Environmental Justice meets Racial Equity

Lake Natoma with a hill in background and the lake's water in focus

When you think of rivers, lakes and streams, you picture a euphoric sight. The sun shining, birds chirping and crisp, clean; clear water. The scenery draws you into a magical getaway of peace and solitude. But the harsh reality is that this is not always the case near some of Sacramento’s most prominent bodies of water.

The American River Parkway Foundation wrote a proposal on what they believe should be done to protect the American river and the land surrounding it in January of 2022. The proposal was filled with a list of demands that Sacramento County officials were obligated to meet. The plan covered the removal of what American River Parkway described as “illegal campers,” the establishment of funding for damages around the River, and increased safety measures.

I reached out to the American River Parkway Foundation for more details on these demands and their overall goals with this proposal but was unsuccessful in my efforts. I also reached out to other environmentally concerned organizations. Herman Barahona, founder and lead community organizer of the Sacramento Environmental Justice Coalition agreed to be interviewed and the interview took place over the phone on May 17th, 2022.

Herman Barahona headshot, smiling with closed mouth, brown eyes and short brown hair
Herman Barahona, founder Sacramento Environmental Justice Coalition, photo provided by Barahona.

Barahona’s area of focus and deep concern is that of advocating for the poor and looking at the root causes of environmental racism affecting the poor.

When we think of issues affecting poor people we think about housing and the lack of resources, but do not always consider how deeply environmental racism influences economic crises.

Barahona gave me a front row seat into these issues and how we all can play a part in making change.

Making Sense of the Issues with Herman Barahona

Vontress Ortega (VO): Can you tell me a little bit about your organization?

Herman Barahona (HB): We’re just beginning an environmental justice campaign. Environmental justice, by definition, is focusing on the impacts that environmental racism has on poor people. Particularly, people of color. The American River hasn’t been part of our focus. I mean, we have a general idea of what some of the issues are, but there’s definitely lots of groups out there that are talking about the American River.

It depends on what interest they have. There’s one group that’s demonizing the homeless, that they’re poisoning the rivers with E.coli and all that stuff. While that may be true, there are people using the river as a toilet because they don’t have anywhere to go to the restroom–my interest is really, well, what are we doing to provide people with safe and dignified housing?

VO: Yes, that was definitely one of my concerns as well, especially when I was doing broad research, I did find a lot of what you mentioned, like blaming of the unhoused and well, what are we doing to help, you know, are we providing bathrooms where they can go? But a lot of it was just based on funding or kind of monitoring– not necessarily that it can’t be done, it’s just do they want to spend the money for it, you know, which of course raises an equity problem for me, you know? They’re not any less valuable than anyone else, so why shouldn’t they have proper bathrooms.

HB: Yeah, this issue of climate justice or environmental justice has two different faces to it, right? There are people who are saying we need to address climate justice as a whole and look at all the different people that are being impacted by a polluted ecosystem. Then, there are some people who are just– don’t build housing, get the homeless away from us. It’s a sad situation about how they weaponize against the poor. Our side of it is really how we’re trying to defend the poor.

“If an ecosystem is creating homeless people, we need to look at that right? What are the root causes of that– so anyway, not just the symptoms, we don’t want to treat symptoms here.”

Then, of course, there’s the greater implications of climate change. Drought and the death of wildlife due to extreme weather patterns. Dams and mining and the history of mining in California, of course, mercury is a big issue. So anyway, there’s just so much. I’m not an expert in that conversation, but I know those problems exist…We, [the Sacramento Environmental Justice Coalition, (EJC)] are an environmental justice organization that advocates for the poor to look at root causes of environmental racism impacting the poor.

We do believe the lack of affordable housing is a structurally racist. Inherently racist, and so guess who’s floating out there in the streets? It’s the poor and marginalized. We believe that if we’re going to live our values of protecting Mother Nature that includes beings– any human being, because we believe in the dignity of every person– we do that, we probably do better for the environment too.

VO: Do you believe environmental issues disproportionately impact communities with high poverty? Why do you think that is?

Locked-up in Pollution & Poverty


“From the cradle to the grave, environmental degradation is traumatizing to families.”

I’ll start with a general statement like that. It is traumatizing to families from the cradle to the grave. If you have particulate matter 2.5 in the air or lead or mercury in the drinking water, a pregnant person will see the negative effects of the kind of environmental pollutants. A child that may be born with learning disabilities, and, as you know, having been born into the wrong zip code, having been born with all these environmental pollutants their entire destiny has been harmed.

So, when you meet people who are in the streets, when you meet people who are dealing with learning disabilities or all kinds of central nervous system problems, that kind of trauma, we must look at the root cause and decrease that kind of trauma in order to create healthier families. So, yes. We think that the entire ecosystem needs to be impacted by getting people out of poverty. We can say we want people out of poverty but that’s not enough to say it. We have to create a healthy environment in which they can thrive.

It’s no wonder that, in the worst polluted neighborhoods in California, or even the United States, children have cognitive disorders, where they’re not able to meet the academic standards of a university or higher education. So, they are in essence, locked up in poverty. They are incarcerated by that very biological damage that families suffer when you’re exposed to carcinogens, like diesel fumes, chromium-six, or Mercury in the river.

All those things need to be looked at. This is something that’s here in the water in Sacramento, and to blame the symptoms of poverty: homelessness, violence, lack of a well-trained workforce– those are symptoms of a deeper issue which we need to look at.

VO: So, given that there is clearly a question of water quality within the Sacramento Rivers or just you know I guess the lack of recreational water usage in high poverty areas, do you think it’s the environmental racism affecting high poverty areas as far as recreational use for water? You know, such as Elk Grove they have parks for kids that have, like running water, water slides and things like that, but in different neighborhoods that’s not available, do you think there’s a reason why it’s being withheld?

HB: Oh yeah, Sacramento is famous for historically red lining its poor people of color. The best amenities in the richest neighborhoods, paid for by taxpayers by the way, and the worst amenities are in the poor neighborhoods and the excuse from city councils, county halls, and regional planning groups is, ‘you don’t have money to do that.’ I’ll give you a basic example.

If you go to the best water recreation programs, they’re in Carmichael, Fair Oaks along the river, and even upriver as you go into Placer County. But having accessible programs where poor neighborhoods are? You won’t find those. In fact, there are more polluting companies or other industrial, commercial corridors along the poorer neighborhoods rather than in the wealthier communities. That’s the other correlation– there is more industrial, commercial infrastructure along the water in poor neighborhoods. You see it. Just drive by the levees, you see some of that stuff.

VO: Yeah, you know, I’ve lived on both ends of the spectrum. So, a lot of that I have witnessed and questioned myself, there are all these great things here, but I can’t find a nice park with functioning water, you know, like a water fountain, or you know, even, just things like that. It doesn’t seem like the water is accessible for recreational use or just even the standard water usage. So, how do you feel that communities can advocate for resources or advocate for these things?

Bringing Back a Balance

HB: Well, that’s what the Environmental Justice Coalition is trying to do. We’re focused on air quality right now, but we are building relationships with marginalized communities, churches, schools, and nonprofits to begin the conversation about, ‘how do we bring back balance to some of the ecosystems that are near your neighborhood?’

“Why is the tree canopy in poor neighborhoods scarce and the tree canopy in richer neighborhoods well-watered and pruned?”

When it is tax dollars that are supporting all that, by the way. So, community organizing is one way of doing it. And of course, there is the teaching side of it…Dr. Jonathan London wrote a beautiful piece…on how environmental justice efforts here in Sacramento have come and gone. A lot of it is because of the politics of it all. Some of them have had some serious issues like the Aerojet poisoning that was happening in Rancho [Cordova].

VO: So for me I’m always looking to– when it comes to issues like this, self-educate, you know, finding community resources or places that I can read. Do you think that if higher poverty communities were to self-educate– do you think this would push them to advocate for resources and changes in their neighborhood?

HB: It is a matter of improving awareness. The California EPA Office of Health Hazards Assessment, it’s a long name, sorry. They created a beautiful website called the California EnviroScreen 4.0. The Enviro Screen gives you all kinds of toxic readings on water and air in the region. The areas are highlighted by census tract and so, if you pick something along the river, it’ll tell you what kind of toxins are in your area. It’s a good source of information for you.

VO: Do you think there’s anything that I haven’t covered that you would like the readers to know about, or anything that you can share that might be helpful?

HB: Well, we need more funding for advocacy. Every household can play a part in improving an ecosystem. It’s not just about institutional racism. There’s also things we can do that we need to unlearn. We need to do more recycling. We need to take care of where we dump in drainage systems, right? And waterways, all those things matter. So, individual responsibility, combined with addressing structural racism, I think could develop a really healthy neighborhood along the river.

“We have to have that tough conversation to figure out how we can all take responsibility, collectively.”

I think that’s what the Sacramento EJ Coalition is. We have people who are conservative, progressive, and everything in between for the very reason that we believe that it’s going to take a broad base of people who care to figure out how to keep a healthy ecosystem that’s facing extinction. Climate change is an extinction threat, so we want a river that’s healthy. We want the snowpack to actually improve. We need to stop using fossil fuels. There’s just so many things that we can do that we need to address! I hope that’s helpful.

VO: Thank you!

Sharing our EcoSystem

With a clearer understanding of environmental racism as the root cause within our communities of ecosystem damage, it is clear that we all play a part in the betterment or continued decline of our shared ecosystem.  Herman Barahona understands that finding the root causes is a way for us to build together for change. At the time of this writing, the Sacramento Environmental Justice Coalition holds “Environmental Justice 101” meetings in English and Spanish on the second Saturday of each month at the National Shrine of Our Lady of Guadalupe.

Being more conscientious of materials and ensuring that they are biodegradable, keeping recreational water areas clean from debris, organizing with others, and partnering with local city officials to ensure that communities receive the appropriate funding, we as a community should be able to find some resolution.  The future of our ecosystem and the people of color within it depends on the work that we do today.

Editor’s Note

This story is one in a set produced by a team of journalist fellows at Sierra College who were awarded grants from the California Humanities “Emerging Journalist” Fellowship. Read more about the team and their project here: “Bends and Banks: Communities, Water, and the American River.

Written by Vontress Ortega | Photo by Katelyn Vengersammy

Vontress Ortega smiling with long black hair and legs crossed
Vontress Ortega is a Journalism major at Sierra College and published author. She plans to transfer to CSU, Sacramento in fall 2022 and continue in the major and with her interests in the literary field and investigative journalism. In spring 2022 she was a California Humanities Emerging Journalist fellow at Sierra College.


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