Ms. Margaret is a lifetime community activist. As a young single mother she worked her way off welfare by attending commercial cooking school, after which she cooked for various institutions including Alta Bates Medical Center and a UC Berkeley fraternity house.
She’s a founding member of the West Oakland Environmental Indicators Project (WOEIP)—a resident led, community-based environmental justice organization dedicated to achieving healthy homes, jobs, and neighborhoods for all who live, work, learn, and play in West Oakland, California.
In 2007 she was appointed to the Oakland Port Commission, where until 2012 she stridently promoted the interests of community health, workers health, and fiscal responsibility in Port operations.
Ms. Margaret is a 2010 National Purpose Prize winner, and was honored by the Obama White House as a ‘Champion of Change’ in 2013.
How did you become interested in environmental work?
My family roots in West Oakland trace back to the 1940s; in 1992 I moved into a home adjacent to the elevated BART tracks and less than half a mile from the Port of Oakland, two of its railyards, and thousands of heavy-duty diesel truck trips. As a lifelong asthmatic, I became interested in the causes and triggers of asthma after one of my sons and three of my grandchildren developed the condition. It became very personal to me to work to find relief for that, so in the late 1990s my interest in environmental health became a full-time pursuit.
Please discuss any mentors that have helped or inspired you to reach your aspirations.
I’ve been working in social justice for 50 years, but the most intense has been West Oakland, where in 1994 I started working in environmental justice. A couple of mentors to me in this effort have been Baykeeper founder Michael Herz and longtime Pacific Institute leader Meena Palaniappan. She came to West Oakland and started introducing us to what environmental indicators are.
I also met Allen Edson, formerly of the East Oakland Boxing Association, through the Institute. He taught me things about environmental justice I didn’t know before, like how the principles support you in your work to empower and educate your community. He showed me how to use them for organizing.
What inspired you to start your organization and how did you take the leap to start it?
WOEIP started as a committee in 1996; our group had been through the indicators training, then we stayed together and used a planning grant to learn how to gather information for ‘community-based participatory research.’ We wrote a report and had it published before WOEIP was incorporated, which happened in 2002.
What do you think are some challenges and opportunities facing women in the environmental movement today?
There have always been women in my family who ran things. My Dad agreed with it; he saw the value of his daughters having skills that made them not be in servitude to a man. So I had the example of strong women and a strong father.
Leadership is a process, like everything else. You have to put yourself in a position to speak up. A few of us, especially women from the African American community, spoke up about family health issues. We established a cohort of women who had taken on leadership positions with different organizations, and learned to insert ourselves as leaders.
As women of color in leadership we have to expand ourselves and come out of our comfort zone. I challenge myself to be in venues outside the community. When I was interested in being a Port of Oakland commissioner, I encouraged myself to take the next steps until I got appointed. It resonated with people that I could do that and address issues.
What are your suggestions on how WEN members can become involved in your sector and the environmental movement?
Well, how much commitment are you willing to put in? It’s a daily process; we need to have it be ongoing in every sector of the community.
I do six interviews a week on average, often for students. In exchange, I ask them to come to our organization and perform a task or project around what they’ve learned.
Visit the WOEIP webpage at http://www.woeip.org/