The ongoing debate over school names took a deep dive last month into Fresno’s past. Mark Arax, a former Los Angeles Times writer and the author of four books on this city and region, bothered by the Fresno Unified School District (FUSD) board’s casual dismissal of the proposal to name a new school planned for southeast Fresno after Roger Tatarian, took a closer look. He was joined by novelist Aris Jarnigian. What the men found was darker than anyone imagined.
Their in-depth article, “Just beneath the dirt: Where the racism of Fresno began,” ran in the Fresno Bee on June 11. The pair reveal that J.C. Forkner Elementary School in northwest Fresno is named for the original author of the city’s restrictive deeds denying land and homes to Armenians in Fresno’s northern neighborhoods, a move motivated by revenge for Armenian farmers’ refusal to join the nascent Sun-Maid Raisin co-op a century ago. Violent raids by night riders and the burning of crosses were directed at those who resisted.
“In the days before the meeting, we went to the county assessor’s office and found examples of the exclusionary real estate codes that for a half century had kept people of color from living beyond the ghetto,” they wrote. “This restriction, which stayed in effect until the early 1960s, was everyday business for the developer, a man who platted his tracts across Fresno.
“He was the same boomer who in the middle 1910s began carving out the 12,000 acres of Fig Garden. His full-page ads boasted: ‘Fresno’s choicest suburban property will be sold under rigid restrictions—this is a point we cannot emphasize too strongly. Those who buy [here] will be fully protected from resale of property to undesirables.’”
In a YouTube video titled “Social Justice School Board Fails Social Justice Exam,” Arax describes to the school board how when Forkner wanted to plant those fig trees he had to go to “the Fig King himself—Henry Markarian, an Armenian. In other words, our fig trees were allowed into Fig Garden, but our flesh and blood was not.”
At the board’s June 16 meeting, Arax called on the board to remove the name Forkner from the school and replace it with Tatarian, a Fresno native born to parents who had fled the Turks’ genocidal campaign. He was refused work at the Fresno Bee of the 1960s but rose to the top of his profession as editor of United Press International in New York. He later returned to his hometown and taught a generation of journalists at Fresno State, Arax included.
The school board’s 5-2 vote, with Trustees Veva Islas and Terry Slatic voting no, to ignore this history in favor of individual trustees’ political interests was a stark reminder to all that institutional racism is perpetuated when those in charge are unwilling to look at their role in it.
To this day, not a single one of the FUSD’s more than 110 schools and facilities is named for an Armenian. And Trustees Elizabeth Jonasson Rosas, Valerie Davis, Claudia Cazares, Keshia Thomas and Carol Mills appear to be intent on keeping that unique piece of Fresno’s racist history—of American history—alive.
Politics trumped best practices in the recent push by Fresno Unified School District (FUSD) Trustee Elizabeth Jonasson Rosas to name a new school after philanthropists Murray and Francine Farber. In a 5-2 vote to approve despite impassioned community opposition, with Trustees Veva Islas and Terry Slatic dissenting, the majority backed Jonasson’s move to block further public inclusion in the naming process in late May.
Speaking through an interpreter, Juana Mesas was one of more than 20 people from the Latino, Black and Armenian communities who called on Jonasson to table her motion: “As a mother within the district I have the right to ask you to reopen the survey to select the name of the new installations. I also see this as an opportunity for us to let the district know that this is a constant problem that has been happening over the years.
“The communication from the district to our families has been really bad, and it has to change. Our voices need to be heard.”
From the dais, Islas called on the board twice to reopen the process. “As we heard tonight, in particular from the Spanish-speaking community, we missed the mark in creating an inclusive process,” she said.
“Latinos represent 68% of our student body. If non-English-speaking parents did not know of this survey, we failed. We are hearing from the Spanish-speaking parents tonight that they were disenfranchised.”
“The same issues that have disenfranchised the Latino community have been experienced by the Armenian community. They’ve been experienced by the African-American community. We’re asking for solidarity,” Islas said.
“They’re simply asking to be included. If you listen to the words you heard—ignored, deceived, disenfranchised and years of the same thing—this is not the first time the Latino community has stood up here to say that they have been excluded. Again, my motion is that we postpone the decision tonight and that we reopen the survey process in a more inclusive way.”
Following Islas’s motion to reopen the process, board president Valerie Davis failed to call for a second—she herself had seconded Jonasson’s motion—and for the only time that evening correctly pronounced Trustee Claudia Cazares’s surname. Davis has long utilized Republicans’ racist habit of intentionally mispronouncing Latino surnames, misplacing the accent on the first syllable in this case.
Rather than addressing the motion to table, Cazares dismissed the Spanish-speaking parents’ concerns, saying of the district’s Internet and telephone outreach, “Nobody’s perfect.” She explained that she and her husband both had received the district’s Internet and telephone communications, demonstrating in real time that old definition of privilege of: If it’s not a problem for me, then it’s not a problem.
As for the Armenian and African-American parents at the May 19 school board meeting, Cazares went to even greater lengths to criticize their concerns. Despite her inexperience in local politics, Cazares confidently—and incorrectly—told the audience, “This board is one of the most open boards that you have ever seen.”
Politics had completely taken over the meeting by this point. Cazares, a former employee of developer Darius Assemi of Granville Homes, then employed a line of logic usually deployed by former FUSD employee Miguel Arias, who was present in the back of the room coaching his political allies on the board, Cazares among them—no small irony given Arias’s history of workplace abuse of women of color while employed at the school district, as reported by Mark Arax (www.mark-arax.com).
Cazares struggled to justify her position by claiming, “There have been many other boards that have also had the opportunity to name buildings after Roger Tatarian or Dolphas Trotter or however many other people have come to the board, and yet you’re pointing at this Brown and Black board as the ones that are going to do wrong. Regardless, we’re going to do wrong, right? Whoever we pick we’re going to do wrong? But there have been many other boards that did not look like this, that nobody questioned.”
In other words, Cazares was saying that by virtue of its racial composition the school board could not be accused of racist intent or acts. Then the board committed an act of institutionalized racism with the 5-2 vote to move ahead with the Farber moniker, the distinction between acts of individual and systemic racism lost on them.
Jonasson, who hopes to succeed hubby Luis Chavez on Fresno City Council in 2024 just as she followed him into his school board seat, instigated the community crisis through what boils down to snobbery.
The daughter of a former Mexican consul, Jonasson explained to the audience that she could have lived in Mexico, Canada or anywhere else in the world but she chose Fresno in 2006, her personal act of noblesse oblige. Her prepared speech was a mix of shaming, scolding and self-justification for perpetuating the systemic exclusion of people she clearly regards as less than worthy of full consideration.
The politically ambitious couple are conservatives, Democrats on some social issues only. Her mother, Martha Rosas, founded the Koch-backed front group for the Westlands Water District, El Agua es Asunto de Todos (Water is Everyone’s Business), as reported by Stan Santos in the September 2014Community Alliance.
In 2020, Chavez joined the campaign staff of billionaire Republican turned Democratic Party presidential candidate Michael Bloomberg; he has endorsed right-wing extremists Steve Brandau and Margaret Mims. While an FUSD trustee he skipped three meetings to avoid controversial votes involving Harris Construction and the district’s lease-leaseback scandal; Arias at the time was the self-proclaimed “fixer” at the district.
In short, Chavez, Jonasson and Arias serve the status quo power structure and it rewards them.
The Farbers’ volunteer efforts and distributions of a late son’s fortune through a private foundation to Fresno educational efforts motivated Jonasson and Chavez, moths to the money flame, to launch the school naming campaign in their honor.
The Farbers have neither sought to decline the honor in the interest of community harmony or an act of humility, nor have they suggested it be named for their late son. They feel they deserve it and those who seek power by serving the White moneyed class agree.
Metaphorically speaking, Highway 168 is the fuse that lit the Creek Fire, an immense warning flare from our 21st century, rapidly warming world.
The fire’s destruction is civilization’s potential future, and the road represents transportation’s role in the climate emergency. On and off road “mobile sources” produce more greenhouse gases than any other sector. Fresno’s on-road emissions are 25% greater than the statewide average.
Nearly 380,000 acres of Sierra Nevada foothills and mountains were scorched, burned, and in places incinerated; hundreds of homes were lost, thousands of lives disrupted. The blaze ravaged the San Joaquin River gorge, tracing the source of our lifeblood into the backcountry, finally burning out at its headwaters where, fittingly, 168 also ends.
There’s no denying the urgent need to protect all life by preserving and restoring natural landscapes and eliminating greenhouse gas emissions. Nature could not have sent us a clearer demand to act; one we ignore at our own peril.
State and national leaders are certainly responding. Transportation electrification is happening now, beginning with significant infrastructure investments in renewable power generation, transmission and storage. Public fleets of every kind are to be changed over — garbage trucks, transit buses, vans and cars — but the electricity must be there to power them.
Let’s expand our definition of transportation infrastructure, evolve it faster than our weather patterns destabilize.
Where once we built freeways through cities, we must now build our way out of deep carbon deficits. We need solar-powered charging stations integrated with microgrids serving entire communities; transit hubs expanded to become climate resiliency centers.
And we must act to prevent needless death. Hundreds of people, two-thirds of them seniors, perished in the Pacific Northwest and Canada from the record-shattering heat. We can protect people when temperatures soar and summer fires cause blackouts. Solar-powered buildings can provide temperature-controlled rooms, fresh water, communications, and transportation during emergencies.
This takes significant public investment. Fortunately, we have a funding opportunity. The Measure C half-cent retail sales tax for transportation expires in 2026 and renewal efforts are underway. It currently raises more than $80 million annually.
If approved by voters, bonds could be issued now against future revenue for infrastructure projects, a hedge against inflation to ensure lower costs while leveraging state and federal matching dollars. And those matching funds are rapidly shifting away from outdated plans for freeway-based autopias.
Unfortunately, the Fresno County Transportation Authority and Fresno Council of Governments, chaired respectively by County Supervisor Buddy Mendes and Fowler Mayor David Cardenas, are mired in the past.
They’re intent on building more fuses.
The signature project of the Measure C renewal effort is Highway 180 East, the “Sequoia-Kings Canyon Freeway.” Like 168, it would extend our urban sprawl into the wildlands interface, placing lives and property directly in the path of future firestorms.
Climate change denial runs so deep that at a June meeting of the Measure C Technical Working Group, staff actually described the 180 extension as beneficial to the environment, citing a projected reduction in greenhouse gas emissions due to reduced congestion along the rural route.
Mendes, Cardenas and their respective boards, which include three county supervisors and all 15 Fresno County mayors, are so committed to uninterrupted freeway construction they want to remove the sales tax’s 20-year sunset clause and lock-in outdated 20th century plans for sprawl.
Yes, they want to make Measure C permanent — a forever tax — and are now rushing to prematurely place it on the June 2022 ballot while ignoring the greatest threat to humankind in history.
What kind of signal will it take to stop them in time?
Industrial Pollution, Follow the Housing Money, Save the Pacific Fisher, and Climate Corner!
Friday, April 23rd, 5-6pm, KFCF 88.1 FM
5:00 Ivanka Saunders, @LCJandAIndustrial growth plan announced for 8 square miles of South Fresno, city ignores residents. Situation Normal, All Fresno’d Up.
5:15 Bob McCloskey, Homeless Advocate”We need to hold our elected officials accountable for the use of these funds and all of the state and federal funding received. We are a community, and our unhoused sisters and brothers are members of our community.”
5:30 Deanna Wulff, http://Unitetheparks.orgSave the Pacific FisherAdvocates file lawsuit, seek injunction to preserve habitat of endangered species in the path of old logging practices and human activity now shown to worsen forest fire severity, risk.
5:45 Climate Corner with Doc & MeA new feature: a little editorializing on the topics covered on Climate Politics and other community issues, particularly the politicians failing to make the policies needed now. We see you, li’l Miguel, Maxoilwell, Perea3.0, Karbassemi.
(This opinion piece first appeared in The Fresno Bee, March 13, 2021.)
By Kevin Hall
Dr. Robert Bullard is a gentle teacher of painful lessons. Known as the father of environmental justice, he was an important if muted voice at the Global Climate Action Summit in San Francisco a few years ago where he was honored as a “Climate Trailblazer.”
Environmental justice is the study of people on the receiving end of society’s blunt sticks of pollution and poverty, and scientific demonstrations of those blows’ impacts on vulnerable populations. Through the data policymakers can consider the predicament low income BIPOC (black, indigenous and people of color ) communities face.
For decades Bullard has published findings on our societal inequities; these result in long-term and immediate disasters, like the deadly freeze that hit him and his fellow residents of Houston last month. That tragedy was intensified by climate change’s destabilization of the polar vortex and compounded by government disregard for the state’s poorest people.
His teachings and the fatal lessons of the Texas freeze can be applied to the emerging debate over Measure C, our countywide, half-cent retail sales tax.
That September 2018 San Francisco gathering was notable for its star-studded line up of actors, billionaires and prominent politicians, but on that final afternoon I saw Bullard headed away from the main ballroom where the crowd was flocking to hear a former vice president speak.
I caught Bullard at the bottom of a long escalator. I described increased air and water pollution coming from dairy digester clusters funded by state cap-and-trade funds; hundreds of millions in taxpayer dollars being poured into them; and the pollution impacts on nearby families, primarily the farm workers also employed by these major polluters.
“Money follows money,” Bullard said. “Money follows power.” He wished me luck in a friendly, knowing way. A few weeks later I stumbled across the rest of his maxim as if lying in wait for me: “Power follows white people.”
Bullard had either been too polite to complete the equation or was testing to see if I knew his work well enough to justify occupying his time one-on-one at a global summit. There I was expecting his full attention but couldn’t state the most basic conclusion of his massive body of work in environmental justice. But he knew where to point me, including at me, as great teachers do.
The coming debate over Measure C spending in Fresno County will be difficult. I find myself returning to Bullard’s words for direction. For detail, I turn to the Leadership Counsel for Justice and Accountability’s “Guiding Principles For a Just and Equitable Transportation System in Fresno County.”
How do we best heed the voice of rural residents expressed in Leadership Counsel’s report calling on us “to recognize and commit to addressing the transportation injustices that have been abundant throughout Fresno County?”
Maybe by rethinking where the money comes from — retail sales taxes — and how we calculate the best ways to invest it. Despite the tax’s bigger bite out of low-income workers’ wages, say a farmworker in Raisin City versus a company owner living in Clovis, their communities are treated as entitled to equal shares based on population.
That’s not fair. Because it’s not equitable.
Let’s elevate the status of the workers from whose labor all tax dollars in this county are generated. That first dollar comes out of the ground in the form of food to keep us alive. That bill then circulates through the economy multiple times. And the tax revenue adds up.
Without their work, there wouldn’t be a dollar to tax. There wouldn’t be a Measure C.
Kevin Hall is a Fresno resident and graduate of Fresno State. He formerly reported on farm issues for trade publications and is an air quality and climate activist.
Twenty years ago, local business and political leaders learned an important lesson at the ballot box: People really want clean air. That’s why in 2002 voters rejected the first renewal attempt for Measure C, our half-cent countywide transportation sales tax, and why they’ll be called on to do so again in 2022.
Because this time around it’s about the climate, and our leaders just don’t get it.
Just as the freeway-backers of the tax’s first iterations in the 1980s and 2000s sought to avoid discussion of vehicle exhaust’s harmful impacts, today they reject the evidence of destabilizing weather patterns caused by global warming.
They’d also like to again ignore the increasing number of people living in frontline rural and inner-city communities where climate change and Measure C–funded pollution hit families hardest. Their neighborhoods receive the lowest transportation investments, yet residents must pay a disproportionate share of their income toward the tax, another added cost of poverty.
After “C” was first passed in 1986 to last 20 years, elected leaders immediately altered the ballot’s voter-approved priorities. They moved Highway 168—it had polled badly before the election—to the top of the list, ahead of inner-city and rural needs.
Voters remembered that half-billion-dollar deception 15 years later. They rejected the program’s deadly synergy of freeway construction, sprawl and air pollution that had
Robbed neighborhoods of street and sidewalk repairs
Ignored the transit needs of workers, students and seniors
Isolated people living in car-less households
Denied children healthy lives and everybody full ones
Only 25% of the first Measure C went to local roads and little or none to transit. For 15 years, most of the money went to gouge the “Sierra Freeway” through the heart of Fresno. Better termed the “White Flight Path,” its wide runway now roars with commuter traffic from distant Clovis suburbs and foothill exurbs.
Meanwhile, semi-trucks continued to choke West Fresno neighborhoods with diesel toxins for decades while relief in the form of 180 West was delayed in favor of the northward exodus.
Voters rejected the continuation of such injustices. A coalition of community groups successfully campaigned in opposition with a simple slogan, “Got Smog? Got Asthma? No on C.”
Two years and many hours of facilitated negotiations later, a compromise was reached. Voters approved of its revised spending plan that split the fund into equal thirds of freeway expansion, local roads and alternative modes.
It was a significant shift.
Two decades later, our inordinately expensive, overbuilt freeway network is complete. It’s time to “enhance capacity” with large-scale investments in regional transit and road maintenance. Let’s expand the agency’s mandate to include solar energy production and storage, and prepare to capture the matching federal and state funds now shifting to green transportation systems.
We live in a world racing to end carbon and methane combustion in order to survive. Steep cuts must be made before 2030, mostly in transportation. The secretly assembled committee now claiming to be in charge of Measure C has no sense of the urgency of our time.
This article first appeared in the March 2021 issue of Community Alliance.
By Kevin Hall
“You can only play by the rules that people give you.” –Henry R. Perea, City of Fresno Planning Commission, Feb. 3, 2021
By Kevin Hall
A trio of life-endangering air pollution events hit Fresno early last month. Unlike the smoke from last summer’s wildfires or this winter’s fireplaces, these threats weren’t found in the air but on paper, behind closed doors, and at media events.
On the first Wednesday in February the city planning commission heard a major industrial rezone proposal for West Fresno. On Thursday of the following week the names were released of a secretly selected panel to lead the Measure C transportation sales tax renewal, and the next day a trio of city council members announced a loosely defined plan for free citywide transit.
Embedded in each of these issues is Fresno’s long history of institutional racism:
The Southwest Specific Plan completed in 2017 is an ongoing effort to stop the growth of industrial pollution in West Fresno, but former councilman Henry R. Perea went before the city planning commission seeking to undo 93 acres in the heart of it.
The original Measure C misdirected hundreds of millions of dollars away from inner city and rural communities to build Freeway 168, the White Flight path to Clovis, and community stakeholders, including Labor leader Chuck Riojas, have agreed to a closed door process for “MC3” to extend the tax to the year 2047.
And Tyler Maxwell’s proposal for free buses threatens to become an urban-centric cash grab that hurts long-term funding for rural transit users and Americans with Disabilities Act paratransit services countywide. He is joined by Nelson Esparza and Esmeralda Soria as co-sponsors of the notion.
West Fresno Rezone
“On the broader level, I’m going to ask you to consider this,” Perea ominously told the planning commissioners via Zoom at their Feb. 3 meeting. “We have a new mayor in this city. We have a council that’s working with him and there are different opinions on how this city is going to move forward. And one of them is going to be what type of an industrial base, what type of business community — along with everything else that’s quality of life — we are going to have.”
Community members arguing against the proposal complained they had not received notice of it in advance, particularly the Southwest Specific Plan leaders who led a two-year effort to craft new land use designations throughout the city’s historic dumping ground. They were also stunned to see the rezone attempt come so soon after their volunteer work had concluded and at the hands of a former Democratic officeholder.
When the city council unanimously adopted the plan in December 2017, The Fresno Bee’s Tim Sheehan quoted then-District 3 councilman Oliver Baines: “What this does is lay the foundation for investment in west Fresno,” he said. “It is the single biggest economic development tool that west Fresno has seen in 40 years…And it was driven by the community.”
Perea clearly disagrees. Critics also note that Annalisa Perea’s campaign to replace Soria as the District 1 city council member has raised more than $100,000 as of January 1. At least $28,000 of that came from one major warehouse developer alone, ICC Construction — with $4,000 of that coming through the San Joaquin Valley Latino Leaders PAC which received $5,000 from ICC in December.
“You can only play by the rules that people give you,” the senior Perea, oblivious to his hypocrisy, reminded the people there objecting to the rule change. He gently taunted it would be an “opportunity” for advocates to be heard at City Hall as he pushed for immediate approval.
The commission instead voted to have the applicant meet with the community and come back on March 17, a meeting applicants had sought to avoid and which Perea and District 3 council representative Miguel Arias had not previously worked to create.
Measure C Redux
When the Fresno County Transportation Authority announced members of the “2022 Measure C Extension Expenditure Plan,” nobody knew about the meeting except its twenty-three members. From Fresno Mayor Jerry Dyer and Clovis city council member Lynn Ashbeck, to Lee Ann Eager of the Fresno County Economic Development Corporation and Jake Soberal of Bitwise, a coterie of powerful interests are claiming the countywide transportation sales tax decision-making powers all for themselves.
Community interests are supposedly represented by Artie Padilla, formerly of the Christian charitable organization Every Neighborhood Partnership. He’s on the committee representing former Fresno mayor, evangelical Ashley Swearengin’s Central Valley Community Foundation.
While religious beliefs may have placed some people on this committee more than transportation expertise, it’s all about business for most. Since its inception in 1986, Measure C has been the county’s largest subsidy to sprawl developers and remains controversial for its expenditure plan decision-making process.
After passage the first time, the FCTA was formed and it then named Freeway 168 as its top spending priority, despite pre-election polls showing voters didn’t support it. Measure C backers had removed the freeway from the list of projects shown on the ballot to gain voter support, but used a loophole to later ignore those wishes.
The first renewal effort in 2002 sought to continue prioritizing freeway expansion but was turned back by voters after the “Got Smog? Got Asthma? No on C” campaign of community organizations led by Mary Savala and the League of Women Voters-Fresno.
A 2004 plan resulted in a split of one-third each for freeways, road repair, and alternative transportation. For the 2007-47 extension, Leadership Counsel for Justice and Accountability’s “Guiding Principles For a Just and Equitable Transportation System in Fresno County” should be applied. The committee would do well to read it.
No Free Bus Rides
First-year councilman Maxwell is calling for free bus service throughout Fresno to begin immediately. Soria and Esparza have signed onto what they’re calling the Zero Fare Clean Air Act. In their March 12 announcement they gave no date for introduction at City Hall, but presumably that should come soon with direction to staff.
Danielle Bergstrom, writing for The Fresno Bee’s venture in nonprofit journalism, Fresnoland, captured the dilemma the proposal poses for the FAX system. Fare box receipts are matched 7-to-1 by federal and state sources. Eliminate those and the money must be made up for in cash. Maxwell first suggested having FAX take it from within its own budget, and still calls for $500,000 in cuts, but now would like to use CARES Act relief funds, assuming they’re available:
“After COVID-19 relief funding dries up, unless FAX can find an alternative source of local money — around $5 million to $6 million per year — to match the state grants, it will be losing close to $30 million to $40 million per year,” Barfield said.
Maxwell is cheerily confident the money can be conjured up somewhere. The Bee reported:
“Maxwell said he is optimistic that whatever revenue is lost from fares can be made up from a combination of savings from eliminating costs associated with fare collection and police patrols for FAX. He’s also depending on public agencies, who currently buy discounted passes, to continue and possibly grow their financial support.”
Maxwell has also eliminated the call for electric buses by 2040 from his original proposal. This might be due to the Regional Transportation Plan’s call for $30 million to be spent on new methane-powered ones. The RTP is the foundational document for all transportation planning and funding. It also determines the Measure C expenditure plan. Maxwell seems oblivious to its existence.
As the RTP begins to lay out the future of transportation investments in Fresno County, Leadership Counsel’s memo reminds — if not warns — staff, stakeholders, and elected officials about the importance of prioritizing the needs of historically disadvantaged communities.
The cumulative impacts of these three air pollution issues of the Perea rezone, Measure C secrecy, and Maxwell’s unfunded transit policy must be considered together. Leadership Counsel has provided the guiding document that all should apply to their decisions.