In “On edge of paradise, Coachella workers live in grim conditions,” California Watch contributor Patricia Leigh Brown details the hardships of Eastern Coachella Valley mobile home residents. Trailers are in shambles, parks unkempt. Water is contaminated with arsenic. Basic human needs – reliable electricity, sanitary conditions, clean air – too often go unmet.
On Tuesday night, a few dozen people joined me at the Mecca Library for a conversation on solutions and a screening of an original California Watch video about the issue.
Those who filled the room were strikingly diverse. There was Ana Sánchez, who had candidly discussed her living situation in our video and now sat alongside her family. Across from her, mobile home park owners prepared their case; they have done all they can, they said, to improve conditions at their parks but struggle in the face of county regulations, broken promises and lack of funds. Stakeholders continued to pour in: community organizer Sergio Carranza, representatives from California Rural Legal Assistance and a senior adviser to U.S. Sen. Barbara Boxer among them.
We began with a screening of the original video by Carrie Ching, senior multimedia producer for the Center for Investigative Reporting. Then, over coffee and pan dulce, we began to talk.
Too often, newspapers and cameras appear in a town, produce a story and then take off. That’s not what we want to do with California Lost, a series meant to shed light on communities outside the mainstream and the struggles they face. We want an ongoing relationship. We want to become a trusted source for information. We want to tell the stories that have never been told. To do all that, we have to first listen and ask questions. And so, I opened with a quick question: What did we get wrong? Hands were initially slow to raise, but soon I had people from all sides of the issue weighing in.
Our article, one mobile home park owner said, seemed to blame the owners without looking enough at the roadblocks put up by Riverside County agencies. Others added that we ought to focus on the root of the problem: not enough low-income, family-friendly housing options. We shouldn’t be afraid, they said, to question the system, the government. We need to explain why raising rent on a person who owns the home, but not the land it’s on, is such a big deal. The video intermixed images of multiple parks, perhaps not making it clear enough that they were not one and the same. Our Spanish translation used words they would never say. Still others had more specific, immediate concerns. A young woman is named in the story. Her home is described in detail. She is not hard to find, and now she lives with some fear. She has no protection.
There was appreciation, too. People thanked us for providing a more in-depth, big-picture look into their living situations. Too many reporters, they said, come to sensationalize the poverty, to point at and make a spectacle of the “poorest of the poor.” One woman added: “It all comes back to the way that a journalist reports a story. Even though there are a lot of struggles, there is resilience. Even with the environmental injustice we experience, you have a great core of people who are working together to work against it. It’s a terrible thing you have to live with arsenic in the water, substandard housing conditions. But you have an amazing community that is coming together.”
Some who raised their hands were timid, but many, if not most, spoke with conviction. Carranza spoke passionately in Spanish: “The reporting that has been done is good, but it needs to be taken to the next level. What are we doing to solve the problems? How is the community getting involved? We can’t just let stories focus on how poor people are: Look how people are suffering. We’ve seen this.”
Others chimed in, suggesting we also take a look at all the beautiful aspects of their community.
On the issue of what the media, more specifically California Watch, needs to do in the Eastern Coachella Valley, people were adamant. “You need to ask the appropriate questions to the appropriate people,” one woman said.
Another added, “Social change happens only when there is pressure.”
“Please don’t be afraid to ask the tough questions to politicians.”
We stayed beyond the library’s closing hour. The conversation was too good, the issues too important. As we finally wrapped up, I was excited to have many come and ask for my card. Many, too, had signed up to become sources in our Public Insight Network. Through this meeting and more to come, through the Public Insight Network and already-in-the-works articles, they are set to inform our reporting. We’ll all be the better for it.