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Re'Anita Burns Looks Back on a Decade of Organizing in East Palo Alto
After Re'Anita Burns and other members of Youth United for Community Action helped shut down hazardous waste disposal company Romic Technologies, The Nation hailed their action as one of the top 10 youth activism victories of 2007. As 24-year-old Re'Anita enters a second decade of organizing in her community of color, she fights for tenants who need relief from illegal rent increases. She says she is not sure what changes the next ten years will bring to East Palo Alto, but she knows one thing for certain. She will never stop being a community organizer.
Growing up in East Palo Alto, 24-year-old Re'Anita Burns cannot remember a time when there was not a monster living her backyard. The monster was a hazardous waste disposal company, Romic Technologies, with billowing smokestacks that spewed foul-smelling chemicals into the low-income community of East Palo Alto. It was a monster that Re'Anita and other members of Youth United for Community Action (YUCA) helped to shut down. While most had labeled YUCA's goal an insurmountable challenge,The Nation hailed their victory over Romic as one of the top 10 youth activism victories of 2007.
Re'Anita joined YUCA, then a brand new internship program that placed young people into environmental justice programs, when she was just 14. When toxic waste handler Romic Technologies spilled four thousand gallons of chemicals into nearby wetlands, YUCA interns subjected the company's safety record to intense scrutiny and discovered a number of dangerous violations. In 1995, Rodrigo Cruz was permanently brain damaged while cleaning chemical sludge, a job for which he was not properly trained. Another employee received second and third degree burns while welding one of the company’s tanks and Romic reportedly refused at first to call 911. Re'Anita recalls, "We couldn't believe what we we were finding out. There was a lot more going behind closed doors than what we were seeing and smelling in the air."
The cases of injured workers who did not receive appropriate medical attention at Romic inspired Re'Anita to pursue becoming a certified Emergency Medical Technician. After graduating from high school in 2003, she went on to college in southern California and continued working with YUCA. No longer a student intern, she became an educator in the program, teaching teenagers who showed up at YUCA's East Palo Alto office after school statistics, how to decipher the myriad acronyms used in political action, and the importance of networking with other local organizations. "YUCA is not a place to hang out," she says of the tiny office in a quiet neighborhood. "When you come to us, you might get tutoring help, but more likely you are going to learn how to make East Palo Alto a better place."
Now, entering a second decade of community organizing, Re'Anita fights in YUCA's battle for affordable, decent housing in East Palo Alto. Giant landlord Page Mill Properties went into receivership in 2009, which led to some long overdue changes fought for by YUCA members, including improved apartment complex maintenance. However, Page Mill raised rents in violation of the city's rent stabilization ordinance before its financial collapse. Re'Anita refuses to give up on the tenants who need relief, and is working to roll back rents in Page Mill apartments. While she is not sure what changes a new decade will bring to East Palo Alto, she knows one thing for certain. She will never stop being a community organizer.