Young Fresno activist seeks to make clear the disparities in local air quality

1024 576 Nadine Ono

(Photos courtesy of Kieshaun White)

California Forward is committed to advancing policy intersections that create a more inclusive and sustainable California where all people can prosper. To move this forward, we must reimagine a state where we address the racial and geographic inequities that have been exacerbated by a public health and economic crisis, and we must answer the call to dismantle structural racism. The Voices of Shared Prosperity series amplifies the stories of Californians who are committing their time and talent to solutions that embrace equity, environmental sustainability, and economic opportunity.

At the age of 21, Kieshaun White is already a veteran environmental advocate. He started monitoring the air quality in Fresno at age 13. That’s when he learned there was a 25-year difference in the life expectancy between Fresno residents who live in the northern part of the city compared to those in his southwest neighborhood.

“Historically, the southwest side is a black and brown community,” White explained. “I got kind of upset because that’s unfair for people to have a lower life expectancy compared to the rest of the city and, not only that, but they also didn’t know about it.”

The disparity in the air quality just in the City of Fresno is indicative of a larger issue facing the state. According to the California Dream Index, the typical air quality in Fresno County was 54% worse than Marin County in 2019.

White was introduced to his mentor, Marcel Woodruff, through the Fresno Boys and Men of Color Program. Woodruff encouraged White to advocate for his community, which led White to create the Healthy Fresno Air Experiment.

“My passion at the time was science,” said White. “My mentor really saw that in me and really kind of used his way to not tell me but guide me to educate myself. He made me an active thinker at a young age and made me who I am today.”

White applied for and won a Pollination Project grant and used the money to buy a drone and a purple air quality monitor which allowed him to start testing the air around Fresno’s schools. He received another grant through the Youth Leadership Institute and partnered with the Fresno Unified School District to place air quality monitors in every school.

“A lot of people don’t know that Fresno is only run by two monitors by the air district (San Joaquin Air Quality Control District) and those monitors don’t support the southwest and the southeast part of Fresno,” added White. “We wanted to create something for us. And not only that, we also wanted to make it in real time.”

In addition to the monitors in Fresno’s schools, he has also placed them at the California State University at Fresno, where he has also had speaking engagements with their Sustainability Club.

White worked with Woodruff to create an app, where users can check the AQI in their area in real time. The app can provide parents and schools the information they need to decide whether it is safe or not to participate in outdoor activities.

To White, engaging his peers is key. “The way I connect with my youth is to make it personal. I say, ‘You live in this community. You walk and play in this community and just by doing those things. You’re actually making your life shorter,’ which is not fair at all.” He added, “When you live that way, you have no other choice but to care and listen and follow what I’m trying to do for them in the community.”

His work has caught the eyes of the local media, environmental groups such as the Sunrise Movement and he was invited to meet President Barack Obama through the My Brother’s Keeper program. He has also had conversations with other cities about his work.

For now, he is focusing on Fresno. “There are 115 square miles in Fresno. We’re trying to cover each square mile with a monitor, so Fresno can get the best representation in air quality.” But he added, “After that, the world is up for grabs in the monitoring game.”


Nadine Ono

All stories by: Nadine Ono