The Vibe Of It All: Turning Stockton Into 'An Oasis Of Joy'
Twice yearly as a kid, I trekked with my family in our station wagon from Fresno to Reno to visit my grandparents. Along Highway 99, facing the cars behind me about two hours in, I watched miles of green orchards eventually turn into the drab-looking city of Stockton.
The area’s sweltering heat beat through our rear window, and the tangle of freeways intersecting the city was a massive confusion of concrete. As the highway took us through town, we saw searing images of poverty and the sense of hopelessness in the people on the streets.
Two decades later and just blocks from the same freeway, I spent last summer meeting people like social worker Lecia Harrison. I learned that the city is undergoing a major transition.
It’s not that Stockton looks any different — yet. It’s a shift in mindset and returning hope to a place that lost it a long time ago.
Several hundred feet away from State Route 4, which cuts Stockton in two from east to west, Harrison and I met in an urban forest of about 40 trees. Each tree represents a life lost to gun violence and is named for a victim. Brandon, Harrison’s then 20-year-old son and a respected community activist, is one of them. He was inexplicably murdered on leaving a party in 2017.
“I come and let him know just how angry I am that he's not here,” she said while holding a 5-by-6 photo of the young father with his baby son. “Even with all the noise in the background, it still gives me that opportunity to just come and spend time with my son — and it's with something that's alive.”
Reviving Brandon isn't an option, but Harrison is part of a movement to bring life back to her hometown of more than 300,000. Stockton is a port city on the edge of the Sacramento Delta, 80 miles east of San Francisco. The region is often derided as the armpit of California because of its extreme temperatures, historic divestment in low-income neighborhoods, and a long history of violence and police brutality.
To the casual passerby, Stockton’s vibe might still feel stagnant, but look more deeply and one can see that this city is being reborn.
Work to mitigate the looming effects of climate change — droughts, heat waves and floods — is unifying Stockton. Residents banded together to win a $10.8 million state grant this year that will help their city adapt sustainably to rising temperatures.
Money for equitable solutions
The grant will help finance a walkable and bikeable downtown. The funds will also support creating green jobs, increasing household solar panels, planting trees and teaching urban farming in schools.
For the community, this investment is about ensuring climate solutions are equitable for all the city’s residents. In the latest census, Stockton’s racial makeup was 42% Hispanic, 21% Asian, 21% white, 11% Black and less than 1% native Hawaiian or Pacific Islander.
The grant came about because of a “for us, by us” mentality among residents and city leaders. More than three years of community engagement meetings put Stockton at the leading edge of change in California. For a city that’s struggled with violence and equity issues for decades, climate justice is the next level of social justice.
“Stockton is an excellent example of where they have really strong leadership coming out of the mayor's office, and they have incredible partnership[s] and collaboration[s],” said Louise Bedsworth, executive director of the California Strategic Growth Council. The dollars came through her group's Transformative Climate Communities program.
People want to take this city and turn it into an oasis of joy. In 2012, Stockton had reached its end of the road and was forced into bankruptcy. Nearly a decade later, the city is slowly rising like a phoenix out of the ashes.
Besides investing in their downtown, the city’s leaders partnered with a local nonprofit, the Economic Security Project, to raise funds for a universal basic income pilot program. In 2019, 125 randomly selected residents were given $500 monthly. People used the money for everything from prom dresses to dentures, but mostly used it for food. The program’s success brought in more donations, allowing it to continue through January 2021, after which it will be reassessed.
Climate equity is racial equity
“I want Stockton to be the community that shows what a Green New Deal looks like in terms of tangible benefits,” said Mayor Michael Tubbs, who became Stockton’s youngest and first African American mayor in 2016. His leadership in the city’s transformation has garnered national acclaim — this summer an HBO documentary debuted about his work — but his public persona and progressive values has stirred resentment among some conservative residents. Tubbs hasn’t let those attitudes prevent him from moving forward because he feels that investing in Stockton’s most vulnerable is a cause too important to sidetrack.
Tubbs wants to get people to see environmental needs as basic needs so they can save the environment without having to think about it. This all starts with bringing investments into hot, mostly treeless barrios like south Stockton, where Tubbs grew up.
“It’s not this abstract notion of a tree, but a direct notion of, ‘Ain't you hot?’” Tubbs said. “Don't you want some shade? Don’t you want to breathe clean air?”
Investing in areas where the poor and Black and Brown people live will make life better for all Stocktonians, said Barbara Barrigan-Parrilla, a longtime environmental advocate and Stockton resident. The entire community of southwest Stockton ranks in the top 5% of the most disadvantaged in the state.
“You can't have climate equity without having racial equity,” she said. “Across the board, communities of color and the poor are who will be impacted first.”
The heat islands where these people live contain more asphalt and concrete than anything green, she explained. That makes them hotter than more affluent areas of town.
“It's already 10 to 12 degrees warmer in south Stockton every year than in north Stockton,” Barrigan-Parrilla said of the summertime heat.
Changing the very look and feel of these communities, without gentrifying them, will help all of Stockton rise up to tackle climate change, she said.
However, it’s not just heat islands Stocktonians are confronting. Like many Californians, folks here face immediate threats of wildfire smoke and heat-related illnesses, along with the impending threats of sea-level rise, harmful algal blooms and drought. All these effects are the result of just 1 degree Celsius increase in average global temperature since the beginning of the Industrial Revolution in the mid-1700s.
The worldwide goal of the Paris Climate Agreement, which the United States formally withdrew from in November, is to keep warming well below 2 degrees Celsius, according to Stanford climate scientist Noah Diffenbaugh.
“Unless global emissions are curbed, the trajectory we’re on as a civilization will likely lead to greater than 3 degrees [Celsius],” said Diffenbaugh. But even the single degree of warming already in motion will have a catastrophic impact on human health as droughts, wildfires, extreme storms and floods become commonplace, he said.
That future affects all Stocktonians, poor and affluent alike, because climate change doesn’t play favorites. And this city is a cautionary tale. What’s happening in Stockton will happen in the rest of the state and country, starting with the most vulnerable. Solutions must first address the needs of those most at risk.
The born-again climate changer
The moment I saw Sammy Nunez, I thought of my dad. The way he used his hands to lure in a listener, coupled with his humble stance, suggested he’d been through the ringer like my dad had as a teen growing up in the Inland Empire. As it turned out, I was right. At 18, Nunez was shot in a drive-by shooting. He died four times before the doctors could stabilize him. In the years after, he spent time in and out of prison. Part of that time was for going after the guy who shot him.
“He shot me because, if you have no hope, you have no home, you have no sense of future, guess what's going to happen?” reflected Nunez. “Someone is going to get shot sooner or later.”
In 2003, Nunez established the nonprofit Fathers and Families of San Joaquin, which aims to reverse racial injustice, improve education equity and help people destined for jail reverse course. The group also runs a trauma recovery center.
Nunez created the nonprofit because he was tired of seeing people in his community wind up incarcerated only to be “severed by violence, walls and cages.”
This man’s transition from a life of gun violence and fending for himself to advocating for young people with a similar upbringing echoes my father’s path. Both of them want to save the world. My 60-something Mexican American dad is a born-again evangelical Christian, and his mission is to save souls. Nunez is a born-again climate changer. Starting with Stockton, his mission is to save the planet.
Nunez may not say this about himself, but he’s connecting the dots between climate change, low-income communities, urban violence, and working toward change with city leaders. That’s why his group planted a healing garden — which includes the mini-forest where I met Harrison — to help families of murder victims.
“This is about creating an opportunity for folks to heal and connect to the natural world and understand the value of the trees as they become their children's fathers, brothers, sisters, namesake[s],” Nunez explained.
There are more than 250 trees planted by the group across Stockton, including the healing garden near downtown. The garden itself offers a look into the city's equity and climate struggles. A freeway is a block away. Empty tree wells surround it, and it’s apparent this part of the city hasn’t seen significant investment in years.
Through climate adaptation work and community reinvestment, Nunez sees a clear path to reducing violence dramatically in Stockton.
So much more to tackle
I met Nicholas Hatten at a restaurant along a system of waterways in the middle of Stockton. The LGBTQ+ activist lives next to a slough choked with thick, green algae. It’s also an area where homeless people live.
As he shows me the slough, Hatten describes how he can see from his laundry room into an encampment where people drink and bathe in the contaminated water.
“I know how difficult it is under tough economic circumstances,” he said. “But that doesn't mean that you should be risking your life.”
Later, I met Barrigan-Parrilla at the Port of Stockton under Interstate 5, about a 1,000 feet from where Hatten lives. The first thing I noticed was a giant dead fish floating in the mat of algae.
The blooms are getting worse as waters warm, said Barrigan-Parrilla. An outbreak last summer was the worst in her memory. “I even went into the more affluent neighborhoods on the north side of Stockton where the algae isn’t as bad, but there was still a green tint to the water that normally isn't there,” she said.
Barrigan-Parrilla’s environmental group, Restore the Delta, began sounding a statewide alarm about these blooms in 2019. If consumed, the algae could kill a dog or make a child sick, she said. But even though the algae is another source of atmosphere-warming air pollution right next to disadvantaged communities, the city’s climate grant doesn’t have enough funds to address the problem. Nor does Restore the Delta have money for aggressive monitoring. However, there is one upside. While no full statewide water-testing program exists, the California Air Resources Board is working to clean up carbon emissions from ships that transport goods along this port.
At the bottom of a bathtub
A few miles west of this port, a more subtle impact of climate change could have its way: sea-level rise.
“Stockton is very low, and so it's very vulnerable,” said Benjamin Strauss, chief scientist of the nonprofit news organization Climate Central. “It's the lowest, most problematic land in California.”
Stockton sits in the middle of a floodplain in the Central Valley, which is basically a bathtub for water flowing down rivers from the Sierra Nevada. Historically, this region was an expansive inland estuary, which still exists but in a smaller, channelized way connecting to the sea.
A few years ago Strauss’ group modeled the most extreme climate-warming scenario predicted for 2100. In that event, much of the western and southern parts of the city, where people of color live, could go under water. Major storms could cause the water level to rise so high it would undermine the integrity of existing levees, said Strauss.
“We were looking at projections north of 10 feet of sea-level rise by the end of the century in that scenario,” he said. “That would be deep and terrible trouble for Stockton.”
A recent UCLA study found that much of the Central Valley, including the Stockton region, will likely experience mega-floods in coming years unless the climate crisis is met head on. The authors took existing flood protection into account.
“We don't see [mega-floods] very often, and so it's easy to put them out of sight and out of mind,” said UCLA climate scientist Daniel Swain. “But if we want to not suffer really severe consequences when they do occur, now is the time to be thinking about them.”
Barrigan-Parrilla worries about how a mega-flood would devastate the communities she loves. She and I hiked up a dry, grassy levee next to yet another freeway, Interstate 5, on the southwest side of town. Two levees protect this part of Stockton from flooding, but the levee to the north is visibly shorter.
“Across the street is Conway Homes,” she said. “That's one of Stockton's oldest low-income communities … that has struggled with all kinds of issues, from gang violence to extreme poverty.”
Her group alerted state officials about the potential flooding problem, but to little avail. Unless action is taken soon, she said, the worst could take place, especially as California’s fourth climate-change assessment shows significant flood risk from sea-level rise by the end of the century.
“If it’s correct, we’re going to have overtopping of levees on both sides,” she said. “To leave this side of the city with such an inadequate levee is just morally wrong.”
Reversal of fortune
In November, Mayor Tubbs, a Democrat, lost his bid for re-election to a Republican. He leaves office in January. According to spokesman Daniel Lopez, a rogue website spewed streams of disinformation about the mayor’s efforts that went viral. He also said the diminishing readership of the struggling local paper, The Record, didn’t help.
“I thought it was just Trump supporters generally on there,” he said. “I didn't think that would ultimately take him down.”
With false information as its weapon, Lopez said, the website stirred up enough anger in the community to cause Tubbs’ loss.
“I felt like the anger didn't match what Tubbs was doing,” Lopez explained. “He was actually just bringing in a lot of resources to the community.”
Lopez doesn’t think the climate work is threatened because even Republicans on the City Council supported it. But he’s aware that if disinformation continues, it could result in a gradual loss of the innovative work Tubbs has initiated in Stockton.
Resilience starts with youth
Ultimately Stockton’s future resides with a younger generation that understands the climate crisis isn’t going to end anytime soon. That’s why recent Edison High School graduate Jay Smith is studying how climate change is altering oceans at Oregon State University.
“Climate change is personal for me because it’s going to hit my generation,” he said.
Others are returning to invest in the community. Darius Waiter is a local activist who moved home after graduating from San Joaquin Delta College. Many years after being bullied in school, Waiters said the experience taught him that social justice and climate justice are tied together.
“What I gained from the grass,” said Waiters, as he recalled being pushed into the grass daily, “is that despite the fact that it was trampled on, the next day its blades will be pointing skyward.”
That resilience is what he wants for Stockton no matter how difficult life gets under the climate crisis.
“Why would someone care about climate change if they can't even figure out how they're going to pay rent or get their next meal?” he asks. “To get them to a point where they are prepared to be environmentally conscious and capable, we have to supplement them in the ways they are lacking.”
If it works in Stockton
Back in the healing garden, the air is thick with pollution and the vroom of cars and big rigs speeding by on the freeway a block away.
In that block of trees, Sammy Nunez, Lecia Harrison and I are fighting for a corner of shade under the pop-up tent as sweat drips down our brows. We’re not wrapping up our interview because the conversation’s run out. It’s just so hot.
It’s evident that Nunez or Harrison could have left Stockton for a city with fewer problems. But both have a love for this place that oozes out of them. When they look at Stockton they see all the bad, but then what comes into view is hope.
“It's not easy to work here,” Nunez said. “At the end of the day, if it works in Stockton — we represent every single demographic and market in the world here — it could work anywhere. That's the good news. The bad news is the same could be said about the opposite. If it doesn't work here, it's not gonna work anywhere.”
Ezra David Romero is CapRadio's environment reporter. He tells stories about how climate change is altering the lives of everyday Californians. He also reports on climate policy, science, water issues and how decisions around the environment impact people across the Golden State.
Salgu Wissmath is a nonbinary photographer based in Sacramento. Their personal work explores the intersections of mental health, queer identity, and faith from a conceptual documentary approach. Salgu recently completed a Master of Photography degree at Ohio University and is currently freelancing for editorial publications and nonprofits in Northern California.