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My dad couldn’t wait to retire.

He started working at 14 and had done whatever he could, without an education, to support his family. I remember when he worked three jobs a week: running a catering truck, collecting coins from vending machines, and working in a gas station on weekends.

He budgeted and saved to make sure he and my mother could have a comfortable lifestyle once he stopped working. He was proud to be able to retire—to do, in his view, “nothing.”

I can’t help but compare my dad’s notion of retirement with what I see playing out every day here in the Coachella Valley—particularly the women in second and third careers who make a difference for their neighbors.

The Democratic Women of the Desert recently presented their 2014 Women Honoring Women Awards. I was one of the recipients, given the Voice of Women’s Rights Award, partly for my Lovable Liberal radio persona, and for my many years of vocal advocacy on behalf of women’s equality. However, when I realized the accomplishments of the other women being honored, I became convinced a mistake had been made: I didn’t feel competent to be in their company.

Megan Beaman received the Civil Rights Award. An attorney advocating on behalf of those in our own East Valley who are least represented in the legal system, Beaman practiced law for years at a nonprofit legal-assistance corporation that served rural Californians, particularly farmworkers. She also challenged administrative, state and federal policies on behalf of her diverse clients.

Coming from a rural working-class family, Beaman recognized early the challenges facing workers, families and communities that are regularly excluded from the legal system. In her family, she was taught not only to recognize unfairness, but was instilled with the drive to act to rectify it.

Beaman founded Beaman Law in 2012 to expand her ability to service more clients. She also has a long history of volunteerism, working in partnership with nonprofit organizations and community leaders.

 “It is not lost on me that I am receiving this award in response to the violation of the rights of others,” she says. “Civil rights stand for the basic principle that, regardless of our differences, all of us have the same inherent rights as human beings, and all of us are responsible to ensure that nobody tries to impinge on those rights.”

Sister Carol Nolan, named Volunteer of the Year, is a member of the Sisters of Providence. She is dedicated to helping students and adults in the East Valley learn English. With a master’s degree in music, Nolan taught music and English, and spent a sabbatical year studying Spanish in Mexico. She has been director of Providence in the Desert since 2002, and was responsible for bringing “Nuns on the Bus” to the Coachella facility in 2013.

Nolan is part of Guerin Outreach Ministries as “a reflection of the interest and zeal of the Sisters of Providence in manifesting God’s loving presence in the lives of the struggles of the poor.” Her favorite quote: “Love the children first, and then teach them.”

“English is a very difficult language to learn, especially for adults whose brains are already wired for another language,” says Nolan, “but I believe love and education can change the world. Only love has the power to transform.”

Honored with the Democratic Ideals Award, Sonja Martin is a life-long educator whose “retirement” is anything but. She was a classroom teacher, principal, district administrator and superintendent of schools, and worked as a consultant with the Los Angeles County Office of Education.

Martin has authored books for parents and teachers, and worked with teachers around the world to improve student achievement. She has represented our area on the Riverside County Commission for Women, advocating for inclusion of women and women’s issues at all levels of policymaking; and the Riverside County Office on Aging, emphasizing programs like Grandparents Raising Grandchildren and spreading the word about free support services available through the county. She has been active in other community-service organizations, including California’s Senior Legislature.

“After I retired from my education career,” says Martin, “I had to ask myself: ‘What do I do now?’ People need someone to be out there for them. There’s work to be done.”

Philanthropist Eileen Stern came from a working-class family, was raised in public housing, attended public schools and went to a state university. She received the Humanitarian Award from DWD.

The first woman to hold a national marketing manager position with Sears, Stern moved on to entrepreneurial marketing and public relations work. She was motivated to get involved in the fight against breast cancer after the untimely death of her mother. “I felt compelled to try to do something to help find a cure.”

Stern’s efforts resulted in the HIKE4HOPE event that has raised more than $4 million to support cancer research at City of Hope. She also helped launch the first fundraiser for the FIND Food Bank, served as president of the Desert Women’s Council, worked with the Children’s Discovery Museum, and chaired the first fundraiser for the Boys and Girls Club of Cathedral City.

“I learned to pay it forward,” said Stern upon receiving her award. “I share this award with all of you who work to make other’s lives better.”

The final DWD award was for Lifetime Achievement, presented to Rancho Mirage resident, Elle “Elle K” Kurpiewski. A flight attendant, Elle K came from an Air Force family that focused on patriotism and service. She has spent her life “walking the talk,” including union organizing and advocating for flight attendants; running as the Democratic candidate in the local 2002 congressional race; and serving as a delegate to the 2004 Democratic convention, president of Democrats of the Desert, and executive director of the Democratic Foundation of the Desert. She was largely responsible for establishing a local Democratic Party headquarters office in Cathedral City.

“I believe in the Democratic ideals of liberty and equality for all,” said Elle K upon receiving her award. “I’m consistently reminded that one person can make a difference. I share this with all of you. … Now let’s get back to work!”

What are you doing to work on behalf of your community?

Published in Know Your Neighbors

With its lavish resorts and golf courses, the Coachella Valley is a getaway to some, and a retirement home for others. But beyond the shadow of the country clubs and music festivals lies a Coachella Valley that is largely unknown.

“Revealing the Invisible Coachella Valley: Putting Cumulative Environmental Vulnerabilities on the Map,” a report released this month by the University of California at Davis Center for Regional Change, shows the cumulative environmental health hazards of living in the Eastern Coachella Valley.

“You can see the east versus west story,” said Jonathan London, the principal investigator and primary study author, “where in the west valley, there are much lower levels of environmental hazards, and much higher levels for quality of life, compared to the east.”

While this data seems to state the obvious to those living and working in the eastern Coachella Valley, it wasn’t until recently that people outside the area began to take notice of these environmental issues. Many people certainly took notice when a storm in September 2012 flooded mobile home parks, including Duroville, and spread the odor of decomposing organic matter from the Salton Sea to Los Angeles.

As a result, the Center for Regional Change partnered with local environmental-justice, health and farmworker advocates to document the environmental vulnerability in the area. Some of the issues that were studied included the failing water infrastructure, concentrated hazardous waste, and unauthorized dumping.

To better understand the environmental hazards, the report shows a demographic comparison between the eastern and western portions of the Coachella Valley. This analysis is necessary to understand how the areas with severe environmental hazards impact those with fewer social, economic and political resources.

A map (shown above) illustrates an assessment of the varying environmental vulnerabilities across the region.

There is a higher concentration of impaired water bodies when compared to the rest of the county, meaning there are drinking water wells in the eastern valley that contain much higher contaminant levels for arsenic, chromium 6, perchlorate, and nitrates than are allowed by law.

A different map (shown below) illustrates the levels of contaminants in the drinking water.

“Policy-makers, state and local government agencies finally have the data that they need to start making changes in our troubled system,” said Celia Garcia, a Mecca schoolteacher community advocate. “For the very first time, an accurate picture of our reality and our needs has been painted for them.”

Garcia continued, “We have an enormous problem with hazardous waste and illegal dumping in our community. And while I’d like to say the waste and dumping is the biggest problem, equally disturbing is the fact that thousands of children and families are allowed to live in, around, and near such dangerous waste.”

According to the report, the unemployment and poverty rates in the eastern Coachella Valley are much higher than the west side and the county as a whole.

The report also shows that 45 percent of the residents in the eastern Coachella Valley are limited English speakers, compared to the 16 percent in the west valley. Well more than half of the population in the ECV lives below the poverty level—65 percent as opposed to 37 percent on the west side.

Although the recent data shows overwhelming environmental hazards in valley communities, community members are hopeful that actions will now be taken toward improving conditions. The areas highlighted in the report—including the Salton Sea, Mecca, North Shore, Coachella and even La Quinta—could serve as a target for organized action by community advocates, elected officials and public agencies.

“The lack of consolidated and unbiased data documenting the inequities of our region has been one of the greatest challenges we face in our work for better infrastructure, water quality, housing, and environmental health. It has been incredibly frustrating to us at times to have decision-makers and policy-makers say or imply that we are exaggerating about our community experiences, or that they need to see science before they can help. This data will assist us greatly in demonstrating that our experiences are based in hard facts and statistics,” said Megan Beaman of Pueblo Unido Community Development Corporation.

The report was designed and conducted by the CRC; it was commissioned by the California Institute for Rural Studies with support from The California Endowment/ Building Healthy Communities. Local non-profit organizations contributing to the production and release of this report are the Pueblo Unido Community Development Corporation; California Rural Legal Assistance, Inc.; Inland Congregations United for Change; and Comité Cívico del Valle.

The report is available for download in English or Spanish.

Ivan Delgado is a reporter for Coachella Unincorporated, a youth media startup in the East Coachella Valley, funded by the Building Healthy Communities Initiative of the California Endowment and operated by New America Media in San Francisco. The purpose is to report on issues in the community that can bring about change. Coachella Unincorporated” refers to the region youth journalists cover, but also to the unincorporated communities of the Eastern Valley with the idea to “incorporate” the East Valley into the mainstream Coachella Valley mindset. For more information, visit coachellaunincorporated.org.

Published in Local Issues