On a sweltering weekend last summer, Rahsaan Muhammad worked the crowd at the annual Peace & Unity Fest in Northeast Portland, stopping neighbors to talk toxics during lulls in the afternoon’s music.
A few miles across town, Mary Ann Warner chatted about the Willamette River’s polluted sediments with members of the Iraqi Society of Oregon during a riverside picnic at Kelley Point Park. She spent the next weekend feeding people experiencing homelessness while discussing the contaminated fish that many people catch and eat from the lower Willamette River.
Meanwhile, Irina Phillips planned a summit for Russian-speaking teens to explore training programs for jobs on the proposed seven-year, $746 million effort to address the cancer-causing soils lining the river from the Broadway Bridge to the Columbia Slough.
All three activists care deeply about the outcome of a federal effort to decontaminate the Portland Harbor Superfund Site, and all hail from communities that, too often, are excluded from discussions about our community’s future.
Through a $40,000 grant from the Meyer Memorial Trust, the trio are working as organizers for the Portland Harbor Community Coalition, a diverse alliance of community groups concerned about the social and environmental justice issues related to the planned cleanup of Portland’s waterway.
Their demands are simple: The coalition seeks a strong, fair plan that entitles those most harmed by the river’s polluted history to an equally outsized benefit from the cleanup.
That means fighting for cleanup standards that make the river’s resident carp, bass and catfish safe for everyone to eat. It means insisting that cleanup contractors hire a diverse, local workforce. It means prodding decision makers to involve people experiencing homelessness, immigrants and people of color in discussions about how the river will function after the health risks are gone.
For these three, the work is deeply personal. These are their stories.
Muhammad, an African-American business owner, activist and artist, proudly describes himself as “a central-city Portlander, all the way.”
But he admits it hasn’t been easy to keep a foothold in the city’s inner reaches. Portland’s black community, once concentrated near the harbor in North and Northeast Portland, has moved outward as those neighborhoods gentrified into predominantly white residential districts.
Muhammad saw a community that once lived, worked and fished along the river — deriving livelihood from the harbor while its toxic legacy threatened their health — at risk of losing out when the time came to address the mess.
He worried cleanup planners would focus their public outreach efforts on communities living close to the harbor and in doing so would fail to reach displaced black Portlanders.
“I can’t tell you how many pounds of carp and catfish all of our families have eaten over the years, not knowing the impacts,” he said. “Rectifying the environment should include rectifying things for the people, too, even if they don’t live here anymore.”
Mary Ann Warner
Warner is the child of Latino migrant farmworkers. For decades after the Delano grape strike of the 1960s, when farmworkers walked off the job to protest their exposure to dangerous pesticides and below-minimum wage earnings, her father refused to purchase grapes.
“‘We’re not eating food that makes the workers sick,’” he told his daughter.
Those early experiences influenced Warner’s work as an advocate for the Latino community.
Latinos are among Portland’s poorest residents, with nearly a quarter living in poverty and two-thirds earning below-average incomes, according to a report by the Coalition of Communities of Color and Portland State University. Language barriers prevent some from accessing information about the risks of eating fish from the Superfund site. Making matters more difficult, Warner said, regulators frequently make token efforts to include Spanish speakers but fall short of truly reaching them.
“You can’t just send out a postcard in Spanish and expect people to come to your public meeting,” she said.
Instead, Warner said, you must go to them. She frequently speaks about the health risks of the Portland Harbor at Latino community events and provides Spanish translation at public meetings about the Superfund site.
The issue of river health became personal for Phillips as a graduate student in the mid-1990s, when she experienced a life-threatening allergic reaction after waterskiing in the Baltimore harbor.
A legacy of industrial pollution from the city’s steel industry has tainted the harbor with toxic chemicals, and doctors told Phillips the contamination may have triggered the reaction that swelled her throat and constricted her airways.
“The water looked fine,” said Phillips, who immigrated to Oregon from Russia as a college student in the 1990s. “I just didn’t know there was so much bad stuff in it.”
When Phillips learned about the Willamette’s polluted sediment, she was driven to inform Portland’s Russian-speaking community about the risks. She also sees the cleanup effort as an opportunity to create upward mobility for a Slavic community plagued by poverty.
“There will be jobs available to do the cleanup,” she said, “and the cleanup plan should prioritize training local people do to the work.”