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Truth on the Ground: Community Perspectives on Industry and Health in South LA

Written by: Raquel Mason, PSR-LA Program Associate, and Sanna Alas

CT Watts + MariaThere’s been a lot of buzz around South LA these days. From its recent designation as one of LA City’s coveted “Promise Zones” to an increase in large-budget development projects such as the Jordan Downs redevelopment in Watts and the Reef project just south of downtown, it is clear that South LA may look very different in ten, even five, years. For advocates such as PSR-LA who focus on the intersection of land use and health, underneath all of this investment in a “healthier, safer, thriving” city lies a burning question – how will new development be reconciled with decades of racist land use decisions and industrial contamination?

South LA’s long legacy of contamination stems from decades of regulatory oversight and neglect, ineffective planning that placed polluting facilities next to vulnerable communities, and a lack of political will to address these problems. All of this frequently at the expense of low-income communities of color. What resulted was an abundance of incompatible land uses, where industrially-zoned land is found alarmingly close to residential and commercially-zoned land. A byproduct of these industrial processes are emissions that are often harmful to human health. By locating industries in areas where people live, work, and play, these toxins and pollutants are in close proximity to people and can do more harm. Incompatible land uses can be seen all over South LA, with bustling schools located across the street from toxic chrome-plating sites, long rows of auto-body shops neighboring health centers, and active oil wells sitting across the street from an affordable housing complex.

Understanding the history of industry in South Los Angeles is only one step on the path to creating a healthier community. Another crucial step is to understand the lived experiences of the residents themselves. These individuals and families understand their neighborhoods better than anyone, and ultimately have the greatest stake in creating a healthier and more equitable South LA.

Maria Rosales is one such resident, having lived her whole life in South LA. She is a Success Coach with College Track Watts, a non-profit organization that helps students from David Starr Jordan High School graduate and pursue higher education. A textbook example of incompatible land use, Jordan High School is bordered by a metal recycler, a 21-acre brownfield, and a busy thoroughfare on Alameda St.

Maria sees her students struggle with a variety of issues, from fatigue and low energy to a lack of focus and concentration in the classroom, and wonders whether it’s due in part to the overabundance of industry in the community. Given their surroundings, Maria says “I can’t just tell a student, ‘you have to read a book every night’ when something in their environment may be preventing them from focusing.” Maria’s experiences point to how the built environment not only influences health status but reaches into other aspects of life – from education to access to resources to economic stability. For Maria, “healthy and equitable land use is when land is effectively built for the benefit of the residents and students.”

Advocacy means bringing the correct information and people who are experts to talk about these issues, and doing research along with community members, at the decision of community members. – Thelmy Perez
Advocates are working with concerned residents like Maria to create the South LA that she envisions – a community that is healthy and provides for the needs of all its residents. Thelmy Perez, a community organizer with the LA Human Right to Housing Collective, is one of these advocates. For Thelmy, “Advocacy means bringing the correct information and people who are experts to talk about these issues, and doing research along with community members, at the decision of community members.”

This is a key organizing principle – community members must be informed every step of the way, their voices and needs elevated and guiding any effort to create change. “Those who are most affected by these situations have to be the ones to decide how to move out of it or through it,” Thelmy says. An integral part of her work as an organizer is education, and making sure that people have the information they need to make decisions about their own futures.

So how do advocates ensure that information is accessible, transparent, and relevant to community concerns? One way is by ground truthing research, a process by which community knowledge is intentionally integrated into research design and data collection. This community-based participatory research ensures that the data collected and conclusions drawn are accurate, and reflect the lived experiences and concerns of the community. It also allows residents to directly participate in understanding their community through a methodologically sound process. Ground truthing helps elevate resident-centered narratives, leading to more effective policy reform and regulatory action that is rooted on the ground and in communities. In other words, it is a way of initiating change by the community for the community.

Jon Truong, Research Coordinator at Strategic Actions for a Just Economy (SAJE) quite literally grounds his research in the community, ensuring that community voices and concerns are integrated into the process every step of the way. Jon sees research as one tool to understand an issue and believes that “residents should always drive the work.” By working collectively and maintaining a dialogue with the people who directly experience incompatible land use, researchers like Jon can better understand the impacts of that incompatibility.

Our partnership with resident activists like Maria and advocates like Thelmy and Jon inspired the 500 Feet Project, a mapping project that visualizes where incompatible land uses exist in South Central LA. The project seeks to honor and center the community of South Central by incorporating a ground truthing process in its creation. During the summer of 2016, we will be training and working with a group of residents in South LA to identify the hazards they see in their own neighborhoods, and participate in validating the research and data presented in the project. The 500 Feet Project will be a collaborative effort that seeks to finally visualize and highlight the voices and lived experiences needed to help create a truly “promising” South Los Angeles.