Rosanna Esparza parks her Prius in a sea of pickups. Across the street a makeshift flagpole has been erected in a truck bed to hoist Old Glory above the palm trees. We’re in Taft, California; a town built on one of the largest oil fields in the country. It’s a fitting place for the local petroleum industry to hold an “appreciation rally” for itself.
At the front door of an auditorium inside the walled compound of the Taft Fort a few police officers question us. “We’re here to show our appreciation,” Rosanna says. They wave us through. The truth is though, we’re impostors. We are not here to applaud.
As a community organizer for Clean Water Action, Rosanna is the lone staff member outposted here in Kern County, which ranks first in the state for oil production and second for agriculture. To be any kind of an environmental organizer in this territory is brave.
As an environmental journalist I meet a lot of environmental organizers – it’s par for the course. But Rosanna is not like any I’ve come across before. She’s Latina, 59, from the Los Angeles area, and new to environmental organizing. In fact, she first came to Kern County to do ethnographic research for a PhD in gerontology.
She decided to stay because she saw a community in deep need of healing and she thought her expertise could help make a difference. She joined a church, started taking her dog, Mr. Luna, along with her to read to elementary school kids, and spends the bulk of her day challenging one of the most powerful industries in the world. She’s not the type to wield a bullhorn at the front of a protest, though. She’s more interested in making connections in the community than disrupting it. She won’t be unfurling any banners at this industry rally.
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