By Kevin Hall
Stark examples of institutionalized racism and White privilege in Fresno burst out publicly in October like a Charlottesville rally of Trump supporters.
The tiki torches illuminating the forces of civic and moral failure in Fresno were the votes at City Hall on the Darling International rendering plant and Southwest Specific Plan; the battle over $70 million in greenhouse gas reduction funds; the opening celebration of Fulton Stripped Mall; and the release of a bizarre promotional video by the Central Valley Community Foundation now led by former Fresno mayor Ashley Swearengin.
The harsh analogy applies because race-related threats to the opportunities, health and very lives of south Fresno residents are real and ongoing. People living in West Fresno endure lifespans shortened by 20 years; the state’s worst levels of air, water and toxic pollution; and the nation’s highest rates of concentrated poverty. Many neighborhoods in southeast Fresno and downtown are nearly as bad, particularly those next to the concentration of major industrial polluters in the Calwa area.
Each of these elements has a deep, regional history, and they are intimately connected: pollution, developers, public monies and political sleaze. For help adding them all up, read Mark Arax’s books in order of publication, his past reporting for the Los Angeles Times on Fresno’s deeply ingrained culture of corruption, and new essays on his Web site.
But first, watch the Swearengin video. In less than three minutes and when viewed in context, the film serves as an epiphany for our entire community. Why it was made, by whom, for whom, the false narrative it is designed to spread, and the film’s egregious misappropriation of the words and image of Mary Curry of Concerned Citizens of West Fresno, can be quite revealing.
The context for the video is the Swearengin-led attempt to redirect all $70 million in cap-and-trade funds meant to improve West Fresno neighborhoods to downtown redevelopment, and the heroic response from residents who against long odds successfully secured $36 million of it for their community. The Downtown Über Alles crowd instead wanted every penny spent around the future high-speed rail station on public infrastructure and subsidies for private development. The governor wanted this, too.
The flick opens with a Trump-level falsehood, one the ex-mayor desperately needs her nonprofit’s financial supporters at major endowments and state agencies to buy: that it was she who led residents from West Fresno, southeast and downtown in an effort so massive and inclusive it resulted in “the largest community-driven budget process in the history of the U.S.” Wow.
The hyperbole of that statement speaks to her level of desperation. A quick online search finds more than a million people participated last year in New York City’s participatory budgeting process, yet Fresno’s 11 meetings and 529 people somehow set a national record, according to Swearengin (again, Trump-like). She even put two of her former city staffers and favorite torch-bearers, a pair of middle-aged White men, in front of the camera to sing the praises of her efforts.
More important, the meetings were the direct result of community organizing done by local nonprofits. In turn, residents created and voted to recommend the final list of projects for west Fresno, most of them focused on the needs of existing neighborhoods rather than downtown and Chinatown gentrification efforts. The final project list itself was created by residents when the options compiled by Team Swearengin still failed to reflect people’s stated priorities.
From start to finish, there is nothing positive here for Swearengin & Co. to take credit for; this was a process they strove to avoid and, short of that, to manipulate. But take credit they will.
In truth, while still mayor, Swearengin lobbied Sacramento to send the $70 million straight to the city as a state budget line item with no community process at all. Zero. Nada. Zilch. No investments in West Fresno. No Fresno City College satellite campus. No provisions for local hire, prevailing wage or job training. No renewable energy projects, community gardens or food banks.
In support of the high-speed rail agenda, Governor Jerry Brown’s Strategic Growth Council instead produced guidelines requiring all $70 million to be spent with a one-mile radius of the station, effectively excluding all of West Fresno. Residents derailed that effort, too. Because the money is coming through a cap-and-trade fund program known as Transformative Climate Communities, a valid community-based effort was required. Ensuring the integrity of that process became the next challenge, and residents again responded.
Brown and Swearengin were attempting to use the demographics of West Fresno to justify sending the money to Fresno—just nowhere west of Highway 99. Residents’ opposition to this dishonesty led to a May forum with a representative of the state agency in charge.
At the meeting, Curry explained her expectation of funding for West Fresno to a TV reporter, “Since it was based on the pollution and poverty levels in this community, then it should be spent to improve the quality of life in this community.”
As Veronica Garibay of Fresno-based Leadership Counsel for Justice and Accountability told Valley Public Radio in May, “We can’t say ‘Wait, west Fresno. Wait again,’ even though the reason why Fresno is getting this money is largely because of what is happening in your Census tract. If we are talking about economic, environmental and social transformation, if we are talking about economic development, then we have to talk about West Fresno.”
Swearengin’s attempts to ignore and disregard the inescapable logic of her former constituents in Black and Latino low-income neighborhoods is nothing new, but she has taken it to a new level of a false process. People involved in efforts to close the Darling rendering plant, pass a decent General Plan or to save the Fulton Mall know the ritual all too well—a façade of public meetings behind which the predetermined outcome dictated by vested interests never shifts.
In the attempted $70 million heist, Swearengin and her fellow marchers want to hold that parade yet again, and their General Lee statue is the high-speed rail station.
To quickly see how divisively Swearengin has drawn the line, just look at the faces of leaders on both sides of the debate. Swearengin and two former city staffers appear on the film: Keith Bergthold, now director of Fresno Metro Ministry, and Craig Scharton, failed pub owner, former Fresno City Council member and now CEO at the Downtown Fresno Partnership. Another pair of former city staffers, Elliott Balch and Danielle Bergstrom, have joined her as the chief operating officer and policy director at Central Valley Regional Foundation, respectively. All four have served as Swearengin’s paid hands and been involved directly in one or more of the civic debacles described above.
This clique of my fellow privileged, liberal, White people is at the core of Swearengin’s efforts. Convinced of their superior knowledge of “smart-growth policies” and realpolitik, they work well alongside the conservative, prosperity gospel crowd at the center of power in Fresno, the same people who brought Swearengin to prominence. Their common ground is that none of them really want to hear about the need for investment in our city’s historically red-lined neighborhoods, not when “smart-growth policy” tells them to develop apartments and condos above retail along transit-friendly retail corridors; the developers say go up Blackstone in the opposite direction of West Fresno; and their base believes the poor never deserve public support.
Nonetheless, for the people representing the major endowments and state agencies on her fund-raising call list, Swearengin’s spiel actually works well—a regional foundation led by the former mayor in coalition with elected officials, developers, business owners and professionals all talking smart growth. That checks off all the boxes on those major grant application forms but one—environmental justice.
Swearengin’s fig leaf is the video but it needed a strong environmental justice voice. Add some footage of Curry, whose reputation and integrity are well known, and your product is ready for market. Because isn’t the essence of White privilege the casual theft and profiteering from anything created by people of color?
Even more important on that grant checklist is the invisible box titled “White Comfort Zone.” People know that in the meeting rooms of the Central Valley Foundation their basic assumptions, hidden prejudices and cultural blind spots will go unchallenged because straight-talking environmental and social justice advocates won’t be invited in, at least not until the predetermined outcomes have been agreed upon.
Now, look at the other side.
It’s led predominantly by women of color who, as the adage goes, have to be twice as smart and work twice as hard. Curry at all-volunteer Concerned Citizens and Garibay at Leadership Counsel work alongside Communities for a New California Education Fund led regionally by second-generation activist Venise Curry, M.D.; the Fresno Building Healthy Communities coalition led by Sandra Celedon; and Cultiva la Salud headed by Veva Islas. The list goes on. Women who come directly from west Fresno and Calwa or neighborhoods much like them. Unlike the Swearengin crowd, these women know from firsthand experience what’s at stake, and they’ve dedicated their careers to eradicating inequity.
Finally, consider Swearengin’s decision as mayor to not enforce the city’s own zoning ordinance by requiring basic environmental review of the Darling rendering plant after half a century of illegal operations in the heart of West Fresno. She knew the city was going to be sued either by Mary Curry’s group or by the multinational corporation. As mayor, she chose to follow the historic path Fresno has always taken—to ignore Black and Brown lives.
But eight years, later the Fresno City Council has finally voted to rezone land next to its sewage treatment facility miles from town to accommodate moving the plant in the near future. This is a huge victory for Mary Curry, Concerned Citizens and everyone in west Fresno. The victory was further strengthened by a second vote the same night to approve the Southwest Specific Plan, a two-year planning process that also required community demands to be included that were comparable to the $70 million fight. But again, a stunning accomplishment was achieved—the elimination of new industrial operations in West Fresno.
As mayor, Swearengin wanted none of those things and actively supported polluting industry growth. So, she chose to mark the historic occasion of these unprecedented victories years and decades in the making by releasing her propaganda video just hours before the City Council votes. Imagine that. This commercial for Swearengin’s north-end Central Valley Foundation deliberately misappropriates Mary Curry, who that very night spent hours at City Hall fighting for environmental justice. Meanwhile, her opponents were busy with a social media push in support of their video. The state agency overseeing this process, the Strategic Growth Council, even jumped in with some retweets.
This gets even worse. The offending footage was filmed by Swearengin’s crew at a community hearing held in a Black church on the west side. In a Census tract placed in the 98th percentile for asthma rates statewide. In a church required by the city to get a conditional-use permit before expanding, unlike the rendering plant. Let all that sink in for a minute or two. Look at it from the side and count the layers of oppression, racism, White privilege. Then ask why.
Here’s one answer: From her lofty perch in the office towers north of Fig Garden Village overlooking upscale restaurants and shops, Swearengin and her foundation are building a new layer of oppression: a fund-raising machine designed to compete with and weaken the groups and individuals opposing institutionalized racism and oppression in Fresno and throughout the Valley.
If successful, they will strengthen Fresno’s long, sordid history of racist policies and practices, and the conditions of people in south Fresno will worsen. In this light, Governor Brown’s closing words in the video are chilling. “I’m glad were doing it in Fresno,” he says. “Because this is a place that can lead not just the state but the whole world.”
We’ve been warned.
Kevin Hall is a former Fresno County Planning Commissioner and long-time clean air advocate.