Shot on September 17th, 2011 this community meeting in the City of Maywood was billed as a Water Workshop, the purpose of which was to engage and inform the community primarily about concerns regarding drinking water quality as well as the progress and results of the Pemaco superfund cleanup site at Maywood Riverfront Park. In addition to attendance by up to 150 members of the community, representatives of the three private water companies that provide drinking water to the city, plus agency representatives from the Environmental Protection Agency, the U.S. Army Core of Engineers, the Watershed Health Council, and Maywood city council members were present. This workshop was initiated as part of the Watershed Health Council’s Disadvantaged Community Outreach Program. Disadvantaged Communities are defined as areas that contain neighborhoods that have a median household income below $37,994.40. The intent is to engage the community in order to increase participation, add multi-beneficial projects, and address concerns about drinking water quality and waste water. Union de Vecinos was initially chosen as the outreach contractor whose purpose was to hear more directly from the community about perceived water quality and environmental concerns. This included one on one and door to door canvasing by Union de Vecinos members and staff as well as individual neighborhood meetings.
Originally the Watershed Health Council was to manage the actual workshop but asked Union de Vecinos to supervise the meeting with short notice. Held at Maywood City Hall the workshop generated a lot of emotional response and became controversial and argumentative. People pointed fingers and laid blame. Out of concern Los Angeles County Sheriffs were asked to make a presence in order to help quell a tense situation. The meeting also occurred just after one of the three water companies had raised rates, adding more frustration to community members in attendance. It also became apparent that many did not understand the general purpose of the meeting.
The meeting started off with introductions by a city council member and then a dual language powerpoint presentation by a representative from the EPA. Translation equipment was provided for both English and Spanish speakers to listen to one another. The initial presentation is followed by a questions and comments session. The Mayor of Maywood makes a point that he does not support the meeting and will therefore not stay for a number of reasons and that he feels that Union de Vecinos misleads the public. He ends up staying after a heated interaction with community members. The director for Union de Vecinos, Leonardo Vilchis, steps forward throughout the meeting to facilitate and keep focus on the tasks at hand. During the workshop session thirteen breakout groups are created with the intent of putting forth and answering questions of concern from the community regarding city parks, the mounds of possibly contaminated dirt next to the clean up site, water concerns, water pipes, water quality, consolidation of the three private water companies into one public water company, and more. These break out groups were monitored and kept on track by staff members from Union de Vecinos. In these groups questions and answers are written down for the purpose of further discussion. This is followed by presentations from each of the groups to the entire meeting, the end purpose being that the involved agencies will create reports addressing concerns and possible solutions, bring the reports back to the community for feedback and input, and then present a final report with recommendations and reasonable solutions including the possibilities of finding grant money to improve water systems.
Union de Vecinos was chosen to help facilitate and design this meeting because of their tight focus on the community and their strategies. They utilize an approach to the community that works by being a constant outreach continuum that is separate of contracts and external funding resources. This allows them to focus on the issues revealed through this process rather than give attention to single fixed issues. It thus allows them to remain flexible to the changes and concerns of the community.
As a result of the education and reflection that occurred in the water workshop community members have become better informed and have been able to alert the California State Legislature to the needs of the community. Results are gradually being put into place that will effectively resolve the issues.
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