Tag Archives: Bay area

Amma reading to Medha (Image by Author)

My Mother Kept Her Promise

Like many of us, one of my biggest fears was always that of losing my mother.  Life without her was not conceivable. 

When I was a little girl, and I was exposed to the idea of death for the first time, I remember asking her, “Amma, will you die too?” 

My mother sat me down, looked me in the eyes, and with complete confidence told me, “I will be here as long as you need me.  I will go only when you tell me that you do not need me anymore,”

In my childish mind, that was all the reassurance I wanted.  I would always “need” my mother, and that meant she could not leave me.

Life went on with my relationship with my mother evolving and changing as time went by.  By the time I was 44, my mother was older and frailer, and my relationship with her was that of one between two close buddies.  It was a two-way relationship with my relying on my mother for advice about raising my kids, and seeking comfort when some worldly affair troubled me.  My mother started relying on me to discuss her innermost worries about her health and the family.  The two of us settled into a very comfortable symbiotic relationship. 

This was until January of 2013 when my mother was diagnosed with cancer.  I was now in the US teaching at a university and raising two kids under the age of 10.   The news hit me like a ton of bricks.  I applied for a sabbatical from work to make the most of the time I had left with my mother.  The year was spent shuttling between India and the US, and trying my best to stay present wherever I was.  In March 2013, I was in India for my mother’s 74th birthday.  I got a cake, invited some neighbors, and had as normal a party as possible.   My mother and I both knew but did not acknowledge the elephant in the room – that this could be my mother’s last birthday with us.  My father was not aware of the gravity of the situation, and none of us had the courage to tell him the harsh truth. 

One of my brothers and I took turns to be in India to help our parents.  When I went back in June 2013, my mother, who by now was a lot weaker, still made trips to the local market with me.  Shopping for kitchen goods was our shared passion and, in a typical Indian steel kitchenware store, we both behaved like kids in a candy store.  I could tell that my mother was pushing herself to make the most of the time she had left.  When we sat down in a coffee shop, I could no longer hold the sorrow inside. 

I blurted out to my mother – “Amma, I cannot live without you.”

My mother looked deeply into my eyes and said, “I will leave you only when you are brave enough to let me go.”

I responded “Amma, that will never happen.”   

In my vulnerable mind, if my mother had promised not to leave me until I was ready to let her go, she couldn’t leave.  She always keeps her promises. 

Amma Sadabhishekam
Amma sadabhishekam (Image provided by Author)

September 2013 –  I traveled back to India to give my brother a break from caregiving.  My mother was in the ICU.  Her condition came as a shock to me.  She could barely talk and she could not see anymore.  We did not know this then, but the cancer had found its way to her brain.  The two weeks following that were a blur.  My mother faded into a semi-coma.  Her body was still there but we could no longer communicate with her.   It killed me to see her stare into space when we called her name. 

Then, the bad news arrived.  It was confirmed that the cancer was in the brain.  Our family doctor told us that this was the end and that we should not try any more life-saving measures. The next day, when I was in the hospital, I told the resident doctor in the ICU that we had decided to sign the “Do Not Resuscitate” order.  He pulled out a form and had me read through it.  From where I sat at the doctor’s desk in the ICU, I could see my mother – eyes taped shut, and all kinds of tubes going into her to keep her alive.  The doctor explained to me that when she fails to breathe on her own, her throat would be punctured to insert a ventilator.   Those words punctured my heart.  I looked at my mother feeling fiercely protective of her and told her in my mind: “Amma, I won’t let anyone trouble you anymore.” 

Without any hesitation and without any tears in my eyes, I signed the form.  I walked over to my mother and whispered in her ear “Amma, please go.  This body is not working anymore.  Don’t worry about Appa.  I will take care of him.  Look at me, I am not crying.  I am fine.  Please go”. 

My mother hung on for a few more days, giving my other siblings the opportunity to see her before she passed away on October 9th early in the morning.  I felt numb.  But, I also felt a strange peace.  My mother was no longer suffering.  She had escaped her cancer-ridden body.  She was free. 

A few days later, I remembered my mother’s promise to me –  “I will leave you only when you are brave enough to let me go”.  I cried.  My mother had kept her promise. 

I returned to the US back to my husband and my children. 

My 9-year-old son snuggled up with me one night and asked me, “Mamma, will you die too?” 

I said to him, “I will be here as long as you need me.  I will go only when you tell me that you do not need me anymore.” 

My son heaved a sigh of relief, hugged me tight, and fell asleep.


Shailaja Venkatsubramanyan has taught information systems at San Jose State.  She volunteers with the Plant-Based Advocates of Los Gatos.  http://www.plantbasedadvocates.com/


 

India Currents' Publisher, Vandana Kumar with her mother in India (Image by Vandana Kumar)

Coming Back From India? Follow These Santa Clara County Guidelines

Indian Americans have been traveling to and from India in this time of crisis to spend time with ailing parents and family members. Our Publisher, Vandana Kumar, left San Jose to visit her aging mother in Jamshedpur 3 weeks ago, whom she had not seen in 2 years. Unknowingly, she ended up experiencing peak COVID chaos in India which culminated in a lockdown. Perhaps a bittersweet reminder of why she made the trip in the first place – to spend quality alone time with her mother.

“Just like a lot of you, I have navigated these uncertain times seeking clarity on what was appropriate, what was safe, what was responsible,” She comments with poignancy in her article about traveling to India in April 2021.

Luckily, Santa Clara County has information and resources to support community members impacted by the crisis. The County offers the following guidance to help reduce the spread of COVID-19, protect the entire community’s health, and provide support and resources to those who have traveled recently.

Although the US government is restricting travel from India as of May 4, 2021, this guidance applies to those who have recently arrived from India and any travelers who are exempt from the travel restriction.

Recommendations for Travelers Arriving from India:

All unvaccinated travelers should immediately quarantine for 10 days:

The County strongly urges unvaccinated travelers returning from India to immediately quarantine for 10 days after arriving in Santa Clara County, as recommended by the California Department of Public Health. Travelers should self-monitor for COVID-19 symptoms throughout the quarantine period. Visit www.sccstayhome.org to learn more.

The quarantining traveler(s) should remain separate from people they did not travel with, meaning that the arriving traveler(s) should stay in a separate room within a home or stay in a hotel.

Vaccinated travelers who were vaccinated in India should quarantine for 10 days:

The recommendation to quarantine applies despite vaccination, given the extremely high rates of COVID-19 and incomplete information about vaccines currently deployed in India.

Vaccinated travelers who were vaccinated in the US do not need to quarantine:

For travelers who have been fully vaccinated with one of the three vaccines with Emergency Use Authorization from the FDA (Pfizer, Moderna, or Johnson & Johnson), the recommendation to quarantine does not apply.

All travelers should get a COVID-19 Test 3-5 Days After Arrival in the US:

All arriving travelers should test on day 3, 4, or 5 after arriving in the US, even if vaccinated.

The County offers many options for free testing, including drive-through testing. Visit www.sccfreetest.org to learn more and find a location. Testing does not require insurance.

If a Traveler test positive, they should isolate:

If an arriving traveler tests positive for COVID-19, they should isolate to protect others from getting infected. This means that the person who tested positive should stay home, separate themselves from others in the home (i.e., in a separate room), not allow visitors, not use public transportation, and not prepare or serve food for others.

The County offers resources, including motel placements and assistance with food, for those who cannot afford to isolate themselves without help. Visit www.sccstayhome.org  or call (408) 808-7770.


Srishti Prabha is the Managing Editor at India Currents and has worked in low-income/affordable housing as an advocate for children, women, and people of color. She is passionate about diversifying spaces, preserving culture, and removing barriers to equity.


 

BLM Organizer At My School Was Targeted By A Gun Dealer: A Next-Gen Desi Reflection

(Featured Image: Denel McMahan speaking with ABC News)

Weeks before a youth-led Black Lives Matter protest that took place outside the Dublin Civic Center, owner of local gun business Mike Grant posted a picture of the 17-year old organizer, Denel McMahan, on his Facebook page. The caption read, “Please bring your vests and helmets in case these BLM people start trouble. Remember this group is known as a left-wing anti-government group. Take Dublin back!”

Within days, the veiled threat garnered a swift and strong backlash from the Dublin community and beyond. From city residents to Congressman Eric Swalwell, people came together to defend “these BLM people” and the cause they champion. 

When I first learned about the situation, I was curious to know who “these BLM people” were, and how Grant’s social media targeting has affected them in this increasingly polarized climate. I had a chat with high school senior, Denel McMahan, president of Dublin High’s Black Student Union, member of the Tri-Valley Black Lives Matter movement, and recipient of the Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Legacy Award at the City of Pleasanton’s annual Community of Character Collaborative. Denel was inspired by the string of protests that captured the heart of America this past summer and wanted to bring peaceful advocacy to his city.  

Denel McMahan’s Thoughts

1) You’re a staunch supporter of racial equality and a member of the Black Lives Matter movement. As a Gen Z activist, how do you think social media and the Internet Age have affected both racism and social advocacy? 

I think that social media has been a great resource throughout this period of COVID-19 and quarantine. The thing that I love about it is that social media has no boundary when it comes to education. People are free to post about whatever in its true form. This includes history. In school, history is heavily censored and manipulated in order to make students comfortable. However, to make real change we need to stop desiring comfortability. We learn about history to avoid repeating it, but we are right now due to sheltering students from traumatic concepts. The same goes for the internet too. I’ve learned more Black history myself through Google than I have in my 11 and a half years of schooling. My parents are also a great resource, but not everyone has parents who understand Black history in its entirety or are Black in general. So, if you want to learn more about truthful history, I recommend looking through Social Media and researching through Google. 

2) At school, you’re the president of the Black Student Union. How has this experience shaped your journey of raising awareness and initiating change in your community as a whole?

My presidency has allowed me to earn a platform that is being taken seriously by our administration. For 3 years, I sat and watched the past presidents and how they ran the BSU. Through that, I began to shape my leading style and figured out what I wanted to do with my position. With it, I wanted to do the best I could. I not only wanted to improve our BSU and increase its presence on campus, but I wanted to make sure that we were involved in the Black Lives Matter movement efforts in Dublin. A protest was held in Dublin and there was so much support. Eventually, the other BSU officers and I drafted plans for school change, and our admin engaged heavily with us and is even making more opportunities for us to help the community out more.  

3) Post the election, we find ourselves at the precipice of extraordinary political change. What legislative changes do you hope our new administration will bring to address racism, criminal justice, and police brutality?

I just hope that there’s some sense of accountability that comes with a new president. Of course, the President doesn’t have all the power in the federal government, but I feel that at least when incidents of brutality happen, we will have his support. The other big thing that I would want to see is national reparations. Those have been promised to Black Americans since the end of Slavery, but they haven’t been done. They are currently planning a reparations task force in California, so that would be interesting to see what they try to implement. However, they need to be done at the national level since slavery was pretty much a national thing before it ended. 

4) If you’re comfortable speaking about this, what was the experience of seeing Mr. Grant’s Facebook post like? Was this kind of backlash something you’ve experienced in the past?

It was very worrying for me. When I saw the post, I was in Las Vegas for my sister’s 21st birthday. When I got word of the post, I was physically shaking. My face had been posted in a public, alt-right Facebook group for many conservatives to see. I saw that it had 29 shares, so that was 30 people who saw me as some thug trying to destroy Dublin, which in no case I was. The event was passed unanimously and was city-sponsored. A huge part of my nervousness was also because this was the first time I received public backlash. I knew I would eventually get some, but never that quick and never by a grown man. 

5) In a conversation with ABC News, you mentioned that you’re willing to have a conversation with Mr. Grant. Do you feel like conversations like this are possible at a larger scale, where protestors and counter-protestors can reach a middle ground in constructive, innocuous ways?

Honestly, I believe that the political climate has destroyed any possibility of large-scale, constructive conversations. I think the best way to have them is in private so that all you need to do is to listen. A simple one-on-one conversation to get to a middle ground is the most effective way to do so. However, I hope that one day, groups of people from different beliefs can come together and conversate without it becoming ineffective or violent. 

6) What advice do you have for other young people who want to show their support for the Black Lives Matter movement?

My advice is to be vocal. In this time, silence also means compliance. Take the time to understand it and bring it close to you. Even in this time of COVID, there are social media platforms. Making and sharing posts are still great ways to advocate for the movement. If you find yourself wanting to protest, don’t be scared. The supporters will always outweigh the opposition. 

The Sign Garden For Justice Project was organized by Tri-Valley Black Lives Matter (Photo: Denel McMahan)

My Thoughts

These are wise words, especially coming from an individual who helped organize a Black Lives Matter protest on November 15th. The demonstration was both peaceful and successful, with Denel and his peers giving speeches about racism, their participation in the Black Student Union, and the harsh realities of police brutality in America. In a creative display of solidarity, this protest featured a ‘Sign Garden’, where signs and posters supporting the Black Lives Matter were placed everywhere from City Hall to the Civic Plaza. These signs were both positive and united, some of them including messages like, “Fear and hate have no place here” and “Color is not a crime”. 

Personally, I’m both relieved and overjoyed that this demonstration, despite the initial conflict, remained peaceful and constructive. It was interesting to see this single cause bring together different generations, ethnicities, and cities to reflect on racial justice. But I can’t help but harken back to Denel’s comment about initiating a conversation with Grant. What does the exchange between these two political antipodes suggest about the future of race relations in America? 

In a flash of optimism, I’d like to believe that recorded displays of police brutality, such as the tragic murder of George Floyd, will bring different ends of the socio-political spectrum together. As said by Will Smith, “Racism is not getting worse; it’s getting recorded.” Before videos of racism had the opportunity to go viral on social media and mainstream news outlets, it was far easier for American citizens to exist within an ideological bubble, where systemic oppression did not exist. That’s much harder to do when they’re being confronted by a live video of police brutality and racial profiling at its worst. 

Furthermore, I do think that the coronavirus outbreak may offer a moment for the public to self-reflect, and consider how racial and socio-economic privilege has ravaged the very ideals we consider the ‘soul’ of America. After the strong online response to his incendiary post, Grant discussed how he became ‘educated’ about what it means to be a person of color in the United States in a phone interview with ABC

“I never thought a 17-year old-boy could teach a 65-year-old man something, but he did,” said Grant. “For the last four-and-a-half days I’ve lived it. Just with phone calls, and texts, and hate mail and stuff. Now I think I understand why this young man is doing this, to try to educate people.” 

The First Amendment of the American Constitution offers each one of us a voice, but these voices are muffled or confined in echo chambers due to political polarization. And personally, I can attest to subscribing to certain echo chambers myself. My social media feed is primarily consumed by individuals who shared the same political views that I do. My choices in mainstream media are a reflection of my opinions as well.

As an Indian-American, I think my identity as an immigrant has definitely been splintered along the lines of these echo chambers as well. During the 2020 election, for example, I found myself isolating myself from certain subsets of the Indian-American population who identified as Trump supporters. Amid the growing strength of the Black Lives Matter movement, I’ve seen so many Indian-Americans distance themselves from conversations about racial equality because they don’t learn (and perhaps don’t want to learn) about racial hierarchies and the myth that is America’s “Model Minority”. As immigrants, the echo chambers of this nation have only made our ignorance of the issues that plague our communities more convenient. 

And while these tendencies may be very normal on both ends of the spectrum in our heated political climate, they also contribute to ideological myopia. Men like Mike Grant have no idea what it’s like to be a young black man, constantly targeted and unjustly policed. They read and watch media which feeds them highly distorted narratives on race in this country, and it shows.

Prior to this incident, I can’t help but wonder if Grant has ever had a constructive, honest conversation with a supporter of the Black Lives Matter Movement. Could this gap be bridged? Perhaps the path to an educated America — an America willing to recognize its racism for what it is — requires a space where these conversations can take place.


Kanchan Naik is a senior at the Quarry Lane School in Dublin, California. She is the 2019-2020 Teen Poet Laureate for the City of Pleasanton, as well as the Director of Media Outreach for youth nonprofit Break the Outbreak. Kanchan is the founder and editor-in-chief of her school newspaper, The Roar, and was the Global Student Editor for the summer edition of Stanford’s Newsroom by the Bay publication. 

Children volunteering at a Save The Bay project

Saving The Bay On A Sunday Morning

At the Front Door: Climate Change & the Bay Area –  a column on climate change in our lives

A few years ago, I started to wonder what success means to me. I came across the story of Watsi, the first non-profit to join Y-Combinator. In his startup school video, Chase Adams, the founder, talks about his journey building Watsi. The most impactful part of his story is the message that success to him meant helping just one more person and trying to do something that mattered more than his personal needs. This message resonated with me. The companies we work at, the job titles we hold, the money we make, the size of our homes, the cars we drive, the holidays we take, are not a measure of how successful we are.

The question to ask is, can we make a positive impact on at least one life, human or otherwise? If so, it is impossible for us to fail. 

I started on my journey to find something that mattered more than just my personal needs and wants. I found that environmental related charities received only 3% of all charitable donations and volunteering hours. This was a surprise to me given that climate change is the biggest threat we face. There were large gaps in awareness of the climate change crisis and a lack of  involvement from governments, business leaders and communities to solve the problem.

I started looking into how to be part of the solutions and where to start. 

Through friends at work, I connected with  organizations such as Save the Bay and  started seeking out other local organizations. I found that Our City Forest held several volunteering events over the weekend to plant trees in the Bay Area. It was a perfect opportunity to engage our children in something we can do together outdoors while also helping to make our community greener.

Kids participate in tree planting with Our City Forest in the Bay Area
Seema’s son volunteering with Our City Forest

I enrolled in Climate Reality Leadership Corps training led by Al Gore and engaged with my employer’s Green Employee resource group. As I started to become more aware of the various problems we face, so did the kids. They started to ask questions about things that didn’t look right.

“Mom, why is there so much plastic packaging?” “Why are there so many cars on the road?”

I encouraged them to pose the same question to business leaders and government officials – how will they solve these problems? I helped my kids write letters to the head of BART, the mayor of San Jose and to business leaders at Emirates, Kiwi Crate, and Amazon. Sometimes we heard back, but more importantly, we talked about how important it is to use our voice and refuse to accept the status quo in situations that can be harmful to our future. Kids are now using their skills to help create media to spread the message of climate change and what each of us can do about it.

Last year, on a cold November Saturday morning, I woke up my 7 year old son and 4 year old daughter early, packed some snacks and headed towards Marin. We were going to volunteer with Save The Bay at Bel Marin Keys to help restore wetlands. This was our first volunteering event together and we had a blast being outdoors, working to help restore nature. Since then, as a family, we have volunteered to plant trees, created videos and stories to share information about climate change, written to business leaders and government officials to do their part to tackle climate change and designed clothing to promote climate advocacy.

At home, we started with small changes to reduce our personal impact. We switched to bamboo toothbrushes, started to buy used books, exchange clothes instead of buying new ones, limit water wastage, use refillable bathroom products and to limit the use of products that have plastic materials or packaging. But we know that the biggest impact that we can have at a personal level is transitioning to clean energy for heating, cooling and transportation and changing our diets to be meat and dairy free. 

We have taken advantage of the opportunity to switch to 100% clean electricity through TotalGreen San Jose and are looking into how to transition to electric heaters from natural gas. And, while being vegetarian is an easier change for us, growing up with dairy products makes this change harder. However, black tea is turning out to be just as satisfying!  

When we think about sustainability, what we have to give up is not as important as t what we will gain. We will gain a healthier life, breathe cleaner air, drink purer water, live in a world where nature and biodiversity are thriving, giving us the opportunity to explore nature at its best. 

Start with small changes and work your way towards a truly sustainable lifestyle that becomes second nature to us. 


Seema Jethani is a sustainability advocate and a Climate Reality Leader with the Climate Reality Project.  She lives in San Jose with her husband and two elementary school age kids with whom she has been actively working in the community on the climate crisis, through various initiatives such as volunteering, social media engagement and petitioning elected officials and business leaders.

Edited by Meera Kymal, the contributing editor at India Currents.

Come Celebrate The Holidays At Filoli

Holidays at Filoli is the perfect season to make special memories with loved ones and friends. The historic House and Garden will be glittering and glowing with festive cheer every day and night of the week through January 3. Filoli is one of a kind. With its 16-acres of historic garden the unique landscape provides the perfect setting to connect with loved ones and appreciate beauty.

For fun festivities join us on Mondays for Holiday Themed Nights! From Pajama Party to Solstice Night, we’re making Mondays merry and bright with a selection of jolly dress-up prompts. Match the theme and get a special gift. On select Saturdays in December our ever-popular Santa Saturdays are back with a twist! Santa will be located outdoors on our beautiful Woodland Garden Court. You and yours are invited to take a socially distanced selfie with Santa himself.

To get you in the spirit we’re hosting a Holiday Bar on the Woodland Garden Court throughout the Holiday season, featuring a selection of wine, beer, warm libations, and mixed cocktails. Cozy up to a firepit and enjoy a beverage of your choice. Festive food and treats are available at the Quail’s Nest Cafe by the Town Kitchen. Highlights from the menu include peppermint hot chocolate and tasty seasonal coffee drinks in addition to holiday cookies and confections.

The Clock Tower Shop is the destination for carefully curated holiday gifts and decor. Our outdoor Courtyard will be filled with holiday greens, specialty and dwarf conifers, garden sculptures and ceramics as well as unique varieties of camellias, daphne and azaleas. And don’t forget to look for our favorite tulip and daffodil bulbs! In the Shop themes of Mrs. Claus’ Bakeshop, Elves in the Toyshop, and Nature Wonderland come to life with beautiful displays featuring blown glass ornaments, tea towels, baking dishes, artisanal soaps, stuffed animals and more.

We’re open every day and every night of the week for you to enjoy the wonder of Holidays at Filoli to your heart’s content! Purchase your tickets online for Daytime or Evening Admission today, we’re open 7 days a week from 10:00 AM – 8:00 PM. Advanced registration is required. Each year we look ahead with great hope about the joy this season will bring. We can’t wait to see you!

 

Silicon Valley’s Success Sits on Toxic ‘Superfund’ Sites

At the Front Door – a column on climate change in our lives

The Environmental Burdens on our Neighbors

Silicon Valley has been one of the greatest wealth generators in the United States. Yet this wealth has come at a price, one that hasn’t been shared equally amongst the residents of the Bay Area. The more ‘visual’ costs, such as skyrocketing rents and urban sprawl obscure the more subtle, but far more dangerous and long-terms costs right beneath our feet. Literally. The true cost of Silicon Valley’s success is in the ground you stand on. Santa Clara County is home to 23 superfund sites, the most of any county in the United States. If you live in the South Bay, you are never more than a short drive from one of these sites. If you live in Mountain View, Sunnyvale, or San Jose, you can probably walk to one.

A site gains a superfund status if it scores above a 28.5 or higher out of 100 on the EPA’s Hazard Ranking System, which is a measurement of the site’s threat to human health. Sites must reach a certain level of severity before they can be designated as a ‘superfund’, which lets the government to force the parties responsible to perform cleanups or reimburse the government for EPA-led cleanup. There are also hundreds of other toxic sites which don’t qualify as superfund sites which are scattered across Silicon Valley.

To understand where we are, we need to look at where we have been. Silicon Valley earned its name by hosting semiconductor and microprocessor companies such as Atari, Fairchild, Hewlett-Packard. These companies used a solvent called trichloroethylene (TCE) in their manufacturing process. TCE is now a known human carcinogen and can also cause birth defects. After use, the TCE was poured down drains or kept in storage tanks which subsequently leaded and contaminated local groundwater.  In some instance, the pollutants can re-emerge as vapor and result in ‘toxic plumes’ or ‘vapor intrusion zones’.

The environmental burden of these sites fallen unevenly upon the shoulders of people of color and the poor, as most sites “are predominantly situated in Mountain View and Sunnyvale, and Santa Clara County cities which are comprised of the highest percentage of low socioeconomic immigrants of color.” Unsurprisingly, the whiter cities of Palo Alto and Cupertino host far fewer sites.

I live in northern Sunnyvale and I can easily walk to half a dozen, three of which are collectively called the ‘Sunnyvale Triple-site’. The vapor intrusion zone from this site encompass 400 homes and four schools, including the majority-Latino San Miguel Elementary School. Polluted in the 1980, the site was only fully cleaned up in the last decade and is now closely monitored by authorities.

Superfund sites are not the only environmental legacy of the economic boom. Another is traffic, a problem which plagues most of the Bay area, and Highway 101 is the “area’s most toxic industrial belt, with contamination impacting air, water, and soil.”

It is not a coincidence that Highway 101 through the same areas of Sunnyvale, Mountain View, and San Jose which host the highest concentration of minorities (and superfund sites).

The highway also runs through East Palo Alto on its way to San Francisco. East Palo Alto is diverse city with 61%  of its residents identifying as Latino, 15.6% African American/Black, and 11% Asian. The median income in 2018 was $58,783, a far cry from the average of $137,000 in whiter neighboring Palo Alto. Children in East Palo Alto are 2.5 times more likely to suffer from asthma as children in the rest of San Mateo County, and life expectancy is 13 years shorter.

And East Palo Alto isn’t an exception but rather part of a trend, a paper published by researchers at Santa Clara University noted that,

“Environmental burdens are concentrated along transportation routes and industrial centers that represent Silicon Valley’s rapid development. Hispanic populations, people of color, and socially vulnerable populations…are more likely to be exposed to multiple environmental hazards than other groups.”

The term ‘environmental burdens’ doesn’t quite convey the truth that our neighbors who bear these ‘burden’ will be sicker and die sooner than our neighbors without such burdens.

I felt two things when I learned this: shocked and lucky. Shocked, because I had no idea of the history of pollution and injustice which underlay the success of Silicon Valley.  And lucky, because while traffic is annoying I don’t live in an area where I have to worry that car exhaust will damage my health or the health of my family. Nor do I have to decide between affordable housing and living in an area which could be exposed to toxic vapor plumes.

And now I feel determined, because I can do something to help my neighbors who do have to worry about these things. I can vote for people who take environmental issues seriously, and who support clean public transportation. I can advocate at the state and local level for our legislators to ensure that the benefits and burdens of success are distributed more equally. I can speak up because we are all part of this community, and it is my responsibility to help my neighbors.


Erin Zimmerman was trained as a Climate Reality Leader in 2019 by the Climate Reality Project, but has been active in the environmental movement for over a decade. Erin holds a PhD in Political Science from the University of Adelaide, where she focused on environmental degradation and its impacts on country and regional stability in Asia. She is currently the Chair of the Speakers’ Bureau of the Santa Clara Chapter of the Climate Reality Project  and an active member of the Legislative and Policy team.

Edited by Meera Kymal, Contributing Editor at India Currents.

Image by Hermina Olah Vass  @beautymakesasound

References
Fagone, J. and Dizikes, C. (2019). “SF’s Treasure Island, Poised for Building Boom, Escaped Listing as Superfund Site.” San Francisco Chronicle.
Greenaction. (2019). “East Palo Alto, California.” Greenaction.org.
Nieves, E. 2018. “The Superfund Sites of Silicon Valley.” The New York Times.
Pellow, D. N. & Park, L S-H. (2002). The Silicon Valley of Dreams: Environmental Injustice, Immigrant Workers, and the High-Tech Global Economy. NYU Press.
Rao, A. and Scaruffi, P. 2013. A History of Silicon Valley: The Greatest Creation of Wealth in the History of the Planet. Omniware Group.
Reilly, C. (2018). “Silicon Valley’s ‘Middle Class‘ Earns 7 Times US Average.www.cnet.com.
Schlossberg, T. 2019. “Silicon Valley is One of the Most Polluted Places in the Country.The Atlantic.
Siegel, L. (2015). “Building Trust at the Triple Site, Sunnyvale, California.” Center for Public Environmental Oversight.
Solof, L.E. (2014). “Bay Area Student Involvement in the Environmental and Food Justice Movements: A Narrative of Motivations, Experiences, and Community Impact.” Doctoral Dissertation. University of San Francisco; The Faculty of the School of Education.
Stewart, I. Bacon, C. Burke, W. (2014). “The Uneven Distribution of Environmental Burdens and Benefits in Silicon Valley’s Backyard.” Applied Geography. 55: 266-277.
Stock, S. Paredes, D. and S. Pham. 2014 (12 May). “Toxic Plumes: The Dark Side of Silicon Valley.NBC Bay Area.
Sustainable Silicon Valley. (2020).
United States Environmental Protection Agency. (2020). “What is a Superfund.

 

Voters’ Pennies Could Save Caltrain

COVID-19 is hitting everyone hard, including Caltrain, the Bay Area’s commuter train line.

On Nov.3, Measure RR will give voters in San Francisco, San Mateo and Santa Clara counties the opportunity to bring Caltrain back from the brink of closing down.

Before COVID, the train system was carrying 65,000 riders – 4,600 per hour each way, on average – between its 32 stations on tracks stretching from Gilroy to San Francisco.   By doing so, it was replacing an estimated four freeway lanes’ worth of traffic and 400 million driving miles every year.

On a daily basis, that’s 10,000 vehicles on Bay Area roads and 200 tons of carbon dioxide in the air that Caltrain’s presence eliminates.

But with COVID, Caltrain has lost 95% of its ridership, and is in danger of having to shut down. 

With their fares, passengers provide about 70% of Caltrain’s operating budget.  The rest comes from San Mateo, Santa Clara and San Francisco counties, all of whom are facing their own economic struggles this year and are not obligated to contribute. The funding formula is based on matching contributions from each county augmented by a calculation of the percentage of Caltrain riders from each.

That arrangement was made when local governments took control of the system after Southern Pacific decided to opt out of the commuter train business in the 1980s and was considering closing down the system, the seventh-largest train system in the country and a fixture of Bay Area transportation for more than a century (1863).

A slight majority of Caltrain riders identify as Asian (40%), Latinx (12%), or Pacific Islander, American Indian, Middle Eastern or other, with the remaining 48% white, according to Caltrain’s most recent survey, in November 2019 (https://tinyurl.com/CaltrainRiders).

The popularity of commuter trains has risen and fallen over the years. For instance, although ridership doubled between 2005 and 2015, Caltrain had to make cutbacks during the recession in 2010, but the availability of public transit has been key to planning decisions on where to build housing on the Peninsula, and helpful in an era of growing concern over climate change.

Passing Measure RR will require support from two-thirds of the voters in San Mateo, Santa Clara and San Francisco combined. It calls for an eighth-of-a-cent — .0125% — increase in sales tax for the next 30 years, with food and medicine exempted, along with other necessities.

Measure RR is expected to provide $108 million annually. Currently, Caltrain is running an $18.5 million deficit after receiving $41.5 million from the federal CARES Act earlier this year.

Surveys show that at least 70% of Caltrain’s passengers expect to get back on board once the pandemic recedes, but if the train system does shut down, getting it restarted will be costly and time-consuming – more than two years and $150 million, according to one independent estimate (https://tinyurl.com/CaltrainRestart).

Advocates point out that most transit systems already have “dedicated” funding sources that Caltrain does not, and that providing one such as Measure RR proposes will enable Caltrain to keep running and eventually proceed with plans (https://caltrain2040.org) to modernize, expand the frequency and geographic reach of its trains and provide greater access via reduced fares for target populations such as students, seniors and working-class passengers, who disproportionately rely on public transit.

Caltrain is currently offering low-income riders a 50% discount in a pilot program that Measure RR funding would allow to continue. The funding would also allow Caltrain to expand the train system’s utility to underserved communities by running more trains at midday and other non-peak commuter times, improving access to other transit systems and to bicycle riders and by staving off future fare increases.

“Caltrain is an absolutely critical part of the Bay Area transportation system, and shutting it down would be catastrophic for our economy and our working families,” said Assemblymember David Chiu, who represents San Francisco.  “It’s our responsibility to ensure that Caltrain isn’t another casualty of this devastating pandemic, and do whatever we can to preserve public transportation for all of our citizens.”

Measure RR has garnered endorsements throughout the communities and businesses Caltrain serves – from Sen. Dianne Feinstein, the mayors of San Francisco, San Jose, Palo Alto, Brisbane, Burlingame, Mountain View, Sunnyvale, San Carlos, Portola Valley, Los Gatos, to the Sierra Club, Sustainable Silicon Valley, the South Bay Labor Council, the League of Women Voters of the Bay Area and the Bay Area Council and more (https://tinyurl.com/MeasureRREndorsements). Also on board are newspapers including the San Francisco Chronicle, San Mateo Daily Journal and San Jose Mercury News. 

 

Forest Fires Aren’t the Problem, Climate Change Is

At the Front Door: Climate Change & Forest Fires –  a column on climate change in our lives

On a Wednesday morning just a few weeks ago, Bay Area residents woke up to a scene out of a dystopian movie. The sun hung low and red in a sky that looked like it too was on fire. Ash fell from the sky as evidence of the unimaginable destruction which spanned all the way from Los Angeles across the border north to Oregon. Air quality was so bad that authorities called for people to stay indoors. News headlines and radio hosts discussed the damage caused by forest fires, but what they really should have been discussing was climate change. 

For decades we have heard about the negative impacts of climate change on our planet. And in 2018, the total devastation of Paradise, California drove home that forest fires were no longer confined  to places where people just went on vacation. This was different. This was right outside our windows. For the first time ever, I knew people who had been evacuated to shelters and could do nothing but wait to learn if they had homes to go back to. For many of us, the last few weeks have been an unwelcome and long-overdue wakeup call. Climate change isn’t something that is happening elsewhere. It is happening here, right now, threatening our homes and filling our lungs with smoke.  

The link between Climate change and worsening forest fires in California and across the West is incontrovertible. While forest management is important it cannot  be blamed for the recent catastrophic nature of these fires. It is climate change that causes summers to grow hotter with less precipitation and an increased risk of drought. Not only is climate change making most of California drier, it is causing it to be drier for longer periods of time. This year’s hot and dry spring was no exception, which is why there was plenty of dry vegetation scorched by record-hot temperatures, just waiting to ignite. And ignite it did. In late August a thunderstorm passed over northern California. The dry air caused the rain to evaporate leaving only lightning to reach the ground. These lightning strikes started hundreds of fires, many in hard-to-reach places. 

Scientists note that the impacts of human-caused climate change means that we are looking at “a longer fire season with conditions friendlier to fire” resulting in larger, more frequent, more intense, and more destructive fires. This forecast has certainly held true over the last two decades, as the worst ten fires in the State’s history have all occurred since 2000. The last decade has been even worse, continuously smashing previous records for destruction. An analysis conducted by the LA Times found that “wildfires and their compounding effects have intensified in recent years  — and there’s little sign things will improve.” And 2020 is certainly living up to this prediction. 

California is once again struggling through its worst fire season ever, and the August Complex Fire officially became the state’s largest fire since records have been kept (1932). And the fire season has just barely started.

This is, of course, made even worse by the fact that people are often choosing to live near the forests, meaning it is increasingly likely for humans to intentionally and unintentionally start forest fires. The most consequential example this year being the El Dorado Fire outside of Los Angeles, which was started by a pyrotechnic device used as part of a gender reveal. So  far the fire has burned 22,000 acres and ten structures, caused the evacuation of over 20,000 people, and resulted in the death of one fire fighter.  

The real question is, “When will we stop acting like each progressively-worse fire season is an abnormality and acknowledge that worse is the new normal?” 

The climate we were accustomed to is not coming back, and the worst is yet to come.  It is inevitable. We can continue to applaud firefighters and first responders, but a more profound show of gratitude would be to acknowledge and address the root of the problem: climate change, largely caused by the burning of fossil fuels.

California Governor Newsom succinctly summed up the situation during a press conference: “What we’re experiencing right here is coming to communities all across the United States of America unless we get our act together on climate change.” It makes  one wonder if the recent fires will alter the Governor’s previously permissive stance on permitting new oil and gas wells.

Combatting the causes of climate change is no longer a luxury. It is a priority, not just for our politicians and legislators but for us too. The most recent report for the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, noted that effectively tackling climate change would “require rapid, far-reaching and unprecedented changes to all aspects of society.” 

If we want to adapt, and to do so equitably, we need to act now. We have to start making fundamental and uncomfortable changes in how we live – and demand that others arounds us do the same. 


Erin Zimmerman is trained as a Climate Reality Leader in 2019 by the Climate Reality Project, but has been active in the environmental movement for over a decade. Erin holds a PhD in Political Science from the University of Adelaide, where she focused on environmental degradation and its impacts on country and regional stability in Asia. She is currently the Chair of the Speakers’ Bureau of the Santa Clara Chapter of the Climate Reality Project  and an active member of the Legislative and Policy team.

Edited by Meera Kymal, Contributing Editor at India Currents.

Image credits: markus spiske, Unsplash

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Break Out of the Outbreak

Though separated by a malfunctioning Zoom dashboard, I could see the passion radiating from youth nonprofit Break the Outbreak when I met the team for the first time. “How can we contribute to our society? How do we make a difference?”, asked Sky Yang, founder and Chief Executive Officer of the group. “It is our responsibility as members of the community to stop the COVID-19 outbreak from spreading and endangering more people.”

More than fifteen teenagers from across the country were constituents of this virtual board meeting, where the team discussed their recent impact on the community, sources of funding, and plans for the future. I found myself nodding with silent pride for my generation. Despite the onslaught of Advanced Placement testing, final exams, and pre-college drudgery, so many students have dedicated their time and tears towards addressing the outbreak — an effort that was thoroughly refreshing to watch. Over the past three months, a handful of teenagers established ten chapters across three states, received thousands of dollars in donations, and collectively distributed more than five hundred masks to local communities. Impressed and slightly intimidated by this nonprofit’s meteoric rise, I decided to chat with the teenagers who made it happen. 

Sky Yang, Founder and CEO of Break the Outbreak

 How did Break The Outbreak begin? Were there any obstacles you faced during the initial stages of founding the organization?

In the beginning, I realized that people don’t have a centralized platform to post about COVID-19 necessities and assistance. Instead, I found hundreds of posts on platforms like Facebook, NextDoor, Reddit, and Instagram. Inspired, I spent three straight days and nights to construct our website — https://breaktheoutbreak.org/.

This was just the beginning. At the time, I still had a few months of school left and managed to recruit four like-minded students from the city. Once I formed a small team, we were on the move — buying supplies, editing the website, and trying to figure out what places needed our help. Eventually, we decided to direct our attention to different stages of the food industry, from farmer’s markets to grocery stores to restaurants.

In April, we partnered with a local Rigatoni’s, and Break the Outbreak took off from there. It was difficult at first. Our operations were small at the time, and we had to finance them on our own. Without a relationship with local establishments, we faced initial rejections from many restaurants. But we persevered and forged a student network with San Ramon. After gaining traction among local farmers’ markets, we expanded in cities like Fremont, Pleasanton, Roseville, Salt Lake City, Chillicothe, Los Angeles, and San Jose. 

 

For our readers who may not be familiar with your cause, could you describe what “Break The Outbreak” does? 

Break The Outbreak is a non-profit organization that is dedicated to donating masks, face shields, and money to local businesses in order to keep them afloat during the current times of global pandemic as well as when the pandemic is eradicated. The meaning behind the title “Break The Outbreak” simply means: breaking out of the current outbreak of pandemic and rising from the rubble it has created. 

Lizzie Davies, Director of Livermore Chapter

Tell us a little more about your group’s experience in making masks? What kind of technology is required? How do you maintain safety and sanitary standards? 

Making masks was actually quite difficult at first. We had many problems with the quality of the masks not being good enough and having to get rid of them. It took us a while to get a small subsection of individuals that would do a good job and produce high-quality masks. We had to learn how to use a sewing machine as well as be meticulous with our work. We couldn’t settle for something mediocre, so often times masks had to be redone to ensure that they were safe enough. Face shields on the other hand were quite easy to make. To maintain sanitary standards, all of the materials are cleaned beforehand — the cloth is thoroughly washed and all shield materials are wiped down with disinfectant. All materials are then cleaned a second time once it has been assembled.

Adithya Krishnaraj, Director of San Ramon Chapter

Here’s a simple tutorial documenting how Break the Outbreak makes their face shields!

Over the course of your time with “Break the Outbreak”, have there been any notable stories about students you’ve worked with or projects you’ve initiated that you would like to share?  

I remember the first time we ever donated and it was at Rigatoni’s in Dublin. I remember that we were pretty nervous in that donation because none of us had done anything like this before and we really didn’t know how to approach it. We just went in and talked to the staff and they gratefully accepted our donations. It was a great feeling being able to donate to people in need and knowing that these donations will help save lives. It was a great day and kicked off our operation as Break the Outbreak. I think the most positive response we’ve experienced has been from Banana Garden in Dublin. When I talked to the owners Luis and Aldo over the phone, they were very encouraging of our operation and were delighted to see us when we arrived to donate. Though we were social distancing and all wearing masks, I could see the happiness on Aldo’s face when we handed him the box of PPE and he got the whole staff to try our face shields on then and there. Luis was very grateful and offered us tokens of their appreciation as well. It was a nice gesture and an enjoyable experience which made us all happy to be part of Break the Outbreak.

Ansh Tripathi, Associate Founder

5) There are millions of adults working ‘round the clock to promote safety and awareness. Why do you think it’s important for young people to contribute to these efforts as well? 

I’ve seen people die due to the virus. I’ve seen people lose jobs due to the virus. I’ve seen companies shut down due to the virus. I want the world to return to normalcy when people aren’t skeptical of each other, when we can sit in classrooms for school, and when everyone isn’t afraid of a global pandemic. Since most young people are quarantined at home doing nothing during these hard times, I think it is important to contribute to society. We can do our part and help slow the spread of COVID-19.

Sam Zhou, Director of Roseville Chapter

What advice can you give other young teenagers who want to make a difference during these nebulous circumstances?  

When people try to tell you that your plan isn’t going to work, you’re too young to make a difference, or your voice is unimportant in a world full of powerful adults, you cannot let their words stop you from moving forward. There will always be people that will try to tell you that you’re either not good enough or you won’t succeed, but if you believe that you will succeed, then you will. Letting people’s harsh words pollute your conscious won’t allow progress to be made. 

Lizzie Davies, Director of Livermore Chapter

Break the Outbreak is a powerful reminder of how initiative sprouts from adversity. It’s the kind of sprawling endeavor that requires a medley of both courage and compassion from its members. It’s evidence that young people want to make a difference, and will.

For more information, follow BTOB on their social media platforms:

Make the movement work! Be sure to contribute to their Gofundme page: https://www.gofundme.com/f/we-break-the-outbreak

Kanchan Naik is a rising senior at The Quarry Lane School in Dublin, California. Aside from being the Youth Editor at India Currents, she is the 2019-2020 Teen Poet Laureate of Pleasanton, editor-in-chief of her school news magazine The Roar and the Director of Media Outreach for nonprofit Break the Outbreak. Find Kanchan on Instagram (@kanchan_naik_)

Indian Led Bay Area Nonprofits Respond

The world as we knew it a few weeks ago has been turned on its head by the invasion of the alien virus we call COVID-19.  Normal activity has ceased over much of our globe; for a very large majority, being told to stay in place where they are and off the streets is tantamount to taking away their livelihood – it’s a sentence to starve. Many of our elderly need help to obtain food, medicine, and other essentials. The emotional impact has spared no one.  Mother Earth, it seems, has stopped processing, stopped spinning, and stopped orbiting; she is free-falling through space, trying to escape the bonds of gravity.

In any crisis, our humanity and community spirit take over. People jump in to help in any way they can.  Inventing new and creative solutions. Checking on each other. Making masks. Generating optimism and goodwill. Showing gratitude by banging pots and pans and cheering on the frontline medical workers as they put their own lives on the line to try and save others. Three Bay Area nonprofits exemplify this spirit. 

Sukham is an all-volunteer organization that advocates for healthy aging, living well and being prepared for life’s transitions in the Bay Area.  Under the leadership of one of its members Saroj Pathak, Sukham is pairing seniors with a younger volunteer living in the same area who could assist in shopping for groceries, picking up medicines or run other essential errands on a mutually agreed-upon schedule. They can also be that friendly voice that calls up to check in and say hello. If you or someon you know could use this service, inform Sukham or send them an email to sukhaminfo@gmail.com. Provide the name, address and phone number of the senior citizen needing assistance.

The Hindu Community Institute (HCI)  is a service-learning organization dedicated to serving the community by integrating contemporary knowledge, technologies and Hindu wisdom and traditions. Under the banner “Community for Immunity,” HCI – led by Board member Gaurav Rastogi – is now offering free daily online sessions for yoga and meditation via Zoom.  If social distancing is getting you down, or you are struggling to deal with self-isolation, do try out these sessions led by seasoned practitioners. Register at https://www.hinduci.org/online-yoga.  Special yoga sessions catering to seniors and kids are also available.

On a more somber note, HCI has prepared a Hindu last rites process checklist to assist those dealing with a death in the family to handle all the formalities in the current COVID-19 environment. They also offer families the option of talking to knowledgeable individuals who can offer guidance and counsel in their time of loss.  The checklist, as well as contact information for counselors, can be found at  https://www.hinduci.org/last-rites.

Indians for Collective Action (ICA) is a Bay Area nonprofit founded in 1968  to support sustainable development in India by partnering with dedicated non-government organizations (NGO’s) and individuals.  A core mission of ICA has been to help victims of natural disasters such as earthquakes, floods, and drought. Now, in response to the COVID-19 crisis, ICA has organized the Forum initiative, a webinar and video-conference series that connects and enables nonprofits, partners, and interested individuals in India and the US to exchange ideas and share best practices as they bring help to India during the COVID-19 pandemic. The Forum is moderated by ICA’s Dr. Anju Sahay who can be reached at anjusahay@gmail.com. In the first webinar late last month, Snehalaya shared their approach to mobilize and distribute food and supplies to the needy slum dwellers and their plan to distribute food packages to 45000 people. Other projects being prioritized by ICA are listed on their website: https://icaonline.org/donation-for-covid-19/. The next webinar with other project leaders sharing their approach to fight COVID-19 is on April 17. 

Let’s support each other and do all we can. Together we can – and will – put these dark days behind us!

Mukund Acharya is a co-founder of Sukham, an all-volunteer non-profit organization in the Bay Area established to advocate for healthy aging within the South Asian community.