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Out to Clean Up the World

Posted on 1/21/2014 by

News Article welcoming Katelyn Roedner to Catholic Charities.

By Alex Breitler  -  Record Staff Writer  -  January 13, 2014 12:00 AM

"No one can remain insensitive to the inequalities that persist in the world!"  -  Pope Francis

Katelyn Roedner didn't arrive in New Orleans until four years after Hurricane Katrina.  But in a way, the disaster was still unfolding.  She saw it in her students, some of whom had missed an entire year of school. She saw it in neighborhoods still waiting to be rebuilt.   And it taught her lessons that she carries with her today as the new head of the Catholic Charities Diocese of Stockton's Environmental Justice Project.

"The whole idea of environmental justice is that people who bear the brunt of environmental problems are the poor and the vulnerable," Roedner said. "Look at the people who couldn't leave New Orleans when Katrina was coming. It wasn't the suburbanites. It was the Lower Ninth Ward.

"Those were homes that couldn't really withstand that kind of weather in the first place, and they didn't have cars or access to reliable transit to get out."

While Stockton has not yet been faced with such a disaster, environmental inequities also exist here.  For example, federal data show the risk of contracting cancer from air pollution is generally higher in the city's poorer, more diverse neighborhoods. And not all residents have equal access to fresh fruits and vegetables.

While Roedner takes charge of the nearly eight-year-old Catholic environmental project, the 26-year-old is also among the newest and youngest members of a broader band of advocates who see opportunities for change in Stockton. Most visibly, the growing coalition has advocated for more compact, walkable neighborhoods and more downtown housing as part of a plan being written by the San Joaquin Council of Governments.

For aging slow-growth activists who have been in the trenches for decades, Roedner and her colleagues are much-needed fresh blood, said longtime advocate Randy Hatch.

"This whole effort has brought in a younger generation, one that is more comfortable with the whole idea of public transit, bicycle riding, alternative means of getting to work or school," Hatch said.

Born in Maine, Roedner studied international affairs in college before teaching algebra in New Orleans for two years. She went there with the Teach for America program, which sends educators into low-income communities across the country.  Roedner moved to San Joaquin County to be with her fiancé, and later heard about the Catholic Charities' environmental project as she studied for her master's degree in ethics at the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley.

Though not a Catholic, Roedner said she could see parallels between church teachings about respect for life, and the concept of environmental justice.  "All of creation is from God, just as we are," she said. "It's a gift, and it's something that I feel we're compelled as Christians, or whatever faith persuasion you choose, that we have this calling to care for God's creation."

Those are views she feels have been reinforced by Pope Francis' statements on caring for the poor and vulnerable.  With the support of Bishop Stephen Blaire, the diocese's environmental justice program started in 2005 under the care of Betsy Reifsnider, who retired last month. Stockton is said to be the only diocese with such a program. (The project is grant-funded and, since it is under Catholic Charities, is not subject to the diocese's financial troubles.)

"Katie is younger, she lives in the (Stockton) diocese and can really start focusing on bringing younger people into these issues, finding ways to connect with young adults and youth in the parishes," Reifsnider said. "And that is so great."

Roedner expects to spend about one-third of her time on outreach, one-third on advocacy work and one-third on the local planning process known as a "sustainable community strategy."  Her father is a city planner, so she feels at home debating zoning ordinances and delving into general plans.  Where some people might see boring bureaucracy, she sees the opportunity to make critically important, even "moral" decisions.

"These are things that say a lot about who we are as a community, and what we value," she said.