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University researchers lend expertise to the Valley
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It takes everyone’s help to strengthen Central Valley communities.

The focus on the high number of birth defects in Kettleman City was the result of community groups working with residents and nonprofits. The ensuing media coverage led Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger to ask the state Department of Public Health and the Environmental Protection

Agency to open an investigation into a nearby hazardous waste facility. While California health and environmental officials further investigate the claims, the residents succeeded in raising local, state and national awareness about the conditions experienced in this Central Valley community. Similar to many rural unincorporated areas in the Central Valley, Kettleman City also faces extreme poverty. Census 2000 indicates the community’s per capita income was $7,839, which is a third of California’s average per capita income. We know poverty makes certain communities more vulnerable to environmental health risks.

The important strides made by Kettleman City residents were accomplished with the support of the nonprofit organization Greenaction and through networking with Central Valley environmental and social justice organizations. This is one example of the many collaborations taking place to improve the lives of Central Valley residents.

At the University of California, Merced, some of us serve the region by creating or joining collaborative efforts and by demonstrating how research can benefit efforts to solve problems in our region. Community University Research and Action for Justice, or CURAJ, is one such initiative. CURAJ was formed four years ago at UC Merced to connect faculty and students at UC Berkeley, UC Davis, UC Merced and CSU campuses, with local and regional organizations. In the past few years we have built a network that includes organizations such as California Rural Legal Assistance; Center for Race, Poverty, and the Environment; Central Valley Air Quality Coalition; Youth in Focus; Latino Issues Forum; Central Valley Partnership for Citizenship; and many others.

Together we envision how research can aid in grassroots efforts to address local concerns. This led to the 2008 CURAJ Exchange, which brought more than 150 people together to discuss common concerns and approaches to problem solving. There have also been smaller town-hall type forums. To find solutions, specific information is required about local populations and their needs. We emphasize that any research should be conducted with foremost attention to the goals and interests of local communities. My colleagues and I contend that local research can advance academic knowledge, and that we must find ways for research to also benefit local communities.

One impressive ongoing effort is the Community Equity Initiative (CEI). This project, of California Rural Legal Assistance and Policy Link with funding from The California Endowment, is focused on the hundreds of small, unincorporated communities in the Central Valley. Arguably, and almost by definition, unincorporated communities are among the most poverty-stricken and marginalized in the region. The initiative is creating an inventory of unincorporated communities. Beyond understanding their scale and scope, the initiative is partnering with Kettleman City, South Dos Palos, Fairmead, Matheny Tract, Pixley, Tooleville, Lanare, Laton, Drummond, Jensen, Parklawn, Lamont and the Weedpatch area to assist them in addressing their problems. CURAJ is a collaborator in the Community Equity Initiative. Our research efforts have included historical research and interviews to help community residents tell their story, and to also illuminate the factors that contribute to present-day difficulties. Legal research examines the policies that are associated with particular problems or solutions. Social science and humanities research will provide information on the individual and shared contemporary experience.

While the goal of our collaboration is solving problems, we also acknowledge the vitality of the communities we work with. In our process of recording histories and gathering individual, household, and community-level knowledge, we are privileged to meet and build relationships with families who aspire for a healthy environment for their children, caring neighbors who want to see the town succeed and tireless community leaders who see the area's potential.

An event in December at UC Merced will focus attention on a basic but complicated problem in underserved rural communities — access to safe quality drinking water. We hope to advance ongoing efforts in the Central Valley to increase access to safe drinking water by bringing together research engineers and scientists working on the latest technologies of water sanitation, community organizations trying to improve access to clean water, policy makers and organizations that fund community development. Through these collaborative efforts we can work with residents, ask them to identify priorities, and support their decisions and actions. Together we can strengthen vulnerable communities.

— Robin Maria Delugan is an Anthropology professor at the University of California, Merced.