Thursday, September 27, 2012

"The Garden" and Coyote Hills

This week in my English classes, we are reading about, writing about, and discussing local politics.  The focus of my curriculum this semester is "writing about local issues."  The first essay was about local culture.  The current essay assignment is about local politics.  I had my students read my essay "Why I Ran for City Council."  My struggle, as a teacher, is to help students see that local politics matter, that they are interesting and engaging and that they are about human beings and human communities and are therefore worthy of our sincere interest, critical thinking, research, discussion, and writing.

One film that I feel embodies the human struggles at the heart of local politics is a 2004 documentary called "The Garden" (It's on Netflix instant watch.  Watch it!)  The film is about a community of low-income Latino families who are trying to protect a 13-acre urban farm in South Centeral Los Angeles from being bulldozed.  It is an engaging human drama that shows many of the conflicting forces at play in local politics.  There is the community, as represented by the farmers and their families.  There's the wealthy developer, who wants to turn the farm into storage warehouses.  There are local politicians like Jan Perry and Antonio Villaraigosa who, despite their apparent sympathy with the farmers, must also placate their campaign contributors.  There's the media.  There are activists.  It's a classic case study in local politics.

Ultimately, as is often the case, the wealthy developer wins, and the community loses.  When I first watched the movie, I thought it would have a happy ending.  And when the bulldozers arrived, protected by police in riot gear, my jaw dropped.  I couldn't believe this happened 30 minutes from where I live and I never heard about it until about eight years later, when it was too late to save the farm.  Now it is a wasteland of brown dirt.

The film, while tragic, is instructive to those interested in how local politics actually works.  Understanding the reality in which we are living is the first step toward making positive change. 

Watching the film, I could not help but think of a similar struggle in my own community of Fullerton, whose fate is still uncertain.  For the past 30 years, a group of community volunteers called the Friends of Coyote Hills have been attempting to stop the Chevron corporation from building houses and a shopping center on the last large natural open space in North Orange County...Coyote Hills.

As in "The Garden" this struggle is, on the surface, a struggle between a private property owner (Chevron) and community activists.  However, the reality is more complex.  The private property owner, in this case a multi-billion dollar oil company, has the financial resources to contribute to politicians campaigns, to launce massive publicity and advertising campaigns praising the virtues of their development project, to pay PR people to meet with local leaders and become their "friends."

The Friends of Coyote Hills, like the farmers, do not have the resources the developer has.  They, like the farmers, have some wealthy philanthropists, but they are not a multi-billion dollar oil company.

As is demonstrated in "The Garden", the Coyote Hills issue is about the collusion between big business and politics, and the threat this poses to democracy and human communities.  Understanding the complexities of these issues empowers us to speak truth to power and money, to make our voices heard, to believe what Abraham Lincoln said: "Let us have faith that right makes might"...and not the other way around.  One of my goals as a teacher is to empower students to make their voices heard.

The Coyote Hills development issue is on the ballot this November.  As a result of the efforts of the Friends of Coyote Hills, voters get to decide the fate of this land.  A No Vote on Measure W will block the development and preserve the land.  A Yes vote on Measure W will approve the development.  We, as a community, get to decide.  But, if we don't take the time to pay attention and speak up, might will make right.  And I don't want to live in a world like that.

This is a short film my friend Paul Nagel made about a bike ride he took to Coyote Hills.

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