Building Healthy Communities from the Ground up

Highlights of our 2015 Congreso: People Power Policy


On August 24-25th, our 2015 Congreso: People Power Policy brought together 250 community leaders from the frontlines of California’s most impacted regions to the Capitol to celebrate visionary grassroots policy-making fueled by power power across the state. The two-day gathering was filled with inspiring panels bridging environmental justice victories throughout the state and hands-on workshops on Green Zones, Energy Equity, and Climate Justice. Together we learned, strategized, and advocated for policies to build a stronger movement for equity and justice in statewide environmental policy.

Inspiring Panels, Workshops & Cultural Night

juanDuring our opening panel, Juan Flores from Center on Race, Poverty & the Environment, Christine Cordero from Center for Story-based Strategy, and Antonio Diaz from People Organized to Demand Environmental and Economic Rights (PODER) bridged struggles for environmental justice from the local, statewide, to national. We heard stories from community leaders reclaiming public land for community gardens to resist gentrification, the fight against fracking in the Central Valley, and lessons from last year’s People’s Climate March in NYC.

“We have one thing the oil companies don’t have: people power. We’re empowering community members not to be afraid. We’re holding legislators accountable.” – Juan Flores, CRPE

Every time CEJA unites in the Capitol, we make our presence and people power known. People of color are the new majority in California and decision-makers can no longer ignore us. We are leading the path to healthy and resilient communities for the state starting with the communities who are most impacted by environmental injustice. We have community-led solutions to the problems we face everyday and we have new opportunities to alter the patterns of environmental degradation and climate chaos.


We were excited to offer more cultural activities this year, including a climate justice poster workshop by CultureStrike where participants created their own messaging exploring how climate intersects with other issues such as migration, gentrification, reproductive justice, and the prison industrial complex, which were later added to our poster gallery featuring prints by CultureStrike, Just Seeds, Fernando Marti, Melanie Cervantes of Dignidad Rebelde, and more. After a full day of workshops, we also had a cultural night with special performances by Aimee Suzara and Bomba collective Aguacero which reminded us of the power of cultural resistance.


This was our biggest Congreso yet and we were excited to have new partners and allies join us and celebrate our growth and influence. CEJA now represents 20,000 community members across California most impacted by pollution and poverty and this year the theme “People, Power, Policy” truly reflected how we are taking our bold and beautiful vision for our communities to the next level. We’re working together to advance policies that protect low-income communities and communities of color during times of crisis and lift up community-led climate solutions that will help our state transition to 100% equitable, renewable energy.

Rally for Climate Justice in the Capitol

marthaOn Day 2, we converged on the steps of the Capitol to demand climate policies that benefit and protect low-income communities and communities of color. In commemoration of the 10th Anniversary of Hurricane Katrina, residents from the state’s most pollution-impacted areas stood in solidarity with frontline communities across the nation, urging our legislators to pass policies to transition away from dirty fossil fuels and ensure another Katrina doesn’t happen again. From the Golden State to the Gulf Coast, we honored the sacrifice of many and reflected how the heartache and pain from Hurricane Katrina has forced the environmental justice movement to grow stronger and more resilient.

elmaWe had some amazing rally speakers, including Elma del Aguila, a youth member from the Central Coast Alliance United for a Sustainable Economy (CAUSE). Last month hundreds supported CAUSE at the California Public Utilities Commission hearing in Oxnard to demand Not One More Power Plant. Elma spoke to the connections between the Central Coast and coastal communities on the Gulf Coast who are impacted by Big Oil and rising sea levels threatening their safety and livelihoods.

“They think that because we are a community made up of minorities we will not speak out against this injustice. They think that because we are a city of minorities our beaches can be used as a dumping ground for their toxic slum. They think that because we are a city of minorities we will allow this environmental racism to happen. They think that they can walk all over us because we aren’t strong enough to fight them. They don’t understand that when people come together we become an unstoppable force capable of taking down any company, any politician.” – Elma Del Aguila, CAUSE

Mari Rose Taruc, State Organizing Director at the Asian Pacific Environmental Network (APEN) reminded us all of how far the environmental justice movement has come and how we are powerful beyond imagination.

mari rose

“We are evolving our environmental and climate justice work so that the tragedy of Hurricane Katrina, and the tragedies we experience in our communities in the valley, to our coasts, to our homelands, are not repeated. Our heartaches drive our passions that drive our innovations. We become more powerful beyond imagination. That’s what we need for a Just Transition. That’s the energy we need to bring inside the Capitol.”   – Mari Rose Taruc, APEN

Environmental Justice Leadership Awards

During our Congreso, CEJA honored Communities for a Better Environment (CBE) and East Yard Communities for Environmental Justice (EYCEJ) for their strong leadership and community organizing to shut down Exide Technologies, a battery recycling plant in Vernon, CA that spewed dangerous levels of lead and arsenic into the air and contaminated soil for years, endangering the health of community residents and violating federal and state laws. CBE, East Yard, and other community groups continue to be at the forefront demanding the permanent closure of Exide, sufficient funds for the clean up of existing contamination, and for Exide to remedy the harms it has caused. CEJA congratulates their hard work behind this inspiring victory for environmental justice.

​Our Congreso is all about collectively advancing community-led solutions statewide. From the sun to the soil, we have the power to reclaim our resources. We are the experts and we know that statewide policy wins can help turn the tide of local fights and can provide that one additional piece of leverage a campaign needs to win. That’s why CEJA combines strategic advocacy at the state level to bridge our stories, struggles, and solutions. Policy advocacy that builds our movement and power is how we will achieve environmental justice.
CEJA is a strong supporter of SB 350, a bill that will increase our state’s use of renewable energy, cut petroleum use, and increase energy efficiency. SB 350 will help direct small-scale renewable energy into communities that need it the most and generate local clean energy jobs. We also lobbied for AB 693, another one of our priority bills, which will help ensure that low-income renters residing in multifamily housing can also directly benefit from the expansion of renewable energy in our state.
As our state develops the next generation of climate policies that will help us meet the greatest challenge to our planet, environmental justice must be at the center. We are a leader-full movement, changing the face of climate leadership. Through advancing energy equity and seizing the climate opportunity at this critical moment, low-income communities and communities of color are leading the way in the transition off of dirty energy and fossil fuels, toward a clean energy future that will provide our communities with local clean energy jobs and a cleaner, healthier environment.


Thanks to Brooke Anderson for these incredible photos.

See more in our Facebook Album and live tweet highlights in our Storify.