Monday, September 9, 2013

The Insider: Margaret Gordon, A Leader in Environmental Justice

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In 2010 our latest Insider, Margaret Gordon, was honored with a Purpose Award that honors individuals over the age of 60 who are changing the world.  As co-founder and co-director of the West Oakland Environmental Indicators Project (WOEIP), a resident led, community-based environmental justice organization, Gordon has significantly contributed to improving the health and quality of life for residents in West Oakland, CA.

Her story begins as a young single mother who worked her way off of welfare to become a lifetime community activist., the website for the Purpose Prize, highlights Gordon’s inspiring story:
“Years ago, Margaret Gordon didn’t know about how grave the situation was in her Oakland neighborhood. All she knew was that she was sick. So were three of her grandchildren and one of her sons. Over time, she began to make the connection between the industrial nature of her surroundings – living next to the massive Port of Oakland – and the asthma that afflicted her and her family.

In 1992 she moved to West Oakland, where toxic fumes from ever-present diesel trucks and from a factory just blocks from her family home motivated her to get involved. In a big way. Since then, Gordon has gone from housekeeper to activist to mayor-appointed commissioner of the country’s fourth busiest container port.

Once an unseen, unheard resident of a poor, black neighborhood in the San Francisco Bay Area, Gordon has become a visible insider, someone who wields influence in the quest to improve the area’s environmental health and, ultimately, the health of its residents.”
In addition to the Purpose Award, she has also been selected as a White House Champion of Change and was featured in O Magazine for her work.

Our San Francisco Contributor Tokiwa Smith recently talked with Margaret to learn more about WOEIP and its impact in the community.

How did you get your start in environmental justice?

In 1999, reconstruction of a local freeway began. During the reconstruction process, workers hit the vinyl chloride plume and passed out immediately from the fumes. The community became concerned about the toxins in their community when they began to see the workers get sick. However, in spite of this and community concerns, reconstruction continued and the possible release of toxins was not addressed.

As a result, we (the residents) held a series of meetings about air quality, soil issues and other things that were making people ill.  In 2002, the Pacific Institute came to our community to educate residents about organizing and educating ourselves as well as the power of using indicators for campaigns. We prioritized 17 indicators (high priority items) for employment and environmental issues in West Oakland.

Please share a favorite success story from WOEIP.

WOEIP is the first long term environmental organization in West Oakland that uses research and data to impact change in our community. Among our successes are: the launch of the West Oakland Toxic Reduction Collaborative (WOTRC) in partnership with the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to reduce residents’ exposure to toxins from diesel truck pollution, land use, brown field hazardous waste sites and ports; getting a local ordinance passed that prevented trucks from driving through and parking in West Oakland to reduce toxic fumes; partnering with Intel and Common Sense Science to allow residents to collect air quality data using handheld devices; and being appointed to the Port of Oakland Commission in 2007. I was able to make incremental changes as a result of being on the commission and travel the world to learn more about air quality.

Why is it important for organizations like West Oakland Environmental Indicators Project to exist versus individuals like you working alone in environmental justice?

It is important to have an organization like WOEIP because you need a team in order to make it a more powerful process.  Having an organization like this allows you to collaborate and have more of a power base to interact with government agencies and bring other people to the table.  Here is the Environmental Justice Resource Guide for Communities and Decision Makers for those interested in doing environmental justice work:

Share more about the importance of having scientific data as part of a successful environmental justice campaign.

Many times when residents attend meetings to impact change in their communities, they go with an emotional plea.  Having scientific data puts you on a level playing field with city officials. You become equal to their staff because you have the same and sometimes more information. Officials have to change their deliverance to the community on issues in which the community has scientific data. It is also important to learn the same language as government agencies and business owners, so we have the same knowledge base.

What is your greatest career lesson?

Always be able to humble yourself.  Being humble and supportive, understanding when to hold up the banner and when to step back.  Don’t be so over analytical in your thinking and presentation.  Be true to the people and be fair and open.  Also no matter how busy you are with the work you are doing, be sure to make time in your schedule to spend with your family and friends.

To learn more about West Oakland Environmental Indicators Project, visit

Photo credit: Civic Ventures/Flickr

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