In my last essay, I wrote about the drinking water crisis that rural people in Morrow and Umatilla counties face from industrial and agricultural nitrate pollution.
As a rural community organizer, I have had the honor of working shoulder to shoulder with these community leaders. In the last six months, I have learned so many precious, powerful lessons about what it means to be a community, what it looks like to grow together, and what it means to fight for justice. In the face of an ugly David and Goliath fight for safe water, I have seen the knowledge and wisdom rural people from the other Oregon have to share.
The people of the Lower Umatilla Basin have taken on a fight together across language and culture against much larger powers for safe drinking water.
The folks who are fighting for safe water mostly work six days a week bent over in the fields, under machinery, or along the production lines of food processing plants. Often there isn’t enough work. Sometimes there is no time for anything but work. Yet, these folks show up month after month, week after week to community meetings and county commissioner meetings, town hall meetings. They have gone door-to-door to collect water samples and opened their doors to the media and Sen. Jeff Merkley.
Paulo did an interview with OPB radio while his daughter was in labor with his first grandchild. Raymond talks to me on the phone while he’s running a backhoe and Kelly talks to me while she’s checking for new calves. Joe comes to every meeting tired from six days a week on call as a mechanic. And Mike, Barbara, Gary, and Luis have all said, “I don’t think I’ll see an end to this pollution before I die. I am doing this for the next generation.”
I have watched and wondered what keeps these folks showing up, studying the issue, talking to unresponsive politicians, sitting through boring meetings. When I asked folks, “why are you here? What keeps you coming?” They look at me a little confused. It just seems they can’t help but try.
My sense is they just feel compelled by care for their neighbors, outrage at this injustice, and frankly they just don’t want to lose anymore. From watching these courageous people, my sense is folks want three things: dignity, access to justice, and room to grow.
I think what elected leaders, officials, and agencies must understand is that when people with polluted wells push elected leaders and agencies to fix the problem, they are asking for their human dignity to be recognized. However, their call for respect is so often missed or misinterpreted by decisionmakers and people in power.
I have seen that when people push for urgency, decisionmakers see whining and petulance. When people show up every week to participate in democracy, to ask for change, to work within the system, they are treated as a nuisance. When people try to get information from tightlipped agencies, officials, and governments, they are treated as ignorant. When people with more power minimize the day-to-day danger folks are facing, it is a sign they don’t recognize the dignity of these rural people.
Instead of slow-walking a top-down bureaucratic solution toward the Lower Umatilla Basin, elected leaders need to show up, look people in the eye, and take notes.
Local people are the experts on their own lives and on living with this problem. They should be treated as equal partners in finding and implementing immediate and long-term solutions.
People in the basin want to work with scientists, epidemiologists, engineers, and politicians, but these “experts” need to see the intelligence, creativity, skills, and dignity of the people most affected by this crippling pollution.
In fact, I don’t believe a solution is possible without them.
Rural people are nothing if not problem solvers — I mean, it takes creativity to figure out how to fix a frozen pipe or get cell service or buy underwear in a rural place.
The rural leaders of the Lower Umatilla Basin are doing everything they can to show up, understand, and fix this problem. Everyone, including those in power, should step back and recognize their effort for what it is and match it.
Access to justice
For three decades huge corporations have been polluting the groundwater. The state hasn’t curbed the pollution, and the affected people can’t.
Folks want justice, but I think many of us, feel we don’t have access to justice. We can’t walk in the front door of justice because money, status, class, race, language, gender, education, location or some other factor seems to keep us out. People everywhere want a fair shake. They want the system to work for us, for our neighbors, and especially in a crisis.
In the case of safe water, justice and fairness mean state and local government need to:
• Provide information and answer community questions.
• Work with the community shoulder to shoulder and show up to help.
• Open the doors and let the community into the conversations and decision-making.
• Act with urgency and follow through on words with deeds.
• Get these people some clean water.
Room to grow
Through this water issue, I have come to see that change is an individual, internal activity that has external, community impacts. Perhaps individual change is what matters most.
For example, this water work is rural community organizing across language and culture. All of our community water meetings are bilingual. Without being told, people have just come to have patience with the slow pace of translated meetings. Jokes are laughed at twice — once in each language.
What’s more is English speakers have joined with Spanish speakers to advocate for county government meetings to be translated. Subsequently, English speakers have become newly concerned about voting access for Spanish-language speakers. Spanish speaking leaders have come to see the English speakers as more than angry and loud. Meetings don’t segregate as Spanish speakers on one side and English speakers on the other anymore.
People are making attempts to sit together and speak in the other’s language the best they can.
People are also learning and teaching how to be fully engaged in democracy.
Within the community leadership there are life-long union members who have been on the picket line and people who’ve never talked to an elected official. As Mike, a retired logger told me, “I’ve never been in a fight without my fists. I need to learn to fence with my words.”
Folks are learning new skills and are becoming experts on this complex issue. They are becoming excellent spokespeople for their community.
They are trying and sometimes messing up. Nothing here is simplistic or “kumbaya” but for the people involved, it feels profound and exciting. Community work is messy and sometimes it hurts. We have stepped on each other’s toes. It takes smarts and heart and patience.
Building a stronger community and stronger relationships takes a lot of time and trust. In a rural context, folks have let go of assumptions or past slights to come together for their human right to water.
What I have learned from community leaders is that none of us are static. In the context of community and common need, people can learn and change rapidly. Together people rise to the occasion and act for future generations. Dignity means we carry water for each other. Justice means we get safe water. Room to grow means we might trip and spill it, but we all keep going.
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