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Reflections on Environmental Justice & Intersectionality

By Cheyenne Lin

A couple of weeks ago, I had the opportunity to participate in a creek cleanup at Root Park as a Climate Action Corps Fellow alongside members of StopWaste, Friends of San Leandro Creek, San Leandro Public Works, the Boy Scouts, and the Rotary Club of San Leandro. Along with StopWaste members Cristian and Angelina, Climate Fellow Fona Ou and I hosted a Litterati booth at the creek entrance where volunteers coming out of the creek dumped the litter they had gathered to be assessed, before disposing it into garbage trucks. Using the Litterati app, we documented the litter that was being picked up from the creek, geotagging it in the process as part of StopWaste’s Litter Free Challenge. The more than 400 pieces of litter documented included lots of food waste, single-use plastics, and beverage cans. Among these were also traces of people living in the creek - blankets, works of art, diapers, and children’s toys were all things that were found in the creek. During those few hours of creek cleanup alone, there were 400+ pieces of litter geotagged and logged, with tons more going straight to disposal after it got too overwhelming to document it all. This begs the question: why is there so much litter in our creek in the first place?

Before the event began, the police department did a sweep of the creek area. Although the area was clear for volunteers to clean up, it is evident from the types of litter that were found that there is a significant unhoused population residing at the creek. It was heartwarming to see so many San Leandro residents come out and help clean up the area, but it was difficult knowing that many of the things being thrown away were likely someone’s possessions.

Intersectionality is how big issues such as environmental health overlap and relate to seemingly unrelated issues such as social class. While it is important to keep our city clean and litter free, it is just as important to address why this litter is there in the first place. Would parts of San Leandro such as Root Park and the creek have as much litter as they do if there were not so many unhoused folks forced to find shelter in places such as these? Would this be a problem if cities like San Leandro did not have such a big housing shortage? Why are so many people unhoused in the first place? Addressing questions such as these and thinking about their root causes is imperative to environmental justice.

Reflecting on this event, it becomes evident that the conversation about improving our environment must extend to include everyone - as everyone is ultimately affected. This should not only include environmental groups and residents that can put aside time and afford to care about environmental health. It must take into account demographics such as the unhoused population, who are arguably among the most affected by poor environmental conditions, but not (yet?) included in discussions about solutions.

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