Interview with Bernice Gao

Bernice Gao is one Literacy for Environmental Justice’s (LEJ) top volunteers and has been a steady teen Candlestick Point Eco-steward for the past two years. She came to us from the Student Conservation Association. Bernice recently graduated from the Eco-steward program and began her academic career at San Francisco State majoring in Environmental Studies in Sustainability.
Bernice lives near the Palou Phelps Park and we sat down to chat with her at the park. Below is a Q&A about the park, illegal dumping, and her first-year experience at SFSU.

LEJ: What are your thoughts on the encroaching development planned for your local Palou Phelps Park?

Bernice: Violence to a community begins with neglect. More so than often, the neglect for the environment, ecological health and right to open green space occurs first in historic communities of color and low socioeconomic backgrounds such as Bayview Hunters Point. I do not support the current development planned for Palou Phelps Park as it does not reflect the needs of Bayview residents or of all people. I believe that the success of development should only be assessed by how well it serves the existing residents of a neighborhood and must fundamentally meet the needs of all people, not just those with money. A investment to Bayview should not be accompanied by displacement. I see this encroaching development at Palou Phelps Park as a gateway to furthered gentrification reflective of what has and is still happening in the Mission, a disinvestment to Bayview and an affirmation for yet more environmental degradation. Palou Phelps Park is public land, this means it belongs to the people.

LEJ: How can we create a community-based response to the illegal dumping impacts in or neighborhood?

Bernice: We can create a community-based response to the illegal dumping impacts in our neighborhood by through education and fostering a no dumping culture. Bayview residents are a population who are vulnerable to illegal dumping. To address this, I believe there needs education and awareness to meet residents. Understanding that illegal dumping is an issue in Bayview, how to recycle, compost, and trash, the importance of clean open space and the part that each person can have will contribute to fostering this culture. There is no tolerance for illegal dumping and I hope Bayview’s residents know that. People have the right to open and clean space. Thinking back to the ongoing marginalization experienced by Bayview residents, I think that ultimately, the issue of illegal dumping needs to addressed in a city wide initiative.

LEJ: What has been your experience in your first academic year at SFSU? How has your LEJ experience shaped you course of study?

Bernice: I embarked on my first semester at San Francisco State University as a Environmental Studies and Natural Resource Management major. I will have to preface the beginning of college experience by sharing that I would not be here today without the support from LEJ. LEJ helped me realize my passion for serving my community and supported me in developing leadership, technical and interpersonal skills for me to be where I am today. The first few weeks of college was among the most challenging. I felt alone and questioned if I was welcomed in this institution. I did not see the familiar faces from my neighborhood. At LEJ and in my Asian American Studies neighborhood, there was the opportunity and safe space to have the conversations on about what it means to be a student who is first generation, of color, from Bayview, and now in college. These conversations can be the most difficult to have. I have found them to be the most powerful and uplifting. Understanding the forces that have shaped my experience and the experiences of Bayview residents is very important to me.

While working for LEJ, I learned a lot about the inequitable allocation of resources in the city and the impact my service can have. I have always believed that everyone should have the opportunity to thrive in a clean, healthy and just environment. This is my stance.