Conversation Circles Program Creates New Opportunities and Environmental Resources

By Gabriela Estrada and Jonathan Erwin, Program Managers

While the Conversation Circles program in Central Solano (formerly the Listening Circles program) has come to the end of its grant term, our commitment to increase the understanding of environmental issues that affect Solano communities is ongoing. Using what we learned through the Conversation Circles program, we will continue to help residents access important environmental, health and other data that you can use to inform decision-making within your community.

Toward that end, we have created our Environmental Resources section of the website, where you can learn more about some of the environmental and health factors that affect our communities and see resources at the county and city level when it comes to addressing environmental concerns and preparing for disaster. The pages also list organizations that are working in our communities.

We have robust data for Fairfield, Suisun City and Vacaville out of the Conversation Circles program, and hope to build similar data for our other Solano County cities going forward.

As part of closing the Conversation Circles program, we created a Neighborhood Impact and Assessment Report where we documented the project, challenges and opportunities. Here are some of the newly created opportunities and lessons learned through this project: 

Connecting with Other Community Groups

Connecting with other organizations in each of the cities we worked with is key. These partnerships have opened the door for future collaboration efforts and further community engagement at a neighborhood level. Equally important, it also created an opportunity for us to combine efforts towards a common goal.

Building Trust and Showing Up

While we have a lot of partnerships with other organizations, this project brought us to a few neighborhoods that we’ve never worked in before. By collaborating with other organizations serving these areas, we were able to begin building trust and a sense of community. Sustainable Solano will continue to show up and create opportunities for engagement and will continue to work with community members in creating a happy, healthy and thriving community.

Connecting with Government Officials

Connecting with government officials gave the project manager a clear idea of the “lay of the land” to learn about the neighborhoods, the opportunities, the history and some of the potential challenges (both environmental and social) that a project might face. Connecting with government officials also created room for future collaboration efforts, including urban forestry efforts, community gardens and resiliency efforts through our other programs.

Increasing Reach with Support from Other Programs

We will continue to seek creative ways we can connect with community members through our other programs about the environmental data that affects their neighborhoods. 

For more details, read the complete Neighborhood Impact and Assessment Report

We plan on building on these lessons to inform the Environmental Resources pages and the rest of our programs, including the Resilient Neighborhoods program, now expanding to Suisun City, and the Youth Leadership program.

As we have continued to scale our Resilient Neighborhoods program and our research across Solano County, we realize that there is a disconnect in the information on environmental progress and the general public access to that information. City and county plans are often spread across many websites and buried with departments and commissions. Within this cacophony of public information, it can be difficult to find what is relevant and what is most up to date within the county and selected cities. As we found with last fire season, and potentially any upcoming disaster, knowledge is power and can mean the difference between safety and struggle. We will continue to find ways to make that information more easily accessible within Resilient Neighborhoods and beyond.

The Youth Environmental Leadership Fellowship now in development will encourage high school youth to examine CalEnviroScreen and other data, examine environmental justice issues within the county and their communities, participate in hands-on mitigation training, and present to city leaders and community members about the environmental information and possible solutions at the individual, community and policy level. This will continue to engage the wider community through the youth presentations and projects, and the data they collect will make our Environmental Resources pages more robust throughout the county. 

Through these pages, we seek to emphasize relevant local work and organizations that share our mission of nurturing initiatives for the good of the whole. See anything we missed? Let us know at


The Conversation Circles program and Environmental Resources page development was generously funded through the California Environmental Protection Agency’s Environmental Justice Small Grants Program.

Seeking Vacaville, Suisun City Residents to Monitor Air Quality and Help Communities

By Gabriela Estrada, Listening Circles Program Manager

Mapping the data for Central Solano County neighborhoods determined which would benefit the most from air monitoring

In Central Solano County, poor air quality is a top concern because pollution from various sources, whether traffic or wildfires, can create a harmful environment, particularly for people who already have health conditions such as asthma or heart problems. But in Vacaville and Suisun City, air monitors that could track pollutants and particulate matter in the air and offer valuable information to residents are lacking. This is worrisome, especially when you take into account the high asthma rates in Central Solano County, indicating people who would benefit from real-time air quality monitoring. Air monitors can be a great way to measure air pollution and help individuals actively avoid going outside on overly contaminated days and also try to implement measures to curb pollution.

It has been difficult to know exactly where to place these monitors, but after some initial data analysis from the Cal EPA EnviroScreen 3.0, Sustainable Solano was able to take 50 census tracts from Fairfield, Suisun and Vacaville and narrow them down to 10 neighborhoods where there was an immediate need to improve the air quality due to the high number of people living there with cardiovascular disease, asthma and socioeconomic challenges. After these sites were selected, we began to host neighborhood Listening Circle meetings with the objective of finding how our organization could support the vision residents had for their communities. We were only able to hold two Listening Circles (one more successful than the other) in Suisun City and Vacaville.

Sustainable Solano’s Listening Circles program began out of a need to educate communities about the environmental hazards affecting them, and to ask individuals living in these neighborhoods how they would like to transform their neighborhoods into resilient and thriving spaces where everyone could be happy and healthy.

A PurpleAir monitor / credit:PurpleAir

While the Listening Circles had to come to an abrupt stop due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the sense of purpose that we feel towards residents of Solano County has not stopped. At the first Listening Circle in Vacaville, community members said they wanted to be knowledgeable about the quality of their air and water. Toward this goal, we were able to purchase PurpleAir monitors that community members could use at no cost to them. These monitors (no bigger than 5 inches) will measure Diesel Particulate Matter 2.5 concentration. Diesel PM 2.5 can come from on-road sources (vehicles) and off-road (ships or trains) and is concentrated near ports, rail yards and freeways. These ultrafine particles are known to contain cancer-causing chemicals, and carry a strong connection to cardiovascular and pulmonary disease, including asthma and lung cancer. Sensitive populations already suffering from these diseases can become even more susceptible due to these environmental conditions.

The PurpleAir monitors connect to a WiFi network and can be placed outside homes, community buildings, churches or schools. The data can be accessed via the PurpleAir website, allowing for people to monitor when the air quality is worse and take actions to protect those who are most vulnerable. With the fire season coming up it will be especially important to track air quality, and it is also important for individuals who have asthma or other conditions that can be exacerbated by poor air quality.

If you or someone you know might be interested in hosting one of these air monitors FREE of charge and you live in Vacaville Neighborhood 1 or Suisun City neighborhoods identified in the map below please feel free to reach me at or (707) 339-8623.  Participants will get a free air monitor, free set-up and configuration and will play an instrumental part in informing their neighborhoods of the quality of their immediate air. I hope to hear from you!


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!