing an internship soon that merges environmental anthropology and journalism with Central Valley Latino Environmental Advancement Project.

This piece is part of the series: Student Environmental Ethnographic Journalism.