Modeling Community Empowerment in West Oakland, CA


In late February of this year, I had the privilege of joining the Spring 2024 Williams-Mystic cohort who met with Miss Margaret Gordon and Brian Beveridge of the WesGiant post-it notes from a brainstorming sessiont Oakland Environmental Indicators Project (WOEIP) during their Northern California Field Seminar. The guiding question for this Field Seminar, “How do we balance the needs and desires of the myriad communities and stakeholders tied to the ocean in Northern California?”, was at the front of our minds while learning about the importance of community advocacy.

Contextualizing the Community 

West Oakland, a city across the Bay from Historic downtown San Francisco, is divided by highway overpasses, choked by constant truck exhaust from the Port of West Oakland, and the home base of the WOEIP. 

Upon arrival at the WOEIP building, it was difficult for us to ignore the care that went into creating the space. People were working on the raised beds in the garden, the reflection tree placed in the open area of the small office with notes from previous visitors about their experience, and the conference room wall pasted with current action items of the group. After some brief introductions, all twenty-two Williams-Mystic stWoman in pink shirt and black hat talks to a group of studentsudents, faculty, and staff, squished into the conference room to learn about WOEIP from Miss Marget and Brian.

Miss Margaret began by introducing us to her community; the people who like her, have called West Oakland home for decades but are generationally suffering from the effects of environmental racism. She explained that as the Port of West Oakland has grown over time, it has encroached on homes, community spaces, and public waterfront access in a predominantly black and brown city. This has left the community to bear the brunt of the damaging effects of industrialization. Their health, livelihoods, and community have suffered in the name of “progress.”

Engaging in Collaborative Problem-Solving to Promote Change

So what exactly is the mission of WOEIP? The project aims to equip West Oakland residents with the skills to advocate for a healthier and safer community through collaborative power sharing.

Brian and Miss Marget explained that empowering a community to understand the damaging impacts of noise pollution from trucks and recycling facilities, exhaust fumes from idling trucks waiting to enter the port, and the dissolution of community spaces for processing plants, begins with documentation and knowledge collecting. 

They emphasized the inherent community knowledge that comes from living in a place for generations. Miss Marget shared her experience watching her children and grandchildren struggle with asthma due to truck exhaust outside their home. The unease that comes with chronic health issues and the constant noise was not isolated to her own family but a common occurrence across the community. Group of students stands next to a fence and field during an outdoor field trip

Based on these lived experiences, WOEIP and research partners have created documents and maps to record the impacts on health and quality of life for residents. These projects are centered on 17 key indicators. These metrics define the quality of life specific to the West Oakland community, such as air quality, public transit access, or resident exposure to toxic chemicals. 

These maps and research have supported WEOIP’s collaborative power-sharing model, a way to bring stakeholders together to create change in their community. While the traditional scientists, port authorities, and city council members are involved in the decision-making process, so are community members. Not only are they part of the process, but they are also held to an equal weight in power as the others. WOEIP’s documentation and research of the impacts ensure there is meaningful power behind their advocacy for healthier and safer communities.

Connecting Community Advocacy and Sustainability

After the conversation in the conference room ended, we took a driving tour around West Oakland with Brian. During this, we saw firsthand the recycling facilities, lines of trucks waiting to enter the Port of West Oakland and homes tucked between industrial facilities. We experienced a fraction of a moment of every day for West Oakland residents. 

Raising his voice above the constant noise, Brian shared the challenges of working in collaboration rather than in conflict against organizations that do not see disadvantaged communities as worthwhile stakeholders. However, the community’s persistence in stakeholder meetings and protest of unjust policies or construction projects has allowed them to forge a more receptive relationship one small step at a time.

Large group of students stands smiling on a porch

Concluding our Experience with WOEIP

The biggest takeaway from our experience with Brian and Miss Margaret was the net good that comes from collective community action. Real change has been made for the community since the creation of WOEIP in 2004 including a community air quality monitoring network and working to increase accessible greenspaces in the city. Additional efforts to prevent a steel company from creating another scrap metal fire in the city which would release toxic gasses into the already burdened community are currently underway.

There are many ideas and definitions of what sustainability is and can be. WOEIP presents a bottom-up approach to advocating for a healthier, safer, and more sustainable future for their underrepresented community. Even in the face of active continuous harm from environmental racism, WOEIP allows everyone to have a voice in finding a solution. 


About Williams-Mystic and the Author

My name is Jenna Stanley and I am the Assistant Director of Admissions and Enrollment for Williams-Mystic. If you’re a Williams student looking to spend a semester with the program learning about issues such as the one discussed here, it’s not too late to apply for our Fall 2024 and Spring 2025 semesters! To learn more about how you can apply, check out our website. You can also find us on Instagram @williamsmystic or email me with questions at [email protected]

Williams-Mystic acknowledges that our choice to travel to areas impacted by the effects of climate change also means we are active contributors to the production of greenhouse gases. As a program, we are looking for ways to reduce our carbon footprint while also understanding the tangible value of training and educating students on tackling issues of environmental justice and environmental racism in coastal communities.