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The Fight to KEEP LA HOUSED over the Holidays: ‘Twas the season to extend emergency protections for tenants past December 31st in LA County

On the morning of December 16, leaders from Eastside Leads, ACCE, SAJE, and KEEP L.A Housed gathered at the Los Angeles Board of Supervisors meeting. They mobilized to call on elected officials to extend emergency protections for tenants. Many in attendance rescheduled shifts (which is not easy) with their employers to show up in person. Many struggled to secure childcare and be present at the meeting to give their testimonials as constituents.

During COVID, general public comment was itemized at the beginning of the agenda for all meetings. To the community’s surprise, general public comment was suddenly moved to the end of the agenda. The local media covering the story of tenant protections was stunned as well.

What started as a group of 100 or so community members and advocates, dwindled to 30 members by noon. Many had to go to work or leave to pick up kids from school. Organizers ordered food for those who stayed and were hungry.

Tenant leaders were already restless because certain supervisors refused for weeks to meet with them personally. One leader stood up and said, “We cannot wait! We don’t want residents to go homeless; if you don’t extend tenant protections, a lot of tenants will go homeless. We are your constituents, meet with us.”

“What do we want!” shouted another tenant community leader. A crowd made up of tenants shouted in response, “Extend emergency protections for tenants!”

“You are disrupting the meeting, please leave” said LA County Sheriffs at the meeting. Slowly folks were encircled by law enforcement and moved out of the room.

Outside, organizers wrapped up the day with members who were frustrated, waiting there since 7:00 in the morning.

Another tenant shared, “I know they say that they are tired of hearing that we need to extend tenant protections, but it’s the truth! This is the reality we live in! We need elected officials to support tenants! Locally and at the state level! People are losing a place to stay!”

For the rest of December, tenants called on all Los Angeles Board of Supervisors to support extending the emergency tenant protections. Their long-term goal is to organize for permanent protections that will prevent the increasing number of tenants losing housing.

After a round of meetings with elected officials, community groups returned to the LA Board of Supervisors meeting on December 20 to make public comment. A motion was made by Supervisor Holly Mitchell to extend the emergency tenant protections until January 31st, 2023.

Supervisor Hilda Solis added an amendment for a report back on January 31st for a possible extension until June 31st, 2023. The motion also included the creation of a $5 million relief program for “mom and pop” landlords who were, according to Solis, unable to collect rent when emergency tenant protections have been in place.

During public comment, tenants and organizers spoke at length. The community called on county supervisors to pass this motion.

Pamela Agustin from Eastside Leads and a tenant in County District 5 stressed the problems of the ERAP program that has left many tenants in limbo.

“I support the motion to extend for a 30-day report back to extend the extension for 6 more months. I have seen how these tenant protections that you have passed have been a lifeline for families — it’s given the ability for families to stay whole and avoid a family member from becoming houseless.”

Pamela Augustin adds, “We are also waiting on ERAP; over 179 tenants were helped by my organization, and they have not heard from the state.”

A tenant leader with Eastside Leads called on the board to champion more permanent protections. “We ask that tenant protections that end this December 31st be extended for 6 more months. It’s important we come up with permanent protections for tenants. There are thousands of families ending up in the street.”

Carla de Paz organizer with Community Power Collective said, “we are working in Lynwood to figure out how to implement more permanent protections, but a 1-month extension is not going to be enough time. Small cities like Lynwood are waiting to work with the board to get the tools they need to implement permanent protections.”

The LA County Board of Supervisors was moved by the power of these tenants and organizers. The motion passed!

For many this is an important win but it was made resoundingly clear that being okay with tenants losing housing cannot be normalized. Whether Sacramento or local governments across California want to hear it or not, people are suffering. We need action in 2023!

As Carla de Paz said in her public comment to the LA County Board of Supervisors, “the best way to fight homelessness is to keep people housed.”

Community members impacted directly by the ongoing housing crisis and the Keep LA Housed coalition will continue their advocacy this month and beyond.

They will continue to mobilize to ensure that the Los Angeles Board of Supervisors acts to protect tenants. Constituents are being evicted everyday in Los Angeles. Tenants will continue to struggle until we reimagine housing as universal human right.

Voices From the Holiday Strike Line

Leading up to the Thanksgiving holiday, academic workers and food service workers in Los Angeles went on strike for fair treatment and better wages. I visited the UCLA campus and joined the picket line to speak with UC academic worker organizers to hear their struggles. Later that week, I visited a Starbucks in the Cypress Park neighborhood of Los Angeles and spoke to Starbuck Workers United workers where they shared the conditions they are facing in their own workplace. The workers I met with talked about their fight for a living wage, and how winning a dignified wage will help them stay housed throughout the ongoing housing crisis. These workers spoke about fighting for better health benefits for themselves and for their families. They shared how their employers have encouraged them to sign up for public benefits, how their contract negotiations are being stalled, and how they are experiencing union busting tactics throughout this journey. My conversations made clear that the only way these workers will access justice is by walking the picket line and striking for what they deserve.

The following two accounts will be center the voice of the worker. The value of this approach is to allow the narrative to speak for itself – we must listen to and understand how they live, feel, and navigate their workplace. In many ways this borrows from the tradition of the testimonio (testimony) not in the legal sense, but in how it was used as an instrument of liberation and truth telling during the fight for liberation throughout the Americas. It is in these stories that you hear the protagonists at the center of the narrative: working people. When we talk about poverty and the impacts poverty has on health, housing, public benefits, and access to justice, we are talking about the struggle of workers. If we are committed to ending poverty, supporting the right to organize a union and protecting the right to strike is essential. These are the mightiest tools working people wield to fight injustice and systems that sustain poverty.

 

The Grinch that stole union contracts: Starbucks Workers United’s Red Cup Rebellion

Thursday, November 17. 2022 

“We’re here to show Starbucks that if there is no contract, there is no coffee. If we don’t get it, we shut it down,” said Cypress Park Starbucks barista Veronica Gonzalez through a megaphone as she walked the picket line with her co-workers. On the morning of November 17, baristas across Southern California successfully went on strike and closed 10 stores down. The same day, over 90 stores throughout the country closed as part of the national strike, the Red Cup Rebellion.  “Why today?” I asked the strikers. Starbucks Workers United (SWU) organizers shared that today is Starbucks Red Cup Day, when loyal customers anticipate the release of the company’s annual Holiday themed cup. “It’s like a collector craze customers look forward to,” shared a customer walking by to take a selfie and to show workers solidarity.

Veronica and her co-workers picketed along the entrance where several cars tried to enter but supportively drove away once learning of the strike. SWU strikers are asking corporate representatives to come to the negotiation table and work towards an agreement in their fight to end what they feel are union busting tactics. Veronica  shared that “we’ve already gone through the unionizing process. We have a union in our store that we won in August, and yet, we still have no contract. Starbucks refuses to bargain in good faith, so we are here to make ourselves heard.”

SWU says that the National Labor Relations Board has issued 39 official complaints and 900 alleged federal labor law violations in response to union busting violations. Veronica’s store is one of the busiest locations in Los Angeles. “They don’t care if they are overworking us, they don’t care if they are understaffing us. If the numbers look good to them [management], they’re content with that. So if that’s the case, there goes their numbers – sorry we’re closed on the busiest day.” Veronica told me that “not anyone can do what we do. People want to say this is an unskilled job, but we are skilled workers making struggle [sic] wages.” She shared that many workers have families and live locally in Cypress Park, an area that has experienced gentrification and lacks quality, affordable housing. Many workers with families are getting by only with public benefits. “They cut our labor so short, only to make their profit margin larger. They’re making us struggle, they’re scheduling people under 20 hours, gas is $7 dollars, you still have to pay for food or apply for food stamps to pay for rent, nothing is getting cheaper, it’s unlivable conditions [sic],” feels Veronica. SWU organizers shared that they are not anti-Starbucks, but they are fighting to be seen as partners not just in words, but in dignified action. “Let’s get this contract going!” shouted Veronica.

 

UC Academic Workers Strike for better pay and health benefits for their families – Tuesday, November 15, 2022

“Union busting is disgusting,” roared a crowd of over one hundred or so academic workers as they picketed the UCLA campus. It is day two of this historic strike, which began on November 15, 2022. The picketers marched with resolve and their signs read, “UAW ON STRIKE: UNFAIR LABOR PRACTICE.”

Around 48,000 academic workers across the University of California system are on strike as union leaders are asking the UC representatives to return to the negotiating table. UC officials are calling for a neutral mediator, while in several statements are claiming their offers to the union are reasonable. Workers leading negotiations shared with me that this is not enough. Their main demands are an increase in wages and expanded support to workers with families. On average, graduate students who tutor and labor as teacher assistants only earn around $24,000 annually. For academic worker organizers, this is about fighting for a living wage in the midst of unprecedented national inflation and an affordable housing crisis in California.

“All of us are student academic workers organizing. This is the time to take a stand,” said Stefany Mena who is an academic researcher in Psychology at UCLA. She argues the UC system incorrectly views them as part-time worker, while many average 60-hour work weeks. “We are severely rent burdened. Most of my salary goes back to rent for housing that the university owns.” Stefany says. Instead of being offered a raise, many academic workers are being encouraged to sign up for food stamps, she says. “During our orientation, they encourage us to sign up for public assistance… but U.C.’s shouldn’t be relying on these programs for workers to get by.” Some organizers have created mutual aid food programs to help fellow academic workers, she adds “these are amazing, but again, workers shouldn’t be struggling.” Strikers are also asking for free public transit passes. Stefany says that the rent is so high that they need transportation benefits. ” We are having to commute further and further away to find affordable rents.” Academic workers with dependents are also fighting to expand health coverage. “If you have children, it’s very difficult because it’s extremely expensive” she says.

The outcomes of this strike are still to be determined, but strikers here know that they will win what they are demanding. As they picket, they affirm, “if we don’t get it, shut it down!”

 

 

Organizing For Vendor Justice in California

On the last Friday night of September, Mariachi Plaza was bursting with beautiful music and enticing aromas. It’s always bustling on a weekend, but this night was different.

Hundreds of cheerful street vendors, advocates, and supporters were gathered to celebrate the signing of SB 972 by Governor Gavin Newsom, which modernized the California Retail Food Code to be inclusive of street vendors.

This moment was special for street vendors in California. They made history by organizing, mobilizing, and fighting for their rights. This is a victory that will be retold alongside other stories of social justice movements, like the Justice for Janitors campaign and the United Farm Workers movement.

As I walked along all the food stands, I connected with vendors, community organizers, and other leaders who led this fight. Many of these leaders participated in the creation of the statewide coalition that won SB 972, and many were the same community members I once worked alongside.

In 2018, I had the opportunity to organize with vendors in Boyle Heights and the San Fernando Valley. For years, street vendors had been fighting criminalization and harassment. As one of two organizers on the ground, we prioritized co-organizing demonstrations with vendors when they were attacked or swept by the city. The saying I heard on the frontline was: if they mess with one of us, they mess with all of us.

Si se meten con una hormiga se meten con el hormiguero. 

The fight for street vendors was a fight for dignity. The road to SB 972 was paved by vendors’ relentless organizing, participation in forums and city council meetings, and one-on-one conversations with leaders throughout the region. These vendors stirred up “good trouble” in the form of civil disobedience, flooding council members’ offices, taking-over streets, and demonstrating at police stations. These countless years of organizing are what got SB 972 across the finish line.

Before leaving Mariachi Plaza, I stopped and spoke with Caridad Vasquez, a seasoned vendor leader who has long been involved in this fight. We made plans to speak the following week to talk about the impact of SB 972 and what this bill would mean for her.

She told me, “finally, justice was done for all street vendors, we can finally make a living legally. For so long, politicians and critics said that a food permit would not be possible, but here we are!”

Caridad has been a street vendor for over 40 years and has been part of the street vendor justice movement since the early 2000’s, when the LA Street Vendor Campaign was just taking shape. She was rejoiceful and looking forward to the work her organization Vendedores en Acción (Vendors in Action) will be involved in the following months.

She says, “many of us are recovering from the pandemic, some of us are still unemployed, others are behind on rent, and people’s recovery from the pandemic means supporting sidewalk vending.”

Caridad stresses that we should support the street vendor movement and continue to ensure a just implementation takes shape.

“Messing with the local sidewalk vendors means messing with all of us – we can all play a part by stopping injustice when we see it happen, we have a duty to contact elected officials and demand they continue to support the working people of our communities.”

Caridad is correct. Many vendor leaders like her are preparing at this moment to ensure implementation of SB 972 is a just one. Across the state, from Oakland to San Bernardino vendors and community advocates are assembling. This is just the beginning of another chapter in the story of this movement.

Until then, we should stand by and be ready to join the fight because… si se meten con una hormiga se meten con el hormiguero.

2022 Garden Party Earl Johnson Equal Justice Award Tribute

In the past fourteen years, the Equal Justice awards have been presented to a wide array of national, state, and local leaders in the legal aid world — from former U. S. Attorney General Eric Holder to California Supreme Court Justice Cruz Reynoso to local leaders like Judge Terry Hatter and USC Law Professor Claire Pastore. This year, we finally realized we had been overlooking two legal aid stars in the Center’s own backyard. Those stars are the Center’s long-time Litigation Director Dick Rothschild and it’s veteran General Counsel, Robert Newman.

After graduating Magna Cum Laude from Yale University, Dick Rothschild attended USC Law school— graduating in 1975 where he was Order of the Coif, second highest GPA in his class and the Notes and Articles Editor of the Law Review. He then clerked for California Supreme Court Justice Stanley Mosk. With that outstanding resume, Dick was a top prospect for the largest, most prestigious law firms in town. But that was not what he wanted to do as a lawyer and in 1976, he chose instead to sign on as a staff Attorney at the Western Center. By 1984 he was elevated to be the Center’s Director of Litigation, the position he still occupies nearly four decades later. In that role, Dick not only manages the litigation staff and all the Center’s major cases, but frequently is personally involved as lead or co-counsel in those cases.

Meantime, Bob Newman earned both his undergraduate and law degrees at Yale , finishing in 1977 and moving to Los Angeles in 1979. The next few years Bob developed a successful practice representing individuals who had suffered at the hands of government. During that time he won several of multi-million dollar judgments for victims of police misconduct. In 1986, he brought that expertise in major litigation and class actions to the Western Center when he joined the staff as its General Counsel. Over the past three and a half decades, often teaming with other Western Center lawyers, he has successfully litigated scores of major class actions and test cases establishing new legal rights and improving the lives of hundreds of thousands of low income people. In addition, he shares his expertise and wisdom with other staff members when they face knotty problems in cases they are handling. While the rest of Western Center’s legal staff is unusually talented, they are even more productive and successful because the staff includes Bob and Dick with their deep reservoir of experience in complex litigation.

While this may be the first time Dick and Bob are receiving the Western Center’s Equal Justice Award, they have reputations in the legal aid and public interest community that range across the state and even nationally. This is evidenced by the many awards one or both of them have received from other organizations—among them the California Bar’s Loren Miller Award which Dick and Bob won in different years, the Lawyers’ Guild’s Robert Kenny Award which Bob received recently, and the National Legal Aid and Defender Association’s top award— the Kutak-Dodd Prize—which Dick earned a few years ago that goes to the outstanding legal aid lawyer in the country.

I am pleased, indeed honored, to add the Center’s Equal Justice Award to that list. It is especially meaningful for me because this time I have personally observed the contributions these two lawyers have made to the elusive goal of equal justice for all and to improving the lives of the poor and otherwise powerless. So I ask Dick Rothschild and Bob Newman to accept these Equal Justice Awards they have proven several times over that they have long deserved.

CA lawmakers consider ending disaster price-gouging protections as high prices squeeze Californians

In the last several years, California has experienced devastating wildfires, extreme drought, a deadly pandemic, and the worst methane leak in U.S. history, among other emergencies. Unfortunately, some California landlords see opportunity in disaster. For example, after the 2015 methane leak in Aliso Canyon, landlords charged victims up to $9000 for temporary shelter. After the 2017 North Bay fires, landlords increased rents for victims by up to 36%.

Disasters aren’t new for California, but against the state’s worsening housing crisis, the importance of accessible, stable housing after disaster is clear.

The passage of AB 2820 and AB 1919 in California was meant to stop blatantly predatory conduct after disaster and strengthen protections for victims of price gouging in emergencies. Now, a few years and natural disasters later, those protections are under attack via a bill currently moving through the state legislature, SB 1133 (Archuleta). SB 1133 will undo decades of price gouging protections for Californians at a time when the state is reeling from both natural and man-made disasters and gives a green light to unscrupulous landlords to prey upon victims of emergencies by increasing rents above the allowable 10% during declarations of emergency. California can’t afford for SB 1133 to become law.

SB 1133 seeks to eliminate housing from the anti-price gouging protections in Penal Code Section 396, which is a provision of law used by advocates across the state to prevent excessive rent increases for disaster victims. When I was a tenant attorney in Los Angeles, I once relied on those anti-price gouging protections for housing to prevent unjustified and excessive rent increases for a building full of elders after a corporate landlord purchased their building. When the building sold, the new owner quickly increased rents by over 60% for everyone there, many of whom were disabled elders and all of whom already spent between 30%-40% of their limited fixed incomes on rent. The rent increases would have forced them out of their homes — the only law that kept them housed was the anti-price gouging protections for housing in PC Section 396.

Proponents of SB 1133 claim that businesses are unfairly subject to unjust punishment because of PC Section 396. However, landlords who price gouge are hardly prosecuted under this section. For example, landlords increased rent by up to 36% after the 2017 North Bay fires, which scorched more than 200,000 acres of land and forced 90,000 people to evacuate their homes. Even though the Sonoma County District attorney’s office investigated over 220 complaints of price gouging, they only filed four criminal cases against the most egregious actors, and the Attorney General only filed one criminal case. Meanwhile, people were forced to live among the toxic smoke of their burnt homes because they couldn’t afford a home to rent. SB 1133 isn’t about addressing unjust prosecution; it’s about money and creating opportunity for profit, even when the opportunity is people in need of housing after they’ve lost theirs.

Additionally, the bill’s sponsor (the California Apartment Association, a landlord lobbying group) and author say SB 1133 is necessary to increase transparency for businesses that get confused about compliance during a declaration of emergency, even though businesses have resources available at the local and state levels to determine if a proclamation of emergency is in effect. SB 1133 is not about ensuring businesses are less “confused” about emergency proclamations – that’s already in the law.

We know surviving a disaster adversely impacts individuals and communities. Studies show that long after disaster, individuals experience post-traumatic stress due to housing loss, increased health conditions like stroke, heart disease, and lifelong chronic illnesses, and increased homelessness – all of which disproportionately impact people of color.  These individual impacts coalesce to impact whole communities.

The devastating community impact after the 2018 Camp Fire — the most destructive in California history — is still felt today. The Camp Fire displaced over 80% of Paradise’s population and destroyed 90% of housing. Consequently, people were forced into neighboring communities like Chico that didn’t have the capacity to house them. At that moment, some Chico landlords increased rents by 15%, creating an immoral bidding war among survivors who were sleeping in garages, tents, and shelters. Years after the Camp Fire, communities in Paradise and the surrounding areas have seen increased housing instability and homelessness. If passed, SB1133 would allow corporations and unscrupulous landlords to capitalize on the needs of people like those who survived the Camp Fire when they are trying to survive.

You might think a bill with this much impact would receive special consideration by legislators – particularly those representing districts with victims of past and future disaster. Not only was there very little discussion about the devastating yet highly predictable potential impacts of SB 1133, the bill also passed out of its legislative policy committee with a majority vote.

But the legislature is still in session, and there is time to stop the bill. SB 1133 is currently in the California Assembly’s Appropriations Committee awaiting an August hearing date, where we will demand elected representatives vote against greed and protect displaced Californians.

Help stop price gouging after disaster. Call your state legislator and demand a NO vote on SB 1133.

 

Up-to-date COVID-19 information

OVERVIEW

  • July emergency allotments for CalFresh food benefits will be issued August 14 (CalSAWS) and August 21 (CalWIN). June allotments issued July 17th (CalSAWS) and July 24th (CalWIN).
  • COVID-19 vaccines are free. Click here for more information.
  • Rapid COVID tests are also free, and can be shipped to you. Click here to order
  • Diagnostic testing for COVID-19 is covered at no cost for all Californians.
  • California’s eviction moratorium has ended, but you should still apply for rent relief if you need it! If you receive an eviction notice, do not ignore it. Seek local legal help right away.
  • California’s COVID-19 Rent Relief program can be accessed here, or call 833-430-2122.
  • Federal Child Tax Credit payments are not considered income for any family, and will not change receipt of public benefits.

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Food and Financial Security

  • Federal Child Tax Credit payments are not considered income for any family, and will not change receipt of public benefits, including unemployment insurance, Medicaid, SNAP, SSI, SSDI, TANF, WIC, Section 8, or Public Housing. Find out more about California’s Golden State Stimulus payments — if you qualify, and how to get it. También en español.
  • Restaurant delivery service is available for older Californians. Information and sign-up details for interested participants and restaurants are available here.
  • California households receiving SNAP food stamp benefits (CalFresh) can now purchase groceries online through a USDA pilot program.
  • Here is a Distance Learning Student Resource Guide from the California Department of Social Services. The guide includes information on free or low-cost internet, English language learning, adult education and workforce skills, video conferencing resources, and more.

Health Care

  • Keep your Medi-Cal contact information current. Make sure your county has your current address, phone number, and email address – especially if you moved since 2020. Later this year, counties will start contacting people to help them renew their Medi-Cal. If they cannot contact you, your Medi-Cal may end so you want to make sure they have your current information. Find your local county at this link.
  • COVID-19 vaccines are free. Click here for more information. All health plans must cover vaccine administration for free, and Medi-Cal covers vaccine administration for free.
  • Diagnostic testing for COVID-19 is covered at no cost for all Californians. You will need to go to a state testing site, one run by your county, or get a test at a medical provider that can enroll you in a special Medi-Cal program for people without insurance. You can contact your county public health departmentlocal clinic, and medical provider to receive information about your options for free testing.
  • There is a conflict between the California regulation governing health plans for COVID-19 diagnostic testing and federal testing requirements under the Families First Coronavirus Response Act and the CARES Act. This conflict in current law might result in a health plan billing you for testing. If this happens and you want assistance with reviewing the bill, please contact Helen Tran at htran[at]wclp.org or (213) 235-2638.
  • Everyone is encouraged to seek care if they are sick, regardless of income or immigration status. For more information about your right to health care, visit the Health Consumer Alliance’s COVID-19 information site.

Housing

  • Here is Western Center’s Know Your Rights toolkit for California tenants. Inquilinos de California: Conozca Sus Derechos.
  • California’s COVID-19 Rent Relief program helps eligible renters and landlords with unpaid/future rent and utility payments due to COVID-19, regardless of immigration status. Get info, check eligibility, and apply here, or call 833-430-2122.
  • The fact sheet below explains the current protections and financial assistance available to California renters and landlords. Versions are also available in SpanishChineseRussian, and Vietnamese.

(Click image below to access PDF – Español aqui – Tiếng việt ở đây – Русский здесь – 这里的中国人)

  • The Eviction Laws Database captures state, territorial, and local laws covering the eviction process — from pre-filing to post-judgment, as of January 1, 2021. The database was launched by the Legal Services Corporation (LSC) in partnership with the Center for Public Health Law Research, and consists of two datasets:
    • State/Territory Dataset – covers eviction laws, regulations, and court rules that were in effect as of January 1, 2021 in all 50 U.S. states, the District of Columbia, and eight U.S. territories
    • Local Dataset – covers eviction laws, including those at the county and local level, in 30 local jurisdictions in effect as of January 1, 2021

Additional Resources

 

 

 

 

The high costs of reproductive freedom 

At the beginning of May, a leaked draft of a Supreme Court opinion informed the public of the court’s position on overturning Roe v. Wade, the landmark case that has been used to protect the reproductive rights of birthing people across the country since the 1970s. Protests began to erupt throughout the nation as the fear of losing reproductive protections became real and the urgency of the situation more apparent.  

The chances of Roe v. Wade getting overturned became real for me on October 26, 2020, when the U.S. Senate confirmed Amy Coney Barrett to become a Supreme Court Justice. Justice Barret is clear about her political beliefs, specifically her position on Roe v. Wade. For decades, many states have pushed the Supreme Court to overturn this historic human rights case. With the addition of Justice Barrett to the bench, I knew the likelihood of the Supreme Court overturning Roe v. Wade increased exponentially. 

While Barrett’s confirmation was upsetting for many people, I found it terrifying. I am from Louisiana, a state well known for its conservative politics. I distinctly remember voting on a 2020 amendment that would add language to our constitution stating that the “right to abortion and the funding of abortion shall not be found in the Louisiana Constitution.” Much to my dismay (but not surprise), the amendment passed with 62% of the vote and is now part of the Louisiana Constitution. Legislation such as Louisiana’s amendment are referred to as “trigger laws”– laws that automatically ban abortion in the first and second trimesters if Roe v. Wade is overturned. As of today, 13 states have passed trigger laws. 

In response to the public’s concern and the growing fear of losing federal abortion protections, states like California strengthened protections for reproductive rights in their constitutions. California, specifically, is also reinforcing its ability to be a “safe haven” for those who come from states with trigger laws. Recent legislation in California is focused on expanding access to abortion and protecting individuals from legal liability if they travel to the state to get an abortion. Theoretically, that’s progress. Unfortunately, California residents often struggle with restricted access to abortion services, which presents a challenge. 40% of California counties don’t have a clinic offering abortion services, rendering them unaffordable and inaccessible for many.  

Given soaring gas and plane ticket prices, travel within and to a state like California is a luxury not equally accessible to every person, and consequently, the promise of California as a safe haven is only available to those who can afford it.  

It’s no shocker that like most bad policies, the overturn of Roe v. Wade will have a disproportionate impact on people living in poverty. Research shows that nearly half of those who have sought an abortion live below the poverty line. If they are residents of states that have restrictive access to reproductive services—such as only having one clinic in the whole state—people dealing with financial struggles often must consider additional factors when assessing their ability to travel to a reproductive health provider. These factors often include finding childcare, their ability (or inability) to take time away from work, and securing transportation. 

As we consider the future of reproductive rights post Roe v. Wade, it is crucial that people with lower incomes are explicitly considered and protected. That’s why Western Center continues to actively advocate for the maternal and reproductive rights of marginalized birthing people. 

Last year, Western Center worked alongside coalition partners to get SB 65 signed into law. SB 65 aims to improve data collection on race and economic-based factors that lead to higher rates of maternal and infant mortality in Black and Indigenous communities. It also creates a fund to support midwives and guarantees the option of obtaining a doula as a Medi-Cal benefit. While SB 65 does not address abortion, its passage expands reproductive protections for many Californians and reinforces the ability of birthing people to have agency in their reproductive journey. It also brought important dialogue to the forefront of the birthing rights conversation about the medical vulnerability of people existing in the intersection of non-whiteness and poverty. 

Bodily autonomy is a fundamental right that should not only be accessible to those who are better off financially. Until the reproductive rights of all people are protected, regardless of their economic status, we have work to do. 

Dalyn Smith is an intern at Western Center. She is a junior at the University of Southern California and is part of USC’s Agents of Change Program. 

 

Language Rights and the Quest to Preserve My Own Cantonese Language and Heritage (Part 2)

*Click here for part one.

Last week for Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month, I wrote part one of a blog post reflecting on the legacy and future of the Cantonese language and how government policies influence both its preservation and disappearance. It’s a fascinating history to me because much of the knowledge is now buried “in a world dominated by Mandarin.” Mandarin is often the sole Chinese language taught at our universities and public schools (perhaps with the exception of the San Francisco Unified School District) and is the language of most new Chinese immigrants.

According to Dr. Sik Lee Dennig who researches the Cantonese language in North America, the first mass immigration of people from China to the United States took place during the Gold Rush era starting in the late 1840s. Chinese immigrants came from Sunning (now more commonly known as Taishan), located in the Canton province. In 1854, there were about 3,400 Sunning Chinese in San Francisco and the next year, that number doubled to about 6,900. The population of Sunning Chinese reached 27,000 by the end of the 1870s. The early Sunning immigrants worked in mines and railroads, and those who lived in the city worked in shoe-making and dominated the laundry business.

It was during these decades when the Sunning Chinese population was growing that three landmark cases representing Chinese American litigants made their way to the Supreme Court. Although none of the cases describe the plaintiffs as Cantonese in origin or speaking Cantonese, the history of migration patterns at this time and the names of the individuals strongly indicate they were Cantonese.

Chy Lung, a woman arriving from Hong Kong to San Francisco, overturned a California law that prevented foreign passengers aboard ships from setting foot in California if state officials determined the person to be “lunatic, idiotic, deaf, blind, crippled, or infirm, or likely to become so, or is a convicted criminal, or a lewd or debauched woman.” Chy Lung v. Freeman, 92 U.S. 275 (1875). Chy Lung was the first Chinese litigant in a Supreme Court case.

Lee Yick and Wo Lee, laundry service owners in San Francisco who were denied permits for being Chinese, overturned a city ordinance that was race-neutral on its face but discriminatory in application as a violation of Equal Protection under the Fourteenth Amendment. Yick Wo v. Hopkins, 118 U.S. 356 (1886).

Wong Kim Ark, a son of Chinese immigrants from Taishan (Taishanese is a major variety of Cantonese), secured birthright citizenship under the Fourteenth Amendment. United States v. Wong Kim Ark, 169 U.S. 649 (1898).

According to Dr. Dennig, by the 1960s, about 40% of the Chinese in California were of Hoisan descent.  After China adopted the open-door policy in 1978, massive emigration from Hoisan resumed. In one study of the migration between the United States and South China, Taishanese outmigrants made up at least one-quarter of the number leaving Guangdong and almost 74% of them went to the United States. One estimate from the historian Mark Lai shows the number of Taishanese in the United States at around 430,000, or about 70% of the Chinese Americans in the United States in the 1980s.

During this time, in 1974, the Supreme Court decided Lau v. Nichols, 414 U.S. 563 (1974). Kinney Kinmon Lau, whose first language was Cantonese, along with 12 other Chinese American students brought bilingual instruction into our public schools and laid the groundwork of language access rights by establishing discrimination against limited-English proficient individuals as national origin discrimination in violation of Title VI.

To learn more about the Cantonese people in California’s history, Dr. Dennig recommends reading Gordon Chang’s Ghosts of Gold Mountain: The Epic Story of the Chinese Who Built the Transcontinental Railroad and the works of Genevieve Leung, a professor of Cantonese language at the University of San Francisco.

Wrapping up AAPI Heritage Month, I’m reminded that much of my advocacy for language rights and the rights of Californians to live free from poverty is personal. I’m never far removed from my own language struggles and the perseverance of the Cantonese people to live with dignity and power.

 

*This post contains contributions from Dr. Sik Lee Dennig, a former Cantonese instructor at Stanford University and founder of the Cantonese Alliance of North America, which is now offering courses for adult learners. Dr. Dennig was born and raised in Hong Kong and now resides in California.

 

Language Rights and the Quest to Preserve My Own Cantonese Language and Heritage (Part I)

During this year’s Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month, I am reflecting on my Cantonese heritage, the Cantonese language, and ways we can advocate for greater language access for less commonly spoken languages in California.* The Los Angeles Times recently featured Dr. Sik Lee Dennig, once the only Cantonese lecturer at Stanford University, and her quest to teach and preserve Cantonese “in a world dominated by Mandarin.”

Often in policy and data, Cantonese and Mandarin are conflated into one category —Chinese— for both written and spoken forms. But spoken, Mandarin and Cantonese are two distinctly different languages in tone and the pronunciation of words, though they share some (or arguably, many) written characters. (For lessons on speaking and writing Cantonese, visit HamBaangLaang.)

My first language was Cantonese. When I started elementary school, I was designated as Limited English Proficient (LEP). Over the years, I’ve lost most of my Cantonese fluency despite being surrounded by Cantonese culture in Los Angeles and the San Gabriel Valley. Some of the most popular parts of Chinese American culture are Cantonese in origin, such as dim sum (the Cantonese words literally translating to “so close to the heart”) and kung fu movies which were made in Cantonese in Hong Kong and influenced the development of hip hop in the 1970s.

Today, Cantonese is at risk of disappearing within two generations, largely due to China’s order to make Mandarin the official language of its government, school instruction, and news and publications. Hong Kong, the bastion of Cantonese where about 90 percent of people have Cantonese as a native language, is one of the main targets of this policy as the latest in the Chinese government’s litany of actions against Hong Kongers to suppress political speech and any dissent challenging the mainland government. Cantonese has become a language of rebellion used by many Hong Kongers—including pro-democracy protestors—to maintain their identity and freedom.

Government policy shapes the ways in which languages are preserved or eliminated. China’s recent action is one example. In the United States and California, we have attempted both. While English-only laws were struck down as unlawful, English remains the de facto language of our public and private institutions. We also have non-discrimination protections that require state- and federally-funded programs to provide meaningful access to people who speak limited English.

Still, these laws do not strictly mandate that government-funded programs provide the level of bilingual assistance needed by each person served. They instead require bilingual staff and translations only for non-English languages that meet a numerical threshold or concentration. Under the Dymally-Alatorre Bilingual Services Act, state agencies must provide bilingual services in languages that are spoken by a “substantial number” of people, defined as 5% or more of the people served by a local office or facility.

Under Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, federally funded programs are highly encouraged—not mandated—to translate materials into languages that are spoken by 5% of a population likely to be served, or 1,000 people, whichever is smaller. Moreover, to determine the mix of language services required—oral interpretation and written translation—Title VI guidance employs a four-factor totality of circumstances test to be applied on a case-by-case basis.

By relying on numerical thresholds and cost-benefit-need analyses, these laws exclude from our public programs languages that are spoken by hundreds of thousands of people. The consequences of such exclusion are even more pernicious and urgent. These laws create environments where it is difficult for people to meet basic needs by continuing to speak and write in their first, non-English languages. Second generations forgo learning and speaking their native language and that language disappears by the third generation. As advocates, we can be more aware and critical of how we interpret existing language access laws and their impact on driving lesser-spoken languages to endangerment or extinction within communities. These laws are meant to be inclusionary but end up being exclusionary.

For Cantonese in particular, California could be a sanctuary for the preservation and continuation of the language. We can continue to advocate for the distinction of Cantonese and Mandarin bilingual services in our public programs. We can also talk more about how Cantonese is deeply rooted in California history. In the early seminal civil rights cases, the litigants who were Chinese Americans spoke Cantonese and lived in California. (More on this next week.)

Many are now part of the movement to preserve Cantonese. Since leaving Stanford following the university’s decision to reduce the number of Cantonese course offerings, Dr. Dennig is now devoting her time to building the Cantonese Alliance of North America, a non-profit to connect Cantonese instructors, learners, and organizations to preserve and nourish Cantonese as a heritage language.

As for me, I start Cantonese class next month.

*As used here, Cantonese is an umbrella term encompassing the Chinese languages originating in the Pearl River Delta—the Guangdong (Canton) and Guangxi provinces—encompassing the language varieties of Hong Kong Cantonese, Guangzhou Cantonese, and Taishanese.

Read Part 2 of this post here.

CA must stop forcing elders & people with disabilities to pay more for health care than everyone else

$600 a month. Imagine living on that in an expensive state like California. That’s exactly what the state requires older adults and people with disabilities to do in exchange for health care through Medi-Cal. This year, the California Legislature and Governor Newsom must change that. Health care is one of the most expensive basic needs in our society — any commitment by state leaders to address inequality must include health care.

AB 1900 by Assembly member Arambula and co-author Assembly member Wood, which Western Center is co-sponsoring with Justice in Aging, Bet Tzedek Legal Services, Disability Rights California, Senior & Disability Action, and California Advocates for Nursing Home Reform, will address the problem by increasing the amount of monthly income older adults and people with disabilities can keep for basic needs.

Currently, elders and people with disabilities with incomes below $1,564 a month qualify for free Medi-Cal. But low-income older adults and people with disabilities who are just a $1 over the limit are required to pay over $900 of their monthly income as a share-of-cost.

The share-of-cost works like a health insurance deductible, but resets on a monthly basis. This Medi-Cal program establishes a monthly amount that older adults and people with disabilities are allowed to keep to meet their basic needs, called the maintenance need income level. The rest of their income must go toward health care expenses. The maintenance need income level of $600 hasn’t been changed since 1989, even though it is nearly impossible for anyone in California to live on $600 a month now.

By increasing the amount of monthly income older adults and people with disabilities can keep for their basic needs — up to 138% of the federal poverty level (the Medi-Cal income level for nearly all adults), AB 1900 ensures that older adults and people with disabilities don’t have to wait another 30+ years for an adjustment since the federal poverty level is updated every year.

Most people with low incomes receive their health care for free or pay up to 8.5% of their income on health care coverage. It is unfair that older adults and people with disabilities are the only population forced to pay over 60% of their income to obtain essential health care. The current policy forces aging adults, people with disabilities and their families to make impossible choices between health care, paying rent, and affording food. When people cannot access needed Medi-Cal services they often end up hospitalized or institutionalized, or forced to rely on already stretched family members to provide unpaid care.

Ten other states have higher maintenance need income levels than California. It’s time to ditch the deductible and lead the nation in health care affordability. State leaders must fund AB 1900 in this year’s state budget.