Social justice groups are changing Fresno and some key politicians aren’t taking it well

Last week, Garry Bredefeld tried to sound the alarm about a social justice fight in Fresno. He was about a decade too late.

“Unfortunately, class warfare was started yesterday,” the northeast Fresno councilmember said Tuesday at a news conference on how state money should be allocated to fix Fresno’s roads. “I don’t think it’s the end of it. I think it’s, frankly, the beginning.”

He’s off by about 10 years.

In that time span, south Fresno neighborhoods have fought to repair what even northwest Councilmember Steve Brandau described as the “sins of the past.”

And more often than not, they’ve won.

From policy battles and political campaigns, to disputes over discrimination and local parks, a handful of social justice groups are challenging and reshaping the city’s power structure.

Since 2010, nearly a dozen social justice organizations have sprouted in Fresno, harnessing community power to spark change. These groups, many of which are led by educated women of color with deep Valley ties, have mobilized coalitions that stood up to local politicians, combated vicious attacks and emerged with political victories.

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The challenges triggered sharp tongue lashings from some elected leaders, who publicly rebuked advocates from the dais. But other local politicians now are rethinking their relationships with advocates and the residents with whom they work.

The victories, coupled with new community leaders and changing voter registration, signal a power shift in Fresno.

“It’s about building the power of the disenfranchised and changing policy and systems,” said former Assemblymember Sarah Reyes, who grew up in southeast Fresno. “City Hall is telling people on the south side of Fresno that you don’t matter. All my life, people have been saying I don’t matter. Well, guess what? I do matter.”

A social justice winning streak

Mary Curry and Concerned Citizens of West Fresno worked for years to stop Darling International from expanding its operations in Fresno.

In 2012, with the help of Leadership Counsel, Concerned Citizens sued the city of Fresno and Darling. They not only won their legal fight, they also won over then-Councilmember Oliver Baines and his colleagues on the City Council, which tried to join the lawsuit and unanimously voted to relocate the meat rendering plant.

Longtime southwest Fresno resident Mary Curry and Fresno City Councilmember Oliver Baines celebrate after the council in October 2017 approved an agreement with Darling International for the company to move its meat-rendering plant out of a southwest neighborhood. TIM SHEEHAN Fresno Bee file

A similar scenario played out in 2017 during a dispute over a large industrial park.

Caglia Environmental sought to develop a massive industrial park adjacent to two new warehouse projects, across the street from homes and within eyesight of Orange Center Elementary School. Even though residents and advocates vocally opposed the project from the beginning, the City Council unanimously approved the Caglia Industrial Park.

The City Council eventually stopped the project and required a full environmental review, but only after South Central Neighbors United filed a lawsuit and the state Attorney General’s Office intervened.

At the same time, Fresno City Hall faced another issue plaguing its poorest neighborhoods – slumlords and substandard housing.

Faith in the Valley-Fresno for years called attention to slumlords operating in Fresno, seeking action from city officials.

In 2017, the City Council on a split vote along party lines (four Democrats in favor, three Republicans opposed) approved the mayor’s inspection plan for rental properties, called the Rental Housing Improvement Act. At the time, Mayor Lee Brand called the program “the most daunting challenge the city has ever done.”


How we reported this story

The reporter began work on this story after the November election. She interviewed nearly 30 people, both over the phone and in person.

The story was based on a timeline beginning in 2010 when nonprofit organizations and new legal services began to locate in Fresno. Many people affiliated with those organizations were interviewed, along with several current and former politicians. Steve Brandau was the only politician who declined to be interviewed for this story.

The Bee compiled archive videos to create a new video for this story.

Fresno’s social justice groups also helped secure millions in state cap-and-trade money for southwest Fresno, downtown and Chinatown. They won a majority of voters over in their push for better parks, but ultimately lost the vote. However, that fight continues in court.

And just last month, dozens of residents and advocates showed up at City Hall and voiced outrage and disappointment in a proposal to cite drivers in intersections who donate money or other goods to panhandlers.

Many of the comments directly targeted Brandau, who authored the ordinance. Others called on Bredefeld — who spearheaded raising the words “In God We Trust” in the council chambers — to prove his faith through his vote.

In the end, the ordinance failed after two co-sponsors pulled their support and a council majority voted against it.

Elected officials lashing out

For some of Fresno’s elected leaders, weathering criticism and demands from the advocacy groups triggered angry tongue lashings from the dais and public rebukes.

Many who lashed out are part of Fresno’s longtime conservative establishment.

And while some officials acknowledged regret over their specific tone or choice of words, they say they have legitimate concerns about many social justice groups.

During the tense debate over the Caglia project last year, Brandau called Ashley Werner and Leadership Counsel “poverty pimps.”

Brandau declined to comment for this story, but recently told The Bee his opinion of Leadership Counsel has not changed.

“I am not alone in that opinion,” he said. “I just gave expression to it. In that context, many of us felt that a wonderful project that would bring millions of dollars and hundreds of jobs to Fresno was being disparaged unnecessarily by a small group of people that have their own organization’s agenda. I could not think of a better way, at the time, than poverty pimps.

“Would I use it again? Nah.”

In 2016, Fresno County Supervisor Buddy Mendes shouted down environmental advocate Janaki Jagannath, accusing her of lying while referring to her “leftist buddies.”

Mendes later said he probably shouldn’t have raised his voice, but also said he wouldn’t back down from his stance. He said he believes the advocacy groups mislead residents about problems in their communities and the potential solutions.

“Don’t advocate for your dog and pony show” in public meetings, Mendes said. He also accused advocates of using residents as props.

Other Fresno politicians have used their platform to criticize social justice issues, including LGBT education and NFL players kneeling during the National Anthem.

Backlash from elected leaders has become common enough that many groups prepare residents so they’ll be more poised in front of angry public officials.

Werner, the attorney with Leadership Counsel, said inflammatory remarks from the dais perpetuate inequities.

“What they’re (residents) doing is an act of bravery, not only for themselves but for their whole community and future generations,” Werner said.

Kathryn Forbes, the Women’s Program coordinator at Fresno State, said the way some elected officials treat advocates and residents is misogynistic and racist.

“And even if you disagree with them (residents and advocates), it’s your job to respect them, right?” she said about the elected officials. “You work for us, right?”

Building power

Social advocacy momentum in Fresno has been rooted in building coalitions around specific issues, as opposed to political candidates. Organizers rely on residents to identify key issues to pursue.

“We don’t pick an issue and then figure out how to talk to the communities,” said Ariana Martinez-Lott, an organizer with Faith in the Valley-Fresno. “It’s the other way around.”

Staffers with California Rural Legal Assistance invest a lot of time in resident education, outreach and leadership development. They train residents about government services, how to connect with officials and protocol for speaking during public meetings.

“People don’t know this stuff, because why would people know this stuff, right?” said Mariah Thompson, a CRLA attorney.

“It’s critical that people have the opportunity to engage in these processes because the built environment around us – none of it is an accident,” she said. “And the processes are designed, in many ways, to keep people out.”

Even though many of the groups are nonprofits and nonpartisan, they still work around elections.

During the 2018 primaries, Fresno Building Healthy Communities collected more than 10,000 signatures to qualify the parks sales tax for the November ballot.

A number of groups such as Fresno BHC, Faith in the Valley, Leadership Counsel, Communities for a New California and Hmong Innovating Politics partnered to host candidate forums for City Council races.

Faith in the Valley-Fresno contacted over 7,000 voters in the city, encouraging them to vote and providing information on things such as what would appear on ballots and polling locations. Of the voters Faith in the Valley volunteers contacted, about 10 percent more showed up to the polls, according to research done by the advocacy group.

Leaders who reflect the community

Kevin Hall, a longtime air quality advocate, called the leaders of Fresno’s social justice charge “sheroes” who have been better than their male counterparts at building coalitions and working collaboratively.

“They could go off somewhere else and make a lot of money, but they choose to do this work from the heart,” Hall said.

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Sukaina Hussain addresses a question at a February 2018 Faith in Fresno rally in front of the Fresno County Sheriff’s office. Aleksandra Konstantinovic Fresno Bee file

Sukaina Hussain previously worked as an organizer with Faith in the Valley and now works as the outreach director for Central California Council on Islamic-American Relations. She’s working to engage Muslim residents in community issues, one of the newest efforts of Fresno’s community organizing.

As a Muslim woman who wears a hijab, she said, she knows how it feels to be stigmatized.

“I think that that has really helped me identify with other people. A lot of times, when we talk about certain communities, we make stereotypes about them, or we make false assumptions. And so having been in that boat, I think I’m able to connect with other people.”

Hussain recently married and wants to raise her family in Fresno.

“I really want to help create the kind of world that I want my kids to grow up in and that I want to call home.”

The women leading local social justice organizations are direct about their intentions to build power in Fresno.

“We say it’s important to have people up there who look like us, but it’s more important to have people up there looking out for us,” said Sandra Celedon, president and CEO of Fresno BHC. “We have to create this new definition of power. It’s no longer looking just to City Hall for power.”

Julie Bounchareune holds a sign during the March 21 Fresno City Council meeting opposing a council proposal that would’ve made it illegal for drivers to give out handouts to panhandlers. The proposal was defeated. ERIC PAUL ZAMORA ezamora@fresnobee.com

Half red, half blue

Some local politicians are starting to partner and collaborate with the advocacy groups.

After confronting Thompson, the CRLA attorney, during a public meeting, Fresno County Supervisor Brian Pacheco later apologized. Now, Thompson and Pacheco are working together to improve water quality and bring sidewalk projects to low-income unincorporated communities.

“I have a healthy respect for what they do because they have a hard job,” Pacheco said about groups such as CRLA and Leadership Counsel. “If I could help them fix all the problems, I’d do it in a heartbeat. There’s a process, and I’m helping them work through the process.”

Mayor Lee Brand said his relationship with some of the groups is best described as “evolving.”

“Maybe at first there’s a tendency to kind of not take them as seriously as I should have taken them,” he said.

Brand said he learned a lot during the negotiations to resolve the Caglia lawsuit.

“We’re going to have to work with these groups that do represent a constituency that doesn’t have a voice,” he said.

Councilmember Esmeralda Soria said social justice groups should have the same chance for input at City Hall as developers and the Chamber of Commerce.

Fresno’s 2018 election demonstrated the city’s political growing pains.

Arias and Nelson Esparza beat candidates backed by the political establishment in the November election, marking a dramatic shift on the City Council to a majority Democrat and Latino. Their chiefs of staff are Latinas with social justice backgrounds.

“It’s much more diverse now,” Brand said. “There’s a lot of different factors and people who shape public policy and influence elected officials. And that’s our city. This is a very diverse city. It’s kind of half red and half blue.

“You’ve got to find a way to put the red and blue together sometimes.”

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Brianna Calix covers politics and investigations for The Bee, where she works to hold public officials accountable and shine a light on issues that deeply affect residents’ lives. She previously worked for The Bee’s sister paper, the Merced Sun-Star, and earned her bachelor’s degree from Fresno State.