MONDAY Q&A: Modesto nonprofit takes on social, environmental issues

06/29/2014 5:37 PM

07/02/2014 4:00 PM

Six Stanislaus County residents with different visions but the same values united to create a Modesto nonprofit, dubbed Valley Improvement Projects, dedicated to social and environmental issues.

Their day jobs are in education and health care, but they volunteer their free time providing services to minorities and the poor, the “underrepresented and marginalized,” and advocating for smart growth and development, alternative transportation and better air quality.

Valley Improvement Projects, or VIP, next month will celebrate the one-year anniversary of opening the Community Center for Social and Environmental Justice on 12th Street in Modesto.

At the center, VIP volunteers offer an array of services, from tutoring for elementary and high school students, to hip-hop appreciation and education, to workshops on how to fix bicycles or knowing your rights when stopped by law enforcement.

Four of VIP’s founders, Thomas Helme, Emiliano Mataka, Bianca Lopez and Adam Brazil, tell more about the services they offer and what they believe are some of the biggest issues facing the Central Valley.

With what vision was VIP started?

Lopez: We envisioned VIP having a community center where people feel welcomed, acting as an autonomous zone for self-empowerment and a place for community discussions. The Modesto area is known as being traditionally conservative, but also historically has many poor people and people of color in ignored neighborhoods and unincorporated areas. We want them to know that there are like-minded people who want to work in solidarity with them to change things.

Helme: And hopefully VIP can be the place where those underrepresented people can assemble and organize. Modesto has a history of protest and struggles for justice from Estanislao to Cesar Chavez to the immigrant and worker march of 10,000 people on May Day in 2006. We wanted to offer a place where people not only can learn about that history, but also continue it.

VIP has a lot of services to offer. What is the nonprofit’s primary function or goal?

Mataka: Our mission statement is “To improve the quality of life of underrepresented and marginalized residents of California’s Central Valley, by promoting social and environmental issues through youth outreach, education, technology, and art.”

Lopez: The goal is to locally address issues that directly affect marginalized communities with a focus on social and environmental justice. We want people to realize the impact we can have in this sleepy little burg. That’s why we do the bike workshop – we care about the environment and it helps those who get around on a bike. We offer a lot because everyone here that volunteers is inspired and empowered to facilitate a new project, or support an ongoing project, and we all get to lead.

Helme: Continuing that spirit of struggle for social and environmental justice. We offer outreach for the homeless, youth, people with mental health issues and other marginalized groups. But we also want to provide the opportunity for them, in solidarity, to organize and speak for themselves and create their own power and achieve the goals they set for themselves. That’s why our motto is “Working with the community to improve the community.”

What was the first thing offered by VIP, and how did it grow to offer such a wide assortment of services?

Helme: Our volunteers have been involved in different projects from youth outreach, tenant and worker rights, police brutality, homeless support, support for LGBTQ (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer) and immigrant communities, and air pollution issues in the Modesto area for several years. Once we put all our ideas together, it was easy to see how they were all related and the outcomes of a big-business, capitalist system that creates massive amounts of waste and excess but still has so many that go without basic human needs. As more people get involved, they bring new ideas for projects, workshops and events that address those issues.

Lopez: VIP is a fairly new name made up of people who all had their own “first things.” Cop-watching and know-your-rights outreach, hip-hop and graffiti art, needle exchanges and public health, bicycling and environmental justice. One of the first issues we discussed were major companies that affect our air, such as Covanta (Energy), and how the city’s corporate “Earth Day” was receiving major sponsorship from them, which then led to actions and awareness raising. Other people see what we’re doing and get involved and then start their own projects, so being in the community is important. We just show up.

What do VIP volunteers do to advocate for these issues?

Helme: We’ve worked with statewide coalitions and dozens of environmental justice groups to educate and put pressure on local agencies such as the San Joaquin Valley Air Pollution Control District who we feel can be doing more to help clean up the area’s poor air-quality problem. Locally, we’ve advocated for less sprawl and for more resources for low-income communities impacted by poor environmental practices.

Brazil: We attend rallies and demonstrations in solidarity with statewide initiatives that address environmental justice issues. We also attend local government meetings and give our input as advocates for clean air and water.

What is the goal of the bike workshop, and what services do you offer?

Brazil: The goal of the bicycle workshop is to teach self-reliance and offer free services that are not usually affordable at mainstream bike shops. Donated parts are used to complete repairs to maintain green transportation for low-income individuals. Our services include everything from fixing flat tires to complete bike overhauls.

What do you teach in the cop-watch workshop?

Mataka: We teach people to exercise their constitutional rights, document police abuse/harassment, file complaints and participate in a statewide coalition against police brutality.

Lopez: The workshops we have every first Friday of the month are also discussions about direct action when it comes to current and local police violence incidents. We support and advocate for local families who have been killed or abused by Modesto, Merced, Stockton and Manteca police departments. Most importantly, we want people to know they can exercise their rights, and engaging in these conversations in our community brings accountability and awareness to the violations of our human and civil rights that occur on a daily basis.

Helme: Many people think of cop-watch as an organization, but it’s really an activity that anyone can do and has the right to do. A lot of people have cameras on their phones now, and we encourage them to cop-watch in their own neighborhoods or wherever they are.

What is offered at your free market? Where do you get the supplies for it, and who benefits from it?

Brazil: The Really Really Free Market concept was started in opposition to NAFTA (North American Free Trade Agreement) and other harmful economic deals in the 1990s. RRFMs allow neighbors to share clothing, household goods, food, skills and other resources. All materials are donated from the communities that benefit from them. The RRFM motto is “leave what you can, take what you need.”

How do you raise funds?

Mataka: We apply for grants, host special events and have a few monthly donors.

Lopez: We have had great community support when hosting fundraising events. The local bands from Modesto have been my favorite because they bring out the youth. We are grateful to all of the personal donations from our friends and family.

What do you see for the future of VIP? Do you hope to offer even more services, or just grow to serve more people?

Mataka: In the future, I see VIP as the catalyst for environmental and social justice action in Modesto and the Central Valley. We will be vocal and unrepentantly aggressive in calling out decision-makers and power brokers on their misguided and damaging policies and practices.

Lopez: I see VIP creating a culture of resistance when it comes to violations of human rights, such as the pollution of our water and air, when our civil rights are violated, filming the police every time they are on our block and, of course, encouraging ways to support the most marginalized communities by continuing to encourage self-empowerment and self-sustainability.

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