Attendees of the 2016 People's State of the City were given signs with the "like" symbol to hold up when they agreed with an idea. Photo by Jason Ruiz.
The People’s State of the City celebrated five years of amplifying the voices of oftentimes marginalized members of the city’s fabric with yet another standing-room only event Thursday evening, inside the Franklin Middle School auditorium.
There were Long Beach City Council members and those aspiring to fill open seats on the council in the upcoming municipal election. They rubbed shoulders with community groups and advocates and the residents they fight for.
The roughly 500 people that packed the auditorium—centered in one of the districts up for election—are part of what organizers hope is a growing movement toward greater involvement in community processes as the Long Beach Rising coalition of community groups seeks to build on the momentum its acquired since its inaugural event five years ago.
Highlights of the program included an emotional live poetry reading and touching update about Claudia Sanchez, the hotel worker who suffered cerebral hemorrhage last year after working a 14-hour shift at the Renaissance Hotel. Plans for a May Day march and an effort to pass legislation known as "Claudia's Law," a law furthering protection for hotel workers, were also announced.
The night’s message was simple but nuanced: there are persistent issues disproportionately affecting residents in poverty-stricken districts. However, organizers like James Suazo, the main speaker and hub coordinator at Building Healthy Communities Long Beach, sought to connect the dots between the issues to reveal how intertwined they are.
“The neighborhoods that face high unemployment are the same neighborhoods that face high rates of environmental pollution and they’re the same neighborhoods that have lower life expectancies than the rest of the city,” Suazo said to the crowd while standing in front of a graphic illustrating pollution rates in the city. “That seven-year difference is real and addressing it goes beyond one single issue.”
He explained that Long Beach’s ties to oil and proximity to the largest port complex in the nation make its West Side neighborhoods some of the most burdened in the state in terms of pollution. The combination of port emissions, diesel pollution from the 91 and 710 freeways and oil production have created generations of children and adults who are reliant on inhalers. West Side residents experience asthma at a rate that is twice the county average, and compared to East Long Beach residents, live lives that are about seven years shorter.
Recent attempts by the port’s “green truck” policy to rectify this has alleviated pollution but also served as a double-edged sword, Suazo said.
While the cleaner trucks have reduced emissions by about 90 percent according to the port’s accounting, the more expensive trucks have placed a greater financial burden on some drivers who are forced to pay for maintenance fees due to their misclassification.
A great win for the environment also serves as a great loss for blue collar workers who are already finding it hard to get by. Suazo said these two items—economic health and environmental health, using the Terminal Island Freeway removal as an example—don’t need to be mutually exclusive.
“We know that these issues can be resolved and the health of our community and of our economy doesn’t need to be in conflict,” Suazo said. “If our city continues to focus on how green we are becoming but we fail to pay attention to what is happening with our work force then we are missing our opportunity to create a healthy community for all.”
Social and environmental justice, like last year, were major themes of the event. But items like hotel worker safety, wage theft, police violence, affordable safe housing and access to education were also major talking points for Suazo.
Suazo and organizers also felt that this year the need to highlight voter engagement was paramount. Three council districts ( Second, Sixth, Eighth) are up for election in April, and to organizers, merely having conversations is just the tip of the iceberg, to enact meaningful policy change those experiencing the issues need to know where they can go to seek a solution.
The placement of the event at Franklin was no accident. The school sits near the heart of arguably one of the most influential council districts in the city. Every candidate running for that open seat was in attendance, as were those running for the sixth and eighth council districts.
Jeannine Pearce, a candidate for the second district seat, was a former organizer and member of the coalition that puts on the PSOTC. She said it was a bittersweet year since she was not involved in the planning of the event that was essentially born in her living room six years ago, when she and other advocates decided that the community’s voice needed a more public platform.
“We put together a table at Long Beach that never existed,” Pearce said. “It said ‘we need to elevate all of our stories together because if there’s an injustice to one, there’s an injustice to everyone.” It’s been an amazing process to be a part of and it’s actually been a very emotional year for me, because I haven’t been a part of the planning this year.”
Since that coalition formed it has had a major public presence in helping shape policy change, namely the passage of Measure N, a voter initiative that raised the wages of hotel workers, and more recently, the passage of the minimum wage ordinance that has potentially put Long Beach on a path to a $15 per hour minimum wage.
Pearce and other organizers say that for residents, who often feel their voices are not heard or that their vote doesn’t matter, to see actual results come out of countless hours of demonstrations and city council meetings is something really impactful.
However, she added that having the voices heard is just the first part of the equation, stating that there needs to be an avenue to leadership and an willingness on the part of elected officials to actually sit down at the table and try to hammer out solutions. That starts at the ballot box, which in the second district, has hovered around 20 percent participation in primary elections and about half that mark in municipal elections.
Maria Lopez, an organizer with a coition group aimed at protecting women against violence, said agrred that the movement starts with tabling and disseminating basic information, but eventually the fight has to be taken to City Hall to evoke real change.
"We're educating the people in the community and letting them know about the issues facing their friend and neighbors," Lopez said. "But we're also telling the council 'you're next to be educated and pressured to do the right thing.'"
How big of an impact groups in the coalition have on policy requires a bit of guesswork. They’ve been a constant presence at City Hall during a variety of issues that ended up being passed in their favor. However, the correlation between protests and public comment and eventual policy change is tough to define.
Seventh District Councilman Roberto Uranga said that being present at events like the PSOTC is important because it helps him keep track of the issues that are happening in the neighborhoods but may not necessarily make it to the council’s chambers. He hedged in his comment about the coalition’s clout regarding recent votes by the council.
“They spoke, we listened and we heard, and it was important enough of an issue to have it addressed,” Uranga said of the minimum wage ordinance. “I think that’s what’s important and an important function of the council, to listen, and when we can, we make a policy change.”
On multiple occasions Suazo stated that policies matter, but noted that the right policies are what will truly allow this city to flourish. He noted that many city programs are admirable in their aim, but the incomplete nature of them allow the most vulnerable Long Beachers to fall through the cracks.
Suazo closed his speech with a focus on education and the variety of issues plaguing students’ ability to matriculate to the college level, and once they have, to actually graduate with a degree.
He called for educators to invest in the school system equally and give students of all ethnicities and socioeconomic backgrounds an opportunity to ascend the social ladder. Investing in youth of color, he said, is investing in the future because the city’s future “is in color.” Continuing with the interconnected theme of the night, and the focus on gaps in otherwise admirable policies, Suazo said that students and youth workers should not be exempt from the higher wages just voted into action. Subjecting them to “training wages”, he said, adds economic obstacles to their education.
“With rising tuition we need to ensure that our youth have access to jobs that can pay them a wage that will get them through college because if students can’t afford tuition at CSULB after graduation from LBUSD and LBCC, then what kind of promise are we really offering them?” Suazo asked.