Nyge takes a look into his life spent next to an oil refinery and the many issues that it caused. By speaking to his father, a climate reporter and an environmental activist, Nyge seeks the answer to one big question — How do we fight back?
Adult ISH is produced by YR Media and brought to you by PRX’s Radiotopia. Be sure to follow all our socials @yrAdultISH!
Movements to Join…
Nyge: What’s going on? Welcome to season six of adults is produced by YR Media and brought to you by radio topia from PR X. We really missed y’all. There’s a ton of stuff to catch up on, but first off, I want to acknowledge that this season is going to sound a little different. It’s my first time solo hosting and I’m truly honored to still be on this journey with all of you. There are so many more stories and so many more Adult ISH to figure out, especially these days, and most importantly, so much love, joy and advice to share.
That’s exactly why this season we’re accepting letters from you, our listeners, to shape the show into all of you want to hear. Each letter will ask a big question bigger than we could possibly answer on our own. So for season six, we’re going to consult the pros, therapists, storytellers, journalists, performers and activists who will bring their knowledge and firsthand experience to help us seek the answers.
I know that sharing can be difficult, so I’ll lead by example with a big question of my own….
Dear Adult ISH every week, my cousin, Frank tweets Happy 11 a.m. on a Wednesday in Richmond, which might seem a little funny to people who don’t live in Richmond, California, like I do. But really, though, this tweet is cold. Everyone here in the city knows exactly what Frank is talking about and the harsh reality of it is far from funny. Every Wednesday at 11 a.m., this sound wails through the streets of Richmond.
That siren is from the Chevron Oil Refinery, a huge fossil fuel factory sitting right in the city’s backyard. In school, when we would hear that noise we knew we had to get up close all the windows and doors, run to our cubbies, grab our jackets and stuff them at the base of the door to practice for our hazardous material leak from Chevron. I guess these drills wouldn’t be so bad if that’s all that they were, but what they actually are is a weekly reminder of the leaks, oil spills and explosions that happen regularly here in Richmond. There was even a huge oil spill just this year. Over 500 gallons of oil spilled into the bay. For years, Chevron has kept our community quiet with money like the jobs that they offer or the checks that they write when they pollute. But many of us here in Richmond are tired of this company putting a price on our lives. So my question is what can we do to stop it?
Leland: Even though we didn’t live in Richmond, we had family in Richmond. We would go there from time to time and you could see the refinery all lit up at night.
Nyge: This is my dad, Leland. I called him because I wanted to take a step backwards into my own family’s history with Chevron before I talk to anybody else. Something I didn’t know was that even though my dad grew up in Oakland, he spent a lot of time at the refinery when he was a kid.
Leland: And we had a friend of the family. He had a job there and he would have company picnics or he would give like a family picnic at the refinery. So we always knew about the refinery, or we would drive to their family function and swim in the pool and play in the gym and play ping pong at the little recreation center there at the refinery. So we always knew about the refinery, we kind of looked handsomely on it because, you know, it was a great place to work. It employed a lot of people that we knew, and everybody kind of made it a goal in their lives to possibly get a job at a Chevron refinery when they grew up because it was such a good job.
Nyge: But when he moved to Richmond as an adult, my dad started to worry. He realized that what the refinery was actually taking from the community was much more than they could ever give. He told me he didn’t have any solid data of this, but it just seemed like the communities of color were being affected in a drastically different way than others. But today the data exists, according to a 2019 article in The Guardian, asthma rates are twice as high in Richmond as neighboring communities, and rates of cardiovascular disease and cancer are disproportionately high as well. But what’s sneaky is that these health problems don’t set in immediately. They’re basically a time bomb that starts ticking the minute that you’re exposed to the pollution. But it doesn’t actually explode until years, sometimes decades later,
Leland: When the alarm goes off, you think a couple of days you’ll be all right. Meanwhile, you don’t realize this is why you got asthma, and this is where you got heart disease, and this is why you got breast cancer.
Nyge: When I was younger, maybe five, I remember driving by the Chevron refinery, seeing huge black clouds of smoke puffing into the sky. I wasn’t upset by this at the time. I kind of thought it was cool. Look, daddy, I would say it’s the cloud factory. It’s safe to say I didn’t really understand just how scary the refinery could be until many years down the line when something terrible happened. It was August six, 2012, the day of the Chevron explosion.
It was the day me and my family just got back from a vacation as we were driving home on the freeway, we saw the explosion happen and we just watched as the thick black smoke painted the sky. I really just remember the contrast and how the harsh black smoke slowly covered what had started as a pretty clear and beautiful day in Richmond. My family stopped by our house just to pick up our dog, and then we just kept driving about 30 miles away to my grandma’s house in Fairfield, where we spent the night just to get away from the explosion. But the heaviness in the air seemed to linger even after we got back.
Leland: When you live near a refinery, you know, some things are going to go wrong at some point, so you just relying on the safety stops, the alarms and whatnot to take effect so that you can, you know, be on guard and get your family to safety. It’s always scary as a family head, you have these evacuation plans in your mind and what you’re going to do, if and when, but always hoping that you never have to use these things. But when they kick in, you just kick in to your survival mode and then you gather your family. You’re glad everybody’s there, but when you see the flames and now you’re thinking about other people who probably did make it out and their families and what they might be going through or other people who are closer to the fire and smoke and everything. Because even though it happened, it was still a ways away and we could see a big plume in the air.
Nyge: From my dad’s perspective, the day of the Chevron explosion was all business. Get the kids, get out. It was kind of funny, is that about halfway through our conversation he admitted that he didn’t even remember which evacuation I was talking about. He’d been through so many events, just like this one that all the stories kind of just started blended together.
Leland: When you’re dealing with crude oil and everything flammable over there and then that one big canister is just as flammable as the next one and the next one and the next one, so you can get these big, huge explosions and you can feel it or you hear it, or you see these big plumes in the air and you know, you just got to get out of there. But I couldn’t tell you, isolate the 2012 from any of the other ones because we have in our lifetime experienced and evacuation of this sort at least three or four times
Nyge: After a lifetime of evacuations. I was curious if my dad had any hope left for the company. I asked him if he thought Chevron could ever make up for the damage that they’d done. He said that back in the day when the black neighborhood started to form near the refinery, they didn’t seem to care.
Leland: You know, they were kind of throwaway people, disposable people. And yes, it sounds harsh, but that’s just the way it was.
Nyge: The way my dad sees it. Is Chevron hasn’t changed much since those early days, and even if they did, it wouldn’t make up for the lives that were harmed along the way. He put it to me like this. My grandmother had seven kids who ended up having 13 kids of their own, who eventually went on to have 22 kids of their own. That is a huge family tree that stems from just one woman. But imagine if she had died from breast cancer, from the pollution in her city like so many other women have here in Richmond. That’s 42 lives that never even got a chance.
Leland: That kind of damage, how do you repair that? Irreparable damage that goes on and on for many, many years.
Nyge: That’s what Chevron takes from this community here in Richmond. You can’t put a price on that.
Georgia: Hi Nyge
Nyge: Hey (laughter) What’s going on?
Georgia: Sorry, you said you were going to have an intro! I wasn’t sure what was happening. Go ahead, Go ahead.
Nyge: You all probably remember Georgia from last season. She’s a producer on this show, and she also reports and host a podcast about climate change activism called, Inherited. So I wanted to get some context from her about how to get involved in fighting back against a bigger polluter like Chevron. Even though I was a little intimidated by her knowledge on the subject, it’s not really necessarily because of like, I feel like you’re this all knowing environmental activism wiz, but honestly….
Georgia: Good because I’m definitely not.
Nyge: It’s really just because I don’t really even speak on the stress that I feel regarding any type of like, pollution of our environment or anything like that because growing up, it’s always felt like those conversations weren’t necessarily for me. I always felt like I kind of didn’t really belong in those spaces. I never saw people who looked like me in those spaces. Is that something that you’ve seen before? Like being a part of that world, people of color feeling like it’s really not something that they can fight for?
Georgia: Oh, absolutely. You know, like historically, it’s been an incredibly white movement, and there’s some really problematic history around the way that it’s evolved. You know, for example, our early conceptions of environmentalism are like, “Oh, well, you know, save the, save the land, you know, make sure America stays beautiful.”And it’s like, where did that land come from? It came from indigenous people who were forced into a genocide and colonized by wealthy white European settlers. Things like settler colonialism and white supremacy are what has caused environmental degradation. They are not the solutions to environmental degradation, they are the source of it. And I think that part of what’s really exciting about coming to the subject now, is that there are a lot of people and especially people of color, who have been doing this work for a long time and are saying like, “Listen, it is time to overthrow these old ways of thinking like, you need to start listening to us because we actually hold the types of knowledge that are going to get us out of this mess,” which I think is absolutely true.
Nyge: I remember in fourth grade, we had this like chapter on spiders. And ever since we learned about all the different types of spiders, I used to go out every lunch or recess and I used to put all the spiders that I could find in like these jars and I would find out which ones they were. And then I’d like, I’d let them go. And I remember all of my other, like Black friends in school would always be like, “Oh yeah, Nyge is on his like his white boy stuff.” Like, I always wondered why that was, but I mean, I guess as I get older, it’s kind of like being involved in or worrying about or caring about like the environment to anything that is perceived as higher than the average amount or whatever is needed to get by is looked at as a luxury, I think, in communities of color. But I think it’s probably because a lot of people of color and communities of color like you’re thinking about how you’re going to survive. And so like, thinking about a future for the next generation almost feels, It almost feels like, “OK, well, we’re way ahead of the game. Like, we’re trying to figure out right, how we’re going to survive in this generation.” Something that’s kind of embarrassing for me, but I mean, we’re leaning into being honest, I had never even heard this phrase before until you had said it one time. And as soon as you said it, I immediately like, I didn’t have to ask you what it meant. I immediately could apply to so many different situations in my life. I was wondering if you could define what environmental racism is.
Georgia: Yeah. Well, I think like just to sort of work backwards for a second. There is this concept of environmental justice, which I have the definition pulled up right now is, the equitable treatment of all people with regard to environmental laws, regulations and policies. Working backwards from that environmental racism is inequitable treatment of people depending on their race, with regard to environmental laws, regulations and policies. And that concept is very tied in also with socioeconomic status. We know that people of color have been historically discriminated against in terms of being able to accrue generational wealth, and so we’ve got a lot more poverty rampant in communities of color because of the same forces that created the climate crisis, right? And so I think that it’s really helpful here to take a step back and think about how interconnected everything is. Indigenous people had been living happily and sustainably before white people came from Europe and started to take from the land and try to grab from the land and make money off the land. And so there’s a lot of people within the indigenous movement, there’s a lot of people who have lived in over polluted black communities through redlining and through other racist policies. They’re not able to access the same kinds of clean spaces and clean water and clean air that people who have access to wealth and can go, you know, buy a tract of land in some remote place or like can get the nicest house in the city that’s overlooking a lake. It’s all interconnected and it’s all about power and money, and it’s all about the history and tracing patterns, from the history to the present and seeing how they interconnect with our present. I do think we have an opportunity to do better, and so for a moment of like, hope and uplift. I think that there are a great number of people today who are hell bent on remaking a climate transition, a just transition for all, who want to move into the future without leaving anyone behind. And I think we owe most of that to people of color in leadership positions.
Nyge: So the city that I’m from, Richmond, California, is right next to Berkeley, California, and also right next to Oakland, California. If you live over here, you know that Berkeley is having some type of protest or something regarding climate and the environment and pollution or something like that almost multiple times a week. And then we’re right next to Oakland, a city that’s been leading the charge and activism surrounding like racism and all of these things. And growing up here, it’s always looked as black people or people of color, we identify with where they’re coming from in Oakland. But Berkeley has kind of been something that we always felt like we couldn’t necessarily be a part of. I think it’s super interesting that both these two forms of activism that I’ve been surrounded with my whole life. They meet in the middle when it comes to my city that I’m from. But I feel like for some reason it hasn’t really been covered like, those two ideas haven’t really met in the middle and people’s minds who live over here. And I think that’s something that I’ve really been like struggling with is wondering how that happens, what to do when that happens. And also, yeah, is there is there anything to do? When that happens, when people figure out that both of these two subjects are related? I don’t know. They’ve always been so separate my whole life. I wonder if they can exist as a whole.
Georgia: One of the things I’m thinking about when you’re bringing this up is media and media coverage, right? So for example, there are lots of opportunities to think and grapple with concepts around environmentalism for folks who are, as you said, have the luxury and the time and are presented with it in a palatable way. Whereas a city that has less economic opportunity may not have the financial ability to send out people to produce stories about it, you know, in the same way because that money needs to go to other more pressing things. And so if nobody has made this link in the past of these two subjects that seem really different in the media because there are more, you know, urgent things that are coming up like it makes total sense to me that they would remain separate for such a long time. Being in a position where you’re able to ask these questions and doing exactly what you’re doing right now, Nyge, which is like telling your story and talking and asking questions about like, are these things linked? Where are they the same? Where are they different? What can I do about it? Are we even able to get there? And like, here’s why I don’t trust the environmental movement. I think that’s like kind of one of the most important things you can do is like, tell your story and reckon publicly with some of these questions that it sounds like are not uncommon in your community in Richmond.
Nyge: Something that Georgia brought up is that even though the mainstream environmental movement has always been dominated by white people, there are a lot of activists of color who have been doing the work for a long time. I’m not the only one living in Richmond who’s thought about the refinery and its effects. Some people have actually worked to hold Chevron accountable for years and to really answer my question. How do we fight back? I needed to talk to somebody in that community, someone putting in the work to enact change. Someone who could help us feel like our hands weren’t tied anymore.
Isabella: My name is Isabella Zizi. I come from the northern Cheyenne, Arikara and Muskogee Creek Tribes, so my family is from Montana, North Dakota and Oklahoma.
Nyge: Isabella was born and raised in the Bay Area, specifically Richmond, where she noted is occupied territory of the Ohlone people, and she’s been involved with activism for years. She even went to the White House in 2015 for the Tribal Youth Council. She’s done more in her 27 years than a lot of people have accomplished in their full lifetimes of activism. So what brought her to doing the work of activism and land protection at such an early age?
Isabella: This is just something that I was born and raised into. It was like my mom and the elders in the Native community were the ones who really were like planting those seeds in me, and it was really just up to me to help it grow. When I started to get more focus on climate issues that started when I was in high school, when I graduated in 2012, like one month later, the Chevron Refinery had exploded. I remember I was standing in my living room, which was on the second floor, and our windows were looking like right in the direction of Chevron. And I immediately thought back to when we were in elementary school, where the teachers were teaching us how to shelter in place, you know, to hide underneath our desks, to hide in between the doorways for earthquake purposes. But then they also told us, if you smell anything weird or see any like black smoke, make sure you stay indoors. Being in that moment, just looking at like the black smoke being very like vulnerable and like helpless. It made me feel like I needed to do a lot more. I needed to find some kind of voice, some kind of action to be able to, like, take a step into initiative and be like, “‘You know, this is not OK. This is not acceptable.”
Nyge: Like many people in Richmond, Isabella and her family started dealing with headaches and lung problems after the explosion. She even had to go to the hospital.
Isabella: There was like an announcement on the news where Kaiser had opened up the doors and said anybody that was affected or is feeling side effects from the Chevron explosion, you know, come here and we’ll get you checked out.
Nyge: Meanwhile, the only thing that Chevron did in response to this was call a town hall, where they basically just focused on preventing lawsuits and keeping us from the truth about the explosion. It could have all been avoided if they had just been up to date on the maintenance of their equipment. It was always more about checking off boxes on a piece of paper rather than actually thinking of us as humans. When I realized this back in 2012, I remember feeling so hopeless, like we didn’t stand a chance from the beginning.
Isabella: When I was younger, I literally thought that everybody had a refinery in their backyard. You know, growing up in a low-income area like we would just travel by bus or travel by a car or just stay like in our neighborhood. And I could always see Chevron, even from school, from the playground, I could see Chevron. And so I’m like, “Oh, wow, everybody has this.” Not everybody smells sulfur, smells the rotten egg in their area, and more people have more privilege of having safer, cleaner and much nicer looking neighborhoods or sidewalks and parks.
Nyge: But instead of feeling hopeless at all this injustice, Isabella felt a fire light up inside of her. She wanted to fight back. So in 2014, as a teenager, she got involved with an organization called Idle No More, with them, Isabella helped organize something called refinery healing walks. She and her co-organizers walked 50 miles a year from refinery to refinery around the Bay Area. During these walks, she talked to people about the harm that Big Oil caused and how a better world was possible.
Isabella: We actually invited people to envision what a world would look like without the fossil fuel industry, without destruction or harm that’s being done to our Mother Earth, and how are we going to get there? People were inspired through these walks, inspired to envision like, what a healthy future is, and I think that’s what’s most important. Like, as much as we can like, have this haze or have this anger toward these industries, it’s very important to come in a place out of love and thoughtfulness and peace in remembering that we are all human beings. You know, just because the people who are CEOs of these big industries are doing bad things doesn’t mean that at some point in their life, they didn’t have a much more beautiful thought of what their life would be like. You know, if you think about like children, if you’re asking children, “what kind of job do you want? I want to be an astronaut, an engineer, a firefighter. You never would think I want to be a CEO of a refinery.”
Nyge: Something I really wanted to get from this conversation is what do the young people of Richmond do with this helplessness that they feel in regards to their environment? Because that’s why I feel like I hit a brick wall every time that I talk about this topic.
Isabella: I know a lot of younger folks are more connected and tuned in through social media. If you’re able to even just like find a hashtag like climate solutions or climate strikes, there’s almost an action every single week or every single month that is always nonviolent. That is very safe for your family, even little kids to show up to. I’ve been able to find such a beautiful community in the climate justice world, where people are so inviting, so knowledgeable and always like so interested in especially getting younger people to get more involved. Like, there’s an amazing youth group called Youth vs. Apocalypse. I’m telling you now Youth vs. Apocalypse is like one of my favorite organizations to support.
Nyge: Hearing Isabella speak made me feel like people were starting to care on a more national level about pollution, and that the more that they care, the more power we have to force these companies to change.
Isabella: So we’re making this happen. Young people are out there, were inspiring. There’s a way for us to get active, and I really feel like this is like our time to shine. Because if you think about it, our elders like their time is coming up, they are getting older, they’re not going to get any younger. They have lots of activism, experience, lots of stories that they can share with us. Absorb all of that information and pass it on to the next generation. Like it just all takes like a little seed planting here and there, you know, and then the person just has to water it.
Nyge: Ever since I’ve learned a little bit more about environmental justice in the past couple of years, honestly, I’ve been angry. I’ve been angry about people not being held accountable for all the lives lost that were preventable. About my life being deemed by major organizations as disposable and about feeling helpless to all of this. But as I’ve talked to friends, I’ve learned that I’m not hopeless. As I’ve spoken to family, I’ve learned that there isn’t a price or a punishment that you can put on life. And as I’ve spoken to community leaders enacting change, I’ve seen our lives are anything but disposable. While anger has its place in any movement, I realized that mine was preventing me from talking about the refinery at all, getting my anger off of my chest. I was able to break out of the loneliness that this injustice made me feel. I hope people really understand the suffering that’s happening here in Richmond, it doesn’t have to continue. We deserve to be cared for. We deserve clean water, air and soil, and frankly, we just deserve better. And if we work together, I know it can happen.
Nyge: Adult ISH is produced by YR Media, a national network of young artists and journalists creating content for this generation. We’re produced by Georgia Wright, Dominique French and me, ya boy, Nyge Turner. Thank you to our Executive Producer, Rebecca Martin. The young people at YR who contributed art and music for this episode. Our intern, Tamara Sanchez, and special thanks to Maria Bernal at the Richmond Pulse. If you haven’t reviewed our show on Apple Podcasts yet, make sure you do. However many stars you think, hopefully five, or else if you’re feeling some other numbers, you know we really need them. You can follow us on all the socials at @YRadultish or personally on Twitter, @nygelt, Georgia at @georgiafrets and Dom at @introtofrench. And if you want to hear more Adult ISH, head over to our website at adultishpodcast.com. There you can also find some more resources on how to get involved in environmental justice work. We’re also proud to be members of Radiotopia by PRX, an independent listener supported collective of some of the most hardworking shows in all of podcasting. Find them at Radiotopia.fm. See you next week. This has been amazing. Thank you all for taking this ride with us. We out.