Thursday, December 16, 2010

OXY TAKES ON THE WHITE HOUSE: Nine-member panel of students and community leaders interact with top White House officials in early morning forum.

By Kristi Kellogg | Eagle Rock Patch |

Students watch the live feed, with Oxy Professor Bob Gottlieb and L.A. Deputy Mayor Romel Pascual 

Students watch the live feed, with Oxy Professor Bob Gottlieb and L.A. Deputy Mayor Romel Pascual Credit Kristi Kellogg

Polluted air is a serious problem in many low-income, under-developed neighborhoods of Los Angeles

16 December 2011 – 1:26 PM -It's not every day that the White House reaches out to universities or colleges—and Occidental College, its most famous alumnus notwithstanding, is hardly an exception. But on the morning of Dec. 15, that's exactly what the White House did: Two top federal government officials participated in a live, online discussion with a nine-member group of college students and grassroots youth leaders at Oxy.

The forum, which was broadcast on Facebook and the official website of the White House and President Barack Obama, who studied at Oxy, was centered around environmental justice issues. In Washington D.C., Lisa Jackson, administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency, and Nancy Sutley, chair of the Council on Environmental Quality, answered questions from the Oxy panel during the 45-minute session, which began at 9:55 a.m.

Bob Gottlieb, professor and director of the Urban and Environmental Policy Institute, alongside Los Angeles Deputy Mayor Romel Pascual, delivered opening remarks and then turned the forum over to the nine panel members.

Juan Carlos Garibay, a UCLA doctoral student in environmental justice who is associated with the Coalition for a Safe Environment, a nonprofit community organization based in Wilmington, CA, asked the federal officials about efforts to address "a public health crisis in predominantly Latino lower-class" communities of Wilmington.

The crisis, said Garibay, exists "because of the lack of action on the part of this government." He referred to diesel particulates as the cause of a "disproportionate amount of our residents having asthma, heart disease, cancer and other health-related diseases." Why, he asked Jackson and Sutley, have environmental justice organizations "not been asked to participate in the writing process of bills that guarantee that the health of our children is at the forefront of all relevant pieces of legislation?"

In her response, Jackson said she agreed with Garibay. Environmental justice communities "should be heard from and included and consulted as regulations are being done," she said, adding that just last month the EPA created "Plan EJ 2014," a community outreach initiative aimed at improving environmental and health conditions in under-developed communities. "EPA now has, for the first time in its 40 year history, a process which is part of the skeleton of the agency," Jackson said.

As an eighth-grader at Stevenson Middle School in East Los Angeles, Manny Gaona, 13, was the youngest participant in the forum. For the past year and a half, he has been working with East Yard Communities for Environmental Justice, an organization that trains activists in Southeast Los Angeles to improve health and environmental conditions in their communities. "We've really been working hard to get our neighborhood to be safer and walkable and bikable [so that] we can do what we want without being afraid of being hit by a car," said Gaona, who was recently received a "Rising Leader" award by East Yard. 

Being hit by a car is a serious issue in his neighborhood, Gaona said, referring to an incident in which a car recently hit an elderly woman on her way home from church. Such mishaps have prompted Gaona to attend two commission hearings with the Board of Highway Safety. Partly because of his efforts, alongside those of the community, said Gaona, 1st District Los Angeles County Supervisor Gloria Molina recently announced a plan to conduct a six-month to nine-month "comprehensive traffic calming study," which would introduce measures to make traffic less dangerous in the Union Pacific neighborhood of East Los Angeles.

After Washington signed off and the myriad laptops on display were shut, Deputy Mayor Pascual pointed out that the forum had put the panel members, most of whom were students, at "only two degrees of separation from President Obama," who spent his first two years of college at Oxy before transferring to Columbia University. Pascual said he was proud of the young adults, and reminded them "very few people have this opportunity."

Oxy Professor Gottlieb added that he was pleased that the event taught his students how to "frame a question and give it background." Oxy's UEPI is renowned not only for its faculty, one of whom, Martha Matsuoka, is currently working in Washington D.C., but for its emphasis on community engagement, said Gottlieb.

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