This interview was conducted by Aletta Brady on November 14, 2018. Alexandra Cohen, Talia Fox, and Maya O’Loughlin contributed to the production of this story.
Dania DeRamon is a 17-year-old from Jurupa Valley, California, a latinx climate justice advocate, an intern at the Center for Community Action and Environmental Justice, and a member of Power Shift Network’s Frontlines to Power Program. This is her story:
“My name is Dania DeRamon and I’m a senior in high school in Jurupa Valley, California. I attend school next to a road which sees over 800 trucks pass every hour, and our community suffers serious health effects because of it. Growing up, we moved around a lot, mostly throughout Southern California. This region has some of the worst air quality in the nation because it’s the holy grail of manufacturing. We see warehouse after warehouse pop up, and hundreds of semi-trucks drive by every day. Ozone pollution and particulate matter pollution are released from the diesel exhaust from these trucks. For most of my life, wherever we moved, I saw the same things—trucks everywhere and massive amounts of congestion created by them. If you walk down the street from the softball field at my high school, you will see a Union Pacific Railroad Distribution Center. The gate near the school used to be open and all of the trucks were lined up along the street idling, releasing a lot of pollution. And there are kids outside for P.E. and after school sports.
Air pollution exposure suppresses the immune system's regulatory T cells (Treg), and decreased levels of Treg function is linked to greater severity of asthma symptoms and lower lung capacity (UC Berkeley). Here’s a video to help you understand urban air pollution (University of California).
Children in Mira Loma, in Jurupa Valley, have the slowest and weakest lung growth of all children in Southern California (University of Southern California).
As a kid, I always heard about ‘recycle,’ like it was really important. I was like, ‘Okay cool, I should recycle.’ But what else? I hadn’t thought I’d seen any actual effects of climate change, so I didn’t worry about it for most of my life. The University of Southern California did an air quality study with children in the region and found that children in the Mira Loma community (a neighborhood in Jurupa Valley) experience high rates of asthma and stunted lung development. Growing up, I seriously thought asthma was normal because a lot of my friends have it. People in our community aren’t aware of what they’re being affected by and subjected to. I didn’t know that we live right next to warehouses and manufacturers until I took the bus a different route one day. There’s an Amazon warehouse ten minutes from where I live. They make it look super pretty and appealing on the outside, so we don’t think about all of the pollution they’re releasing. It wasn’t until the Center for Community Action and Environmental Justice (CCAEJ) came to my environmental science class and taught us about environmental racism and how pollution and climate change affect traditionally underserved communities that I started to put it all together. It was groundbreaking for me when I realized that it wasn’t normal to see 60 trucks passing by on the freeway every day. This is something that is happening right now, and it’s affecting me and so many people in my community.
Environmental racism is basically when some big corporation isn’t going to put their warehouse next to an affluent community, so they put it in a community of working-class folks. They place it there and tell you that they’re going to give you jobs and make money for your city. Low-income families often are not aware of the health repercussions from warehouse pollution, or don’t have the luxury or time to say something about it. Corporations think, ‘They won’t say anything. They’re not going to pay any attention to it.’ They put their power plants, oil refineries, warehouses, and a whole bunch of truck stops up and down our streets.
We’re Mexican and we’ve always lived around folks who are also Mexican that work in blue collar jobs like factories. But it’s a double-edged sword. We’re experiencing all of this pollution because of living in an industrial area. That’s often true in low-income communities of color. Many truck drivers and warehouse workers have their lungs affected and are vulnerable to cancer and other diseases. My younger brother is six and has autism. There have been studies suggesting that people with autism are especially affected by pollution. I love my brother and want him to have as healthy a life as possible. But factories also provide for working class families like us. We can’t just take industries out of our society because they’re so intertwined into our everyday lives. How do you create a shift away from pollution but also provide for working class families?
My mom’s circumstances weren’t easy at all. She is the person that I look up to most. She became a single mother of a kid who was five years old. Her relationship with my biological father, once they separated, was very tumultuous, and so was mine. She rarely received any financial help from my biological father, so it was just her, on her own, providing for me. She moved her life time and time again because she always sought better opportunities to give me. I didn’t realize it at the time because I was a kid focused on, ‘I want this toy,’ or ‘I want these clothes.’ My mom gave everything to me. My mom worked at factories like Staples and Converse. She would bring me shoes all the time and I thought it was super cool. I didn’t realize how much work she put into providing those things for me. I admire how hard she works to provide.
Pilot Flying J is the largest operator of travel centers in North America with more than 750 locations in 44 states and six Canadian provinces (Pilot Flying J).
The company has grown from selling 1.1 billion fuel gallons in 1996 to selling more than seven billion annually today (Pilot Flying J).
The company originated in Gate City, Virginia, and is currently headquartered in Knoxville, Tennessee (Pilot Flying J).
I wasn’t aware of how climate change was affecting me for most of my life. As I’ve learned about what’s going on, I’ve definitely developed climate fear and climate anxiety. I was really emotional the other day because of the wildfires. I’m afraid that nothing is going to change. We never thought there would be a fire here but it’s becoming a reality in places we hadn’t even thought possible before. The apartments we live in are right next to this colina, and it’s very dry. Every now and again when we get rain, it’ll be green, but then two days later it’s all yellow and dry again. Earlier this year, my mom woke me up at five in the morning and said, ‘There’s a fire up there.’ It was so scary. What if it spreads? Thankfully it was put out before it spread, but there were 30 minutes of being extremely freaked out.
Two years ago, the Pilot Flying J company proposed a truck stop in our community. They have truck stops around the country. They aren’t even from here. Someone from another state is saying, ‘We want to make it a part of your community.’ But they don’t live here and they’re never going to be here. Pilot Flying J is just like, ‘Here, money, money, money for the city.’ They’re emphasizing that the truck stop would create 93 jobs, but only a handful of them would be long-term jobs. And, they’re fast food jobs. I work in fast food, at Carl’s Jr., and we have trouble hiring people because no one wants to work in fast food. They want better jobs.
The Center for Community Action and Environmental Justice (CCAEJ) is a non-profit organization based and founded in California to help promote environmental health in the state (CCAEJ).
In 1978, members of a rural community, including CCAEJ founder Penny Newman, began a 28-year battle to stop human exposure to hundreds of different toxic chemicals at the Stringfellow Acid Pits, and obtained compensation of more than $114 million for thousands of community residents (CCAEJ).
Last year, I began interning and collaborating with CCAEJ to do something about climate change and environmental racism. I was organizing to stop the Pilot Flying J truck stop. When the Planning Commission meeting about the truck stop was set for October 2018, I told teachers and students, ‘Did you know they want to build a truck stop right down the street from our school?’ Most of them didn’t know that we had pollution problems. I gathered addresses from the community, and CCAEJ mailed letters to them to inform them about it. I made this really long Twitter thread, with references to memes and little quirky stuff that a lot of teens will recognize, and told my friends, ‘They want to build a truck stop right here.’ I was like, ‘I know we’re going to graduate, but our families still live here and we’re going to come back eventually. The thread got over 40 retweets and almost 5,000 people saw it. Two of my teachers let me talk to the class about it. But then no one showed up at the Planning Commission meeting. We’re becoming aware, but awareness is one thing and taking action is another. Awareness is important, but taking action is vital to creating change. If community members don’t speak up against pollution, if a City Council doesn’t hear from their constituents, they’re just going to keep continuing on with whatever they’re doing.
When a new warehouse or truck stop is going to be built, there is a public comment period. But there are all these barriers for working class folks. A lot of folks here only speak Spanish. I’ve been to meetings where they translate for the City Council Members and the translation is really bad. There’s a language barrier and things get lost in translation. Also, the City Council will make their hearings at 10AM on a Tuesday. Who is going to show up to that? It’s only for folks who can take a day off from their jobs and find a babysitter for their kids.
Thankfully, the Planning Commission meeting for the truck stop was at 7:00 PM on a Wednesday, this past October, which is still tough because we didn’t get out of there until 11:00 PM. I had gotten to the point where I was so exhausted of telling everyone about what was going on. I just wanted to be there and give my public comment and have them not approve the truck stop. That day, it was tough to hear the way that people in positions of power were talking about my community. Somehow, they failed to mention that there is a high school a mile down the street from the proposed site. Pilot Flying J had a picture of the area to show the planning commissioners, and you couldn’t see the high school in it. So, if we hadn’t been there, they wouldn’t have known about it.
It was so disheartening and frustrating. Pilot Flying J recognized that there was pollution but tried to play it down and make it seem like it wasn’t a big deal because there is no way to mitigate it. It was pretty obvious that they’re trying to fast-track the project. At one point, I had to get out of the room to calm myself down because it was so infuriating to hear how they were undermining effects on us and our environment. They said, ‘We’ll give them a security guard to make sure that trucks don’t idle.’ That’s not going to work. There are so many trucks. How are they going to enforce that?
One of the commissioners who was pretty old said, ‘Well, this isn’t really going to affect me.’ They live in Jurupa Valley, but they don’t live in this community. They live in the parts that are more affluent, so they don’t see first-hand what we do. One guy said, ‘That’s why I wait until 9:00 AM to leave my house.’ Not everyone has the luxury to do that. Some of us have to go to school, or wake up at 3:00 in the morning to get to work. One of the commissioners said that the school wouldn’t be affected or receive any of the traffic, which is a lie because there’s traffic every day. We’re still children. Our bodies are still developing. And it’s already bad. It’s not worth it to sacrifice my community’s health to create short-term revenue. It just doesn’t make any sense.
The commission received a lot of letters from community members saying, ‘This isn’t what we want. We are urging you to listen to us and our concerns.’ When I went up to give my public comment, I emphasized that this is something that will have implications for years to come, in an area that’s already experiencing so much traffic and pollution. Students deserve to go to school in an environment where they can breathe. When I was up there, I saw this older white man looking at me in a way that felt so condescending. Obviously, I don’t know what he was thinking, but, the way he was looking at me, I felt like he was thinking, ‘Oh, that’s cute. You’re this kid in high school trying to fight against this. That’s nice.’ But even though that guy gave me that look, in the moment I felt powerful. I was voicing my concern and telling people that this is wrong. I found it so satisfying and empowering. But, at the end of the meeting, they approved the truck stop, 3-2.
I was just so mad that day. So mad. Organizing takes a big toll on people and takes up a lot of time and effort. This is my community. If I could say something to the commissioners, I would say, ‘I want you to get up at 5AM and drive down the street in front of my house and see the traffic, see the trucks, and see the warehouses.’ I don’t want people to keep putting in projects here that are not good for us.
Now it’s going to the City Council. CCAEJ submitted an appeal to the planning commission’s decision. It cost $900. What community member, especially here, has $900 to spare to make an appeal? When I heard that, I was just like, ‘wow.’
Maybe I don’t have any health challenges now, but I don’t want to be next to a warehouse or truck stop that may affect me in the future, or affect my brother, my family, or my friends. These injustices make me mad and I want to make sure that we don’t keep going through this. I want to alleviate the consequences we’ve already experienced. I want to change the world [laughs]. I want to create systemic change that won’t let these major corporations and major industries do this to communities like ours or create projects detrimental to the environment. That is what keeps me going.
My advice for others is to be relentless in your efforts. Don’t let yourself feel let down. There are going to be mishaps, and ups and downs, organizing and strategizing, but make sure to keep the dream of creating change in mind. It’s important to remember that it does make a difference. Even if it’s on a small scale it’s still contributing to global change.”