CCI Seminar Examines Environmental and Health Risks in California

“WARNING: This product contains chemicals known to the State of California to cause cancer and birth defects or other reproductive harm.” Since 1986 with the passage of Prop 65, this warning and variations on the theme have become a familiar and inescapable part of California’s retail landscape.

On the one hand, these warnings are often viewed as one of many signs of California’s progressive approach to environmental and health risks. On the other, those warnings and the perceptions they breed mask the region’s complicated and uneven relationship to those very issues. This spring, the California Cultures Initiative “Thinking the Region” faculty research seminar looked more closely at the state’s approach to environment, food and health, asking if California truly represents the “the great exception” in its approach to environmental and health risks.

Convened by Julie Sze (American Studies) and Tom Beamish (Sociology), the weekly, month-long seminar brought together faculty doing interdisciplinary work in California studies and opened these challenging issues to public discussion.

California is frequently held up as a national exception where tough standards exceed the U.S. federal norm, in part because of the scale of the problems that the state faces. “California has often been used as a progressive bellwether,” said Beamish, “but the story is always more complicated than that. Progression and destruction occur simultaneously.”

The seminar and public events fostered inter- and multidisciplinary inquiry in California studies at UC Davis and beyond. The series featured short presentations by UC Davis social scientists and humanists, leaving ample time for open conversation with the audience. Topics included managing climate change and ensuring democracy, as well as food and health. European sociologists Francis Chateauraynaud and Josquin Debaz presented a keynote address comparing European Union and California approaches to environmental health and regulation.

On Wednesday, May 30, the final public event, titled “Agriculture, Bodies, and Justice in the Central Valley,” drew a full house of faculty and graduate students from across the Davis campus as well as community leaders from around the region. Three multi-disciplinary and community-based participatory researchers–Natalia Deeb-Sossa (Chicana/o Studies), Jonathan London (Human Ecology, Center for Regional Change), and Julie Sze–discussed how farmworkers, immigrants, and environmental justice community stakeholders define “justice” and “inequality,” build community, negotiate power, and engage in diverse modes of activism.

Drawing on farm worker mothers’ fototestimonios (i.e., narratives, photographs, and narrative-in-photos), Deeb-Sossa discussed how Mexican immigrant farm worker mothers, as cultural citizens, in a Northern California rural community negotiated power and resisted practices and policies of inequity in their local and regional contexts. Her work highlighted some the challenges and benefits of deeply embedded research that emerges from collaboration and communication with community members.

London gave an overview of an assemblage of projects related to environmental justice and policy conflicts, looking at how organizations represent some of the most marginalized groups in the state in air quality debates in the Central Valley. His work focuses on the ways in which activists’ bodies and state agencies intertwine in conflicts over clean air in the nation’s most polluted region.

Julie Sze discussed preliminary work on community organizing surrounding a rash of birth defects in Kettleman City, a farmworker community that has long been fighting against powerful agricultural lobbies to reduce toxic waste and improve water quality. Sze also highlighted the challenges and opportunities associated with environmental justice research, based on her five years as founding director of the Environmental Justice Project.

Once opened to the audience, conversations revolved around the ways in which the progressive image of California often covers over invisible contradictions surrounding poverty, diversity, and confinement.

Isao Fujimoto, senior Lecturer emeritus and a mainstay of the Human and Community Development Program as well as Asian American Studies, pointed out that the central valley of California is one of the richest, most productive agricultural regions in history, yet it harbors the poorest cities in the state. It is also home to a burgeoning private incarceration industry as well as the legacy of Japanese internment camps. “Making these contradictions visible is important,” Fujimoto commented, “and that’s why this is such an important series of talks. The job of the research community is to make these issues visible.”


For more information on the California Cultures Initiative, see the CCI website.