On the waterfront

California activist connects creeks and people

  • Activist Whitney Dotson, near Breuner Marsh

    Jeremy Miller

Near the twisting tidal channels and flannelly grasses of Breuner Marsh lives Whitney Dotson, one of Richmond, California’s homegrown environmental leaders.

As Dotson and I walk out through the reeds of the estuary on a hazy February morning, the steady pop pop pop of gunfire fills the silence between birdsongs.  The shots are coming from the Richmond Rod and Gun Club, on the marsh’s southern flanks. The birds – red knots and marbled godwits – are threatened natives and patrol this parcel of wetland, which was protected last year through the efforts of locals like Dotson.

The percussive dirge pounding from the gun range doesn’t seem to faze Dotson, who remains focused on the fineries of the landscape – and a barely perceptible flicker of white wings. “There’s an osprey out there,” says Dotson, 63, squinting and pointing out over the smooth waters of San Pablo Bay, the northernmost arm of San Francisco Bay. His hair is thinning on top; what remains in back is pulled into a riot of short dreadlocks. “If you look close you can see otters just offshore.”

Dotson, who was raised in the area, sees these landscapes of his childhood as integral to North Richmond’s future. He regards the area’s marshes and coastal areas as a healing terrain – a place to restore both the physical and mental health of a community shattered in recent years by violence, poverty and sprawling industrial development.

Last year, Dotson was elected to the board of the East Bay Regional Park District.  “I was on the ticket with Obama,” he says with a laugh. Dotson, too, ran on a ticket of "change": "I think this is a time for the whole country, for the whole world, to make some readjustments in the way we relate to one another and the environment.”

In the last 15 years, Dotson and an emerging coalition of Richmond activists have led several campaigns. They’ve taken local polluters to task, preserved bits of the area’s remaining open spaces, and reached out to their impoverished community and disenfranchised youth. Their exertions have resulted in local solidarity and a series of improbable environmental victories in a blighted industrial landscape. Richmond today, for example, boasts more miles of bike trails than any Bay Area city in the 300-mile Bay Trail system.

Dotson, who relates personal anecdotes and stories in the plodding, deliberate manner of an oral historian, is especially passionate about the area’s creeks and tidal wetlands. After all, it was here, amid the marsh’s tidal channels and picklegrass, that his own environmental sensibilities were forged as a child.  “I can remember coming out here as a kid with my mom,” he says. “We’d gather up mustard greens and wild turnips from the marsh. All the women in the community did it. You still see the Laotian women out here.”  

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