‘Right Beneath Our Feet’: The Toxic Tour returns to Oakland

By CB Smith-Dahl

Editor’s Note: Newsdesk.org is teaming up with Oakland Local and Spot.Us for a return to the West Oakland community covered in 2009’s award-winning “Toxic Tour” series.

Thinking about planting a garden this spring? Many West Oakland residents are doing the same — unaware that there is lead and cadmium in the soil and perhaps an old gasoline tank right under their driveway.

When the soil is contaminated, it’s hard for any neighborhood to improve its economic lot. With a history of mixed use zoning, dumping, and neglect due to decades of environmental racism, this neighborhood is working on cleaning up its toxic industrial legacy.

West Oakland Toxic Tour II – Right Beneath Our Feet

In partnership with Oakland Local, Newsdesk.org’s Toxic Tour project returns to West Oakland in 2011, to build on the stories, issues and community responses covered in 2009.

Toxic Tour I (mainly focusing on air pollution) was nationally recognized with a Society of Professional Journalists Sigma Delta Chi Award for Excellence in Journalism for our hyperlocal, hard-hitting, and high-quality journalism.

This time, we’ll create a series of installments in the Summer/Fall of 2011. At least four articles (up to six, if funding goals are exceeded) will focus on contaminated land in West Oakland, and will combine text reporting with photography, audio and video.

An overarching map will also be created to bring together media from the articles with data from government and community sources. The whole series will also run on popular mobile devices.

Spot.Us funding will be combined with support already secured from the Society of Environmental Journalists to make this project a success. This series is being produced and distributed in partnership with Newsdesk.org.


Lead Reporter: CB Smith-Dahl

CB Smith-Dahl is an award-winning filmmaker, photographer, and educator who has always put the community at the center of her work. She is a former Artist-In-Residence at LA’s Skid Row Housing Trust and has significant experience as a community researcher. In 1997, she founded Community Bridge Video, a company that specializes in participatory media. She is a Facebook regular and posts semi-regularly on Twitter as MsSmittyB. As Oakland Local’s Community Media Manager, she creates new media content for the site and teaches and engages youth and community members in useful new media skills. CB moved to West Oakland six years ago so that her children could be near relatives who have made Oakland and the Bay Area home for over 100 years.

Health Intern: Jackie Ho

Jackie Ho is a Health Education student at San Francisco State, a lifelong resident of East Oakland, and a new intern at Oakland Local.

Map Intern: Alberto Azurdia

Born in East Oakland, Alberto is a graduate of the Bay Area Multicultural Media Academy. In 2009-2010 he worked as one of the Youth Evaluation Team Interns — conducting qualitative assessments and mapping After School Programs supported by the Oakland Fund for Children and Youth. He currently a Freshman at San Francisco State, exploring possible majors.

Series Producer/Reporter: Amy Gahran

Oakland Local co-founder, Amy Gahran writes about mobile development, multimedia, environment, transportation, development and, of course, the emerging zombie beat. A mobile news guru, Amy is passionate about community training and speaking truth to power. Her background is as a journalist, editor, and managing editor mainly covering energy, environment, and business. For the last 12 years she’s been happily and gainfully self-employed, mostly helping organizations, institutions, and individuals wrap their brains around the internet. A new North Oakland resident, she sees the Town with fresh eyes. Her personal blog is at contentious.com and she twitters as amygahran.

Series Producer: Josh Wilson, Newsdesk.org

Josh is one of the co-founders of Independent Arts & Media, a San Francisco nonprofit organization that expands dialogue in our democracy by supporting independent media producers and culture makers. He also founded Newsdesk.org, a commercial-free journalism project covering “important but overlooked news.” He is a longtime producer, DJ and host at the award-winning community radio station KUSF-FM, and held various positions there, including Community Affairs Director and Program Coordinator. A professional journalist and editor, Josh has worked for SFGate.com, Meredith Corporation, and Wired magazine, and as a freelancer for the San Jose Mercury News, the San Francisco Bay Guardian, and other publications. He is a 2010 WeMedia fellow, a 2009 Ashoka Changemaker finalist, a 2008 Writer-in-Residence at the Mesa Refuge on Tomales Bay (topic: “New Public Media”).


Part One: A Developers Dream?

With Federal grants and private loans, Oakland’s Redevelopment Office is encouraging developers to come rehabilitate West Oakland’s brownfields. Do residents know what’s beneath their feet? Why aren’t they being offered the same funding to clean up the underground-tanks-next-door?

Part Two: Case Study of Community Response

Profile of a West Oakland activist and her community work. West Oakland residents are completing scientific surveys (that should have been done long ago by involved companies and government agencies). Participatory/community based research is working in West Oakland. What other grassroots efforts in West Oakland are addressing the pollution and public-health issue?

Part Three: The Morass We’re In

A nucleus of community activism, it’s no surprise that West Oakland has been fighting pollution for decades. What’s surprising is how many federally funded projects have stalled. We’ll profile 2 toxic (brownfield) sites in West Oakland and update what hasn’t happened (in contrast with 2 other sites – one in Emeryville and one in East Oakland)

Part Four: The Down Side of Greening Up

While many individuals and organizations are working to turn around West Oakland’s toxic legacy, there are some unintended consequences.

Does recycling = salvage work = pollution? Some companies are working to balance environmental concerns with slim profit margins.

At the same time, green cities like Oakland are touting the benefits of mixed use zoning. West Oakland has a historical residential/commercial/industrial patchwork. Is it possible to convert past planning mistakes into a model city?

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