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Isabella Zizi: Indigenous Environmental Justice

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Earlier this year, I received multiple emails from some colleagues to apply for Making Contact’s Spring Community Storytelling Fellowship. I was very intrigued by the title of the fellowship: Indigenous Solutions and Climate Crisis. I finally said to myself “Let’s take a look at what this is all about.”

At first I was hesitant to apply because I didn’t consider myself a storyteller. I felt that I didn’t have the background skills or wasn’t educated about radio and audio recordings. When I continued to read the overview, the application read “Applicants are Indigenous activists in Bay Area Indigenous-led movements that address the climate crisis and lead around a vision of respect for the earth and its peoples.” I thought, that’s me!

Within one week after applying, I received an email to participate in the first round of interviews. Applicants had to pitch a story. Since I live in Richmond, CA I wanted to bring up the August 6th 2012 Chevron refinery explosion and share a personal story about my experience that day. I also wanted to incorporate my inspiration in joining Idle No More SF Bay early 2014 to help organize Indigenous led refinery healing walks.

Meanwhile, as I waited to hear about my application I was in the final 2 weeks of helping to plan the April 2017 Refinery Healing walk. It was the first of our set of four this summer, and this year is the last of the four years Idle No More SF Bay has committed to organizing them.   On the afternoon before the April walk –from Pittsburg refineries (Koch Cardon) to Martinez refineries (Tesoro and Shell) and our neighborhoods between them — I received a phone call from Making Contact’s Executive Director Lisa Rudman. She applauded my work and announced that I was selected to be the 2017 Native-American/Indigenous fellow for the Community Storytelling Fellowship. I was absolutely in shock and so excited to get this opportunity.


Over the next weeks, Laura Flynn (one of Making Contact’s producers) and I started right away on the first draft of my story outline. I wanted to create a transitional story that captured the hardship of living in a refinery town and highlight the positive shift of what the refinery healing walks has done for community members like myself  in the East Bay.

At first, the process of being the fellow was a bit intimidating and overwhelming. I had to work around my work schedule, refinery healing walk organizing meetings, and monthly new moon ceremonies that I help coordinate with other women who signed on to the Indigenous Women of the Americas Defending Mother Earth treaty. When I signed onto this treaty in December 2015, I knew this was going to be something greater than I imagined.

We were reminded that hundreds of other indigenous women across the Americas are praying for a healthy and just transition for all of life on Mother Earth every month on the new moon. Locally, we have supported our Indigenous sisters on the equinox or solstice. For the Equinox, we supported Corrina Gould, our Ohlone sister, whose ancestors’ lands stretch in California from Vallejo down to Monterey. We had a West Berkeley Shellmound teach in about land preservation and sacred sites. For the summer solstice, we stood in the Oakland City Council meeting for one of the grandmothers of Idle No More SF Bay and treaty signer Patricia St. Onge to stand up for the American Indian Freedom of Religion Act. This treaty gives Indigenous women the long overdue right to be seen and uplifted of understanding the connectedness that we have to nature and respecting our Mother Earth. There was no doubt in my mind that I didn’t want to give up because I wanted to make sure that I did whatever I could to let my story be heard.


Laura had asked if I had the capacity to jot down some recording at my former home very near where the 2012 Chevron explosion happened. I hesitated at first, but I knew the story wouldn’t be the same if I didn’t go back there. Eventually I rode my bike to 6th and Ripley. I remember, where I was standing right outside my house with my family and neighbors, when we saw the the sun disappear by the black smoke. It brought back some intense memories for me. I was reliving that moment.  It was just what I needed for the story. I had shed some tears during my recording. This was healing for me emotionally, mentally, and spiritually. I overcame the fear and felt strengthened from that day forward. It was just what I needed for the story.

The second refinery healing walk from Martinez to Benicia (Valero refinery) was coming up on May 11th and this was crunch time. The pressure was on since I had to get most of my interviews, background sounds, and updates for the radio piece all in one day. Over the past three years of helping to organize the walks, I became one of the monitors. The monitor role is to make sure that all walkers stick together, don’t straggle, and to make sure that no one is getting dehydrated from walking so long. I managed to wear all of these hats and accomplish exactly what needed to be done. The next step was to go back and listen to all the recordings and see which ones would compliment each other.


I really appreciated meeting with Laura once a week. Not only did we get to build a sweet relationship together, but I enjoyed her work ethic. She encouraged me and gave  me helpful tips during this process. We managed to spend our time productively despite our busy schedules. What I found most interesting was that during this fellowship current local or global issues were occurring that related to my story. One week before the May walk, there was a flaring from the Valero refinery due to a power outage. There was also an important meeting with the Bay Area Air Quality Management District to discuss putting caps on all refineries and other industries that are letting out high amounts of emissions. Each time I met with Laura it seemed like I had more news to tell her that tied in perfectly with the storytelling.

Now that I look back at the beginning stage of the fellowship up until now, I notice a big difference with how I incorporate sound like background noises in my recordings. This experience has taught me exactly what I wanted to learn about storytelling, audio, and recording. I walked in wanting to learn how to tell a story through sound since I am used to public speaking and journalism. When I speak in public, it is always straight from the heart and it makes me feel connected to the people who are listening in that moment. I started print journalism almost two years ago and it’s taught me the value of reading my feelings or exploring my creativity in writing. All of these opportunities expanded my way of thinking and using my imagination to share my passion around the environmental, social or Indigenous rights work. I am confident to say that I can call myself a storyteller thanks to the fellowship at Making Contact.

** Editor’s note:  Making Contact is grateful to The Christensen Fund for supporting the work of our two Bay Area indigenous fellows and as they say, “backing the stewards of biocultural diversity.”

See more about all our fellows, click below or

Community Storytelling Radio Fellowship

Author: Radio Project

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