Looking into the smoke: Rapid response for immigrants during the California fires

On Wednesday morning, October 30, 2019, Blue Heart was able to connect with Christy Lubin 6 days after the Kincade fires first started ravaging Northern California. Christy had just evacuated to her mom’s house in Berkeley, from her house in Sebastopol where there was no power and no service. Christy helped draw out how fires are so much more than what you see on the news, with broad and tenacious implications for immigrants and low-wage workers. As the Director of the Graton Day Labor Center and co-founder of UndocuFund, she sheds light on the immigrant communities’ response to and needs in the midst of the climate crisis.

Lindley Mease (Blue Heart): Thank you so much for taking a call in the midst of the response to the Kincade fires. To start off, can you share the origin story of UndocuFund and what it looks like on the ground now?

Christy Lubin: So the UndocuFund is a partnership between three organizing organizations, the North Bay Organizing Project, the Graton Day Labor center, and North Bay Jobs with Justice. The North Bay Organizing Project started at the Graton Day Labor Center, and we’re a founding member of North Bay Jobs with Justice. So we share a common goal to build power for people — all of us in Sonoma County. Specifically, we work to build power among workers: lifting labor standards, wages, and labor rights. We founded UndocuFund because we saw the great need two years ago when people were not going to the shelters, were not eligible for FEMA, or were too afraid to apply to FEMA because it falls under the Department for Homeland Security. We pulled off this miraculous feat, in the period of about 6 months, $6.5 million which we granted out to 2,000 families.

We still haven’t figured out exactly what the need is going to be with the Kincade fires. If you watch the news you’ll see that a lot of what is burning are the 2–3-car garage type homes and wineries. But we know for every house or every winery where are gardeners and maids and farm workers. Hopefully we’re not going to see mass loss of housing but we do know people are incurring big expenses. Even more, poor people are stuck in shelters, eating whatever is being fed there. Those of us that have friends with homes, who have money to spend on meals out in Petaluma, are spared that. I have a salary that will get paid whether or not I’m at work this week. But most people are hourly workers. Unless you have a very open-minded, generous, compassionate employer, you’re not going to get paid. That can set you back a lot. You might not be able to pay rent on November 1st, you might not make your car payment or your cell phone payment, or be able to pay for your medication. Many of them don’t even have bank accounts. UndocuFund’s role is addressing the longer term need that people will have as they rebuild: lost pay, lost food, lost possessions.

About a year ago we pulled together about 60 families that we helped in the first fire and engaged them in a series of listening circles, led by immigrant leaders. We wanted to know people were at, and hear where we should take UndocuFund. Housing emerged as the biggest issue. Work and wages were also important, and then of course immigration and immigration enforcement. So organizing into the future, Jobs with Justice just got a big win in getting the minimum wage raised to $15/hr. It received a unanimous vote in Santa Rosa, which is just amazing and going to be huge for workers. A recent report called The State of Working Sonoma said that the people who are going to benefit most from an increase in wages are women 30 and up, and primarily women of color. So we are really excited about that.

So we’re really expanding the power of working people and poor people and immigrants. And working across all of these struggles that intersect in Sonoma County.

Lindley: The groups behind UndocuFund have been organizing in Sonoma for many years and are working across issues and peoples, understanding that fires aren’t just about response, but about long-term power-building. Can you share what resilience means to you all?

Christy: I work with day labors and domestic workers (mostly house cleaners), and these are the most resilient people I’ve ever met. When the Tubbs fire happened, with the trauma that happened — this was just one in a series of traumas. They are entrepreneurial and resilient. They come from rurual, Indigenous places. They’ve had to leave their home, their land, their families and live apart from loved ones; not being able to be a part of weddings, births, and deaths. I work a lot with domestic workers and these women will go at work at midnight as janitors and at 9am they are at a state-wide retreat for domestic workers, similing, and ready to take on the work of lifting up labor standards and working conditions. Not just for themselves, but for all the hundreds of thousands of domestic workers in this state. Resilience is that you can suffer exploitation and discrimination and get up and come to work, and work to gain rights for all people. When we gain rights, we aren’t just winning for immigrant workers, we are winning for all workers. For me that’s resilience: that you are working to move not just yourself forward, but all people.

Lindley: Well said! Can you talk more about the importance of self-determination and political power-building in the face of these fires and the fires that will come?

Christy: Big kudos to the North Bay Organizing Project because they’ve been organizing to get emergency signals and messages in Spanish. Now all emergency messaging is in English and Spanish and that’s because immigrant leaders went to all the different agencies to ensure those changes were made. That’s why no one is dead this time around. That happened in just two years, and is so different than the Tubbs fire in 2017. Yesterday, the daily news conference started out in Spanish! So it’s a culture shift too towards protecting the immigrant communities — both from ICE and to ensure inclusivity. It’s a major victory.

Lindley: That’s amazing! What a huge win. I’m curious to hear what you’ve been surprised by. What have you seen emerge you didn’t expect?

Christy: I’m usually the first on the ground, rolling up my sleeves and showing up immediately at the centers. But this time I couldn’t do that because my house was in the path of the fire and I had to pack up my family and figure out where we were going to go. So I’m helping a lot more strategically and logistically. I’ve been so amazed at how people have organized so quickly this time around. Everything has happened the first day of the fire, rather than 4–5 days in like before. I love that everyone got activated and knew what to do, fell into step to start working. That’s the beautiful thing about disasters — there is so much community and people take care of each other.

Lindley: That’s beautiful. We are seeing the same thing in the Bay, with people organically organizing in response to support those who are displaced. It’s exciting to imagine the infrastructure and community that we will be able to activate in the future. Can you share about your long-term vision and any demands that you have?

Christy: My dream — and I think the dreams of my partners — is to have a state-wide UndocuFund. We would bring a partner organization from each area. For example, when the Ventura fires started, we worked with CAUSE, which works with farm workers, to start an UndocuFund. A state-wide fund would be ready to respond in any moment, and would consist of organizing groups deeply rooted in their communities. All the processes would be streamlined. [look up op-ed she wrote with Maricela]

Lindley: Is there anything else you want to share about worker rights, immigration, and fires?

Christy: People need to take a deep look at how climate change impacts poor, working class communities. And especially what the secondary effects are. If you googled Hurricane Katrina or Harvey or Maria, and then saw the rise in wage theft, safety violations for low-wage workers who are the first line in the clean-up and rebuild. There is so much exploitation; of the people most affected by the disaster. And we saw the same thing up here with the fires. People were being bused in from San Jose and Oakland, and being sent out to clean up toxic ash without proper training or protective equipment. And so much wage theft. You have to look at all those secondary effects.

We have to look at the long-term impacts too. The land that is burning is the exact same land as burned two years ago, and it will burn again. Are we going to let people rebuild there? Or are we going to turn it into a nature preserve and let the land heal itself.

Lindley: Thank you so much for taking a moment to connect with us and share a perspective that is so often ignored or overlooked. I’m grateful for all the work you do.

To learn more about Blue Heart and become a sustaining member supporting organizations like UndocuFund, visit www.blueheartaction.org.

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