Sep 1

Making Environmental Justice Work Accessible in Kern County

by: Ilse García Romero

With only two weeks to go until the Mural Arts Institute’s Arts and Environmental Justice Symposium, we are highlighting another one of our Institute partners, this time in Kern County, CA. I spoke to Michelle Glass, a Public Art and Social Practice artist that works alongside BIPOC communities to reclaim our ancestral histories and deepen our connections between the land and each other.

“Kern County is the most polluted region in America,” explains Michelle. “There’s so many ways that one environmental focus area like water, for example, connects with air, and you can’t speak about one without the other.”

For the purpose of focusing their efforts, Michelle and Dr. Rosanna Esparza chose to address the low air quality in the area and work on building awareness of the problem. This issue connected with the work of their environmental justice partners, and overlapped with water quality issues, which they also sought to address. But in order to track the effects of pollution, Michelle and Dr. Esparza looked at the root of the problem.

Environmental injustices happen in communities where people don’t have a voice and there’s no oversight,” says Michelle. “In a place like Kern County where you have 90,000 oil wells next door to housing developments, residents are fed this propaganda that we can live side by side with technology, and they don’t realize the harms that are done by the oil wells, whether they are idle or active.”

Photo by David McNew/Getty Images.

Michelle cited lack of funding and turnover in leadership at local organizations as a hinderance to forming lasting relationships and creating change together. However, her team is not losing hope.

“My goal in this project was to use art as a tool to build awareness around the environmental justice issues,” says Michelle. “Many people are not aware of the issues, and when we are working with an immigrant and migrant community, often there is a language barrier between us. It’s really tough for me as an artist to work to get this research information and in-depth data; I can’t imagine being a person who may not speak or read English and trying to find that information. My colleagues call it ‘hidden in plain sight’.”

With this in mind, Michelle and Dr. Esparza have been working to make information accessible about the environmental state of Kern County through art projects and community engagement workshops. Michelle’s background in art education and administration provided her with the hands-on experience to shift the way she thought about art and community.

I think art is for everyone. You should not have to go into a space to experience art. I believe in the power of art to create change.

- Michelle Glass

Natural Dye Workshop with Artist Michelle Glass at the Blue Sky Center, New Cuyama, CA. 

  • Photo by Sepideah Mohsenian Rahman.

  • Photo by Sepideah Mohsenian Rahman.

  • Photo by Sepideah Mohsenian Rahman.

One of the workshops that Michelle led was a natural dye workshop that visually demonstrated the effects of water pollution. The cloth that was treated with toxic water had muted colors, but the cloth that was treated with clean water had vibrant colors. Michelle soon learned that through these interactive activities, she could more easily convey the message of environmental justice work that she had spent so much time advocating for in words.

Michelle spoke about looking to her Indigenous roots to guide her work. “People of color have different relationship with nature. We believe we are interdependent and interconnected, so if we want to heal the land, we have to heal ourselves.”

Through people power, Michelle and Dr. Esparza hope to make an impact on the environmental justice issues that affect marginalized people most and first.

Hear more from Michelle and Dr. Esparza, and our other partners in Santa Fe and Austin in two weeks at the Mural Arts Institute’s Arts and Environmental Justice Symposium!

Along with the other partners, Michelle and Dr. Esparza will be presenting a minidocumentary on Tuesday, September 14, 2022, at 1:45 pm EST at the Free Library. These documentaries outline their collaborative, participatory arts-based processes to address local environmental justice issues in their communities and how those moved the needle.

Additionally, Michelle and Dr. Esparza will join a virtual discussion on Monday, September 19, 2022, at 10:00 am – 11:15 am PST / 1:00 -2:15 pm EST. Rolling on the River will be an overview of the critical importance of water and air quality in the Central California Valley. This conversation will offer an in-depth look into the theory, process, and outcome of a collaborative project centralizing the need to translate hard scientific data related to environmental justice, public health, and safety into a user-friendly format.

To learn more about the Arts and Environmental Justice Symposium and view the agenda, click here.

Last updated: Sep 1, 2022

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