Recap: Messages from Oregon’s Environmental Justice and Equity Leaders

1185323_10151878834540281_69011371_nBy Rob Nathan, Director of Digital Engagement, NW Earth Institute,     CoChair for Environmental Professionals of Color PDX, and a member of OEC’s Emerging Leaders Board


On November 5th, environmental leaders from across Oregon gathered at the new APANO (Asian Pacific American Network of Oregon) community space in SE Portland to attend OEC’s second installment of a three-part series on environmental justice (EJ). Andrea Durbin, OEC Executive Director, opened the evening with a message on why it is so important for organizations like OEC to listen and learn from environmental justice groups: to bring equity to a shared environmental movement. Durbin pointed out that any real successful environmental action must include communities of color (a growing population), and as one of Oregon’s most prominent, traditionally “white-led” environmental organizations, OEC has a responsibility to not only incorporate equity and inclusion into its work, but also engage the environmental community of Oregon as a whole on why these issues matter. OEC titled their panel events History Matters, Present Matters, and I can’t wait to attend the third panel, Transformation Matters.

The first panel, History Matters: a historical perspective on environmental justice (that sold out), really set the tone for what was to come. Moderated by Jesse Beason of Northwest Health Foundation, panelists Tony Defalco of Verde, Nicole Maher of Northwest Health Foundation, and Kenya Williams of PSU Urban Studies department, discussed Oregon’s history of racial injustices from redlining in North Portland, to Native American water rights, to even Oregon’s dark past of Japanese American internment camps during WWII.

The message was clear: regardless of what Oregon’s intentions are in the present, it has a history of systematically denying people of color access to clean air and clean water, healthy environments and crucial decision-making processes and that history matters when we are looking at addressing solutions today.

The second panel discussion, Present Matters: a look at environmental justice challenges in Oregon today, was moderated by Ben Duncan, Chief Diversity and Equity Officer at Multnomah County, and included respected Oregon EJ leaders Alan Hipólito of Verde, Joel Iboa of Beyond Toxics, and Vivian Satterfield of OPAL.

Duncan asked the panelists to discuss what communities their organizations serve along with the challenges they face in their work. Iboa illustrated some shocking challenges faced in West Eugene, one of the poorest regions in the state with a growing Latino population. From 1990-2000, Latino residents in Lane County have doubled. Many in this population are having to move to west Eugene where housing is cheaper. West Eugene has a disproportionate amount of toxic emissions than that of the east. In fact, a 2012 Beyond Toxics report citing the City of Eugene in 2011 showed glaring disparities. In West Eugene, residents have to grapple with 494,000 lbs of annual toxic emissions; in East Eugene, residents have to manage a whopping 0 lbs!

When Duncan asked panelists, “why is the concept of mitigating harm not enough when grappling with EJ issues,” Iboa’s response was on point! He said, “I think about words a lot and decided to look up the definition of mitigate.” Iboa pointed out that the word mitigate means: to make less severe, serious, or painful. Iboa continued to share stories with the audience which included a devastating story about young pregnant woman exposed to hazardous waste in a chemical factory resulting in the loss of her baby. Everyone in the room agreed that these are not situations that can simply be made less severe or painful and that mitigation is an unacceptable response to EJ violations.

Satterfield and Hipólito provided the audience with some uplifting stories related to projects their organizations are working on in Portland. Opal is running a YouthPass Campaign (launched November 14th!) that inspires Satterfield to keep up the hard work and have hope. Hipólito shared on Verde’s successes with community-led revitalization projects such as their Living Cully crowd funding campaign. The goal, and reward, of these projects are positive community-led change. These initiatives come from the community and for the community, unlike other revitalization projects we often see around Portland.

By the end, it became apparent that even though Iboa, Satterfield and Hipólito work face to face with an ugly side of Oregon, they also are inspired on a daily basis by the success stories that come out of their work and the people in the communities they work with.

APANO’s new community center, where the panel took place, sits in the JADE district, an area of Portland that has a high concentration of people of color and, yet again, has some of the highest levels of air pollution and health problems in the city.

OEC had a great turn out with attendance from environmental organizations. But the truth of the matter is, there should still be more folks at the table joining in this discussion, particularly the decision makers of environmental organizations across Oregon (i.e. executive directors and board members)! The numbers don’t lie. Regardless of the fact that addressing issues of race, inequity and environmental justice is the right thing to do, and that nonprofit funding sources are shifting to expect organizations to have a vision of incorporating this work, we also know it is the best chance this movement has at being successful long term. People of color support environmental protection and will soon be the majority in this country. We need a united front to combat extraordinary challenges like climate change.

Please join us for the third, and perhaps most important, installment– Transformation Matters: Creating enduring equitable environmental solutions, December 3rd from 6pm – 8pm, again at the APANO space. Let’s unite and make a public commitment to this work together for the future of Oregon and beyond.



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