Students and their allies marched in downtown Fresno last month to demand better educational opportunities.

Progressive News Briefs

Education Without Borders

A march and rally was held in downtown Fresno last month to draw attention to the Fresno Unified School District’s high dropout rate, support ethnic studies programs and challenge the amount of money being spent to incarcerate youth.

The group Californians for Justice (CFJ) organized the event, which included students, parents and community members carrying signs as they marched to the Fresno County Jail and the Fresno Unified School District (FUSD). The demonstrators celebrated Fresno’s diverse culture and commended the FUSD for taking significant steps to include the histories, struggles and accomplishments of people of color in the FUSD curriculum. To increase awareness about the lack of culturally relevant material, students shared testimonies on how their education affects their lives and how seeing their culture reflected in their studies would encourage them to stay in school.

The march was one of several by the CFJ, a student-led statewide nonprofit organization working for racial justice and the educational rights of low-income youth and youth of color. In past years, the CFJ has led several efforts to bring attention to the FUSD’s dropout rate. According to statistics from the California Dropout Research Project, more than 33% of all FUSD students do not finish high school, leading to higher rates of unemployment and criminal behavior, as well as more than half a billion dollars in economic losses over the students’ lifetimes. This number hasn’t changed much in more than half a decade, and the dropout rates are even higher for Latino and African-American students.

This event marks the third rally in the CFJ’s latest campaign, Educacion Sin Barreras/Education without Borders, which aims to prevent and reduce high school dropouts in Fresno. The CFJ intends to bridge the community and its local representatives together to tackle the root causes of the FUSD’s dropout crisis, then adamantly work to fix them. For more information, visit http://www.caljustice.org/ or call 559-443-1394.

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Darling Abatement Agreement Comment Period Extend

The Fresno City Council met in closed session on April 28 to determine the City’s position regarding the legality of the Darling Rendering Plant’s current operations. The Council voted to extend the public comment period on a proposed “abatement agreement” for another 90 days and to hire an environmental justice consultant to look into the issue.

The Council’s current attention to the matter was sparked by years of public outcry from the Concerned Citizens of West Fresno (CCWF) and other community residents regarding the plant’s odors, concerns over unknown environmental impacts of the plant on the neighboring community and allegations that the plant has been operating illegally without a proper permit since being annexed into the City of Fresno four decades ago.

The abatement agreement would force Darling to make some upgrades to its plant that would address some of the odor issues, in exchange for a complete pass on complying with all of the City’s zoning and land-use laws, including the requirement to get a conditional use permit.

Members of the CCWF don’t think Darling should be given special permission not to obey that law. They also have concerns that the abatement agreement completely fails to address the environmental impacts of the plant, which they say is especially important considering that the plant’s operations have never been subject to a comprehensive environmental review.

Darling CEO Randall Stuewe recently released a statement that said Darling has all of the required federal, state and local permits, including a conditional use permit. However, Darling is relying on Variance 377, a permit issued by Fresno County in 1953, which allowed for meat rendering to support a slaughterhouse operation the company has since abandoned. The City of Fresno has never issued Darling a conditional use permit, confirmed by City officials in two letters to Darling in 2007 and 2008 demanding that Darling immediately apply for a permit.

Members of the CCWF hope that the City uses this time to require Darling to apply for a conditional use permit, which would be one step in reversing the City’s long pattern of land-use decisions that have resulted in incredible environmental injustice in West Fresno. The community is 98% people of color and has one of the largest concentrations of poverty in the nation. West Fresno also disproportionately bears the burden of toxic and noxious industrial uses and has the highest rate of asthma, particularly for children, in the entire city.

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Lack of Transparency Hurts the Homeless

Last month, the Community Alliance reported that Fresno First Steps Home (FFSH), the nonprofit that the City of Fresno set up to assist the homeless, would not provide details about what it has done with the money it has raised. The FFSH has received donations from individuals, organizations have contributed money, three corporations made major donations last year and a tennis tournament was held at the Copper River Country Club last month to help the FFSH.

The FFSH is collecting money to help the homeless, it is telling residents not to give money directly to the homeless and now, after more than a year of operation, there is no evidence that it has spent any money to actually help one homeless person.

When the City of Fresno established the FFSH, it also cut all direct funding from the City’s budget to help homeless people. The city has now also eliminated the position of the homeless prevention and policy manager (aka the homeless czar).

The original idea behind the FFSH was to let the private sector deal with the issue by establishing a nonprofit that would oversee the work. The lack of transparency we are experiencing is the result of privatizing public services. Greg Barfield, the former homeless czar, told the Community Alliance that because the FFSH is not an official government entity, it does not have to provide us with its financial records.

This newspaper’s repeated requests for information about how much money the FFSH has raised and what has been done with it continues to be ignored by those who are entrusted to oversee the project.

In the meantime, there are more homeless people on the streets of Fresno than ever, the City of Fresno is providing them with no public services (like portable toilets, trash bins or drinking water), and there are homeless people literally dying on the streets.

  • Mike Rhodes is the executive director of theCommunity Alliance newspaper and author of the book Dispatches from the War Zone, about homelessness in Fresno. www.mikerhodes.us is his website. Contact him at mikerhodes@comcast.net.

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