Pitzer’s Community Engagement Center, Robert Redford Conservancy, Keck Science, and CASA Pitzer collaborate in science and activism with students, faculty, and local partners
Imagine turning on a faucet and brown water coming out. This is what happened to residents of Adelanto, a city in the Mojave Desert with a population of 38,046 that includes a high proportion of immigrants and low-income community members. Residents wanted to know more about the origins and safety of their water, so a coalition of Pitzer College and community organizations has joined forces with residents to answer these questions.
How the project began
After hearing reports about the discolored, odd-tasting tap water, Adelanto Councilmember Stevevonna Evans contacted Pitzer Community Engagement Center (CEC) Director Tricia Morgan ’08 in fall 2021. At the CEC, Morgan connects Pitzer students and faculty with local organizations for community-based research and social change action.
Evans and Morgan met when they both belonged to a community organizing group in the high desert. When Adelanto adopted a resolution in 2020 that declared racism as a public health crisis, Morgan helped Evans find a Pitzer student to assist with Evans’ efforts to build diversity and inclusion in the city. Now, Evans sought support from Pitzer in forming a just water system in Adelanto.
Evans described how the northside, where many people of color and low-income residents live, has older infrastructure and has long had complaints about brown water that city officials dismissed. Additionally, Adelanto’s wells are near the George Air Force Base Superfund site, which has a high concentration of toxic chemicals.
“Before I got elected there was a report done and a budget set for $40 million to re-pipe Adelanto,” said Evans. “Six years later, nobody has started that project.”
A just water system equitably distributes water that people want to use and is retrieved from sources that are safe for people and Earth. Water justice relies on including impacted communities in decision-making processes.
Evans and Morgan soon found that the issue of water justice in Adelanto would attract Pitzer community members across science, environmentalism, and social justice. The result was the Adelanto Water Justice Coalition. That coalition included the Robert Redford Conservancy for Southern California Sustainability and Keck Science faculty, who incorporated testing the city’s water samples into their classes. As the research developed, Critical Action & Social Advocacy (CASA) Pitzer supported these efforts by conducting and translating interviews with Adelanto residents in conjunction with community partners.
Connecting the classroom with real-world issues
Jason Tor, the lab coordinator at Keck for his integrated biology and chemistry class with Professor Erin Jones and Professor Ethan Van Arnam, was looking for a project with a community partner. When Morgan informed him about Adelanto’s water issues, Tor invited Professor of Chemistry & Environmental Science Katie Purvis-Roberts to include her advanced chemistry class in this effort to connect learning and real-world problem solving.
Purvis-Roberts said that they wanted to show students that they can “use their analyses to do good in the world and help people.”
Tor added: “Stevevonna Zoomed in and talked to the students with a lot of passion and care for her community. They felt responsibility for the work. Each water sample came from a different home with a real address and a real family. Students cared a lot about their results.”
Other faculty and students also have joined the Adelanto Water Justice Coalition. Susan A. Phillips, professor of environmental analysis and director of the Robert Redford Conservancy, encouraged Pitzer student Ella Meyer ’23 to do her thesis project about the coalition’s work.
“This is in the Conservancy’s wheelhouse as a justice-oriented environmental project that involves water issues,” said Phillips. “It made sense to involve a student—and now the list of students is growing.”
Meyer started as a coordinator between Evans and Keck faculty, but her role grew as new partners joined the coalition—including Inland Coalition for Immigrant Justice (IC4IJ), Unidos por un Adelanto Mejor, and El Sol Neighborhood Educational Center. Soon Meyer was facilitating weekly meetings between many Pitzer- and Adelanto-based organizations as she collected water samples and compiled research and interviews for a community water report as part of her senior thesis.
“This is a collaborative, integrative effort,” said Meyer. “I feel inspired by how people have their own reasons for being a part of this project and bringing their own assets to the space.”
She added that “IC4IJ is good at assessing the political sphere and immigrant rights. El Sol consistently uplifts the community’s voices and has connected us with leaders in the area from Unidos por un Adelanto Mejor. CEC is good at managing different community relations. The Conservancy has a big environmental justice focus. Keck is science, and so on. The project harmoniously brought together these disciplines in a wonderful and impactful way.”
As a Robert Redford Conservancy fellow, Meyer will continue talks with city officials and work on a self-reporting mapping system for people to record water quality concerns. Meyer, who is an environmental analysis and critical global studies major, hopes to continue her research and advocacy in water justice abroad after she graduates.
The coalition’s results
The coalition released their community water report at the end of the summer with community testimonials and key findings about chemicals and microbial contaminants in the water and health indicators of exposure to environmental hazards. The report provides recommendations to the city, including subsidized filters, a community water board, and pollutant remediation.
This is only the beginning of their work according to Evans, who hopes “the precedent set by this coalition can transfer to other cities.”
Pitzer student Olivia Rosenberg-Chavez ’23, a double major in political studies and Spanish, partnered with Meyer to interview Spanish-speaking Adelanto community members and to translate the final report. Rosenberg-Chavez became involved through her internship at IC4IJ through CASA Pitzer, where she focused on the intersection of environmental justice and prison abolition.
“I have engaged not only as a student but as an organizer who is passionate about these issues,” said Rosenberg-Chavez. “I have thought critically on how to make sure this project is sustainable and community led and can continue to grow after my time at Pitzer.”
According to IC4IJ High Desert Organizer Eddie Torres, their work began with community interviews and shifted to advocacy and workshops for grassroots organizers. As the coalition formed, Torres and other members learned the importance of communication and a democratic process. For Torres, the coalition is another example of how the missions of IC4IJ and Pitzer align.
“Pitzer creates students who are community focused, infusing the academic to better the Inland Empire as a whole,” said Torres.
Evans admires Pitzer’s commitment to social responsibility and environmental justice.
“It’s definitely a school I would want to attend,” said Evans. “Anybody that’s looking for a college that will foster civic responsibility to surrounding communities, Pitzer is the place to go.”
Phillips noted that the centers and programs in the coalition have been doing excellent projects on their own, but their “work can cross-pollinate to create even more impactful outcomes and opportunities for students, faculty, community members, and municipalities.”
As for Pitzer’s involvement, Phillips said: “We’re taking the best of the Conservancy, CASA Pitzer, CEC, and Keck, and creating something unique. You’d be hard-pressed to find another liberal arts college that’s doing this.”
A short documentary on these efforts is being produced by students in Associate Professor of Media Studies Ruti Talmor’s Ecodocumentaries course—extending this partnership to include Intercollegiate Media Studies. A film screening will take place this December.