Creating a community-based political approach: How my HEAL School of Political Leadership experience is shaking up Central Valley organizing!

By Angel Garcia, Tulare County Community Organizer, Californians for Pesticide Reform, and Coalition Advocating for Pesticide Safety (and member of the first SoPL cohort!)

Part 1: Central Valley Livin’

I want to start off by asking you to imagine living in hot, swamp cooler-running, chemical-smelling, high-revving pesticide spraying machinery summer days. Well, no need to use your imagination if you live in a community not under city designation, or if you live out in the peripheries of town or city, next to agricultural activity in a place like California’s central valley. Hot. Swampy. Chemicals. Pesticides. These are some of the ways that residents have described summer days where I live in Tulare County, CA—a stark contrast from green trees and luscious fruits visible from Highway 99 (and let’s not forget the ever-stretching green grids of farmland).

In my region, pesticide exposure can easily go unreported and is normalized as being “needed” for local agriculture to thrive. If you are ever in the region, it won’t take you long to notice how the fields treated with pesticides either surround or are next to schools, homes, and areas where kids live, learn and play. Not surprisingly, the harmful pesticides have also made their way into our air, our water, and our bodies. Residents of Tulare County are tired of the harm that these pesticides have been inflicting on our families, and our response has increasingly been been to organize to fight against the systems that are responsible for spreading them!

I am an organizer with the Coalition Advocating for Pesticide Safety (CAPS) — a Tulare County-based group made up of community residents, groups, and organizations. CAPS is one concrete way that local residents are building power to address pesticide drift and the negative health impacts related to long-term pesticide exposure such as the disruption of brain development, autism, and lowering IQs in children.

With community leaders at the helm, CAPS focuses on short-term pressure campaigns, as well as bigger efforts at the state-level to ensure that our local and state governments put the strongest health protections into place. CAPS has helped elevate the intersectionality of environmental justice, and galvanized the collective power of resources, energy, ideas, vision, and lived experience.

As CAPS started meeting with local decision-makers more frequently, the need for reflective representation in the governing bodies at different levels in our county became evident to me, and I felt a personal need to engage in a larger way. Coincidentally or not, this was around the same time that the HEAL Food Alliance opened up applications to its School of Political Leadership (SoPL). I am glad I applied.

Part 2: The HEAL SoPL Experience

The HEAL School of Political Leadership not only provided me with immediate tangible tools to build power at the hyper-local level, but also helped me understand the bigger vision of creating an equitable food system, and how my work was part of that vision. My participation has helped me see that collective power comes from the recognition of the intersectionality of our work, and a shared vision can bring us together to create the systemic disruption we need to shift the dominant power dynamic. I say this with the premise that change is not handed over, it is obtained. The HEAL SoPL has helped me in my own process of healing, connecting my work to the grand vision of an equitable food system, and has given me the opportunity to see how ideas are put into action.

Healing is part of the Experience

In the opening SoPL session this past January in Delano, CA, members of the SoPL cohort talked about trauma and healing. It was the first time that I heard this used in the given context. Trauma? Healing? At first, I wasn’t sure what to make of the terms, but as my peers shared more on their experiences, I came to realize that healing can be an act of liberation, that the trauma from my lived experience needed addressing, not suppression. This was also a recurring theme for me at our second session in Cleveland, Ohio, but was more pronounced at our third SoPL session at the Tierra Negra Farms in Durham, North Carolina, when each cohort member ventured out into farmland that had undergone deep trauma but was in the process of healing. Talking about trauma and healing is new to me, but is now something that I am actively conscious of thanks to my SoPL experience.

Collective Power

Being part of HEAL’s School of Political Leadership has been instrumental in deepening my understanding of food systems work. Before joining the SoPL family, I was organizing with mothers who were holding it down and fighting back against toxic pesticides—or as chemical companies say, “crop protection tools”—in California’s Southern San Joaquin Valley. These mothers and their families are are community residents that are also part of the food system, and unfortunately, they often experience firsthand how the capitalist food system prioritizes monetary gains over people’s lives.

HEAL’s vision of an equitable food system addressed at the 2nd SoPL session at HEAL’s member Summit in Cleveland, Ohio confirmed my local-level experience, and was also a turning point for me. The discussions in Cleveland around what an equitable food system looks and how we get there complimented my vision that in order to address all the wrongs in my region, all the bad that happens in our lives, it is imperative to understand that there is no coincidence in the way our lives unfold. We live — often without consent –forced realities of oppression packaged in ways that make these realities seem ‘normal.” (Take for example, pesticide applications in summer months when unincorporated communities shut their windows, keep their kids inside, in the futile attempt to prevent pesticides from entering their homes.) Yet, what HEAL’s Platform for Real Food addresses, and what SoPL provides, is a collective consciousness that touches on trauma, healing, and how to galvanize the badass work being done throughout the nation to create a paradigm shift. HEAL’s recognition that change does not happen with one organization, group, or individual, and instead, change, happens when we all come together with our lived experiences, has been a profound lesson. This School of Political Leadership is a revolution in action, and indicative of thriving resilience in times when we need to come together.

Grand Vision in Building Blocks – the Fourth SoPL Session

It has been a few weeks since I was in Minneapolis, Minnesota with the SoPL family for our fourth SoPL session. During the weekend there, the cohort had a chance to learn more about the awesome work that fellow SoPL leader Mia Ulysse’s organization, Appetite for Change, was doing in Northside Minneapolis. We also discussed the base-building model presented by Mark Schultz and Johanna Rupprecht from Land Stewardship Project, and we were inspired by Montha Chum and Ched Nin from RELEASE MN 8, an immigrant rights group, as they shared their story with us. Personally, the session in Minneapolis helped me see how the idea of collective power at the local level is real and possible.

Like the other cities and places I visited through my participation with SoPL, Minneapolis was another important building block in preparing me with experience to be even more intentional in my work. The previous sessions instilled in me the idea of equitable food system, and Minneapolis helped cement that by showcasing how that plays out in real life. I now see how each SoPL session serves as a building block to first get us grounded, offer trainings, introduce us to experienced leaders, and in this most recent session, show us how change starts with the recognition of our collectiveness. SoPL has not only been life-changing for me, but it also has given me a family.

Part 3: My Final Thoughts

So where do I go from here? I want to go back to the moment I realized that we lacked reflective representation in my region. Community organizing and movement building is important but through this experience, I have been convinced that we need community residents in office; we need people willing to carry a platform that addresses real people and real concerns. We need, as my compadre put it, a community-based political approach. Change in my region starts with running for local positions; it starts with recognizing people power. And if we venture into creating political change, we must continue to build a base.

SoPL has not only introduced me to awesome leaders from different parts of the country and provided me with a concrete platform, vision, and trainings to develop campaigns; it has reignited in me the belief that change is possible in current times. I am contributing to an equitable food system every time I got out into the fields, to people’s homes, and stand with mothers asking for health protections. And I am unapologetic about it!

As the first year of the HEAL SoPL comes to a close, we want to make sure that this work continues. Will you join us in reaching our goal of raising $10,000 to build our political muscle for democratic food and farm systems?