Social Justice Tools for a Not-So-Post-Racial Era: Californian Approaches on the Cutting-edge


by Perlita Dicochea

Over the last three months, groundbreaking racial and environmental justice tools have been established in order to implement more informed and just public policy. In April, the California Environmental Protection Agency (CalEPA) published a data map, the CalEnviroScreen 1.0, revealing that Latinas/os make up the majority of those living in the most disadvantaged zip codes. Taking another angle, The Greenlining Institute (GI) released a Racial Equity Toolkit in July as a guide for policy-influencers that necessitates collaborating with stakeholders.

These cutting-edge tools underscore current systematic discrepancies in the allocation of both beneficial and harmful resources—conflicting with the popular narrative that the U.S. has reached an enlightened post-racial moment of social equality.

“Race and place are still very much issues in California today,” proclaims Arsenio Mataka, the Assistant Secretary for Environmental Justice and Tribal Affairs at the CalEPA.

Addressing Environmental Disparities

The California Environmental Protection Agency (CalEPA) has addressed environmental inequalities as early as the 1970s and race and class are often among the most significant variables in implementing its environmental justice (EJ) vision. To address a need for consistency, Mataka established the CalEnviroScreen 1.0, a map that locates those most impacted by environmental ills by zip code.

“If all of those who experience both the highest pollution and highest vulnerability lived in one town, 64% of that town would be Latina/o and only 14% would be White,” Mataka concludes.


The Executive Order 12898, signed during the Clinton Administration in 1994, [] requires that all federal agencies take action toward achieving environmental justice (EJ) by a) identifying those communities that are disproportionately impacted by environmental problems and b) taking problem-solving measures around those issues.

The approach of the CalEPA’s Environmental Justice Office includes cumulative environmental impacts and additional social, cultural, public health, and economic variables that contribute to a community’s overall vulnerability.

“We need to identify those areas that have the highest vulnerability characteristics that make it difficult for those communities to deal with the highest pollution burdens. EJ communities are those that are overburdened from multiple [environmental and socio-economic] stressors,” Mataka states.

Some of the environmental burdens in the formula include:

  • ozone pollution, which causes respiratory irritation and lung disease
  • diesel particulate matter, which causes cardiovascular and pulmonary
  • disease and lung cancer
  • pesticides, associated with prostate cancer and abnormal brain structures
  • among children
  • hazardous waste, associated with diabetes and cardiovascular disease
  • impaired water bodies, linked to various human and environmental ills

The complete list of indicators for vulnerability is as follows:

  • race and ethnicity
  • poverty
  • prevalence of children and elderly
  • low birth-weight rate
  • asthma emergency visits
  • educational attainment
  • linguistic isolation

Identifying the “most disadvantaged” is determined by multiplying a zip code’s cumulative environmental burden by its overall vulnerability. The resulting scores help the CalEPA prioritize its problem-solving initiatives and its data map serves as a guide for the implementation of other policies, such as Senate Bill 535, which is designed to channel Cap-and-Trade auction proceeds to improve the health and infrastructure of underserved communities.

The majority of those living in the most polluted and most vulnerable zip codes of CA are Latina/o and Black and many of these regions are located throughout the Central Valley, including zip codes in Stockton, Merced, Fresno, Tulare, and Bakersfield that rank in the top 5% of the most disadvantaged.

In the Bay Area, zip codes 94621 (in Oakland) and 94802 (in San Pablo) rank in the top 1-5% of the most polluted. Other zip codes ranking in the top 6-10% of the most polluted include 94124 (in San Francisco); 94607 (in West Oakland); 95601 (in Oakland); and 94545 (in West Hayward).

Find out if your zip code is among the highest ranked by clicking here: –

The CalEPA EJ office is currently developing another map that will identify disadvantaged districts to reveal the inequities that exist within zip codes.

The Racial Equity Toolkit

The Racial Equity Toolkit, developed by The Greenlining Institute (GI), a non-profit think tank based in Berkeley, CA, is intended to help policymakers address various social discrepancies in the context of a majority-minority state and increasingly racially and ethnically diverse nation.

Greenlining defines racial equity as “the condition that would be achieved if one’s race or ethnic origin was no longer a determining factor in one’s success” (p. 4, Racial Equity Toolkit, July 2013).

“We developed this toolkit because there needs to be a way for advocacy organizations, particularly those working in Sacramento, to talk about race. Policymakers need to understand that there are multiple markers of difference and you can’t lump diverse groups of people together without leaving many, particularly communities of color, behind” said Carla Saporta, Health Policy Director at GI.

GLI Racial Equity Toolkit

One example of leaving many behind includes outreach and marketing that might narrowly focus on reaching Spanish-speaking Mexicans while overlooking ways to reach out to Afro-Latinas/os and other segments of the diverse Latina/o population in the state, explained Saporta.

Similarly, by talking to stakeholders GI learned of language barriers in the voting process, which led to GI’s Senate Bill 1233 that requires California to translate ballot initiative petitions. While the bill was vetoed last year, GI plans to introduce it again this year.

Meant as a guiding process versus a checklist, the first step to identifying needs requires advocates to go into the community and work with local groups to facilitate information gathering. Working closely with stakeholders is necessary throughout the process of identifying and filling policy holes.

One of the final suggestions is to measure the success, or sustainability, of a policy or project, which means that more data may need to be collected to facilitate long-term funding, replication, and/or expansion of a policy or program—and requires maintaining long-term partnerships with stakeholders.

Saporta maintains, “Advocates can be knowledgeable and aware but their lived experiences may limit their ability to see multiple barriers to access. When you intentionally work with a diverse range of stakeholders you may realize that more resources need to be allocated to certain groups—that’s why stakeholder collaboration is so important.”

To be sure, coalition-building for the long-term is one of the hallmarks of GI’s approach to racial justice policy implementation and key to its influence throughout California.

Invitation for Reader Input

As practitioners, educators, and involved community members, Modern Latinas have great ideas and experience with incorporating other forms of discrimination, such as gender differences, in program and policy implementation. How might these tools more adequately address the needs of the stakeholders with whom you work?

Send your thoughts to: Gmail: or Twitter: @dr_perlita

Perlita Dicochea earned her Ph.D. in Ethnic Studies with an affiliated discipline in Environmental Economics and Policy at U.C. Berkeley. Her current research focuses on non-profit efforts to integrate environmental justice approaches within climate change research and policy.

Perlita Dicochea earned her Ph.D. in Ethnic Studies with an affiliated discipline in Environmental Economics and Policy at U.C. Berkeley. Her current research focuses on non-profit efforts to integrate environmental justice approaches within climate change research and policy. Send Perlita comments and suggestions for future stories at and follow her on Twitter: @dr_perlita