On the waterfront
California activist connects creeks and people
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.”
His childhood visits to the marsh also gave him a sense of the Southern subsistence culture his family had left behind. In the 1980s, after attending the funeral of a relative in Louisiana, Dotson felt compelled to reconnect with his rural Southern roots. So he moved to his mother’s hometown of Mossville, on the heavily industrialized banks of Lake Charles. There he worked at the Bayou Comprehensive Health Center, a nonprofit serving low-income, predominantly African-American communities.
After 13 years, Dotson returned to the Bay Area. Inspired by his indelible impressions of the South – extreme poverty, overt segregation and the disproportionate toxic burden faced by poor black communities - he enrolled at U.C. Berkeley and earned a master’s in public health administration. He worked as a program developer with Contra Costa County Health Services and volunteered with Trails for Richmond Action Committee, a local open space advocacy group.
Dotson began to clearly see the connection between the region’s public health issues – asthma, heart disease and diabetes – and its lack of open space. “Through my involvement with these groups, I became aware of plans to develop the Breuner Marsh,” he says. “So I pulled together my own plan that would preserve the marsh and give the public access to the shoreline. It also addressed health concerns by giving the community a place to walk and exercise.”
The fight to stop development has been a lifelong family affair. In the 1970s, Rev. Richard Daniel Dotson, Whitney’s father, led successful local campaigns with the help of local ministers, residents and the Sierra Club to prevent a small airport from being built on the flanks of Breuner. His father’s coalition also acquired land north of Parchester from the Bethlehem Steel Company that, in 1973, became Point Pinole Regional Shoreline. Building on his dad’s example, Whitney has worked with a local coalition to keep expensive waterfront housing and a light-industrial park out of Breuner. Their efforts culminated in victory last year, when the East Bay Regional Park District used eminent domain to acquire a 218-acre parcel of the marsh, next to Dotson’s neighborhood of Parchester Village.
The decades-long effort to preserve the marsh has been as much about preserving the neighborhood. Unlike the sprawling subdivisions around it, Parchester Village, a community of about 1,000, has retained much of its original flavor. Small wood-frame bungalows shoulder together, their lawns closely cropped. This was one of the first communities in the Bay Area, says Dotson, where blacks were able to own homes.
To understand Parchester’s connection to its local waterways, Dotson says, one must understand the history of the black diaspora. Like Dotson, many Parchester residents trace their roots to the Deep South. Many who arrived here in the ‘50s were not merely looking for work but were fugitives from poverty, racism and the Jim Crow laws that circumscribed the lives of Southern blacks. Able to fish and gather wild greens much as they did in the rural South, residents found a sense of place in these tidal lowlands. “This is basically a spiritual place,” says Dotson. “It’s a landscape of the struggle.”
The present struggle is one of land acquisition. Dotson is pushing for full realization of the East Bay Park District’s Master Plan, which calls for stitching together a sweeping, continuous stretch of publicly accessible shoreline. Today, 16 miles of “gaps” exist in the proposed course of the Richmond section of the Bay Trail, which runs along Richmond’s sinuous waterfront.
Dotson is not merely reconnecting disconnected strips of shore and trails. He’s also building a potent environmental consensus in a community with urgent social concerns: Poverty, drugs, gang violence.
Dotson has found a strong counterweight to North Richmond’s street culture in the local environment. A few years back, Dotson worked with a youngster named Tim who had been heavily involved in Richmond’s street life. He’d been the victim of a shooting and didn’t know the first thing about conservation, says Dotson. Nonetheless, Dotson, who at the time was working for the North Shore Open Space Alliance, saw potential in the young man. He mentored Tim for the next two years in one of the group’s environmental outreach programs. “He was out all the time, working in the marsh. He became our poster child,” says Dotson.
Dotson hopes urban conservation work can help bring an entire generation of wayward youth back from the brink. “As soon as there’s any kind of activity to put (young people) in touch with the environment, they immediately gravitate toward it,” he says. “My contention is that everyone is aware of the environment, and how it should be, even if they don’t think about it.”