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"The environmental-justice movement has been reaching out to young people of color," says Molina, who began as a gang interventionist in Chicago, "but the broader environmental movement, which is largely white and male, has framed the cause in a way that hasn't resonated with [minority] communities. We've felt our communities have been left at the altar."
By the time she and Elsner arrive at LACC, on Vermont Avenue, student activists are setting up tables for a voter-registration drive in the main quad, which is surrounded by plain, beige and red-brick buildings.
Molina, a pretty woman with frizzy black hair, enthusiastically surveys the scene from behind a pair of sleek glasses. There are far more black and Latino students strolling by than at heavily Asian and white UCLA. And there's another big difference at this Eastside college surrounded by old, run-down neighborhoods: Over the next hour, there's little talk of "green jobs" and Proposition 23.
Instead, students complain about school budget cuts and having their four-semester academic year scaled back to two semesters, which has badly disrupted their lives, delaying their long-planned transfers to four-year colleges.
"It's really hurting the student transfer rates," says Gesselly Marroquin, a 21-year-old psychology student from East Hollywood, who sports tight black jeans, a black tank top and a leopard-print tattoo on her left arm. She wants to go to UC Santa Barbara, and says her friends are more interested in teaching than in working for a clean-tech company.
As Bob Marley plays over a sound system, Elsner and Molina join Marroquin and Scott Clapson, a 36-year-old cultural-anthropology student who's involved in student government, as they try to register students to vote.
It's not easy. Many students are undocumented immigrants who can't vote. Clapson, in fact, estimates that one-third of the LACC student body is here illegally. Others are not inclined to get involved in politics.
"We've felt disenfranchised from the political system," Molina says. "Some of our family members have gone to prison and can't vote. Some of our parents and brothers and sisters are undocumented and can't vote. You come up in a culture where there's not much emphasis on the importance of voting."
The idea of a fight against Big Oil over the future of clean-energy jobs barely registers with LACC students.
"It doesn't mean that much to me," says Marroquin, a punk-rock fan who digs hard-edged songs with social commentary in the lyrics. "The mainstream is involved in frivolities more than important issues."
Molina understands where Marroquin's coming from. "If you talked to me [years ago] about saving the environment, I would have laughed in your face," says the activist. "You think of saving trees and whales, but we don't have whales in Chicago."
To persuade students to think in different terms, Molina focuses on how pollution from local industries makes human beings — not trees or whales — sick. "I'm passionate about the health impacts on our communities," she says.
But that emphasis on environmental justice for the low-income areas, and protection from industrial filth in inner-city neighborhoods, has been ignored by traditional clean-air, clean-water environmental groups. As the Weekly reported in its July 1, 2009, cover story "Envirowimps," it's a bone of contention between the big, monied green groups and the often smaller grassroots justice groups.
California Student Sustainability Coalition and Elsner are trying to change things. Several months ago at a retreat, Clapson told the coalition's leaders they had to diversify their ranks, which were mostly white. Clapson says Elsner and the coalition responded, seeking out lower-income and minority students — especially at community colleges in the Bay Area and Los Angeles. "I was challenging them," Clapson says, "and they listened."
Elsner says that without black and brown students in the fold, the youth vote won't become the political force it should. "My generation has the potential to be the largest voting bloc," he says. "So are we mobilizing that vote, or are we going to allow the older generation to be powerful? When we look at the youth movement, we're not big enough yet."
It's going to be a long haul if their experience at LACC is any guide. Out of the 16,000 to 18,000 students enrolled there, Clapson and crew collected just under 50 voter registrations during the afternoon. That makes a little over 400 since the coalition's campaign began.
After the registration drive at LACC, Elsner and Molina head to Wilmington, near the Port of Los Angeles, where teenagers from nearby Banning High School will lead a weekday after-school march to the nearby Tesoro oil refinery on Pacific Coast Highway.
Molina flew into Los Angeles a few days earlier and immediately started working with the young students, who helped her organize the event along with Communities United Against Prop. 23, a grassroots group.
"A lot of high school students are driving this action," she tells Elsner.
He nods knowingly. "I don't know what it is," he says. "A lot of my generation gets it. They're able to see the local impacts and connect it with the larger picture."
Cruising southbound in the commuter lane on the Harbor Freeway, Elsner is worrying that the Koch brothers will suddenly drop several million dollars for pro–Proposition 23 TV ads and change the momentum of the campaign. "The only grassroots groups that support Proposition 23 are the Tea Party groups," Elsner says, "and the Koch brothers spent a lot of money to create the Tea Party movement."