Photo by Celeste Garcia
Frack-Free Butte County Campaigners with Food & Water Watch's Ella Teevan
By Ella Teevan
On the night of the California primary, I was glued to the news—not because of the presidential primary, but because of a local ballot measure. I wished I could have been at the election watch pizza party in Chico with the Yes on E folks, with whom I had become friends during our months of campaigning to ban fracking in Butte County. We’d called the TV stations. We’d called last-minute voters. Now all we could do was wait.
And then Ken Fleming of Frack-Free Butte County called. “Well, we’re 71% up,” he said, with an air of quiet certainty. “I think you can go ahead and tell the media we won.”
My heart was in my throat with excitement, even though he made our win sound inevitable. The people of Butte County had voted to ban fracking by a landslide bigger than any of us imagined.
Feel the sunburn
Four days earlier, I pulled up in Chico, Butte County’s largest town and home to a California State University campus. Blue “Yes on E” signs dotted the lawns. I stepped out of the car and into a solid wall of 102-degree dry heat. “No wonder folks here are so concerned about protecting their water,” I mused. “I’m thirsty already.”
Butte County is a three-hour drive from Food & Water Watch’s Oakland office where I’m based, in the Sierra foothills of Northern California. The area is known for growing almonds and walnuts, it’s fairly conservative, and it’s been the stage for an unexpected grassroots movement to ban fracking—a testing ground that offers clues about how to beat back Big Oil across the state.
That weekend, locals were talking to voters at Cal State Chico, an event I’d worked with them to plan. My head was full of last-minute questions. Had we planned enough for this last push? I batted these nagging concerns aside and set off for Yes on E’s table, clipboards in tow.
There with his blue Frack-Free t-shirt and a grin was Dave Garcia, former park ranger and local fracktivist extraordinaire. He’d brought his own clipboards. And the first lesson of my trip hit me on the head like a falling walnut: trust the locals. They’ve been campaigning here for a long time.
Going deep into the grassroots
At first, I didn’t know how to navigate my role as organizer in a group of campaign-seasoned, retired locals, when none of us had run a get-out-the-vote push before. In my role as a field organizer, I work with communities across the state, and each campaign is a little different: the strategy, the story of the campaign, and the type of support the local folks need. My job is to figure out how I can best bring Food & Water Watch’s resources and experience to help the community activists win.
As organizer, anything can get thrown into my job description. In Chico, I took tech support calls from folks bamboozled by our online phone banking software and pitched in wherever was needed. I also helped develop strategy for media and voter outreach, supported communications in the community and shared advice and training to help local campaigners work as effectively as possible in the rush leading up to election day.
I stayed four days in Chico before the election, eating locally grown berries and almond butter, and staying on a collectively owned farm with Chris Nelson, the local volunteer coordinator and my gracious host. It was hard work, but after a few decades as activists, the locals had learned it’s important to have some fun. Chris got more people to come to our phone-banking party by running into them on the town square and promising ice cream than any email I’ve ever sent.
As I made the three-hour trek back to Oakland, snug in my air-conditioned car, my last clouds of worry evaporated. “They’ve got it,” I told myself.
A win for California and the country
And they did. After getting the measure on the ballot two years ago, then having the fracking ban voted down by County supervisors and having to regroup this election cycle, Butte County banned fracking.
I’m proud of my contributions to this campaign, but this victory isn’t just mine, and it’s not just Butte County’s. With critical battles coming up in California—many of which Food & Water Watch is also working to win, from shutting down the Aliso Canyon gas storage plant in Porter Ranch to a showdown at the ballot in Monterey County this November—Butte County gave an undeniable boost to fracking battles everywhere. I can’t wait to dive into the next one.