With the recent election passed, the United States has elected its new president and Fresno has elected its new mayor. This is arguably the most prominent facet of the democratic process.
But democracy isn’t just elections and votes. Democracy is – or should be – peaceful protests, respectful discussions between residents and their elected officials, and meaningful results that value people above profit and health above harm.
This ideal concept of democracy is what people in southwest Fresno have sought for decades. Hundreds of residents, faith-based leaders and many others have been fighting for generations to undo the many wrongs that have been done to this part of the city.
The hardest fight is halting the long-standing notion that southwest Fresno should be the city’s dumping ground for industrial facilities. These industries have made southwest Fresno one of the most polluted communities in the state while also stunting the area’s economic development. Many of the jobs in these industrial areas elude the people who live in these impacted neighborhoods.
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Simultaneously, diverse stakeholders have fought to bring in quality housing for all income levels, beautiful parks that aren’t built over landfills and grocery stores with fresh foods.
For democracy to work, elected officials must do their part and fight for the community they were elected to represent.
Unfortunately, city leaders have failed southwest Fresno time and time again. This resilient community has been saturated with industrial facilities and little to no investment. Additionally, the area is segregated from the rest of the region by two major freeways, and lack complete streets with sidewalks, bike lanes and access to transit.
This has life-and-death impacts: The Central Valley Health Policy Institute with other researchers found people – our neighbors – in southwest Fresno have lives 20 years shorter than people in other parts of the city.
As unjust as southwest Fresno’s history has been, the Fresno City Council has a chance to address this unnerving situation and truly transform this community through the Southwest Specific Plan. For nearly two years, residents and stakeholders have worked on this plan to realize the community’s vision – eliminate future industries, add green space, build quality housing and have retail opportunity.
This plan was unanimously approved by the Fresno Planning Commission recently and received stellar commendations from all the commissioners. On Thursday, the City Council will vote on the plan, which was initiated and led by its southwest Fresno representative, Oliver Baines.
The plan calls for the elimination of future industrial uses and prohibits expansion of existing industrial sites – meaning existing jobs will remain. Eliminating future industrial growth will improve environmental health and the heath of thousands of children, adults and elderly.
Additionally, the SWSP supports improving public transportation and connecting southwest Fresno to the rest of the city. It is the blueprint this community has waited for to kick-start a healthy, vibrant Fresno.
Who will provide funding for infrastructure and other improvements to support southwest Fresno’s renaissance?
Thanks to local leaders including Assemblyman Joaquin Arambula, D-Kingsburg, and Mayor Ashley Swearengin, the city has funding specifically for communities like southwest Fresno. Assembly Bill 2722 was written and passed into law with the intention of benefiting the top 5 percent of communities most impacted by pollution and poverty in California.
Because of neighborhoods such as southwest Fresno, the city will receive $70 million to fund projects like the SWSP. This law requires robust community engagement from start to finish, but clear biases have emerged as to where this funding should be invested.
So, the same old questions comes up: Will the communities intended to benefit from this program actually benefit from it? And will residents living in these communities be thoroughly engaged regardless of which languages they speak?
There should be no more excuses. The plan is in place. The money is on its way. It’s time to invest in southwest Fresno.
Grecia A. Elenes is policy advocate for the Fresno-based Leadership Counsel for Justice and Accountability. Its office is at 764 P Street, Suite 012. (559) 369-2790.