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Crosscurrents is our award-winning radio news magazine, broadcasting Mondays through Thursdays at 11 a.m. on 91.7 FM. We make joyful, informative stories that engage people across the economic, social, and cultural divides in our community. Listen to full episodes at kalw.org/crosscurrents

Training youth for green collar jobs

Two Eco-Apprentices working in the mud at Heron's Head Park in San Francisco.
Russ Aguilar
Two Eco-Apprentices working in the mud at Heron's Head Park in San Francisco.

This aired in the April 5, 2023 episode of Crosscurrents.

This story was made to be heard. If you are able, press the play button above to listen.

On a cool and sunny afternoon at the beginning of February, I meet a group of young adults getting dirty at Heron’s Head Park, on the shoreline of San Francisco’s Bayview-Hunters Point neighborhood. They’re a group of 18-24-year-olds. Some are from the neighborhood. Others are students at SF State and UC Berkeley.

These young folks are part of an organization called Literacy for Environmental Justice. It was founded in 1998, and is focused on promoting ecological health, environmental stewardship and community development in Southeast San Francisco.

Most of the people working here just call the organization “L.E.J.” or “LEJ.” Or maybe if things are going really well, “SLEJ” – that’s short for “Slay LEJ,” as I’m informed through laughter.

When you talk about environmental justice, it's all aspects of the environment, like the air, your surroundings, the water you drink and all that stuff.

When you talk about environmental justice, it's all aspects of the environment, like the air, your surroundings, the water you drink and all that stuff.

LEJ runs a native plant nursery, rents out garden plots to residents and trains young people in their Eco-Apprentice program. Today, they’re transplanting saltgrass – it’s a plant native to this habitat. The idea is that the saltgrass and other native species will promote a healthy ecosystem here. With rising sea levels, the plants’ roots will help prevent erosion of the land. And aboveground, they’ll provide a habitat for waterfowl.

One of the Eco-Apprentices transplanting saltgrass is Alijah Mestayer-Orallo. He was born and raised in San Francisco, and says he came to L.E.J after working with other programs aimed at righting historical wrongs. He sees his time here as an extension of that work.

I wanted to work with the environment,” he says, “and I know that this neighborhood is like, you know, it's a POC neighborhood that has had a lot of injustices that also have to do with the environment. Because everything really overlaps.”


The history of environmental racism in the Bayview goes back a long way. In 1939 the U.S. Navy purchased the shipyard at Hunters Point, and Black workers flocked to the city in search of jobs repairing and maintaining ships for World War II.

And with redlining at play, many of those migrants settled in the area around the shipyard. Meanwhile the Navy used the site to test and dispose of radioactive material. After the navy closed the shipyard, the area was so hazardous, the EPA declared it a superfund site.

Dr. Hollis Pierce-Jenkins has been L.E.J.’s Executive Director for a little over a year. I met her outside the Eco Center at Heron’s Head. She says that the founding vision for Literacy for Environmental Justice came from the community itself. According to her, “the community felt that they had been abandoned and neglected and not heard.”

In addition to the former Navy shipyard, A lot of San Francisco’s heavy industry is concentrated in Bayview Hunters Point. There’s a PG&E plant that closed in 2006, a wastewater treatment plant, a recycling facility, bus depot, and concrete plants.

Because of these industries, the diesel truck traffic they bring, AND two nearby highways, the neighborhood is burdened by the highest pollution in the city. And residents don’t think it’s a coincidence that they also suffer the most asthma-related hospitalizations and visits to ERs of any area in San Francisco.

Dr. Pierce-Jenkins says, “there are a lot of advocates in the community that have been campaigning for years to have a space in Bayview very similar to the Presidio, having access to nature, to safe water, air and being able to fish.”

And those advocates maintain a strong presence. Dr. Pierce-Jenkins says they’re working with L.E.J, teaching the Eco-Apprentices to interrogate the reasons why this neighborhood is the way it is.

“Why is it there's a food desert in Bayview Hunters Point still?” she asks. “Where are the quality grocery stores? How are the environmental changes and climate change impacting our air?”


L.E.J’s training the Eco-Apprentices to find work in the green collar sector. Some of the apprentices are focused on urban greening, like today’s work with saltgrass. Others work on community programs, like guiding local high schoolers on kayaking trips and other excursions into nature.

They also get coached in basic job skills and skills more specific to the kind of work they’re looking for. That could be anything from using GPS to map the number of native plants in an area to conducting soil toxicology studies, like today.

The Eco-Apprentices are working with Community Programs Manager, Russ Aguilar, to take soil samples.

“The highest risk for exposure is probably going to be right along the trails,” says Aguilar. “So we should definitely collect at least one sample from the surface soils.”

We get down in the dirt and the Eco-Apprentices scoop topsoil into little bags. They mark the bags with GPS coordinates. Later they’ll send the samples to SF State for testing. Scientists there will look for traces of lead and other heavy metals harmful to human health.

One of the Eco-Apprentices gathering soil samples is Gabriel Sumayan Garcia. He connects this work to the conditions he grew up in.

So I was born in Philippines,” he says. “My family actually, literally our houses are next to a dump.”

Gabriel says that living next to a dump affected his health. So when he was nine years old, and his family moved to Novato, he thought things would get better.

Growing up, I had really bad asthma,” he says. “And then I moved here and I thought everything would be fine. But our house didn't have insulation, so we had black mold. And so my asthma got worse, I always got pneumonia and all that jazz. So my family has gone through a lot of hardships with just being low income and all that stuff.”

Gabriel’s experience is similar to the experiences of other folks in neighborhoods with environmental health problems.

Even if you have a house,” he says, “it could be not a good home because it's cold. And then cold leads to mold, and then mold leads to health adverse effects. And then your health isn't good, and then you can't access health care. Like, it all just intersects. Which is why I'm really interested in public health.

Last fall Gabriel graduated from UC Berkeley with a degree in public health and anthropology. He wants to address the environmental forces that affected his life and the lives of others like him. It’s what brought him to L.E.J.

“When you talk about environmental justice,” he says, “it's like all aspects of the environment. Like the air, your surroundings, water you drink and all that stuff. And it's cool, and also kind of scary that it intersects with every aspect of your life.”


Heron’s Head Park is not the Presidio. There, nature feels like the dominant force, and it’s easy to get lost in the trees. Here, a small spit of marshland is surrounded by the signs of past and ongoing heavy industry.

But it’s a piece of land that is vitally important to the natural world and the community that calls this neighborhood home. With the work of the young people I’ve met today, it can continue to serve both people and nature for years to come.

Crosscurrents CrosscurrentsClimate
Joshua Sirotiak is an environment reporter for KALW in San Francisco. He's a working musician, father and self-proclaimed nerd who has previously produced audio journalism for NBC News and Chicago Public Media.