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East Palo Alto youth organizer helps shut toxic waste plant; gives input on city’s plans for land

By Julia James | 24 Feb 2011

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Annie Loya, executive director of Youth United for Community Action, is helping shape East Palo Alto's agenda - simply, some say, by showing up. (Photo: Julia James)

Related News: East Palo Alto hopes new land-use map will attract developers, pay way for smarter growth

East Palo Alto is moving forward with a long-term strategic planning process that officials hope will bring new money, and new life, into the city.  But it’s not just bureaucrats who are doing the heavy lifting.

Annie Loya, an outspoken 26-year-old native of East Palo Alto, was instrumental in drawing the land-use map that will anchor a specific plan for the city.  Throughout a two-year process that paralleled the city’s own, she solicited community input on the map and ultimately advocated for a version that would provide jobs appropriate to community residents; zone for open, civic and mixed-use space; and lay the groundwork for the creation of a new downtown.

Loya, as head of the group Youth United for Community Action, has stepped up in recent years to pester officials on some of the touchiest issues the city faces.  She doesn’t shy away from terms like “environmental racism;” nor does she worry about acting the part of the “lobbyist,” which – though it’s not how she’d describe herself – essentially summarizes her job description.

“Happy New Year, everyone!” Loya crooned recently, in a high, sing-songy pitch, hoop earrings swaying as she approached a podium to face East Palo Alto’s planning commissioners.  She wore high heels and black stretch pants.  “Um, so as you guys know, um, I’m part of a collaboration called Envision, Transform and Build East Palo Alto…”

Loya was only 13 when, as a newly minted member of the group she now directs, she gave her first press conference. A friend of her cousin’s had climbed an unprotected PG&E power line and died from electrocution.

“PG&E placed the blame on the property owners and the property owners placed the blame on PG&E,” Loya wrote in recounting the event for an activist journal.  “You know wrong when you hear it.”

Between that time and 2007, Loya was focused on a single campaign: a battle to shut down hazardous waste handler Romic Environmental Technologies.

Romic had been running its heavy industrial plant in East Palo Alto without a proper use permit since 1991.  Several worker injuries, contamination of soil and groundwater with the industrial solvent trichloroethene, a probable carcinogen, and a 2006 explosion that sent a chemical plume into the adjacent baylands, made the company an unwelcome community member.

Loya’s organization, she said, “did it all” to bring the state’s attention to the problems.  The group built relationships with city officials, met with agency heads, submitted Freedom of Information Act requests for copies of company documents and learned to apply constant pressure.  “So if we called,” Loya said, officials learned to call back.  If they didn’t, she was “going to find another way to get their attention.”

When the California Department of Toxic Substances Control sent Romic a shut-down order in May of 2007, Loya’s organization considered the victory as something of a coming-of-age.

In a video posted to the Youth United for Community Action website, Loya stands in a circle of young  people, moving with the rhythm of a chant and cupping her hand to her ear in the universal “I can’t hear you” sign.  Behind her is concrete and chain link, and behind that is a gray, quiet Romic.  Council members Ruben Abrica and A. Peter Evans stand by.

“’Ain’t no power like the power of the youth,” she chants, “‘cause the power of the youth don’t stop!  Say what?!  ‘Aint no power like the power of the youth…”

But the resolution of the Romic fight also resulted in a sort of identity crisis for the organization.

“We were asking, ‘Is that it for us?’” Loya said.

As the city started to look at how it might use the old Romic land, though, Loya saw a path open up.  First, she wanted to make sure the contaminated acreage wasn’t used for residential development; then, she realized that her organization should be part of the entire strategic planning process.

It was a natural progression, Loya said – a way to make sure the city honored the principles it had committed to during the Romic fight.

“I’m pretty…direct,” Loya said.  Getting what she wants for her organization can just come down to her “bargaining pieces – what we have; what you don’t have; where we can go.”

Sean Charpentier, East Palo Alto’s redevelopment project coordinator, considers Loya an “honest, upright” opponent.  In tough work that entails tough decisions, he said, “Let me put is this way: There are your enemies, and then there are your enemies who lie to you.”  Loya, he said, is the former.  She’s helpful and constructive and makes sure the young people in her organization are out in front.

Loya said city officials have even given the group help – “Fill this out here, come to this meeting, let’s see what we can do.”

“The biggest piece is appealing to the person,” she added, “to the humane piece of you.”

Cathleen Baker, a community health planner with San Mateo County, is one of those people.  She provided Loya with data for a health assessment that went into the Envision, Build and Transform land-use map.  (The assessment considered how redevelopment would affect the ability of residents to lead healthy lives in the city.)

“Annie is a total resource for the community,” Baker said.  She has a grip on city government and a lot of the key decision makers; she combines an understanding of advocacy with “a real understanding of how the planning process goes;” and “she’s not afraid to speak up and ask challenging questions of decision makers.”

Still, Charpentier said, “there are only so many ways you can slice the loaf.”  Would East Palo Alto’s redevelopment map look vastly different without Loya’s involvement?  Maybe not.  But he and Baker agree that she was at least responsible for getting more open and community space into the plan.

Charpentier estimates that representatives from Loya’s organization made up a quarter of the crowd at commission meetings over the two years in which East Palo Alto worked to draw a map for the Ravenswood Business District redevelopment, even while they were overseeing their own parallel planning process.  “If you show up and you’re organized, you’re important,” he said.

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