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Pacific Institute Interviews Board Member and Purpose Prize Recipient Margaret Gordon

Community Strategies Co-Director Catalina Garzón writes a guest blog post about her long-time friend and environmental activist, Margaret Gordon. Click here to read the post on the Ella Baker Center for the Arts blog.

Inspiring Social Change and Redefining Retirement: An Interview with Margaret Gordon

Margaret Gordon celebrates her Purpose Prize with
and family at the Institute's Community
Strategies 15th Anniversary party in November 2010.

Margaret Gordon first moved to Oakland in 1992, and over the last 41 years has become an instrumental force in improving the health standards in her urban neighborhood of West Oakland. The tenacious and ever-smiling Gordon was recently awarded a Civic Ventures $100,000 Purpose Prize for her longstanding leadership on environmental health and justice issues surrounding the Port of Oakland.

When she first moved to Oakland, Gordon was a maid for a family whose work focused on environmental issues. “I read the books and the magazines on the environmental issues. I always thought that environmentalism was about kissing birds and saving whales; I didn’t have any idea it was also about saving human beings,” she said. Now, as one of West Oakland’s most influential environmental advocates, Gordon has dedicated the last decades to battling port and other industrial pollution in her low-income neighborhood.

Gordon first became involved in local environmental justice issues after the 1989 earthquake destroyed many freeways that cut through the West Oakland area. “[The city] was beginning the phases of how they were going to rebuild the routes and freeways,” Gordon recalled. “One of the first places construction started was in Oakland. PG&E workers would pass out on-site from inhaling toxic vinyl chloride fumes when they were rebuilding the freeways.”

Community members, including Gordon, approached the  Californian Department of Substance Toxic and Control  (DTSC) to see what they could do to fix the problem, but like in most other marginalized communities across the country, West Oakland’s environmental and health issues remained unheard, unseen, and unacknowledged by the public at that time. Now the site is an US/EPA superfund site.

“Being in West Oakland for the last 18 years, I’ve had one neighbor a year die from some form of cancer,” Gordon said. Engulfed by toxic pollution, West Oakland sits between three freeways and is home to the fourth busiest container port in the country. Children living in this area are hospitalized 12 times as much as children who come from suburban areas less than 10 miles away.

Gordon worked with the Pacific Institute’s Community Strategies for Sustainability and Justice Program to conduct research on the links between her community’s health issues and the industrial activity around the Port of Oakland. “We started getting into what were the root causes, why people were sick, why we had these high numbers,” said Gordon.

Through her research and advocacy, Gordon helped launch a community-based research project with the Pacific Institute that worked with local residents and organizations to protect the air quality of West Oakland and educate local community members on the health risks of diesel pollution. The West Oakland Environmental Indicators Project was a collaborative effort between the Pacific Institute, grassroots advocacy groups, and community residents to address the environmental discrimination West Oakland residents experienced and empower them to improve their communities. The Institute published reports and provided training and support to grassroots activists working to educate residents on taking action to become part of the decision-making processes that affect their communities.

Over the years, Gordon has worked with the West Oakland Asthma Coalition, the Prescott-Joseph Center for Community Enhancement, Project Choice, the “Ditching Dirty Diesel” Collaborative, and several other groups and coalitions committed to improving the environmental health and the health of the local residents in West Oakland. Her dedication to protect West Oakland’s air quality has led to the successful reduction of diesel fumes, an established plan to improve air quality at Oakland’s port, and establishing an information center at the port for truck drivers.

Her passion and commitment to these issues have earned her respect beyond her West Oakland community and have made her a key player on decisions that affect the health and environment of the area. In 2005, Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger appointed her to the Cabinet Level Goods Movement Working Group. Gordon also helped form the West Oakland Toxic Reduction Collaborative (WOTRC) with USEPA as key partner. In 2007, she became an at-large member of the California Air Resources Board’s Environmental Justice Advisory Committee, and she co-chairs the planning process for the Port of Oakland Maritime Air Quality Improvement Plan. She became the first West Oakland resident to serve as a Commissioner of the Port of Oakland and in 2008 was elected 2nd Vice President of the Board of Commissioners. Gordon recently became a member of the USEPA Clean Air Act Advisory, and to top it off, the Pacific Institute proudly welcomed her onto our organization’s board this year.

At 63, this bubbly powerhouse shows no signs of slowing down. When asked what she was going to do with her award money, Gordon said she was planning to take some college courses. That is an answer from someone committed to change and the betterment of her community. “I’m not a person from industry, a person from business, finance. I’m not a lawyer; I’m not a teacher. I’m not any of those things. I’m an activist, I’m an advocator.”

written by Paula Luu; photo by Pacific Institute  

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Measuring What Matters:
Neighborhood Research for Economic and Environmental Health and Justice in Richmond, North Richmond, and San Pablo
(also available en Español)

The Impacts of Sea-Level Rise on the California Coast

Taking a Toll – Pacific Institute and East Bay Alliance for a Sustainable Economy

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Deluged by Diesel: Health Solutions for West County

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Neighborhood Knowledge for Change: West Oakland Environmental Indicators Project

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