McClymonds High School, Black History Month, Environmental Racism: We’ve been here before.

Esther Goolsby
Feb 29 · 5 min read

Crammed into the West Oakland Senior Center on Wednesday Night, February 26th, with the concerned community, I attended the Environmental Town Hall regarding the recent closure of McClymonds High School due to the carcinogenic groundwater substance, TEC. I reflected, “Have we been here before?”

West Oakland’s McClymonds High School has been temporarily closed since February 20th due to a recent discovery of the toxic substance, TEC, found in the ground water at the school. A predominately Black school, they are not scheduled to re-open until March 9th after testing proves that there is no TEC in the air on the campus. As we come to the end of another Black History Month, in the context of capitalism and a White Supremacist America, Black people still struggle for freedom. This includes the freedom to breathe and live in conditions of health and dignity rather than the many horrid conditions we are being almost conditioned to accept.

Environmental racism and terrorism against Black (and Brown) communities by the way of waste as chemical warfare is nothing new in West Oakland, East Oakland or worldwide.

Esther Goolsby — Candidate for Alameda County Supervisor District 4

Like others at the Environmental Townhall, I was interested in any updates and action that would be taken to address this peril to the community. West Oakland had indeed been here before — a crowd that was splattered with elected officials, government agencies, community leaders, residents, nonprofit apologists and statements of appeasement. Although I live in, and am currently running for District 4’s’ Alameda County Supervisor role, I lived in West Oakland from 1985–2005. I began my motherhood there and became pregnant with my first child. My in-laws, who I visited frequently, lived just a few blocks from McClymonds. Their house always seemed to be surrounded by industrial waste. Health hazards have destroyed the longevity and quality of life of West Oaklanders for decades. It’s only because the School District is liable for the wellbeing of children, that we know about the levels of toxicity in the area (on this occupied Ohlone land). I often think about the Black and Brown poorer communities who live in these areas and have had many generations of their families pass away from cancer or other diseases caused by toxins.

The conversation at the Townhall was carefully crafted to distinguish that the water in question was not drinking water, but groundwater. One of the spokespersons on the mic working on the issue, made sure she clearly communicated that the drinking water for human consumption wasn’t being mixed with the contaminated groundwater. I remember and grieve that we have been here before. In 2015, lead in the water was uncovered in a number of Oakland schools, including McClymonds. Through organizing with Communities for a Better Environment (CBE) in East Oakland, I have found that most schools currently have highly toxic facilities surrounding them, or lead in the water, soil and air.

It’s safe to say that Oakland Unified School District (OUSD) has been less than proactive or responsive to these types of crises and others — budget issues, teacher strikes, etc. The crisis happens, elected officials and agencies come in, often claiming ignorance and concern, then they wait for the community uproar to quiet down and tell the community to put “feelings in pockets”. Often the industries and corporations that are responsible for and have contributed to the toxic pollution, are untouchable and unidentifiable when it comes to public commentary and accountability. This was the case once again at this Townhall Meeting.

Esther Goolsby worked for Communities for a Better Environment (CBE) for 3 years on staff before running for office. Here pictured from a previous article in The East Bay Express concerning an East Oakland company contributing to Air pollution.

Neighborhoods affected like West Oakland get bandaids when crises occur, where affluent areas would get quarantined. What if this were in the Oakland Hills? In our prized and ever expanding pool of charter schools? There is a mass cover up by industry, and government to keep residents content and business as usual. The historically Black residents of West Oakland haven’t always known to demand the clean up of these types of crises, and following up on these issues is often difficult as busy life, fatigue or sickness occupies them. The withholding of public resources from the communities in West Oakland is often another thing that redirects attention from addressing their environmental issues. With CBE, I have been a part of administering studies and tests of these issues involving the pollution of our communities air/water/soil, but so often the results showing the problems are not published and plans not implemented.

Sitting in this Townhall Meeting. I drifted off, remembering the countless times before that I’ve breathed dirty air or stood on soiled land. I continued to feel the connection to this in my body even at that very moment. I had just left a Tenant Rights Union meeting at Ashland (an Alameda County District 4 Unincorporated Area) hours before. Most of the residents at that meeting were Black and Brown elders. Voicing their current uninhabitable conditions of their slumlord properties and other concerns in these Unincorporated Areas, West Oakland, East Oakland, and Castro Valley are common — none of this is new, we’ve been here before.

Cancer is now the leading cause of death among residents in Alameda County. Cancer mortality rates were highest among residents of east, west, and north Oakland, as well as areas of Cherryland and Livermore. — Community Assessment, Planning and Evaluation Unit of Alameda County Health Department (April 2018)

While the community was told on Wednesday night to put our feelings in our pockets, I know that I wouldn’t be told that in other neighborhoods or at schools that aren’t public. It’s time for a change. We can no longer accept being told to be quiet or that we don’t deserve the truth or a clean place to live, work or learn. The struggle for Black people to uncover the lies we get told and instead speak the truth against the backdrop of conspiracies and disease, has been our legacy

There are many elected and non elected stakeholders who have the ability to change the conditions of our built and natural environment that is currently leading to disease and eventually, to death. The most important thing to do is to hold them accountable to their social impact and demand them to be transparent with the residents and other stakeholders. By working collaboratively with health departments, committees, businesses, community and city administrations we could design incentives and concurrently draft similar legislation to the Oakland Healthy Development Guidelines that consider health in all policies to protect people throughout Alameda County. Everything is our environment!

Again, I say, we have been here before.

References:

  1. Community Assessment, Planning, and Evaluation (CAPE) Unit Alameda County Public Health Department. April 2018
  2. East and West Oakland Health Data Existing Cumulative Health Impacts

Esther Goolsby

Written by

Community and Environmental Justice Activist from Oakland, CA.

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