By Bryan Brumley

The Rev. E.D. Mondaine became president of the NAACP Portland Branch in March. He remembers growing up in St. Louis, Mo., in the shadow of chemical factories and a brewery that fouled the air.

“I remember the incinerator that ran twenty-four hours a day, and rained ash right on me,” he said. He noted that in U.S. cities, highly polluting industries are often found along streets named after the slain civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr., in African-American neighborhoods.

“As a child, I was often out of school, because of visits to the hospital, due to asthma,” he told the audience at a recent panel discussion on Frontline Communities on Climate and Environmental Justice.

Jacqueline Keeler, a noted Native American commentator and journalist who lives in Portland, showed audience members a rug from her Diné (Navajo) people. She said it symbolized for her the contamination caused by a uranium mine at Black Mesa, Arizona.

Since 1974, federal relocation policy has forced 14,000 people from their homeland on Black Mesa to allow mining companies to extract uranium, coal and natural gas. Keeler is a member of the Diné and Dakota peoples, and has written extensively on protests by the Standing Rock Sioux against the Dakota Access Pipeline.

During her childhood in Woodburn, Maria Hernandez Segoviano rose before dawn most mornings to take care of younger siblings while her parents worked in a meat-packing plant. Family members labored in nearby agricultural fields, enduring environmental hardships.

Mondaine, Keeler and Hernandez were panelists in a discussion on the intersection of systemic racism and environmental justice held at the First Unitarian Church, Saturday, April 14. Rev. Bill Sinkford, senior minister at First Unitarian, opened the event with a blessing for what participants called the “sacred nature” of their work.

Hernandez gave a twenty minute presentation on Just Transition, calling for a shift away from a fossil-fuel based economy to one that provides equal opportunities for the neediest among us, who often are people of color. A graduate of Willamette University, she is the advocacy coordinator for OPAL, Organizing People Advancing Leaders, a SE Portland group advocating environmental justice for Latinos, African-Americans, Native Americans, Asians and Pacific Islanders.

Also speaking were Cary Watters, member of the Tlingit tribe and staff member at NAYA, the Native American Youth and Family Center; and Khanh Pham of APANO, the Asian Pacific Network of Oregon.

Their “base-building” organizations are working together under the banner of the Oregon Just Transition Alliance to place a measure on the November ballot to tax some national retailers operating in Portland.

The proceeds would be used to finance minority-operated businesses creating jobs to counter climate change, such as insulating homes in lower income neighborhoods.

The climate justice organization 350PDX, Portland Audubon Society, Verde, the Oregon Chapter of the Sierra Club and Physicians for Social Responsibility also are backing the measure, known as the Portland Clean Energy Fund Initiative.

Mondaine said that for the African-American community in Portland, environmental justice would mean better healthcare and access to information about how pollution was damaging the health of the city’s neediest people, who often live in neighborhoods with poor water and air quality.

Climate change historically and disproportionately has impacted marginalized communities globally, including right here in Oregon, event organizers said.

Devastating climate-related disasters already have ravaged low-lying regions of Asia and Oceania, and rural regions of Africa and South America. Similar damage has hit North America, too, from hurricanes that have battered Texas, Florida and Puerto Rico, to fires and mudslides along the Pacific Coast.

For information on Just Transition, visit portlandjustenergytransition.com.