Article on Coachella Pollution Inspires Young Journalists to Speak Out

EDITORS’ NOTE: On March 10, the Desert Sun, a newspaper serving California’s desert communities of Coachella Valley, published a report headlined, “Officials Encounter Raw Sewage, Nauseating Odors in East Valley Tour.” Students in a youth-journalism project called Coachella Unincorporated, sponsored by New America Media with support from The California Endowment, reacted strongly. After Coachella Unincorporated shared the students’ responses with the Desert Sun, the paper published selections of their writings along with the following commentary, a shorter version of which appeared in the April 2 edition of the Desert Sun.
“You all see it as outsiders,” Elisa Guevara told the group. The Hernandez, Calif., mobile home–park resident added, “I live it from day to day.” Those words, appearing at the end of an article in the Desert Sun about the health and environmental hazards in dozens of shoddy mobile-home parks around Thermal, Calif., especially struck the students of Coachella Unincorporated, a youth media startup in the unincorporated eastern region of the valley. The article sparked a thoughtful discussion among the 11 aspiring journalists. How can these third-world conditions still exist in the same Coachella Valley adorned with lush golf courses and glistening swimming pools? Why do hundreds continue to go without healthy drinking water? When will something finally be done? More than just words on paper for these students, the article mirrored their lives. This pollution was happening in their backyard, to their friends and family. No longer did these young people merely want to read these articles. They wanted to share their unique perspective and bring about change in their community. Coachella Unincorporated, where the authors of this article are co-coordinators, includes nearly a dozen young people attending Coachella Valley High School, Desert Mirage High, Xavier College Preparatory High and College of the Desert. They were chosen from among dozens of applicants for their commitment to journalism. Participating youth are paid stipends and treated as emerging journalists, as they undergo a journalism curriculum. The goal of Coachella Unincorporated is to bring about change through reporting on health issues in the eastern section of the valley. As part of their first assignment, the project leaders asked the students to read the Desert Sun article and write their thoughts about it. “The focus must shift to these people, we must talk to these people like people, treat these people like people, and give them the right to live like people, not a spectacle, not a day visit, not a dream that lingers in the edges of the imagination beyond Highway 86,” wrote Jesus E. Valenzuela Felix, a student at College of the Desert. The students were happy the article raised awareness about pollution and risks to the mobile-park residents, but they wanted to hear more from Elisa Guevara and others who live the area’s harsh reality. However, the article’s headline focused more on the officials taking the tour than on afflicted residents such as Guevara: “Officials Encounter Raw Sewage, Nauseating Odors in East Valley Tour.” The students wondered, if the officials never set foot in the eastern Coachella Valley again, would the plight of their neighbors ever be considered newsworthy again? Such concerns are why these young reporters committed themselves to ensuring that the voices Guevara and others like her are not forgotten. The students named themselves Coachella Unincorporated to refer to the city of Coachella and the unincorporated communities east of the valley. The students feel the region is not only unincorporated geographically, but socially. They want to incorporate the issues plaguing the eastern valley into our mainstream Coachella Valley mindset. In a class exercise, the students wrote, “The ability to be objective and removed from a story is a privilege not held by us. We as community journalists share in the responsibility of promoting the change in the communities we cover and write about. A community journalist is a journalist dedicated to covering the Coachella Valley as well as engaging in the movement of progress. We are journalists the community can count on to call when they need us and refuse to be seen as only journalists but as part of their community and their plight for change and progress.” Marcel Honore’s follow-up article on March 27 was a reminder that journalism can be a catalyst for change. The article (“Families Sick of Fouled Air”) led with the health and lifestyle consequences that the Carillo family of Mecca, Calif., face as a result of the unidentified gas-like odor. Although it can’t be done by journalists alone, dogged reporting of issues, such as this, can lead to the awareness necessary to instigate action. The students articulated insightful and intelligent responses wise beyond their years. We have compiled excerpts from these responses that best capture their genuine concern for the community. ((05 APR 2011))




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