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Enabling waterway access as a centerpiece for STEM education in underserved communities

San Joaquin County, California

Featured image for the project, Enabling waterway access as a centerpiece for STEM education in underserved communities

Photo by John Ciccarelli, Bureau of Land Management (via blmcalifornia on Flickr)


San Joaquin County, situated along the California Delta in Northern California’s Central Valley, is both a rapidly growing population center and a regional hub for agriculture and manufacturing. It is home to a large population of Latinx/Hispanic residents, many of whom are migrant workers. At the center of San Joaquin County is Stockton, named America’s most diverse city by US News in 2020. Stockton and San Joaquin County contain thousands of miles of waterways, but many residents, especially those living in poorer, more underserved communities, lack access to local waterways. 

One example of such a community is in Thornton, a census-designated midway between Stockton and Sacramento that contains a large proportion of migrants, many of whom are young. The San Joaquin Delta and Cosumnes River pass through Thornton, but the community has no clear access points. A second community, Taft Mosswood (a census-designated “island” surrounded by the city of Stockton), faces similar challenges; Walker Slough passes through the backyard of Taft Elementary School, yet students and community members cannot access the waterfront. Taft is in close proximity to industrial manufacturers and warehouses, and there are concerns of garbage and environmental contaminants in the water. For both Taft and Thornton, the currently inaccessible waterway represents untapped potential for community education and green space.

The Environmental Justice Coalition for Water (EJCW) is a California-wide coalition of organizations that aims to connect underserved communities to safe and accessible water resources. In San Joaquin County, community leaders from EJCW intend to partner with the Thriving Earth Exchange (TEX) and local scientists to revitalize waterways within residents’ communities, create access to those waterways, and design a K-12 educational curriculum focusing on environmental justice, ecology, and STEM careers.


The Project

This project focuses on waterways located at two specific sites in San Joaquin County: 1) Taft Elementary School, a public school in Stockton; and 2) Sartini Manor, a multi-family farm labor housing development in Thornton. The EJCW plans to partner with Mia Lehr & Associates and/or ReScape California, both of which are landscape architecture and urban design firms, to reimagine and revitalite waterway access in both communities. 

While the landscape engineering work is in progress, the EJCW will team up with community members and local educational experts from the San Joaquin County Office of Education (particularly its STEM program), Galt Union School District, and Stockton Unified School District, to develop a K-12 curriculum centered around the natural laboratory of the California Delta. The curriculum will focus on ecological science, environmental justice, and STEM careers, and it will be designed to engage not only students but the entire local community. The EJCW will collaborate with UC Berkeley’s Latinxs and the Environment Initiative to identify particular areas of scientific interest while developing the curriculum.

Though the EJCW team has had years of experience funding similar projects in the region through county, state, and federal grants, and several potential funding sources have been identified. EJCW has buy-in on this effort from the San Joaquin County Board of Supervisors, the Greater San Joaquin County Coordinating Committee, East San Joaquin Integrated Regional Water Management, state and federal congresspersons, and the Delta Protection Commission.

Upon completion of the project, the EJCW will have not only expanded educational and recreational opportunities for the two communities of focus, but will have created a template for similar waterway revitalization projects for underserved communities around the state. 



The timeline of the project will be constrained in large part by the availability of external funding and the workflow of the landscape architecture firm. Work can begin right away on sketching an architectural design and identifying detailed curriculum priorities.



  • July – Press release sent out on collaboration between EJCW and TEX
  • August – Launch Date 
  • December – EJCW met with UC Berkeley Latinxs and the Environment & Dr. Federico Castillo 


  • January-February – Meetings with collaborators 
  • March – Proposals submitted to Stockton Unified School District & County Office of Education for Taft & Thornton Migrant Education, respectively
  • March-December – Curriculum development with Latinxs and the Environment
                                      – Training with students


Implementation of project with Rescape and Dr. Federico Castillo 

Project Team

Community Leads

Leading the project from the community side are three members of the EJCW: Espe Vielma, Arlene Galindo, and Cynthia Lau. The EJCW team has extensive experience in activism focusing on water justice; the organization’s work spans a broad spectrum of advocacy, from tabling at the community level to partnerships with government leaders and initiatives. 

Espe Vielma is the Executive Director of the EJCW. Vielma will develop the strategic plan for promoting the project through traditional social media strategies. Vilema will direct the administration, financial and outreach aspects of this project. She will work directly with the scientist in the development of the community education component of the project. 

Arlene is the Native American and Tribal Consultant with the EJCW. Galindo will outreach to disadvantaged and underrepresented communities within the project area. She will develop a strategic community outreach program to educate and empower local residents to advocate on their own behalf with regard to environmental justice and social justice issues and the effects it has on health disparities in the community. 

Cynthia is the Operations Manager for the EJCW. She will assist with the administration, operation and implementation of initiatives developed by the Executive Director and Consultant on project evolution in the project area which meets the parameter of a disadvantaged and underrepresented community.


Scientific Partner

The EJCW community leaders will initially partner with Dr. Federico Castillo, an Environmental/Agricultural Economist with the UC Berkeley Latinxs and the Environment Initiative. Dr. Castillo will help craft a strategy for STEM curriculum development centered on waterway access in San Joaquin County. 

Curriculum development may necessitate drafting other scientists into the project, to lead a community-oriented project related to the waters of the California Delta. The Delta in Stockton could provide a willing scientist with a natural laboratory setting along with a reservoir of eager citizen participants interested in participating in a project to increase STEM knowledge in the community.


Community Science Fellow

Gabriel Lotto is managing the project as a Community Science Fellow through Thriving Earth Exchange.