Community Will Gain Knowledge, Guide Solutions in Listening Circles

By Gabriela Estrada, Listening Circles Program Manager

February will mark the beginning of Sustainable Solano’s first Listening Circle sessions. For the next five months, I will be facilitating up to 10 Listening Circles in central Solano County (Fairfield, Vacaville and Suisun City). A Listening Circle is our attempt at finding community-guided solutions to community issues/problems. The goal is to not only strengthen community knowledge and participation, but to get active buy-in from community members into the solutions since no solution is sustainable without community input and interest. For the last few months, I’ve been busy analyzing and comparing data from the California Environmental Protection Agency’s CalEnviroScreen 3.0 and California Department of Public Health Nutrition Education and Obesity Prevention map to learn about the different environmental hazards in central Solano County and the population characteristics and socioeconomic outcomes. The goal was simple: to understand the environmental pollution burdens and compare that to population characteristics to find neighborhoods that might have a need for green infrastructure support. But what is green infrastructure? Green infrastructure is a resilient approach to managing climate impacts that provides many community benefits, including reducing and treating storm water at its source while delivering environmental, social and economic benefits. 

This new project came about when we as an organization realized that the California Environmental Protection Agency’s CalEnviroScreen 3.0 does an excellent job mapping communities that are disproportionately burdened by pollution, but like any cumulative data source, this methodology has its limits. In Solano County, only South Vallejo received the Disadvantaged Community Designation, which gives this area the highest priority for all state green infrastructure funding such as from Prop 68 and for most private foundation grants. However, working on the ground, we saw a great need for green infrastructure programs in multiple neighborhoods and communities across the county. Prop 68 was approved in 2018 with the goal of three kinds of projects: conservation efforts, new parks for struggling communities and water needs. These funds currently fund a lot of these types of community greening projects.

Here are some examples of how we can use a deeper dive into the data to identify communities that would benefit from such projects:

Environmental Pollution Burdens

Exposure Indicators

In Vacaville, for example, the measurement for ozone is the highest in all of Solano County. Why this matters is because when inhaled, ozone reacts chemically with many biological molecules in the respiratory tract. Similarly, drinking water contamination in Vacaville and pesticide use is the highest in the county. Fairfield traffic density by far exceeds any other city in the county. Traffic density has been known to have an effect on respiratory health, especially for those in sensitive populations, such as those who have asthma or cardiovascular disease. Diesel particulate matter, which has known carcinogens, such as benzene and formaldehyde, is recorded in Fairfield at 25.18kg/day and in Suisun City at 24.1kg/day. This is important because very small particles of diesel particulate matter can contribute to health problems including heart and lung disease and lung cancer.

Effects Indicators

Additionally, groundwater threats are almost as high in Suisun City and Fairfield as they are in Vallejo. CalEnviroScreen 3.0 shows groundwater threats in Suisun City and Fairfield as a couple of the highest in the county. Shockingly, there are 20 cleanup sites in Fairfield and 19 in Vacaville, the second and third highest in the county respectfully. Cleanup sites are places contaminated with harmful chemicals and need to be cleaned up by property owners or government. These sites pose risks for nearby residents because the contaminants can move off-site and impact surrounding communities through groundwater plume migration or windblown dust. Some studies have shown that neighborhoods with cleanup sites are generally poorer and have more people of color than other neighborhoods. Fairfield has a high number of hazardous waste facilities and hazardous waste generators, such as recycling, treatment, storage or disposal facilities by registered hazardous waste transporters. When it comes to solid waste sites and facilities, such as landfills or composing facilities, there is a disproportionately higher number of facilities in Suisun City at 17 facilities — the highest number in the county.

Population Characteristics

Sensitive Populations

There are some population characteristics worthy of note in Central Solano. Fairfield has a high asthma rate, just below the rate of Vallejo. Low birth weight, which has been correlated with increased risk of later health problems and increased infant mortality, is the highest in the county in Fairfield.

Socioeconomic Factors

The census tract with the highest linguistic isolation, at 18.4% of households not speaking English, is in Fairfield. This lack of language makes it harder for members of these communities to participate in local decisions. Additionally, Fairfield shows a few tracts with poverty rates above 54%. The housing burden in Fairfield is at 35.5%, meaning that many low-income households are highly burdened by housing costs.

While each city has its own unique set of needs and challenges, doing work on the ground, you soon realize that there is a high need for green infrastructure projects that help address environmental issues in smaller neighborhoods within each city. We are excited to begin this work and hold sessions with community members to ensure that they are aware of this environmental health information. A clear goal is to not only provide information that will support their lived experiences, but to also provide tangible tools as well as projects that they might want to bring to their communities and would like to participate in and support on. This is a chance to have community members be at the center of proposed solutions that will lead to a healthier and more resilient community.

At the end of all the Listening Circles, we will then hold three presentations (one in each city) where I will present to the community the analysis and proposals that came out of the Listening Circles in an effort to create a feedback communication loop within the community to ensure that residents know the results and are aware of any next steps or projects.

Community engagement and community knowledge are at the center of this project. As someone who grew up in Solano County, it has been a real privilege to be able to work within my community to make it healthier, thriving and more resilient.

Be on the lookout for future updates!

The Listening Circles program is funded through Cal EPA. Learn more here!

This Giving Tuesday, Support Sustainable Solano Through Give Local Solano

By Sustainable Solano

Sometimes the gifts we get at Sustainable Solano are the small moments that come out of the work we do. While our work is focused on effecting change within our communities to build resiliency and sustainable living, what happens on the human scale is much more personal:

  • A woman getting to know neighbors and new friends while planning a resilient neighborhood.
  • A man planting in a community garden recalling how his mother prepared certain vegetables during his childhood.
  • Students researching and connecting with the food they grow on campus to send home for families.
  • Farmers connecting in conversation to share practices and ideas.

During #GivingTuesday, Dec. 3, we invite you to become part of fostering that human connection in creating a world that works for everyone. Sustainable Solano is participating in this year’s Give Local Solano. The program gives you a chance to give to area nonprofits that are doing important work in the county. All donations go to the organizations selected, and 100% of the donation qualifies as a charitable gift. Here are more details on Give Local Solano.

While we have a Donate button at the top of our website for any time of year, Give Local Solano gives us a chance to highlight our programs with people who may not have heard of Sustainable Solano and the work we do. We hope those of you who know us, volunteer with us and have joined us for workshops will help spread the word — while every dollar will help bring more programs to the county, every new connection is someone who can help us grow and spread the important work we’re doing to create sustainable landscapes, shape resilient communities, provide education and support local food.

See Sustainable Solano’s profile and donate here on Dec. 3!

Tangible and Valuable: Permaculture Design Course Shapes Program Work

By Gabriela Estrada and Kassie Munro, Program Managers

The OAEC Permaculture Design Course cohort that included Sustainable Solano Program Managers Gabriela Estrada and Kassie Munro

During Sustainable Solano’s restorative summer break, we traveled to Occidental Arts and Ecology Center, a research, demonstration, education, advocacy and community-organizing center in West Sonoma County, where they develop strategies for regional-scale community resilience and the restoration of biological and cultural diversity. For two weeks, we joined 30 other people in an intensive Permaculture Design Certificate program – frequently referred to as the PDC.

While Permaculture Design Courses follow a standardized curriculum to ensure that those who get their PDC receive comprehensive training in all of the critical systems design components, each program has a unique approach to how they immerse students in the permaculture experience, which for us meant living in yurts on the 80-acre OAEC property as part of their intentional community for the duration of the program.

Upon arrival on the first day, we all sat in a circle and were asked why we decided to attend the PDC training. What quickly became evident was that a lot of our fellow PDC-ers wanted to learn about permaculture design not only to create beautiful gardens, but to heal the earth and the people on it. As the days progressed this became more evident. Cohort members came from all walks of life and from all over the world! We had Mimi from Taiwan and our yurt-mate Mounir from Dubai. Their goal was to create a space of sustainability and social cohesion in their properties back home. Their generous attitudes were not unique among our cohort.

The course itself was both incredibly rigorous in its training, and yet at times also felt remarkably like summer camp. Nestled in the lush Duck Bill Creek watershed of Western Sonoma County, the property boasts a number of incredible gardens, restored forest and grasslands, an irrigation pond (which doubles as a swimming hole), and countless trails to get lost on. Communal vegetarian meals cooked in the shared kitchen with ingredients from the gardens were shared three times a day.

While living on-site, the property became so much more than a demonstration classroom, and the experience became so much more than simply an education. With course topics covering everything from cob building and composting to botany and global water systems, the training is incredibly holistic. We even had an afternoon dedicated to learning the art of fire-making. The social permaculture teachings truly came to life in the communal living experience where we had the chance to feel and live a different way based on designing social structures to favor beneficial patterns of human behavior and attempting to create conditions that favor nurturing and empowering relationships with each other.

The course culminated in a group design project, which for us focused on a nearby 7-acre plot of land that had recently been acquired by the Cultural Conservancy. Indigenous wisdom and learning the heritage of our host land was a focal point of the training. This came in many forms: first a small presentation by The Cultural Conservancy, then a trip to the actual site in the city of Graton, which is Southern Pomo Coast Miwok Territory. During this site visit, we all took notes, pictures and asked members of the Cultural Conservancy what they envisioned for the space to better understand their hopes and aspirations for the place. As a group, we were grateful that we were allowed to participate in a project that aims to create an inter-tribal bio-cultural heritage farm and indigenous education center. Together in a team of five, we created designs that represented all the different topics we were taught, and then on the last day presented it to the Cultural Conservancy.

It was a true honor to be a part of a tangible and valuable regenerative restoration project during our course. Belonging to an organization such as Sustainable Solano, whose core principals are permaculture-based, it has been very valuable to obtain Permaculture Design Certification. As program managers, this certification will allow us to infuse permaculture design principles and guiding ethics more deeply into our work, allowing us to continue shaping programs that approach sustainability through the lenses of social, environmental and economic equity.

Building Community Capacity: Conversation at California Environmental Protection Agency

By Elena Karoulina, Executive Director

Sustainable Solano Executive Director Elena Karoulina, far right, shares insight on a panel at the CalEPA gathering.

Recently a few Sustainable Solano team members had the privilege of spending a day with our fellow Environmental Justice CalEPA grantees and CalEPA and other state agencies’ officials and staff in Sacramento.

We were humbled by the depth and breadth of the organizations present at the meetings. From all over California – LA, Central Valley, Northern California and Bay Area — representatives of mostly grassroots organizations described their work of fighting against unfair environmental burdens in their communities, restricting and eventually banning pesticide use in California, building green infrastructure, providing youth education and leadership skills development, and supporting healing and personal transformation for inmates using permaculture as guiding philosophy. The community wisdom in the room was palpable — we all shared our honest stories of our accomplishments, opportunities and numerous challenges to further this work, from lack of funding and policy support to the unrealistic expectations of some funders to have measurable results in a short period of time. Our impact is not always easy to measure: How do you measure hope?

California Secretary of Environmental Protection Jared Blumenfeld opened the gathering and set the tone of our inquiry for the day: What does “successful” community capacity development look like? He masterfully identified our major modern adversaries: complexity and abstraction. The issues we are dealing with are so multifaceted and complex that it becomes increasingly difficult for the majority of the population to grasp them in their totality. Related to this is the abstraction of many concepts. For example, climate change is so profound and global, yet for most of us it is not yet a dire daily reality. Secretary Blumenfeld encouraged us to keep it personal and relative to our communities, to distill the essence of the issues and translate them into the place-based needs of the communities we work in, yet remain aware of how those fit into the complexity of our global challenges.

Blumenfeld talked about the need to reform the system and posted a question to all of us: How would this reform look? How can we ensure that technological advancements are placed in low-income, high-need communities first? Overall, we all felt appreciated and supported by the top leadership of the California EPA.

Throughout the day and long after we’ve been reflecting on what community capacity means for Sustainable Solano. The first question we have to answer is “capacity to do what?”

We, at Sustainable Solano, strive toward a new model, a vision for our human society built on the principles of Earth care, people care and fair share for a world that works for everyone. This new world is emerging all around us at the grassroots level, and it was very reassuring to hear from state officials that the question of a structural change is presenting itself on their level, which opens up a conversation about what that change will look like. It will take all of us, every level and all three major sectors of our society — business, government and civic — to work together to create a more sustainable future for all. We work on the ground, rooted in our neighborhoods, inspiring, educating and empowering our community members and providing tools and space to take heart-based actions toward the good of the whole.

What kind of community capacity supports this work? What would be a crucial characteristic we all need to have? We think it’s CONNECTION – to ourselves, to each other, to the world around us and to something larger than ourselves, whatever it might be for each of us.

We see the role of Sustainable Solano in enacting and supporting these connections through meaningful, tangible work in our communities. Every time you come to our events to plant trees, establish a permaculture food forest or install a greywater system, we are doing just that — seeding these vital connections all over the county.

This is exactly how we approach our Listening Circles project in Central Solano, funded by CalEPA’s Environmental Justice grant: We would like to bring to the communities mostly affected by the environmental pressures a balanced sense of urgency and agency, knowledge about environmental issues in their backyards, and practical, achievable, community-based solutions to fix the problems or at least ease the effects of them.

Looking forward to seeing you at our next community event!

Growing Change Through Community

By Allison Nagel, Communications Manager

Film maker John de Graaf and author and public speaker Anamaria Aristizabal

A conversation sparked in a Vallejo living room by the lessons learned in the city of Bogota, Colombia, could be a part of driving change in the local community. 

Change starts with a vision of what is possible.

“It is a fire in our hearts,” said Anamaria Aristizabal, who spoke to a small group of local citizens earlier this summer about the transformation that took place in her hometown, creating a city full of parks, libraries and bike paths. Anamaria was there by invitation of filmmaker John de Graaf. (We’ll be showing one of his films, Redefining Prosperity, on Aug. 18 in Benicia, and John will participate in a Q&A after the screening.) John is currently working on a documentary about Vallejo. He said there are lines to be drawn between what happened in Bogota and what he sees happening in our local city — how bringing public services to neglected areas can give residents the sense that someone in government cares and the empowerment to ask for more.

Anamaria, who is a public speaker, author and the co-founder of an ecovillage outside of Bogota, drew out a timeline of how Bogota’s leadership history led to the city’s current state. First, there was leadership that pursued fiscal cleanup of a corrupt and bankrupt system. That paved the way for the next leader to focus on civic culture and the need for citizens to be civil to each other while building up a fiscal surplus. And that surplus allowed the next leader to focus on infrastructure, building out all of those public services and spaces.

By solving for essential needs, such as adding communal kitchens to address hunger, the city freed people up to have the bigger conversations and to advocate for more and better ways of improving the city and the status of its citizens.

“A strong social platform of people feeling met by their government allowed the city to move into a new era,” she said.

In examining the identity of an individual or a city, it comes down to tangible things, stories (those “seeds” that carry the identity and essence of a person or place) and ideals, Anamaria said. In Bogota, attention to ideals meant a focus on inclusion for all citizens or beauty in the natural world.

“All these ideals guide us and bring us together,” she said.

A focus on ideals can be a challenge, with the question of how to sustain the commitment and energy around an ideal.

Anamaria suggests “social technologies” — the building of stronger relationships where everyone feels heard and can unite around common values. Building trust creates more opportunities to pursue possibilities.

She pointed to the small group gathered together and how it creates new connections. There are more opportunities to do that within our communities. Part of the discussion that night among attendees touched on the need to better engage disenfranchised parts of the community.

“Out of relationships you can generate new possibilities and move into action,” she said, noting that the building of relationships, purpose and meaning has to come first before jumping to action.

She hoped that by sharing what has happened elsewhere, she can inspire others intent on changing their cities for the better.

“Sharing the positive stories that are already happening becomes the good fire to inspire others,” she said.

Learning to Listen

Anamaria’s insight and the feedback from this small group on the importance of community involvement and lending an ear to the voices of those most affected by community challenges ties in with Sustainable Solano’s commitment to creating Listening Circles. Learn more about this exciting process here.

Environmental Justice Grant to Help With Most Important Part of Community Involvement: Listening

By Sustainable Solano

So much of what we do as an organization is driven by connection. We seek to connect with community members and help neighbors come together to work toward a better world, whether that is through creating a community garden, forming a resilient neighborhood, supporting local farms or other means of connection. An important part of that task is finding out from community members what challenges they face, so that we can offer services that meet the needs and serve the desires of local residents.

California’s Environmental Protection Agency recently awarded Sustainable Solano an Environmental Justice grant that will help us create Listening Circles to identify challenges and move toward solutions starting in Fairfield, Vacaville and Suisun City. The grants focus on communities most affected by pollution and look at ways to combat pollution and improve health outcomes. 

Sustainable Solano will work with local partners, such as churches, schools and other community groups, to engage community members and develop community-led solutions that will address the effects of climate change on disadvantaged communities. We will do this with help from Solano Public Health and UC Davis. Much of our work in green infrastructure, from creating demonstration food forest backyard gardens to community vegetable gardens to resilient neighborhoods, can serve to address climate change. The Listening Circles will help determine which of those types of resources can be the best fit for local communities, particularly low-income communities and communities of color that often face the greatest environmental justice challenges. These circles will also help plan any future programming that community members identify as needs.

By taking the time to listen to residents, we will be able to learn what environmental issues affect their neighborhoods, involve community leaders and local representatives in the decision-making process at the local and county level, and improve access to environmental information and making that information easy to understand and put to use. All of these things will culminate in an assessment and action plan that can then help the community members through support in developing green infrastructure plans to address the challenges they have identified.

We look forward to sharing more as we get underway in fostering greater connection and access to green infrastructure solutions as these communities address the greatest environmental issues they face.

Have questions, suggestions or want to connect about this program? Please contact Gabriela Estrada at gabriela@sustainablesolano.org