‘FENCELINES’ fights back in Richmond
Sometimes art speaks louder than petitions and public meetings.
The creators and partners in “FENCELINES: A Collective Monument to Resilience” believe their project can. The Richmond community-based art project is designed to amplify the voices of those who, for generations, have lived with the effects of pollution from the giant Chevron refinery in “fenceline” neighborhoods.
Co-creator Princess Robinson, who grew up in and works in a North Richmond fenceline community, met artist and architectural designer Graham L.P. during a beautification project at Wildcat Canyon. They became friends, and began brainstorming on an art project to generate awareness of the multiple health problems affecting the generations who have lived next door to the refinery.
“This gave me a way to express myself that was not through politics,” said Robinson.
In turn, Graham L.P. contacted friend and fellow artist Gita Khandagle, with whom he’d collaborated on a number of projects centered in Richmond. “He reached out two years ago, looking for a way for the fence [itself to become a way] for people in the community to share their voices and their stories,” Khandagle said.
Quickly, other community organizations began to come on board: Robinson’s employer Urban Tilth, Rich City Rides, Communities for a Better Environment (CBE), Asian Pacific Environmental Network (APEN) and Richmond Our Power Coalition, among others. Richmond LAND was also a major partner, tying the project to its organizational mission as a member-based organization led by women of color “dedicated to creating pathways for everyday people to organize, acquire, and co-steward land and properties as community assets to build staying power, now and for the future.”
“We didn’t think the project would get this big,” Robinson said. But it did.
The co-creators decided to use wooden slats, on which community members could write messages and/or paint images. “We were working on drawings that ‘crossed out’ the refinery,” said Khandagle, resulting in the “X” shape used for the slats.
“X is a shape of resistance,” said L.P. “Princess and her family made the first prototype, and we took the first portrait of them. That became the format.” He explained that the partners then created an info packet so that people could read about the project and its goals.
Beginning in summer 2022, the creators worked with Green Waste Recycle Yard & Millworks in North Richmond to produce the fence slats from local reclaimed urban timber. The slats were given to people during public workshops, and participants then used paint pens to create their messages and designs. “The colors are primarily reds, yellows, blues, black and white…this is a reference to many activist movements,” said Khandagle.
During the workshops, many of which were sponsored by the community partners, the materials were set out alongside the prompts: “What message do you have for the polluting industry here in Richmond?” and “What vision do you have for your community in the future?”
A quote by Robinson used in the packet reads: “We are here, we want to be seen, and we are lending our hand to make all of these initiatives work to end pollution of our communities.”
Katt Ramos, managing director of the Richmond Our Power Coalition (ROPC), noted that there was great enthusiasm for the project when it was brought to ROPC a year ago. By that point, the project had already received a first round of funding from the City of Richmond’s “Love Your Block” program, “and we saw it as a fun and creative way to advocate,” she said. More grants supporting the project eventually followed, including a Southern Exposure: 2021 Alternative Exposure Grant and a California Arts Council Impact Grant.
ROPC members hosted workshops, and “people came to the tables eager to participate,” said Robinson.
“I was constantly surprised and moved by what people contributed…how many folks spoke about what they were doing for self-care,” said L.P. “Messages were expressions of love, some including initials of all the family members, including deceased ones.”
Workshop sponsors also sent people to workshops at yet another partner in “FENCELINES”: the Richmond Art Center (RAC). “Graham, Gita and Princess proposed an exhibition here,” said RAC exhibitions director Roberto Martinez. “It was timely and appropriate. We want to use the power of art to engage conversations in the community.”
“FENCELINES” had now developed two components: the temporary installation that would go up on Earth Day, Saturday, April 22, at the Richmond Parkway Bay Trail between Gertrude and Vernon Avenues, in partnership with Richmond LAND, and an in-gallery exhibit opening at the RAC on April 5 and running through June 3.
“The temporary installation will bring color and life into a neighborhood shadowed by Chevron,” said Martinez. It will be publicly accessible from the community and visible to passers-by along the parkway. The installation will be in place for two weeks. Many of the project partners will also participate in the Earth Day ceremony and festivities.
The Earth Day installation of the slats will take place from 10am-4pm on the city-owned fence. At this time, ribbons will be attached to the tops of the slats, demonstrating to viewers the direction of the wind as it blows into the fenceline community from the refinery.
The RAC exhibit will contain some of the more than 1,000 slats that have been created, along with the photo portraits taken with them. Visitors will also have the opportunity to create their own slats. “These words and messages are the heart of this work, documenting the impact of the petroleum industry on many lives, and together forming a collective monument to resilience,” state RAC materials.
The center is also printing a life-sized mural of the portraits, said Martinez. Yet another gallery element will be a five-episode podcast based on a “listening project on environmental injustice” conducted by the Richmond Progressive Alliance.
A special “Spring Family Day” on Saturday, April 29 offers a chance for younger community members to participate. Called “Clean Air in the Wind,” kids and parents will be able to make slats together. One of Khandagle’s strongest impressions of the whole project has been “a lot of inspiration and powerful voices from the younger generation,” she said.
“All of this is so our kids can have a future that isn’t burdened with asthma and other respiratory illnesses,” said Ramos.
Will Chevron react to the installation and exhibit? Several of those interviewed expressed the hope they would spark dialogue with the refinery. “We all need to be at the table together, planning for the future,” said Robinson.
But Ramos said, noting that Chevron has proposals before the City of Richmond and Costa County County to expand the refinery facilities, “Chevron has made inflammatory statements about some of our members on their corporate media [in the past].”
In its March 15 posting about the exhibit, Chevron’s in-house media outlet, The Richmond Standard, made no mention of the project’s connection to the refinery, stating only that it is “a ‘community-based participatory art project’ centered on environmental injustice in Richmond.”
The “FENCELINES” co-creators and partners are looking to the future and focusing on the project’s potential impact.
“We hope it will spark curiosity in this issue, and encourage people wanting to learn more. We are all within this…it’s a Bay Area issue,” said Khandagle.
“Art has a beautiful way of conveying that we are not at opposite ends. We can express our hopes and dreams without pitting people against each other,” said Ramos.
“First of all, we hope it will bring visibility to the environmental racism of this circumstance, and the ways people can participate in changing it. And I hope they will think it is beautiful,” said L.P.
In fact, the “FENCELINES” projects are launching just at a time when a new UN report issues strong warnings about what will happen if the world’s countries refuse to take immediate action on climate change.
UN Secretary-General António Guterres, speaking to the press on March 20 about the Synthesis Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, included, among many other recommendations:
• Ceasing all licensing or funding of new oil and gas—consistent with the findings of the International Energy Agency.
• Stopping any expansion of existing oil and gas reserves.
• Shifting subsidies from fossil fuels to a just energy transition.
“This [project] is a milestone in this time as we speak about more formal attempts at transitioning away from the refinery,” said Ramos.