What I Do: Community Organizer

BY GAYLE JO CARTER March 18, 2019

In this series, Aspire explores inspiring individuals doing interesting work across the world.

Who:  Byanka Santoyo: Community Organizer at The Center on Race, Poverty, and the Environment [CRPE] – with a focus on pesticides.

What & Where: “I have a lot of roles. As the community organizer, I do a lot of advocating for parents. I go into the schools. I do presentations in the schools on how to be safe while working in agriculture because essentially, we all live by Ag [Agriculture] here in Kern County. Ag is number one here.

I do training for pesticide safety in case parents are exposed in the fields. This includes teaching them how to clean up from their field work before picking their kids up from school. There’s a big risk of secondhand exposure. Eventually, it could be even worse for their children.

I do a lot of work up in Sacramento. I regularly am tackling DPR [The Department of Regulation], that’s the agency in California that regulates the pesticides. Agriculture is a billion-dollar business in Kern County. We have different campaigns[, and] [o]ne of them is notification. Our schools are not getting notified about any potential exposure to pesticides, a warning that they should keep the kids indoors during these events. My biggest drive is in the daycare alerts. Because we are a farming community, day-care drop off starts early [in age and time], sometimes kids as young as 6-weeks-old get dropped off at 5 in the morning. This is a time period where growers are allowed to spray restricted and non-restricted pesticides. Restricted are the pesticides that are really heavily regulated and are really harmful with long and short-term effects. There’s a window when the grower can drop off their kids, from five to six in the morning, where there is a potential for exposure to the pesticides. Also, high school students or kids involved in sports, especially during hot summers, tend to have practices in the evening where they could be exposed. I’m trying to work this out with the state that they give notifications to schools and parents if there might be a potential exposure. An alert for them to please stay indoors, so as not to get exposed. That’s one of my drives.  Right now, there’s no state regulation to give notification.

Another campaign is to try and eliminate a couple of the pesticides here in Kern County. These are heavily used but are known to be toxic air contaminants which  affects our air quality and, therefore, the way we breathe. People react to those pesticides with allergic reactions, asthma, respiratory problems, etc. We’re doing work to try to eliminate Chlorpyrifos. [After removing the pesticide from household use nearly two decades ago, environmental groups petitioned for it to be removed from agricultural use, too. EPA scientists recommended a total ban on the chemical. But in March 2017, President Trump’s new EPA administrator at the time, Scott Pruitt, decided against that.]  In Kern County it is No. 1. Chlorpyrifos is something very cheap, [and] very fast for growers to get their hands on. They don’t consider the consequences.”

When:  “I don’t have a 9 to 5 job. I have an all day job. I love learning. I love understanding people and the way they were raised and how they work. It’s an art, the farm working, the way you shape a vine. I remember when my parents used to come home from work with a white coating on their clothes. Now I know it’s from the pesticides. Now I understand what happened to my parents.”

Why: “Essentially, my drive is my daughter. At first it was me wanting to learn about environmental justice. But after having my daughter, it really hit me in the heart because many children in this area don’t have a voice. So, for me, that is the drive. They don’t have a voice, but I do have a voice.

Growing up, I wasn’t really concerned about the environmental aspect. As I got older, maybe around Junior High School, I started to notice it because my parents got sprayed on in the fields. It was [a] humongous disappointment that the county at that time – my parents got sprayed on with their whole crew – really never paid attention to them. After a while, the crew that got sprayed on suffered major consequences. Yet to this day, there still hasn’t been any action done to the grower. Just a small little fine, a slap on the wrist to them.”

How: “It was hard at first. It’s difficult to start to reaching parents because agriculture is our life. We live by Ag. It’s the thing that puts food on our tables, roofs over our heads… So for us to say ‘Agriculture is Bad’ – you’re killing that dream, that livelihood that we live in.  I always put it out to everybody that Ag is not horrible. Ag is the thing that’s sustaining us. But we need to play it safer, not just for the residents or the workers in the fields but for our children who are being exposed without us even knowing about it. The best blessing now is that they do trust me.

When I started, I wanted to learn about the air quality. Where I live in Arvin [15 miles from Bakersfield, CA], it always tops The American Lung Association’s worst air quality lists. So, I did my research on what affects the air quality.  I learned it’s not just the air quality. It’s the water and then from there it’s a trickle down. You try to find the source of what’s polluting your community, the environment. Every day you learn something new. There’s always something to do.”

Byanka Santoyo, Community Organizer | Photo Courtesy of Byanka Santoyo

Agriculture Close to the Schools in Arvin, CA | Photo Courtesy Byanka Santoyo/CPRE

Family history: “My dad started working in the fields at the age of 16 ½, 17, and he’s now 51-years-old. He’s still working in the fields. He sustained us all with agriculture. I always mention it when I do my work with pesticides. I always let everyone know we’re not against agricultural work. We’re for safe practices.

There’s not a scientific study about why my mother is sick, but I think working in the fields is the biggest factor. She is able to work but she has an autoimmune disease. I’ve done my research on the crew she was working on, when she got drifted on. I was in Junior High School at the time. All the women on that crew have suffered through something, some type of cancer, some type of autoimmune disease. She still has contacts with her old crew that got sprayed on. One of the children that was born, one of the mothers who was pregnant at time and got drifted on, that child has autism. One of the ladies my mom was working with has an autoimmune disease, two of ladies passed away because of cancer, so things like that.”

Building trust: “At first I started getting a little bit of resistance. I have community meetings where I give updates of things that are happening, any changes being done statewide or countywide. We try to have a meeting to let people know what’s going around. I’m always on standby so that whenever there’s any questions or concerns and someone wants to reach out to me, I’m there. My phone is on me all the time. I had one instance where somebody from the field, working at night, called me at 1 o’clock in the morning to tell me that he did not receive the protocol safety instructions to spray in agriculture. As soon as he gave me a call, I did what I had to do. I called the Agricultural Department. I called the state. My phone is always on. I always tell everybody, whoever has a question, to call me at any time because I’m going to be here to help.  I do have some contact information from DPR or the Ag commissioner. They know I’m on top of them for anything going on.”

The Next Generation: “There’s enthusiasm around environmental justice from the youth. The youth are coming out and speaking out. That’s the biggest drive that I’m seeing. It’s interesting that they want to learn. They are like sponges, ready to go all for it. It’s amazing. I love it. Also, I see parents who once were very shy insisting, ‘I don’t want to speak, I don’t want to talk about it.’  Now, we have moms that are ready to go out full force, wanting to know what’s around their kids, what’s around their schools, just asking questions.”

Community organizer prep work: “I did a lot volunteering with the Committee for a Better Arvin. I wanted to learn more, so I volunteered – that was my stepping stone of my environmental justice work. My initial intention was just to learn about what’s going on in our area.”

Take action: “Stand up. Never keep quiet if you see something unjust. There are always people around you that are doing the work.  Just join in. Do your part. Stand up.”

Biggest challenge in the work: “The challenge for me is that the Ag industry has a lot of money and they see profits before people. Money talks. That’s our problem here.  It’s a class struggle. The upper class only sees the benefits of their pockets. They don’t see what’s under the ground, they don’t see that. They see profit, money. Money talks. That’s how it is.”

Support team: “We have a pesticide team with an attorney, Paulina Torres, who is so good at what she does. She’s on top of the regulations, any changes. I’ve always shared with everybody, that without Paulina, I couldn’t do the work on the ground.”

The future: “My daughter. She’s only 3 and, as I was sharing with you, I did a lot of volunteer hours when she was very small, maybe a month and a half old and we were having a rally.  I was doing my part. It is so amazing to be able to share this with her. I hope for her to be healthy.”



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