Meet the venerable, no nonsense, Ms. Margaret Gordon, co-director of the West Oakland Environmental Indicators Project (WOEIP), a community-based and resident-led environmental justice organization. When it comes to fighting for health equity in her community, Gordon is unstoppable. She’s bold. She’s fearless. She’s pretty much a living legend.
West Oakland is classified as a “toxic hotspot,” which means that there is a significant amount of pollution exposing the population to elevated health risks. The statistics are staggering, and it’s no mystery that the diesel fuels used for transportation to the Port of Oakland and surrounding highways has been the primary culprit. According to the Pacific Institute, West Oakland produces 90 times more diesel emission particulates per square mile per day when compared to the state of California. Alameda County Vital Statistics found that an African American child born in West Oakland is expected to live 14 fewer years than a white child born in the more affluent Oakland Hills. The Sierra Club’s publication, “Advancing environmental justice in the Bay Area,” posted findings that there are three times more visits to the emergency room in children 5 and under than in the country as a whole.
Up until 2003, the voices of West Oakland residents were entirely absent from the Port Of Oakland’s governing process; 2003 being the year Gordan’s WOEIP launched.
“I was the first member of the impacted community in over 80 years to meet at a table with Port Of Oakland executives,” Gordon says proudly.
Since the launch of WOEIP, the Port Of Oakland has reduced its emissions by 70%. Ms. Gordon has been the principle catalyst.
It all began in 1992 when Gordon first moved to West Oakland. She was working in schools as a violence prevention counselor. One day in the nurse’s office, she noticed a shoebox full of inhalers.
“It made me think, wow, something’s very wrong with this picture. Asthma shouldn’t be this common.”
And so began Gordon’s journey as a champion of environmental justice, but first, she needed the data. It wasn’t enough for policymakers to hear the heart-wrenching testimonials from victims of cancer and lung disease. She needed cold, hard, facts. That’s when she partnered up with an environmental research team from UC Berkeley. Together they gathered copious data in air quality trends.
Now that Gordon was armed with accurate findings that proved the injustice her community faced, she was able to spur reform on a policy level.
“They couldn’t hide from the facts,” she says.
In 2006, Gordon was recognized by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency for her “work to improve local air quality.” The Alameda County Women’s Hall of Fame inducted her in 2007 for her leadership. The official White House website features her as a “Champion of Change.” Needless to say, Gordon’s tireless work as an advocate for environmental justice has made quite an impact. For West Oakland residents, the fruits of her labor are evident with each breath they take. She’s bold. She’s fearless. She’s a local hero.
Article and photo by Ayse Gursoz, (can be re-printed with permission)