Finding common ground in the water that sustains usdarionWed, 07/26/2017 - 18:20Grantee Stories
At first glance, Oregon’s Willamette River and the Río Laja in the Mexican state of Guanajuato look starkly different.
The two rivers’ mouths are 2,600 miles apart. And while the Willamette Valley is verdant and rainy, the Laja runs through semi-arid lands with few trees. Salmon, so central to the Oregonian ethos, aren’t found there.
Though their climate and ecology may differ, six restoration experts from Guanajuato visited Oregon this month to explore a commonality between two places: Water and the communities it connects.
“Water is the base element for all ecosystems,” said Mario Hernández Peña, director of the botanical garden and nature preserve El Charco del Ingenio, who traveled to Oregon as part of the June 2017 exchange. “No matter where in the world you are, it’s a common resource.”
The visit was the latest highlight of an international partnership the two basins launched in 2015 as part of the Willamette community’s receipt of the 2012 Thiess International Riverprize. The award, which recognizes exemplary efforts in river protection and restoration, includes an opportunity to collaborate with a watershed outside the prize winner's home country in an exchange program known as Twinning. Meyer's Willamette River Initiative stewards the project on behalf of the basin's restoration community.
“It’s so valuable to be able to talk, to connect, and to learn from our international peers about how they approach similar watershed conservation challenges in a different social and environmental context,” said Tara Davis, coordinator of the Twinning project.
Many of the Willamette’s biggest watershed health challenges are also present in the Laja. Restoration practitioners in both basins are working to improve water quality, increase migratory bird habitat, foster community engagement and restore ecological function to former gravel mines. And both basins face competing priorities for how water is managed and allocated.
The Twinning project is designed to encourage dialogue about how to tackle those challenges through repeated visits to one another’s home turf. But just as importantly, the project has yielded fruitful relationships between people with a common interest in protecting water in the Willamette Basin and Mexico, a country with strong connections to Oregon.
One-in-eight Oregonians identify as Latino, many of them with Mexican heritage. The Willamette Basin includes some of Oregon’s largest and fastest-growing Latino communities.
“At a time when the public relationship with Mexico is framed in terms of division and exclusion, a project that focuses on building collaborative relationships between conservation professionals from both countries is particularly meaningful,” said Allison Hensey, director of the Willamette River Initiative.
Already, the Twinning partnership has revealed promising collaboration opportunities.
Recognizing that some migratory bird species spend time in both watersheds, partners from the Willamette and Laja have teamed up to explore opportunities to monitor bird populations and use the data to prioritize habitat restoration.
Participants in the June exchange hoped to take the Twinning partnership a step further, leaving with inspiration for increased collaboration in the Rio Laja watershed and an idea for a future project the two basins could tackle together. It didn’t take long for a theme to emerge.
As exchange partners traveled up and down the Willamette River touring projects and meeting with partners, the conversation always came back to people.
“How do you get the public to care about restoration when you’re working in such an urban environment?” Laja partner Javier Vega Ruiz asked as the group toured Talking Water Gardens, a wetland restoration and water treatment project in Albany.
Willamette partners shared a number of techniques, such as hosting school students for on-site science lessons and designing public spaces into restoration plans, but acknowledged community engagement is a challenge in the Willamette, too.
Vega Ruiz’s question spurred others as the two sides sought to learn from one another.
How can conservation workers be better advocates for the communities hit hardest by environmental threats, particularly low-income people and racial minorities? What are the best examples of restoration work that improves ecological conditions while creating beautiful, useful community spaces? And what can we do now to shape the next generation of environmental stewards?
For Heather Medina Sauceda, a board member for the Calapooia Watershed Council who often works within Oregon’s Latino community, the exchange trip itself became an exercise in the power of human connection. Medina worked with Mario Magaña Álvarez, an Oregon State University 4-H outreach specialist to underserved communities, to bring several of Magaña Álvarez’s Latino students along for a day of the exchange.
The pair, who are both Latino, hoped exposure to Mexican leaders in science and conservation would help the teens imagine themselves in a career field that, in America, is still predominantly white.
“It’s powerful to see leaders who look like you,” Medina Sauceda said.
The exchange also held personal significance for Medina Sauceda. Born in Michigan, she grew up with a love for the outdoors that led to a career in agricultural conservation. She had never associated her career choice with the farming culture of her heritage, but interacting with the Laja visitors revealed a profound link between the two.
“I might not have realized in college why I was drawn” to conservation work, she said. “To have that tie with this group coming up from Guanajuato made me feel like it’s something deep down inside; that it has to do with that cultural connection.”
By week’s end, representatives from the two basins saw a partnership opportunity in their shared ambition to connect people through the rivers that sustain them. The migratory bird group has begun discussing ways to involve the community in its bird monitoring efforts. Other Willamette and Laja partners hope to work together on youth engagement initiatives. They are exploring the possibility of sharing environmental curriculum for students in Mexico and Oregon or launching an exchange program that pairs students from each watershed on a scientific project.
The conversation is just getting started, Medina Sauceda said, but “there’s a lot of potential for the future.”
Organizers raised the voices and issues of those most impacted by environmental hazards — people of color, low income Oregonians, rural communities and tribal people — at the People’s Climate March on April 29.
Following a blessing from Native Elder Ed Edmo (Shoshone-Bannock, Nez Pierce, Yakima) at Dawson Park in Northeast Portland, a crowd of nearly 3,000 set off for Buckman Field in Southeast Portland. Marchers repeated a familiar chant, first in English, then in Spanish, “El pueblo unido jamás será vencido!”
Intersectionality reigned at the event organized by Oregon Just Transition Alliance. Zen monks demonstrated alongside marchers protesting immigration sweeps and no-cause evictions. Vegans waved “no more meat” signs and youths wearing “Black Lives Matter” T-shirts chanted alongside youths supporting farmworker rights and children holding “Kiddos for Climate Justice” signs and marchers for social justice.
Multnomah County commissioner Jessica Vega Pederson addressed the diverse crowd at Dawson Park: “Listen to front-line communities. Show up for racial justice, economic justice, worker justice and climate justice. Our fates are tied. Everyone has a role to play.”
“This is a demonstration of front-line activism,” said Huy Ong, executive director of OPAL, a recent Meyer grantee and a member of the Oregon Just Transition Alliance along with APANO, Beyond Toxics, Environmental Justice Oregon, PCUN, Unite Oregon and Rural Organizing Project. “The community is here demanding action to stop and reverse climate change and to grow our collective power.”
Carrying a sign that read “System Change, Not Climate Change,” People’s Climate March participant Charlie Graham said he was marching because the world is in crisis.
“The system is the problem,” said Graham, a retired elementary school teacher from Hillsboro. “It’s not just the environment over here or politics over there. Housing, climate change: we’re not on a sustainable path.”
All along the route, one of Tiffany Johnson’s hands gripped the palm of her 9-year-old daughter, Ona. The other hand held a sign that touched on many of the issues on demonstrators’ minds: “This is All Native Land: Love is Love, Immigrants Rights, Science is Real, Environmental Justice, Black Lives Matters, Women’s Rights and Feminism.”
“We go to all the social justice, police reform and environmental marches,” Johnson said. “But we don’t often see ourselves (Ona is Native American and black; her mom, Native American) reflected in the leadership or messages. Native people are commonly left out. It’s really important that Ona see the connections, that she claim her place and her voice.”
Rinzan Pechovnik, a priest from the No-Rank Zendo, a Zen Buddhist temple in Southeast Portland, scanned the crowd of thousands.
“This is the fundamental march,” he said. “We have to throw our bodies in to let the world know we care.”
Cary Watters (Tlingit), a Community Engagement Manager at NAYA, banged a hand drum leading marchers past the convention center.
“Ecological and social justice is really key,” she said. “You don’t have one without the other.”
Mary Phillips recently relocated to North Portland joined the march with her daughter-in-law, Erin, and son Mike, a program associate on Meyer’s Healthy Environment portfolio.
“We have to stay vigilant,” Phillips said. “Climate change affects everything — jobs, health care, housing — and this march shows how intersectional it gets. We’re all together in this.”
Boosting efforts for cleaner airkwilsonTue, 11/29/2016 - 15:45Grantee Stories
Portland State University’s Institute for Sustainable Solutions has formed a new partnership with Neighbors for Clean Air and Lewis & Clark Law School’s Northwest Environmental Defense Center to pursue cleaner, healthier air for all Oregonians.
The partnership, BREATHE Oregon, will provide clear scientific data, legal analysis and community outreach so residents and policy makers have the information they need to make decisions that improve air quality in Portland and throughout Oregon.
BREATHE Oregon builds on a research partnership launched last spring between the Institute for Sustainable Solutions, the City of Portland and Multnomah County to assess heavy metal pollution in Portland-metro neighborhoods in response to community concerns about elevated levels of toxins found in the area.
“The BREATHE Oregon partnership helps ensure that meaningful scientific research about local air pollution moves from PSU labs into the hands of community advocates and policymakers,” said Robert Liberty, director of the PSU Institute for Sustainable Solutions.
Linda George, PSU professor of environmental science and fellow of the Institute for Sustainable Solutions is leading PSU’s research efforts. “It’s our hope that our research will engage local residents and inform future air quality oversight in our state,” George said.
A $250,000 Meyer Memorial Trust grant funds the partnership. In addition to scientific and legal analysis of air quality data and impacts, the award supports a series of community symposiums and a fleet of student interns who will work with local organizations to expand outreach about air quality issues.
“The path toward cleaner air is complex, and informed community involvement is essential,” said Mary Peveto, the co-founder and president of Neighbors for Clean Air. “Through BREATHE Oregon, we’ll work with communities most affected by air pollution to ensure they have access to accurate and relevant information and a seat at the table. We’re excited about collaborating with our neighbors, our university, and our state regulatory offices for healthier air.”
The Oregon Department of Environmental Quality and Oregon Health Authority are in the process of overhauling industrial air toxic regulations to align them with public health, as directed by Gov. Kate Brown’s Cleaner Air Oregon initiative. The Cleaner Air Oregon advisory committee includes representatives from each of the BREATHE Oregon partner organizations, providing a direct connection between academic research, community advocacy, legal analysis and policy recommendations.
“State health experts and regulators depend on accurate, scientifically sound data and engaged, well-informed communities to protect the health of Oregonians,” said Lynne Saxton, director of the Oregon Health Authority. “We welcome the partnership of Meyer Memorial Trust and the grantees to achieve cleaner air in our state.”
- Laura Gleim, Institute for Sustainable Solutions
Cultivating a New Generation of Rural Housing TalentkwilsonFri, 11/18/2016 - 11:13
Meyer’s commitment to diversity, equity and inclusion is reflected across all its portfolios. In this batch of Housing Opportunities grants, we are pleased to support an effort cultivating a new generation of talent by placing culturally diverse paid interns in rural Oregon housing and community development organizations over the next three years.
The California Coalition for Rural Housing launched the Rural West Internship Program in 1998 and, over the years, has placed over 140 interns. Over half of those continue to serve rural housing and development agencies — as staff, Directors and board members.
“The program provides a critical pathway for students to pursue professional positions in the affordable housing field while simultaneously developing qualified candidates for the field, “ says Gisela Salgado, director of leadership and programs for California Coalition for Rural Housing. “As a graduate of the program, I feel proud and honored to work with current interns and fellow alumni in the field — people I respect and admire — who care deeply about creating a more equitable society and making a difference in people's lives.”
After running the program in California for over a dozen years, CCRH expanded in 2010 to Washington, Oregon and, most recently, Arizona. Six interns have successfully completed the intern program in Oregon. Meyer support will enable six more interns to be placed in Oregon, one per year at two different agencies, CASA of Oregon and Willamette Neighborhood Housing Services.
The program is an important step for recruiting, training and retaining students who may not otherwise know about the housing field.
“Our diverse interns reflect the diverse cultural and linguistic demographics in Oregon and the West,” says Salgado.
With leadership of many rural housing organizations approaching retirement, the time is ripe for building a more diverse pipeline of new professionals. “We see future opportunity for expansion in Oregon and welcome discussion with interested rural housing and development partners.”
Sleek, remodeled Earl Boyles Elementary — full of natural light, bright yellow walls, state-of-the-art courtyard play structures and technology-rich classrooms — stands at the corner of Southeast 112th Avenue and Bush Street, in one of the poorest and most diverse sections of Portland.
Five years ago, median household income was $29,457 in the Earl Boyles enrollment zone, just 60 percent of the county median income of $49,049. More than a quarter of families primarily spoke a non-English language at home, and 24 percent of adults had not completed high school.
So, how did one of Oregon’s most-challenged elementary schools become a beacon of transformation?
The school’s statewide test ranking has skyrocketed from 8.3 percent in 2009 to 48.2 percent today. Attendance rates hover just below 100 percent. Students pour outside at the end of the school day, giggling excitedly to see Principal Ericka Guynes, Oregon’s 2013 Elementary Principal of the Year.
School district leaders, staff, volunteers, county programs and nonprofits connected with parents early and are sticking with them for the long haul. That recipe of partnership, especially programming designed around a community vision, is the secret of Earl Boyles’ success, and it offers hope for schools across the country.
As one Earl Boyles parent put it: “I never thought my children would have access to an education like this.”
Many people saw potential in Earl Boyles Elementary, including Swati Adarkar, president and co-founder of Portland’s Children’s Institute, a nonprofit that advocates for young children in Oregon. Adarkar has built a national reputation as a champion for early child care and education between birth and age 8. To Adarkar, the focus has real urgency because research shows that when kids — especially children from low-income families — don’t read at grade level by the third grade, their chances of graduating from high school plummet.
In 2008, only 65 percent of Oregon’s third-graders were reading at grade level, with much lower rates in poorer areas. And high school graduation rates place Oregon third from the bottom in national rankings.
Adarkar has spent the past few decades crisscrossing the country in search of successful early-engagement models that might work in Oregon.
It was on one trip to Chicago that she found true inspiration. There she met the leaders of Educare, which used funds from the Ounce of Prevention Fund to create a state-of-the-art school on Chicago’s South Side for low-income infants, toddlers, preschoolers and their families. Educare’s programs focus on literacy, language, early math and social-emotional skills, and staffers join with parents to help them become champions for their children’s education and achieve their education goals.
Adarkar called up then-David Douglas School District superintendent Don Grotting, a future Oregon superintendent of the year and student of early-intervention research. The superintendent immediately tapped Principal Guynes, who was making a name for herself as a then-new principal by translating forms into Spanish (a dominant language at Earl Boyles) and arranging caregiver get-togethers that transformed the school’s booster “club” of just one person into a thriving group.
Together, the team raised money, studied and planned for two years before hatching Early Works, a 10-year initiative at Earl Boyles with a focus on children ages 3-5. In 2012, the team took a big step forward by hiring a former migrant education recruiter, Andreina Velasco, as their first Early Works Parent & Community Engagement Coordinator based at Earl Boyles. A bilingual native of Venezuela, Reed College alum and young mother, Velasco had learned the hard way as a Portland Public Schools teacher that children often aren’t socially and emotionally prepared for school. For Velasco, Portland’s K-12 system wasn’t set up to help every child succeed. Early Works was a personal, direct approach to address the gap.
Velasco partnered with the SUN program and Portland State University to find names, phone numbers and addresses of families who might one day send students to Earl Boyles. She talked to children at the school about young siblings still at home. She went door to door, visiting their families so they knew her. Her work was especially important when the Early Works team embraced a bigger, tougher ambition: reaching families of newborns and toddlers. New brain and social science research showed that the earlier educators reached children and parents, the sooner children would be ready to learn — even before they were born. Soon, Early Works enrollment began to double, then triple, as engagement with families became deeper and more committed.
An onsite staffer, known as a Family Resource Navigator, began connecting families to various services, including Portland’s housing agency, Home Forward. Padres Unidos, which translates into Parents United, the school’s parent leadership group, is fully facilitated, managed and promoted by parent leaders. The group reviews Early Works evaluation data, and numerous caregivers have overcome English-language challenges to advocate for early learning by giving speeches and providing testimony across the state.
A $7 million voter-approved construction bond gave Early Works and Principal Guynes what they truly needed: More space for preschool and kindergarten classrooms and services at Earl Boyles. It also gave parents something they never expected: a beautiful place to connect in their own backyard.
The bond paid for half the expansion, while Multnomah County foundations, including Meyer Memorial Trust, and individuals provided the rest. Today, the Richard C. Alexander Early Learning Wing at Earl Boyles serves 90 3- and 4-year-olds in the Earl Boyles catchment area.
Connected to the Early Learning Wing is the Earl Boyles Neighborhood Center, which includes a lending library, family food pantry, meeting rooms for partner agencies and families, an infant-toddler room, and an adult learning classroom that provides parent education.
During his first months, she simply wanted him to go into the community, to better understand local residents and their culture and to learn their fears and dreams. The approach reinforced the most important lesson Christoffersen had learned from years of rural economic development work in southern Africa: You may think you’re well-trained and educated, but people on the ground know more about their place, culture and landscape than you do.
Enterprise, a cattle and farming town set amid prime logging country, was a long shot to remake itself as a hotbed of sustainable economic development. The era of big timber was on its last gasps. All three county sawmills were closed. The days of clear-cutting massive, old trees were long past. One-in-five locals had lost their jobs, and longtime residents were moving away.
After leaving Africa, Christoffersen had been on the hunt for a rural U.S. community that was using sustainability and a commitment to land stewardship to remake itself and assert leadership in ways that he had seen overseas. That’s when he learned about then-Wallowa County Commissioner Ben Boswell’s unusual step of co-founding Wallowa Resources as a nongovernmental economic innovation and experimentation engine. From the ashes of the big timber era, Boswell and his peers envisioned a new restoration-based economy.
Helming a nonprofit situated squarely in the radical-middle could sometimes make Christoffersen the enemy of the two extremes. But Wallowa Resources had a determined board of directors, support from the Wallowa County commission, funding from the USDA’s Rural Development program and an initial strategic plan for the organization. Most important, there was a core group of local stakeholders who believed they could reinvent themselves.
Wallowa Resources launched a large sustainable ecosystem management program, including an effort to manage weeds on 1 million acres of private and public canyonlands that generated $480,000 in payroll and local contracts. A few years later, Wallowa Resources brokered the Arroz Stewardship Contract, a plan for the management of U.S. Forest Service land with buy-in from 20 organizations, resulting in the county’s largest successful commercial timber sale in years. More than a dozen local investors joined Wallowa Resources in their new for-profit subsidiary, Community Smallwood Solutions, to create a small-diameter log processing business.
By 2009, two years after Christoffersen had assumed the executive director role, Wallowa Resources had recruited Integrated Biomass Resources to co-locate with Community Smallwood Solutions to produce chips, hog fuel and pest-free certified firewood. In 2012, Integrated Biomass Resources took over Community Smallwood Solutions and established a 70-acre campus on the site of what was once the county’s largest mill. That same year at the request of Baker, Union and Wallowa counties, Wallowa Resources organized a forest collaborative to advance forest and community resilience across northeast Oregon; the effort serves as a model for federal forest management in Oregon and across the country. Wallowa Resources produced a draft watershed restoration plan for 100,000-acre Lower Joseph Creek in 2014.
Perhaps Wallowa Resources’ greatest accomplishment is its role in helping to evolve the region’s culture toward a new, can-do economy based on sustainability principles. Local cattle ranches have evolved toward grass-fed beef and other niche markets, while large river restoration projects there are seen as national models. Wallowa County even gave the former hospital to Wallowa Resources to become a hub for 13 mission-driven organizations and agencies. Afterschool and summer programs, high school internships, and hands-on work experiences spurred by Wallowa Resources reach nearly half of Wallowa County’s students, giving practical hope to a new generation.
Christoffersen believes the community-benefit approach that worked for Wallowa County can work for other rural regions.
At the heart of Wallowa Resources’ work is organizing: identifying leaders, listening to them and getting out of the way to let leaders lead. Christoffersen seeks authentic connections with people that sustain the natural resource base of the economy in ways that align with the law, local culture, markets, broader public values and ecosystem management best practices.
Seventeen years on, Christoffersen is still listening.
What he hears often: The legacy of past management activity — heavy logging, overgrazing and mismanagement of water, combined with the current drought cycle and declines in federal funding — begs a new social contract between rural communities and urban and suburban populations. We are all, as they say, in it together. But building a complicated mosaic of trust, innovative finance and long-term investments balanced with the practical needs of culture, food, water, environment and jobs will require innovation, commitment and daring.
In towns such as Enterprise, revival can feel tenuous when rural neighbors still struggle. Putting communities back together, and being given the social license to do it, remains the work of one organizer, one weaver, one catalyst and one sustaining organization at a time.
During the 2016 presidential campaign, a theme bubbled up in many news stories and kitchen table discussions: Women still feel invisible in many aspects of society.
A new comprehensive report on women and girls in Oregon, the first in a generation, aims to remedy that feeling.
Count Her In, a 120-page tour de force of analytics and research has revealed significant gender equity problems in Oregon. The state hasn’t seen much improvement for women since the 1980s, and in some cases, we’ve actually gone backward.
Within two weeks of the report’s release this fall, it was mentioned in four out of five gubernatorial debates. The report will, no doubt, reset the table for policy and lawmaking across the state. And yet, the existence of the report raises the question: Why was it produced by the Women’s Foundation of Oregon and not the state, which is mandated to produce such data?
When the statewide Women’s Foundation of Oregon (WFO) opened its doors in 2014, it wrestled with how it could raise the visibility of women’s issues and make a difference. When the WFO asked the organizations it supports how to move forward, the collective answer was surprising: Instead of more money, the organizations needed information that helped them make a better case for why they needed money. It was from this service-sector plea that the Count Her In report was born.
WFO Executive Director Emily Evans borrowed her family’s RV and hit the road with her team. With majority funding from Meyer Memorial Trust, additional funding from others, and the efforts of local volunteer organizing teams, they traveled to Bend, Burns, Medford, Newport, Pendleton, Ontario and the Umatilla Reservation. They went in-depth in all large urban areas and even relied on Spanish-, Somali- and Russian-speaking translators in Forest Grove, Gresham and parts of Portland to make sure ethnic groups weren’t ignored.
Along the way, the researchers at ECONorthwest crunched the information from more than a thousand interviews, several thousand data points and years of Oregon census data. Then they compared the results to every state in the country.
Here is a small sample of the broad findings.
An estimated 1 million women and girls – over half of Oregon’s female population – have experienced some form of sexual or domestic violence.
Nearly a quarter say they have been raped.
Oregon women have the highest reported incidence of depression in the country and women are twice as likely to attempt suicide as men.
Women and girls deliver nearly 2 billion annual hours of caregiving for family members, much of it free and with dramatic impacts on their careers, education and earning trajectories.
Nearly one-third of women and girls are struggling to make ends meet: Women earn between 53 and 83 cents on the dollar, depending on race and ethnicity, for every dollar white men in Oregon make.
For women of color, the racial wealth gap combines with the gender wealth gap to create a compound negative effect. Sixty percent of all minimum wage workers in Oregon are women.
This year, only one of Oregon’s 39 publicly traded companies is led by a woman.
There are still some Oregon counties where not a single woman serves in countywide office; this matters because counties are often the biggest providers of services to women and girls.
Of course, the news isn’t all bad: Women vote at higher rates than men in Oregon, commit fewer than 5 percent of violent crimes, comprise more than 70 percent of public educators and 80 percent of health care workers, give of their money and time more than Oregon’s men (and most women nationally), serve in statewide office at some of the highest rates in the country, and met the state’s 2025 goal for college graduation in 2014 — eleven years ahead of schedule.
Oregon Governor Kate Brown said after reading the report that although “some could point to our successes, and say, ‘See, it’s not so bad here,’ the data in this report doesn’t lie.”
Advocates say the findings match hard data to an unsettling reality they’ve witnessed for years: Oregon’s women and girls are struggling. According to Elizabeth Nye, executive director of Girls Inc., she spent years feeling like she was shouting into the wind, unable to substantiate what she was saying.
Count Her In changes all that. The report is a wake-up call, a celebration of resilience, and an opportunity to do things differently. And, as the report says, it’s an irrefutable imperative for change. WFO’s Evans says that the goal now isn’t small tweaks or a few more dollars to service providers, but structural and systems change. It’s recognizing that the structural barriers are highly interrelated and that if they’re not recognized and changed, then we’ll see stagnation.
Systemic racism and gender inequity are huge problems in Oregon, meaning women and girls experience disproportionate barriers to success. Today, thanks to the Women’s Foundation of Oregon’s report, progress can no longer be blamed on a lack of clear and compelling data.
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.”
The cottonwoods that tower over McDowell Creek still amaze Richard Bates.
It’s been nearly six years since the Sweet Home-area farmer, desperate to stem the gradual erosion of his land into the creek, worked with the South Santiam Watershed Council to plant saplings along a quarter-mile of its banks.
The planting was a happy marriage of convenience: Council workers saw the project as an opportunity to provide shade for the creek’s threatened steelhead, and Bates found a solution to his disappearing property line.
Now, Bates says, “it’s starting to look like a jungle.” And those eroding banks? “Where things were getting tromped to death by cattle, now they’re being held together by trees.”
Bates couldn’t have known when he agreed to the project that the saplings would also benefit the basin’s economy. But the unique partnership that nourished those trees from seed to forest has provided jobs for dozens of Willamette Valley workers and consistent business for five local, family-owned nurseries.
The partnership is called Contract Grow, and it’s an example of the widespread benefits stemming from an unprecedented push to restore the Willamette River and its tributaries. It’s also a testament to the power of combining restoration dollars with crucial support to help groups do more restoration, more effectively.
Many watershed councils had done restoration on a small scale, working with a handful of property owners at a time. The new investment meant they could partner with hundreds of landowners, with hundreds more interested in joining.
Recognizing that the new capacity could trigger growing pains, Meyer in 2009 began funding a full-time staff position at the Bonneville Environmental Foundation to support watershed councils as they scaled-up their impact.
The groups until then had been buying plants in small quantities: a few bigleaf maples to shade a sliver of riverbank, a few Oregon grape to fill the understory. They purchased potted plants at retail value, about $3 apiece. To a home gardener, that might seem reasonable; for a watershed council buying plants in volume, it was neither affordable nor convenient.
“I was literally calling six different nurseries to get the plants, then stuffing them into my car to get them to the site,” said Sarah Dyrdahl, executive director of the Middle Fork Willamette Watershed Council.
Under her leadership, the basin’s conservation groups began combining forces to submit one large, annual order to nurseries contracted to grow plants for their projects. In doing so, they gained control over the type, quantity and quality of species they transplanted.
Pre-ordering also allowed them to specify bare-root plants, which are far more affordable than potted plants. The switch saved millions of dollars in materials alone, while also eliminating the waste and physical strain of transplanting trees from plastic pots. And because the groups placed their order two years in advance, nursery owners gained certainty that the seeds they sowed would be in demand when the time came to harvest.
“It’s one of the things that has allowed our business to achieve a sustainable point,” said George Kral, owner of Scholls Valley Native Plant Nursery in Forest Grove. Today, the Willamette Basin contract has become the nursery’s second-biggest source of business.
But somebody needed to get all those saplings in the ground, and then maintain them while they grew into established trees.
Enter Rosario Franco. The Aumsville resident began his career replanting forestland after logging. But when conservation groups began launching projects that required Franco’s skills, he saw a niche to fill.
“This planting is good for the habitat, the water, the fish,” Franco said. “It’s a good feeling to know your work is doing that.”
In the years since, the basin’s restoration groups, together with area landowners, nurseries and businesses like Franco’s, have planted more than 4,000 acres. They’ve increased the pace of restoration sixfold since 2009.
The surge in business has enabled Franco to pay 33 full-time, year-round workers — a rarity in the seasonal planting industry.
When crews finished planting Bates’ property, the farmer gained a stable riverbank, new fencing to keep his cattle out of the stream and a tranquil campsite for his grandchildren’s frequent visits.
Even fish and wildlife seem pleased with the results: A family of beavers has taken up residence in the newly-wooded waterway. Their dam, built in part with branches from Bates’ trees, traps water in cool, shaded pools that make a perfect haven for steelhead.
For nearly 30 years, Pacific Rivers has been a key player in protecting and maintaining healthy rivers and watersheds in Oregon.
Their mission: to use advocacy and policy work to assure river health, biodiversity and clean water for present and future generations. Since helping to pass the nation’s first and largest federal river protection act in 1988, Pacific Rivers has been dedicated to enshrining protections for rivers and watershed ecosystems in the Northwest.
Part of their focus is to ensure that Oregonians have access to drinking water free from chemicals and pollutants.
Pacific Rivers has prioritized educational initiatives to bring to light dangerous and harmful environmental practices affecting the watersheds in remote and rural communities, and they work to create space to educate the public about the environmental impact risky business can have on rural communities. A three-year, $150,000 grant for organizational development and communications in 2015 supported their efforts to increase the visibility of their work throughout 19 counties across Oregon.
At a recent standing-room only screening of Behind the Emerald Curtain, supporters in Portland learned about an endangered community 90 miles to the west. The film focused on the coastal town of Rockaway Beach, in Tillamook County, where logging and chemical spraying are having a negative impact on the health of neighboring residents and waterways. The event helped teach and mobilize Oregonians about harsh environmental practices affecting rural areas outside cities and what they can do to help. Pacific Rivers will be screening the film throughout western Oregon until February to engage and inspire community members to help reform the Oregon Forest Practices Act and then releasing it online for a national audience. A schedule of screenings can be found on Pacific Rivers' home page.
Following the film, Pacific Rivers Executive Director John Kober facilitated a group discussion led by local community members and field experts. During the Q&A, he exhorted Portlanders to do their part in defending the future stability of Oregon’s watersheds and the health of rural communities dependent upon them.
Along with the development grant, Pacific Rivers received a technical assistance grant of $15,000 to partner with the Center for Diversity and Environment to guide their ongoing diversity expansion efforts. Pacific Rivers, which was already committed to equity, diversity and inclusion, recognizes that environmental progress depends on a diversity of voices and residents, said Kober.
“Pacific Rivers plays a valuable role in protecting clean water and watersheds across Oregon. We also really appreciate their genuine commitment to equity,” said Jill Fuglister, director of Meyer’s Healthy Environment portfolio. “With the combination of support for branding, communications and diversity training, we’re grateful to help Pacific Rivers make its work more relevant to all of the state’s diverse communities.”