Heather Arata is currently a PhD candidate in the Department of City and Regional Planning.
Q: Where are you from?
A: I am from Stockton, CA, which is in the San Joaquin Central Valley. I have spent most of my life there. It is where I attended community college before transferring to UC Irvine to complete undergrad. Community college was the best choice for me because it made college affordable and really accessible. Being the first in my family to attend college, the idea of being able to live nearby and keep my job I had in high school made the transition to college pretty easy. While an undergrad, I benefited from State and Federal education programs such as Pell grants, Cal Grants, and Educational Opportunity Program (EOP), all of which contributed to making college affordable for low-income, first generation college students.
Q: What was your earlier education background?
A: I started college at San Joaquin Delta Community College in Stockton. I knew in my final year of high school, when people started talking about applying to college, that there was no way I could ever afford to go away to school. I never even considered college as a real option for myself until my friend’s dad, Dr. Cheng, suggested it to me. He asked where I was applying to college and no one had ever had that conversation with me before. This was the first time I started to think I could do this, but when I looked at the costs, I knew there was no way. I started working when I was 16 to earn my own money. My parents combined earnings were under $20k a year. When I looked at community college it just sounded too good to be true because they had financial aid that would cover fees and books. Spending my first two years there and transferring to UC Irvine meant I did my first half of college completely debt free, and had minimal student loans while at UCI. This was also helped by the fact my parents income allowed me to qualify for every type of student aid and fee waivers.
At UCI, I became involved in research with Dr. Schuster in sociology. I majored in sociology and worked as an assistant researcher on several of her studies. Dr. Schuster really mentored me and helped me navigate the whole college system. She was a major reason I ended up applying to graduate school. When I told her I wanted to apply to graduate school she just said something like, "Of course you do!" After UCI I completed two one-year Masters programs. The first was at UCI in social sciences with a focus on demographic and social analysis (DASA). My second was at University of Cambridge for an M. Phil in sociology. The program went by really fast. It was such a great experience. The faculty really expect a lot from everyone. Cambridge has a college system that builds in the social aspects of graduate school. Every Friday we would have dinner together as a college.
I left that program feeling confident to take on a PhD program. UC Berkeley was my first choice. I was lucky and received a fellowship for my first two years at Cal through the Halstead Fund. It allowed me to focus on school. Of course I used the time I didn’t spend teaching on getting involved with graduate student life, like lobbying and advocating for lowering the cost of attending a UC campus.
Q: What are you interested in beyond your research?
A: The general themes in my dissertation research are really what I am interested in working on in most aspects of my life; social justice and equality. I am really careful about what I spend time doing now. There are so many opportunities for programs and projects to work on. I am really careful to select ones I feel really strongly about. I want to continue working in the Central Valley on issues of social and environmental justice. I’m not sure what this work will look like in the future, if it will be academic research, policy work, or advocacy work, but it’s a place that doesn’t get the attention it deserves.
About the Kettleman City Research —
Q: How did you decide on your research topic at Berkeley?
A: I spent the first few years at Berkeley taking classes that felt really disconnected from what I was seeing around me at home in the SJ Valley. We spent a lot of time on urban areas, big cosmopolitan cities, capital accumulation and the like. I felt something different when I was home. Not all places aspire to be these large, financial capitals, and not all places are in these transitions to accumulating people and capital. I kept reading the local papers and following issues I now know as concentrated pollution. There was asthma, poisoned water, crime, and so many negative things just concentrated in the SJ Valley. I finally came across a body of literature in class that really spoke to me on environmental justice and health equity. I had been reading what was happening in Kettleman City around the spike in birth defects that was dismissed as “normal.” I just felt there was more going on there. I started looking into the history and the community organizing. I was lucky to connect with some community leaders who just welcomed me into their worlds. Bradley at Greenaction invited me to his office and I spent weeks going through his archives. He introduced me to Maricela who lives in Kettleman City. She invited me down there and gave me the tour of the place, and I just felt like I had to do anything I could to support their work.
Q: What are the most interesting aspects of your research?
A: I think the most interesting part of my research is how connected things are. I started looking at ground pollution, but then realized that it is connected to air and water, and everything else. It has been the residents and community organizers who have taught me the most about these issues because they understand it better than any academic researcher ever could. They live it every day.
Q: Can you describe the population you are working with in Kettleman City?
A: Kettleman City is primarily a low-income community. There are gas stations, fast food restaurants, and large distribution centers, not to mention the largest class I, hazardous landfill west of the Mississippi river. The people there are beyond friendly, welcoming, and accommodating. They are quick to answer my questions and help me understand their lives there. It’s a small place with only about 1,500 people, but that means they know everyone. It’s a really close community.
Q: How do you work with your subject group?
A: I spend a few days at a time in Kettleman meeting up with people and talking to them about what they have been working on or what is going on with them now.
Q: How will your research have a direct impact on the people of Kettleman City and what they're trying to accomplish there?
A: The community groups in Kettleman, and Environmental Justice groups across the state, have made tremendous strides in their efforts to reform government decision processes. Ideally my work will provide support for reforming these processes because long-term social change doesn’t come with the short-lived wins of legal battles. In some instances a lawsuit is the most appropriate action, but it is usually a last resort because legal wins cannot create the long term, systemic and structural changes needed to build power in the community. The real change comes when the systems, processes, and structures are altered to build power for the community. I’m hoping my work can assist what is already being done in Kettleman by showing the structural challenges facing the community, and help highlight the legacy of these challenges that remain today.