New American Media — Chinese and Latino Youth Team Up to Clean Up

Editor’s Note: Thirty-two Chinese and Latino teenagers were recognized by the city earlier this week for their efforts to promote a healthy environment in their southeast San Francisco neighborhoods, reports New America Media writer Jun Wang.

SAN FRANCISCO – When young people talk about such grim issues as cancer, asthma and heart disease, people generally listen.

That’s what 32 Chinese and Hispanic teenagers, all from San Francisco’s Chinatown and Mission Districts, have been doing for the last couple of years. They have been going door to door in southeast San Francisco neighborhoods to promote a healthy environment in their communities.

On July 29, the city’s Board of Supervisors recognized their work, done under the banner of Common Roots, a youth program comprising two groups – People Organizing to Demand Environmental and Economic Rights (PODER) and Chinese Progressive Association (CPA). Common Roots was launched 10 years ago.

“The Board of Supervisors recognizes the Common Roots Youth Organizing Program for their successful efforts to develop a community of youth activists by bringing together Latino and Chinese immigrant youth, building their skills and capacity for organizing around common issues with a common voice,” read the certificate.

Nery Morales, a 16-year-old senior at John O’Connell High School of Technology and one of the 32 teenagers recognized, told New America Media that she once counted 107 trucks and buses in one hour passing by her home in Southeast San Francisco. Truck emissions have been associated with asthma and other health problems. Morales said the emission from one truck is equal to emissions from 20 cars.

As a senior member who has been in the program for more than four years, Morales and her fellow Common Roots members helped push the city to replace diesel buses with hybrids in their low-income, immigrant neighborhoods. They have urged the Municipal Transportation Agency (MTA) and members of the Board of Supervisors to use more hybrid buses.

The teenagers drew up new routes that would take trucks away from parks and childcare centers in their communities. They plan to urge businesses to adopt the new routes.

Teresa Almaguer, a PODER advocate who was born and raised in San Francisco, pointed out that California freeways 280 and 101 run through her neighborhood, and “88 percent of the people who live by the freeway are people of color.”

“English is not the top language spoken in our communities,” Almaguer noted. “More people speak Spanish, Mandarin, Cantonese and Tagalog.” But since government notices are in English, many residents are unable to access the information.

To get the word out in their communities, young people go in pairs with one Spanish-speaker and one who speaks an Asian language. They knock on doors, inform people about pollution in their neighborhoods and alert them to “environmental racism” –- how low-income and immigrant communities are disproportionably victims of pollution.

The young people set up “toxic tours” for city officials, visiting garbage dumps, power plants, factories and sewage facilities.

Bill Chen, 18, was introduced to the program by his best friend. Chen immigrated from Guangdong, China with his family two years ago. He said he barely knew anything about pollution back home, and he never imagined that he could help to make positive changes in the environment.

According to Emily Lee of the CPA, Common Roots is the first and only program in the city that has brought the Chinese and Latino ethnic groups together for a common goal.

The two communities “work side by side and live side by side,” said Tiffany Ng, 16, a student at George Washington High School in San Francisco.

Ng noticed similarities between the two communities. “They are all people of color and share the same neighborhood,” Ng said. “We learn from each other’s culture,” she said, adding, “Now I eat more Mexican food.”

by Jun Wang (New American Media)