Community & Issue
Valley Improvement Projects (VIP) is a community-based organization located in Modesto, a town situated in California’s San Joaquin Valley, an area renowned for it agricultural production. What may be less well-known about the community are the historic strikes, boycotts, lawsuits, and marches that illustrate a long-standing pattern of struggle between the marginalized, predominately Latino/a worker populations and the land owners and business interests of the area. Water usage and rights and air pollution are two climate and health related issues that people in Modesto are living with on a daily basis. As climate change increases, so too does the drought and ambient temperature, which adds to negative air quality, higher asthma rates, and decreased access to fresh water. Additionally, a heavy reliance on freeways/highways, motor vehicles, and petroleum are major contributors to air pollution throughout the San Joaquin Valley. Many business leaders and industries in and around Modesto have a vested interest in suburban sprawl, commuter economies, diesel trucks and generators, and road development. Therefore, raising the awareness of climate change among Modesto residents and surrounding communities is a challenge because of the deeply ingrained development and business interests that rely on the petroleum economy for profits. It has been well documented that poor and marginalized communities are the most vulnerable and impacted when it comes to the effects of climate change. The struggle for power and to have a voice for community members is a constant battle for the poor and for communities of color. When deciding how water resources will be allocated, or when the plans and mechanisms for regional growth and development are underway, these communities are up against major developers and large agri-business, whose bottom line is the profit margin. Conversely, the bottom line for VIP and the communities they represent is their health and well-being.
Community Solution to Climate Change Challenge
Recognizing that the current social, environmental, and political culture in the Modesto area does not prioritize poor communities and communities of color, Emiliano Mataka, Bianca Lopez, Thomas Helme, and Adam Brazil formed Valley Improvement Projects in 2012, and opened the VIP Community Center for Social and Environmental Justice in 2013. The mission of VIP is to improve the quality of life of underrepresented and marginalized residents of California’s Central Valley, by promoting social and environmental issues through youth outreach, education, technology, and art. The center offers a variety of services including, but not limited to computer, internet, and phone access; meeting and organizing space; bicycle workshop and maintenance tools and assistance; library, literature, and lounge; a resource center; clothes and food donation collection and distribution; and youth tutoring and art activities. The Community Center offers a variety of services and resources because it aims to be a space where marginalized groups—such as the homeless, youth, and people with mental health issues—can come into their own power. VIP’s motto, “Working with the community to improve the community” makes explicit their commitment to self-determination and empowerment. The founding members hope that VIP will be a place where underrepresented people can assemble and organize. Modesto has a history of protest and struggles for justice from Estanislao to Cesar Chavez to the immigrant and worker march of 10,000 people on May Day in 2006. VIP works to offer a place where people not only learn about that history, but also continue it.
The vision of a sustainable community with clean air, water, and soil powered by renewable energy has been a motivation behind all the work done at VIP. Taking action against the root causes of pollution and climate change means building critical mass, where enough community members become aware and involved in creating solutions for healthy communities. For VIP volunteers, this means that nurturing a culture of involvement and awareness is central to their work. The work of VIP members ranges from attending public/governmental meetings, collaborating with other environmental and social justice groups, assisting community members with resources and information, and holding educational workshops with guest speakers. To frame the work of VIP, members developed a “5 Point Platform” of issues: 1 – Environmental Justice and Public Health: VIP works to promote the good health of people and the planet by emphasizing natural and sustainable agriculture and environmental practices. 2 – Youth Outreach and Alternative Education: VIP works to provide local young people, and other community members, with productive recreational activities and with socially and culturally relevant and accurate educational workshops and literature. 3 – Homeless Outreach and Empowerment: VIP works with community members that are without stable living conditions to help find the resources they need. 4 – Tenant/Worker Rights and Solidarity: VIP works with local residents being harassed or treated unfairly by their landlord or boss and provides assistance in building solidarity amongst them. 5 – Law Enforcement/Prison/Immigration Accountability: VIP works to ensure police, immigration, prison, and jail officials and institutions are held accountable for their actions in cases of abuse and corruption.
The Valley Improvement Projects collaborates with a wide range of organizations and environmental justice movement members at the local, state, and national level who advocate for clean air, water, and soil as well as efficient and green community development and transportation methods. Key partners include the Central Valley Air Quality Coalition, California Cleaner Freight Coalition, Central California Environmental Justice Network, Greenaction for Health & Environmental Justice, Catholic Charities, and the Peace and Life Center. Members are actively involved in the Anti-Keystone XL Pipeline movement, Anti-Monsanto movement, and Anti-Fracking movement. Given that VIP is volunteer run, educational and financial support from coalitions, organizations, community groups, and individual community members is critical for the organization and the VIP Community Center. Collaborating with various groups and sectors has helped VIP members gain a deeper understanding of what the community identifies as the region’s biggest issues and problems, as well as possible solutions to work toward. The financial support provided through grants and donations has kept the VIP Center for Social and Environmental Justice open so that they can continue to educate and be educated by the community.
Next Steps and Community Needs
On the local level, challenging the paradigm that puts “jobs” above environmental and public health is a key issue to addressing air pollution, water issues, and climate change. On the regional, state, and national level VIP members see that the Modesto and the Stanislaus County area will become increasingly involved in environmental issues; in particular, climate change. The expansion in VIP’s activities comes through collaboration and partnerships with other groups and organizations. For example, VIP and community members from Modesto and Stanislaus County attend events and support groups outside of their region, and also open their Community Center as a gathering space for those groups. On the state-wide and national level VIP works in solidarity through exchange of information to advocate on behalf of communities throughout Stanislaus County.