Episode 1: Your Community, Your Air

In this episode, we explore air quality as a crucial piece of the environmental justice (EJ) puzzle in the Bay Area. We dig into the importance of monitoring air quality at the neighborhood scale, covering the roles of community residents, government agencies, and a 3-year-old state program called AB-617.

Transcript:

Ms. Margaret Gordon: I want people to understand this is not a sprint. This is a marathon. This is a long haul. There’s nothing short about this.

Maya: Hey there, this is The Brightline Podcast from Brightline Defense, where we explore environmental justice issues, or EJ issues, in the broader Bay Area. We also highlight the work of local community-based organizations including our own. My name’s Maya.

Eddie: and I’m Eddie, the Executive Director at Brightline.

Maya: and today we’re covering an EJ issue that’s definitely not new, but been on a lot of people’s minds since this summer’s wildfire season: air quality. And how communities across the Bay Area are working to understand what’s in their air, and how to take action.

Eddie: Yeah, and this is an issue that’s very near and dear to Brightline as a nonprofit because, this summer, we launched our own air monitoring program in collaboration with low-income and frontline communities.

Maya: Yes, and we will talk a little more about that and the state program that led to it, but first, Eddie, I think it would be helpful to start with a just quick rundown on why air quality is such an important EJ issue.

Eddie. For sure. So it’s not just wildfires — it’s about everyday living conditions. The air you breathe reflects what’s happening around your neighborhood: for example, things like local car traffic or pollution from power plants.

Maya: Right, and in many cases, those harmful sources of pollution are closest to low-income neighborhoods and communities of color. Over time, breathing that polluted air leads to worse health in those communities.

Eddie: Exactly, community health depends on clean air. And that’s why air quality is such an important issue for environmental justice.

Maya: Thanks Eddie. Okay. So. Back to air quality and how it’s monitored in the Bay Area.

The government agency that collects air quality information for the region is called The Bay Area Air Quality Management District, which (because it’s quite a mouthful) most people just call “the Air District”.

Anyway, for the Bay Area’s 101 cities, the Air District collects data at about 30 different sensor stations. And that data’s used to guide policies.

Veronica Eady: But one thing that that air monitoring framework doesn’t do is that it doesn’t tell you in real time, what you’re breathing when you step out of your house.

Maya: That’s Veronica Eady — she works at the Air District.

Veronica Eady: I’m the Senior Deputy Executive Officer for policy and equity.

Maya: When I talked to Veronica, she said that this kind of air monitoring is really important for keeping track of specific pollutants and greenhouse gases, and making sure they’re in line with regulations.

But because the sensors are so spread out, they don’t show us how air quality differs from neighborhood to neighborhood. And that’s a real concern for environmental justice.

Veronica Eady: That momentum from the EJ movement is what created, in large part, this move towards local neighborhood scale air monitoring in California.

Maya: One state program in particular has sparked a burst in local monitoring, giving funds to community-based organizations specifically for this kind of project. The program’s called AB-617, which stands for Assembly Bill 617, and was put into effect 3 years ago.

To better understand it, I talked to someone who knows a lot about air quality and how we monitor it in California.

John Gioia: I’m John Gioia. And I grew up and live in Richmond. And I’ve had the honor of representing Richmond for the last 22 years on the Contra Costa County Board of Supervisors,

Maya: John also serves on the board for the Air District, and has served on the state-level California Air Resources Board (or CARB for short). He describes AB-617 as a new way to place communities at the center of air quality decision-making.

John Gioia: The community takes the data — it could be existing air monitoring data, it could be local knowledge, it could be new air monitoring data — and identifies the priorities of where there needs to be additional pollution reduction steps.

Maya: AB-617 not only funds community projects to collect local air data, but puts residents themselves in the driver’s seat. Whether they’re putting up new sensors or gathering community knowledge, the residents are the ones actually going out and getting the data. And then, they tell the state, ‘okay, this is what we need, and this is where we need it.’

John Gioia: So instead of it being a top down approach with the agency, coming up with regulations, it’s intended to be a more bottoms up grassroots approach.

Maya: And that’s really new. Many communities with long histories of exclusion and injustice just don’t have faith in the systems that, in theory, serve them.

But by shifting who’s in charge and building a new sense of collaboration, AB 617 could improve trust between the people and the government. Hopefully, that partnership can drive meaningful policy change based on what EJ communities themselves deem most important.

John Gioia: In West Oakland, for example, their community emissions reduction program identified over 80 strategies that range from state to regional to county to city action.

Maya: John’s talking about the West Oakland Environmental Indicators Project, a community-based EJ organization that’s of, for, and by the residents of West Oakland.

Ms. Margaret Gordon: We listen to the community. We’re making a place for everybody to be able to be at the center of the table to be a part of not just giving feedback and input, but then making a decision. And at the end of the day, that is called equity.

Maya: That is Ms. Margaret Gordon.

Ms. Margaret Gordon: I am a resident of West Oakland since 1992. I’m a third generation of West Oakland. I am one of the founders and co-director of the West Oakland Environmental Indicators Project.

Maya: Ms. Margaret and her team adopted this community-driven model long before AB-617 came onto the scene. For two decades now, they’ve pioneered air monitoring in the Bay Area, keeping resident voices at the center of their work.

Ms. Margaret Gordon: When AB 617 came about, we was the first community who went directly to an action plan ’cause we had had so much data that had been collected.

Maya: West Oaklanders already had what they needed to show the ‘hotspots’ of poor air quality in their neighborhoods. And with AB 617, they were able to lay out exactly what government actions they need to reduce harmful local emissions and improve community health. Here’s Veronica from the Air District, again:

Veronica Eady: Really the residents are partners in regulation and they’re partners in air quality planning. I really see AB617 as democratizing this whole system of air quality regulation.

Maya: And again, that’s really different from what’s been done before — not just for communities, but also for government agencies.

Veronica Eady: And it’s a real challenge for us, because it requires that we share power, and people are really keeping us accountable.

Maya: At the same time, AB-617 is really only the beginning of the road. The real challenge comes next.

John Gioia: I think the jury is still out on how effective AB 617 will be because another plan on the shelf isn’t going to improve people’s health. The goal is to implement what’s in those plans so that our communities get tangible, meaningful reductions in pollution.

Ms. Margaret Gordon: I want people to understand this is not a sprint. This is a marathon. This is a long haul. There’s nothing short about this.

Maya: So. Ab 617 has created a new starting point for local air monitoring, but it can’t reach every neighborhood. And so some communities are finding other ways to improve their air.

Jose Saldana works in the Environmental Justice Unit at CARB.

Jose Saldana: During the wildfires I noticed that there were a lot of Purple Air monitors in affluent communities, and a lot of disadvantaged communities didn’t have them.

Maya: Purple Air is a company that sells air sensors for people to put up on their houses, businesses, or really wherever, starting at about 200 bucks per sensor. And they’re cool in that you can share your sensor’s data to their map, and anyone can access that data online. But because of the cost, inevitably, not all households can afford to get them.

So, when Jose noticed the gap, he gathered some of CARB’s personal air monitors, found a way to make a do-it-yourself air filter, and distributed both to communities who needed them in Sacramento.

Jose Saldana: Seeing their indoor readings go down when they’ve used this tool has really made them feel empowered about being able to create a safe space for themselves. And that empowerment I think was something that people were missing.

Maya: Not only is this changing residents’ relationship with their air in the communities Jose works in, but it’s personal to him, too.

Jose Saldana: And then when I did the DIY filter and saw how dirty the furnace filter got, I thought wow, that could have been my kid's lungs. So I felt like I had done something for my kids.

Maya: Now before we wrap up, we want to take this opportunity to talk a bit about our own AB 617 program. Eddie, you want to take it from here?

Eddie: Sure, Maya. So, we’re about four months into our 2-year program — not quite as far along as Ms. Margaret and the folk in West Oakland, but our first step is gathering air quality data in the neighborhoods we serve.

We’ve set up 19 sensors across 6 neighborhoods in San Francisco, including one that’s linked to the Air District to make sure our data is accurate and consistent.

We’re also working with groups of low-income tenant leaders and high school youth leaders. They’re helping organize the community around key air quality issues — all amidst the current pandemic.

And then, we hope to build on the data we’ve collected and develop an action plan with our communities.

Maya: Thanks, Eddie! And that’s it for today. Thank you all so much for tuning in to our first episode of The Brightline Podcast, from Brightline Defense.

This episode was written, produced, and fact-checked by me, Maya Glicksman. Original music also by me. Thank you to Eddie for support on research and writing, and to all the folks we spoke to for this episode: Ms. Margaret Gordon, John Gioia, Veronica Eady, and Jose Saldana, as well as Trish Johnson and Daniela Cortes, who helped us brainstorm.

For more information about Brighline, you can visit our website at BrightlineDefense.org. We are so excited to get to explore Bay Area environmental justice issues with you, so please stay tuned for more from us. Take care.

Environmental justice nonprofit, pursuing equity through policy advocacy, air quality monitoring, and local hire in Bay Area communities.