‘Is It Too Much to Ask to Breathe Clean Air?’

By Greeshma Somashekar, Stanford University

Cassandra Martin’s journey as a community leader began in 2008 when she moved into an Oakland shelter after losing her job of 17 years. One of her roommates in the shelter went to an orientation led by the Environmental Indicators Project. She returned with a pamphlet that Martin remembers reading over and over. Within a few weeks, in early 2009, Martin was collecting environmental data alongside its two co-founders. “I really enjoyed the dynamic between them,” Martin says, “and no one had ever made my mind work like that before.”

Martin works and speaks with an urgency that reflects the high-stakes nature of advocacy in her neighborhood. And her story is an example how the solution to an issue can often be found within the affected community. Her relentless efforts with the West Oakland Environmental Indicators Project are focused on uplifting the voices of low-income, marginalized people in her neighborhood.

West Oakland’s proximity to three major freeways and the Port of Oakland has long been associated with poor health outcomes. The West Oakland Environmental Indicators Project works to raise awareness and combat these disparities by facilitating a direct line of communication between residents, corporations, and policymakers.

Cassandra Martin, West Oakland Environmental Indicators Project.
Credit: Jing niu Production

It is a small non-profit with just three full-time workers. Dozens of volunteers from the community represent the organization at local government meetings. In the past few years, they have won many small victories, including changing local truck routes to move pollution away from residents and creating a partnership with regulatory agencies to oversee redevelopment of the old Oakland Army Base.

Those victories have been made possible by resident-led research projects. A 2011 comparison study showed that low-income residents of color in the Bay Area are disproportionately exposed to ambient particulate matter and face a higher disease burden than other Bay Area populations.

Martin has also taken part in a more recent initiative to engage young people called The East Bay Academy of Young Scientists. The program developed as a result of collaboration with the Lawrence Hall of Science, a public museum and K-12 educational enterprise in Berkeley. Every summer, middle and high school students from Oakland participate in a 4-5 week program focused on environmental advocacy.

Threat to Salmon Threatens Alaska’s Culture

Trying to Save a Threatened Island’s Cultural Heritage

Tanzania’s Maasai Facing Impacts of Climate Change

Can One Polluted Island Help A Drowning Country?

The kids are split into three groups and sent in different directions on the BART – to Berkeley, East and West Oakland, and San Francisco. Air quality samples are collected above ground, downstairs where the station agent is, and below ground. For several years now, these young researchers have found significant disparities in air quality, with emission levels almost four times as high in West Oakland than in the rest of the Bay Area.

In 2011, the group was invited to present research at the Moscone Center in San Francisco, where scientists from all over the world learned about the Environmental Indicators Project. “It still wasn’t enough for the folks in the offices to consider the policy changes we’re asking for - especially limits on industry development,” Martin says.

The air quality and industry-based pollution data collected by Environmental Indicators Project volunteers has won interest from several other environmental justice organizations. Martin has traveled around the country as a spokesperson for the group.

Recently, she visited the city of Commerce near Los Angeles, which has a majority Spanish-speaking population. Within a 10-block radius, Martin found several elementary schools sandwiched between a railroad station and a major port. All along the streets were businesses that receive a lot of truck traffic – automotive companies, gas stations, and more.

“I just remember watching this toddler in a yellow dress sitting in a yard behind a wire fence – there were trucks keyed up for blocks on the street in front of her, and she was just playing in the grass.” Martin says she started to cry. “This little girl was just trying to play near her home and she was getting poisoned – that’s what I was thinking,” she says.

The image really hit home for Martin because all three of her children have asthma. Her oldest son, who is now a 37-year-old personal trainer in Fresno, had his first asthma attack when he was 6 or 7 months old. As he grew up, he would move off the bed and down to the floor whenever he had trouble breathing. Several years later, it got so bad that Martin took him to the emergency room, where she was told that her son simply had a cold. She feels particularly grateful for the physician at Mary’s Help Hospital (now Seton Medical Center) in Daly City who determined that her son was suffering from asthma, perhaps associated with the environmental pollution in their neighborhood.

The 2011 study found that the rate of childhood asthma hospitalizations in West Oakland (18-46 per 1,000 people) is more than twice as high as the average in seven other regions – East Oakland, Livermore, Point Reyes, Redwood City, San Francisco, San Jose, and Vallejo.

Beyond the fact that many people do not know about these discrepancies, Martin hopes to communicate the role that the Environmental Indicators Project has played in her self-empowerment as an advocate for her community. While a major focus of the non-profit is to raise awareness, Martin is particularly grateful for the emphasis on having meaningful conversations with residents to find out what they most urgently want and need.

“Now I look at my walls, my blinds, the screens on my windows a little more seriously – I pay attention to the dust that’s coming into our home,” she says. “I’ve started to take off my shoes before entering – what else can I do about it? Take off my clothes? That’s too much.”

Since she joined the non-profit in 2009, Martin believes the Environmental Indicators Project has made a great deal of headway. They’ve had delegates come from as far as China to learn more about their community-based participatory research model (in which resident-volunteers lead the efforts to collect data about their own communities) and organizational structure. There are young people being trained to do the work that Martin does now, and they are excited to advocate for their families and neighborhoods.

Their work is especially urgent now, in light of the March announcement that Utah is attempting to invest $53 million in a coal terminal in the Port of Oakland. The terminal will occupy 30 acres of a 330-acre redevelopment project at the former Oakland Army Base, located at the foot of the Bay Bridge. The construction and maintenance of this additional deep-water port would potentially wreak havoc on the local environment. Resident-volunteers are writing letters and meeting with local government officials to see if anything can be done to lessen the environmental health impacts of the situation.

When she returns to the office, Martin sinks into a well-worn leather chair, leans back, and closes her eyes. “You know, I don’t think I can ever quit doing this work. I want to be able to breathe clean air and have family members who can live in affordable housing without being poisoned,” she says. “Sometimes I wonder, is that too much to ask?”

Greeshma Somashekar will be attending medical school in the fall. As a human biology and narrative storytelling major, she is also getting her notation in science communication at Stanford.