ActivismCommunity & CultureDirty Energy & FuelGlobal WarmingHealth

West Oakland Neighbors Tackle Toxic Legacy

Mary Frazier, a registered nurse with the Prescott Joseph Center — a nonprofit service agency and home to one of the only health clinics in the area — has seen how the dearth of accessible health care contributes to larger social issues.

“How long does it take for you to get to Kaiser from here or to the Children’s Hospital or Highland (by bus)” she asks. “It’s an all day outing, so you lose time at work, kids lose time at school, the kids don’t get good grades in school, you lose your job, so it’s part of this cycle of the diseases of poverty-like diabetes, obesity, asthma and respiratory problems.”

“Multiple factors”

This cyclical pattern is what inspired activists like Ms. Burnell to champion environmental causes, after initially focusing on other social concerns like job security.

“After I got involved I saw that it wasn’t just the jobs, it was the environment, and that needed to be cleaned up because so many people have asthma, so even if you do have jobs you’re sick all the time” Burnell said.

Dr. Washington Burns, Prescott Joseph’s Executive Director, said that low wages further complicate the issue, along with violence, drug use, lack of jobs and the general stress of day-to-day survival.

“In an area like here, in West Oakland,” he said, “the low economic status of the residents has a bearing … I’m not saying that air quality isn’t a factor, but there are multiple factors.”

To address these diverse problems, Dr. Burns’ organization hosts the West Oakland Asthma Coalition, a network of community groups that address health concerns at both the grassroots and policy levels.

These include the Breathmobile, a mobile home retrofitted as a “custom-built mobile pediatric asthma and allergy clinic” that brings health services directly to West Oakland residents in their communities.

Other initiatives include traditional research and policy programs by partners such as the Pacific Institute, as well as more experimental efforts — such as the Bamboo BioFilter, which plants fast-growing bamboo near truck facilities in the hopes of cleaning the air organically.

For residents such as Ms. Hives, improving the health of West Oakland will require community awareness, research, regulation — and patience.

“We’re a strong community” she said. “We been through a lot but we’re going to be here. We’re going to keep fighting.”

Photos courtesy of Flickr, used under a Creative Commons license.

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