Exposing disparities in California wildfire disaster relief with CAUSE

February 21, 2019

When the Thomas fire broke out in Southern California in December 2017, most media coverage focused on the impacts to wealthy landowners and business owners–largely ignoring the thousands of farmworkers laboring outside without protection and without an economic safety net.

The Central Coast Alliance United for a Sustainable Economy (CAUSE)–a community-based organization that focuses on workers’ rights and environmental justice–quickly organized to assist farmworkers by setting up a disaster relief fund, distributing face masks and translating emergency and evacuation alerts into Spanish.

Resource Media started working with CAUSE when the Thomas Fire broke out, and then again in November 2018 when the Woolsey Fire erupted outside of Los Angeles, to help advocates shed light on the fires’ impacts on undocumented migrant workers and their lack of access to federal disaster relief funds.

We recently caught up with our team who worked with CAUSE–Marla Wilson, Refugio Mata and Jorge Amaro–to learn more about this project. This blog is one of a series we’ve begun to highlight work supported through Resource Media’s pro-bono program, through which we support organizations working for justice in historically marginalized communities.

What is the problem that CAUSE was working to address?

Marla: Many of the people impacted by the Thomas and Woolsey fires were undocumented farmworkers or domestic workers cleaning homes and caring for kids and elders. These workers are ineligible for federal disaster relief funds and were essentially overlooked in the hustle of helping people rebuild. These workers, who make up the backbone of California’s economy, are basically unseen and unappreciated. CAUSE is working to change that, working closely with their coalition partners, including the Mixteco/Indigenous Community Organizing Project—MICOP.

What was Resource Media’s role on the project?

Jorge: CAUSE had launched the 805 UndocuFund to raise money to help workers who had lost wages, homes, and had medical expenses due to the fires. Our role was to help further raise awareness about this fund and put the spotlight on the need for state funding to reach undocumented workers impacted by the fires, and share their stories. At the time we started, CAUSE had already helped over 900 families impacted by the Thomas fire and subsequent mudslides and had given out $1.4 million. Their goal was to help 1,300 families in all.

What stood out for you the most about this project?

Marla: For me, it was helping CAUSE place an op-ed co-authored by their Executive Director, Maricela Morales and Christy Lubin, Director of the Graton Day Labor Center, which was published in Capitol Weekly. This op-ed advanced the idea that disaster relief should include everyone in California. They had good timing with the piece because that same week, Gov. Gavin Newsom had just released new proposals for disaster relief spending. We were able to insert this issue into the debate at the right time.

Refugio: For me, it was interviewing farmworkers and sharing their stories. What really came through in the interviews was how the community came together in a time of crisis. There was one person who said they were hosting a family in their home, then they had to evacuate and be hosted themselves. Everybody was affected — no one was in a better position than the other. People did what they could to help each other, even when they were in the path of danger. Being able to do your part to lift up and tell those stories in a more public forum was so rewarding and I was glad to see one of their stories profiled in the op-ed in Capitol Weekly.

We wanted to elevate that spirit of resilience and loving community in the support we provided CAUSE — that’s why we worked with a local artist Elisa Torres to create an image (see header image above) that we could promote online, using ads that reached nearly 120,000 people

What’s next?

Jorge: Every time we have these fires, we are faced with the same problems. Let’s talk about the root of the problem as to why these people are excluded. The solution that we seek is more likely to come from the state level and with the new Governor. We hope he considers this as he works on the new budget.

Marla: We need to have an approach to disaster response that includes folks who are already on the front lines of climate change and those that are asked to work when conditions are unsafe and are risking their lives in some cases. California brags a lot nationally and globally about its climate change credentials. We can’t continue to brag about our progress if we leave a significant portion of the community behind.

Refugio: There is an ongoing inability of undocumented workers to access federal aid, so there is a role the state can play in having a stable source of funding. Organizations like CAUSE help fill the gaps, but the need is so much greater than what they can cover on their own.

The Equity Impact Program at Resource Media

Resource Media dedicates two percent of all our revenue to working pro-bono with groups working in diverse and marginalized communities in support of their goals and priorities. In addition to CAUSE, other organizations we’ve worked with pro-bono include Girl Ventures, Color of Change, The People’s Institute, Presente, NW Immigrant Rights Project, Restore Oakland, Downtown Emergency Services Center (DESC), and Rural Empowerment Association for Community Help (REACH). For more information please email us at info@resource-media.org.