Former Portland resident Ka’sha Bernard earned a J.D. from the Notre Dame School of Law in 2018, is a member of the Oregon State Bar, and currently works as a climate and energy attorney at the Center for International Environmental Law in Washington D.C.
Growing up in New Orleans, I’d always thought it was cool that I could see my grandma’s house from the interstate as we drove across town. It wasn’t until I moved to Portland and learned about the Albina neighborhood that I realized the purposeful placement of the interstate in my grandma’s neighborhood, just like in Albina, was indeed not cool.
The strategic and destructive placement of interstate freeways in majority Black neighborhoods across the country have historically decimated communities, both literally and figuratively. In my work as an environmental attorney, I wanted to make sure that continued destruction did not happen in Portland. I expected way more from such a “green” and “liberal” city and state.
What grabbed my attention at first were the air quality concerns surrounding the Albina neighborhood; more specifically the Portland State University report stating that the children at Harriet Tubman Middle School should not play outside during peak traffic hours, due to the air quality impacts from the interstate. What kind of burden is that to put on a middle school serving so many children of color?
I thought such a strong opposition of the project from community members would have some sort of impact on the course of this project, but I thought wrong.
I hopped in on ODOT’s process right around the time they were publishing the Environmental Assessment (February 2019). I remember attending a meeting at an Elks lodge and being mistaken for someone else. I also distinctly remember one of the people in “the inner circle,” (who must have been on some sort of invited panel) ask why the members of the Black community were not in attendance at this meeting. I had noticed the very same thing upon arrival and was relieved someone else had brought it up.
I wondered if that would set the tone for the entire project: the “accidental” exclusion of Black voices and opinions?
Once I got to work combing through the environmental assessment, preparing for some comments, I came across a lot of inconsistencies and missing information. I went to yet another public engagement event in the basement of a building where there were huge displays and government employees ready to answer the questions I had. I also finally met the members of the NoMoreFreeways group that I’d been emailing with just a few weeks prior. I was overwhelmed, leaving with handfuls of ODOT pamphlets and NMF buttons, still with a lot of questions about the actual impacts that this freeway expansion would have on the Albina community.
I would attend plenty more public meetings on the project, quietly sitting in the back, taking copious notes on what others had to say, observing who was speaking and who was listening, or not. It was so impressive and uplifting to be in the room with students, parents, and teachers of Harriet Tubman Middle School who pleaded with the Oregon Transportation Commission to reconsider expanding a freeway so close to the newly reopened school. I thought such a strong opposition of the project from community members would have some sort of impact on the course of this project, but I thought wrong.
It fascinated me how elected officials could plead in front of the OTC for restorative justice, bring in historical context, and acknowledge what impacts the project would have on their constituents and their communities, only for the appointed state officials to throw their hands up and say “The project was already voted on,” “There’s nothing we can do,” and “Just trust the system.” What boggled my mind was that the “project” that just “had to move forward” was way over budget and had not even gotten to the design phase. What is this project even supposed to be? Doesn’t the State care about pushing forward a massive and costly project that could cause so much harm and has no final design? Doesn’t that raise some sort of flag?
Wouldn’t a flag be raised when considering the impact that transportation has on CO2 emissions when the world is literally on fire? Seas are already rising. Towns have already been destroyed by increasingly destructive storms. My hometown has already been impacted by climate change. I’d argue that Oregon has already been impacted by climate change. I lived in an apartment with no air conditioning for two years. I did not expect it to get as hot as it did. That worries me. It worries lots of people in my generation.
One of the more dramatic meetings on the project took place in Lebanon, Oregon (of all places) where for the first time in all the meetings I’d been to, I saw a lot of Black people. I was impressed, then quickly disillusioned. ODOT got a lot of older Black men in the Portland community to come to Lebanon and say how good the minority contracts granted by the State would be for the community, while a bunch of young white kids got up there in tears proclaiming how their climate fates would soon be sealed. It was not pretty. It was cringey, almost grimey, for ODOT to set it up that way to make it seem as though the older Black men of Portland were the voices of the community and that their (not yet confirmed) economic opportunities through this project were more important than the environmental impacts that would be held in the area. It was also frustrating to see a bunch of young white kids be the only ones there speaking about the environmental impacts this project would have.
For ODOT to pin these two issues (economy and environment) against each other in the year 2020 — where they are co-mingled rather than opposing interests — is not what I expected to come from a state agency in Oregon.
ODOT should either start over or scrap the entire project.
I admit, I gave ODOT the benefit of the doubt. I came in with high hopes, thinking they would surely listen to the overwhelming opposition to this freeway expansion. I thought a state agency would go out of their way to provide the information that was critical and necessary for forming decisions on such a massive and expensive project (as is required by law). I thought ODOT would take into consideration the historical impacts of the freeway’s construction and do what they could to right those wrongs, bringing restorative justice to the area. I thought a massive transportation project would focus more on just and equitable transportation measures in the area, rather than reverting to individual, vehicle-centered movement through the area. I thought ODOT would take into serious consideration the climate impacts this would have, rather than simply assuming their proposed project would achieve its goals of “relieving congestion,” despite the same efforts not working in other major cities. I thought ODOT would not stoop as low as to pit Black community members against young environmentalists. I thought ODOT would care more about the ability of middle school students to play and breathe clean air on their own playground.
The air pollution issues impacting communities living near freeways parallel the air quality issues of communities living near industrial facilities in my home state. These issues disproportionately affect communities of color, especially Black communities. It’s why Covid-19, a respiratory disease, has also disproportionately affected communities of color. It’s why I decided to pursue environmental law. It’s why after leaving Portland I will continue doing this work. It’s why I will continue keeping an eye on ODOT’s actions, inactions, and decision making processes.
ODOT should either start over or scrap the entire project. They should actually look at what has transpired over the course of this project so far and re-evaluate all that has gone wrong. If they start from scratch, they might be able to properly design a project that would best serve the communities most impacted by I-5. If they completely scrap the project, they might be able to re-allocate those funds to more just transportation projects in the area that could accomplish their goals without sacrificing the students at Harriet Tubman and further harming the Albina community.
What ODOT, OTC, and every other government entity involved really needs to do is listen to voices of those who have raised them and actually act on what it is the people want, rather than cherry-pick the voices that echo what they want to hear.
— Ka’sha Bernard
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A really interesting take on this issue. The “snapshot” of that meeting in Lebanon is particularly illustrative and revealing. Of course the “jobs vs environment” framing has been a staunch Republican canard for years now on all levels, international to local. Developer, resource extraction and corporate advocates have found it very effective to divide and conquer opposition – and for the muddled middle it can sound like a coherent argument if one doesn’t look too closely.
What seems new and even more cynical though is framing it now as “minority jobs vs the environmentalists”. To take the long overdue racial reckoning this nation is finally addressing and distort it this way takes the cake for the darkest manipulative machinations award!
Thanks Ka’sha for your insight here!
Unfortunately the “jobs vs environment” false framing is also prominent in Democratic politics, where unions (staunch Dem allies, and rightly so) advocate for mega-projects (like the CRC) with minimal regard for the environment.
Bill Clinton had it right: we need public-works projects that improve the environment. It’s not an either-or situation. But what we have today – especially with ODOT – is a massive failure of imagination.
Thank you, Ka’sha, for this fantastic and insightful piece! I agree that ODOT has worked hard to frame this as “Black people want the freeway” and “we’re the ones listening to the Black community.” It’s been incredibly dishonest and disingenuous. I’m extraordinarily frustrated that they continue to push ahead with this project even while the state is in a middle of major budget cuts across other agencies. It’s not fiscally responsible; it’s bad for the environment; it’s terrible for our kids; and, biggest insult of all, it won’t even solve the problems they’ve identified. It’s become a nightmare of a self-perpetuating project. If ODOT won’t do the right thing, our elected officials need to be the ones to pull the plug.
I think for ODOT the Rose Quarter project represents an existential event. While to most of us this projects represents a dumb “hill to die on.” But for an agency who’s existence has been in service of major automobile roads and highways it is some kind of Waterloo in their minds. If they lose this battle their purpose in life might just come to end. The age of growing auto infrastructure might be over for good. And worse, they might have to preside over an era where auto infrastructure is triaged and removed. Their worst nightmare is the day when their main job is to grind up roads and return them to gravel or repurpose them as bike only paths.
My ear being a little closer to the ground, I’m just hoping for unity.
Senator Frederick supports this project, but I’ll guess that has more to do with political contributions than his constituents.
We, his constituents in opposition, need to stop taking gentrification as bait. There is a feast of consensus about freeway expansion and a hell of a lot more just down the way.
Having a foot on both sides, I understand why there’s some mutual distrust. But then again, what happens when you nibble on bait?
Great comment, Champs.
I find it ironic that ODOT gets the blame for what the Democratic Party-controlled legislature and governor have done to push this project through Portland – but then I suppose that’s what we pay the bureaucrats at ODOT to do – take the blame for all those Oregonians who keep electing the same conservative government year after year, conservatives who call themselves “Democrats.”
I wonder, when will Oregonians start to wake up and begin to own up to their own past mistakes of electing the same clowns every year, that their own worst enemies are themselves?
The opening of Harriet Tubman Middle School in 1982 was meant to mitigate some of the damage and the historical shortchanging of black students in Portland Public Schools. But in 2007, PPS converted Tubman to an all-girls academy for grades 6 through 12. And under financial pressure, the district closed Tubman entirely in 2012.
As PPS enrollment grew in recent years, the Portland School Board recognized a shift to K-8 schools had failed and also wanted to address the gentrification that had bleached the neighborhoods around Tubman white. At the urging of black community leaders, the board voted last fall to reopen Tubman as a middle school in fall 2018.
It made that decision even though a 2009 study by the federal Environmental Protection Agency had identified poor air quality at Tubman.
David, as I have pointed out before, it’s actually the fault of the unhinged Republican Party that we Oregonians HAVE to vote for Dems. If the Republicans could put forward sane, center-right candidates, Dems could vote for them. But there is simply no alternative here. The prospect of a Republican elected official is always an existential threat, much as we all just saw at the national level.
You are correct, Fred.
But it is also correct that the Democrats have run Oregon for over two decades now. This is the state they have lead us to, and way too many progressive Oregonians don’t seem to recognize that their party too is an abject failure.
It’s time for a new party in Oregon.
Won’t happen without a different way of voting.
Call up your state reps to support HB-3250. We won’t get new parties overnight if this passed, but it’ll remove a very large roadblock to that happening.
Organizations large and small, from small grassroots groups and community groups to big companies, government agencies, politicians and lobbyists, have all gotten good at mouthing the words, editing the images, and trotting out faces of whatever colors are needed for the photo-op. You’re as likely to hear “equity”, “inclusion”, “restorative justice”, and so on from the mouth of an industry lobbyist as from a person to whom the words actually mean more than tools to crack a public relations challenge.
Without keywords and external appearance to use as guides, people have to actually study, analyze and research complicated issues to arrive at a position. Whether they are an ordinary voter or a politician. Unfortunately, neither has a monopoly on being way too busy, too many time demands, etc.
TL:DR they’ve gotten really good at making Astroturf that looks just like the real thing.
So happy to see this great account from Ka’sha. I especially appreciated hearing about the time she took to listen at meetings and to learn as much about the project as she could.
I’ve been wondering about ODOT’s outreach efforts to the Black community in NoPo. Does anyone know how they are going? I’ve been getting ODOT’s emails and I’ve seen the large number of Black community members they have engaged (hired?) as part of their outreach effort. Is it a true effort to engage, or is it “AstroTurf,” as someone else here called it? I’m going to guess, based on my other experiences with public engagement in Portland, that when ODOT dissolved the failing grassroots committee, they shifted their public-engagement budget to hire Black PR and community-involvement professionals. No dis on them – they are doing what they are hired to do. But does it represent true engagement of the community?
+1 Fred, to the thanks to Ka’sha for sharing her story and taking time to get to meetings. Her strong on-point critique reminds me why I really need to send another donation to BikePortland for sharing voices like hers and No More Freeways for organizing in the first place (and Ka’sha, if you suggest any other ways to help, let me know!).
Regarding a parenthetical in the second paragraph, I’d advise caution here… Claiming opponents are “hired” sounds like when some people say lefty protesters are hired by George Soros or such nonsense. In the best case, it risks belittling any real effort by those with different viewpoints, and in the worst case, it risks making you/us look like conspiracy theorists who bring claims without evidence.
Having said that, it certainly seems likely that organizations with money (like IBEW, highway planning firms, etc) may be paying their staff to dig deep and find anyone willing to support the project (in the case cited – people who own businesses that would profit from it). There’s nothing wrong with that, it just means the opponents of the project need to show up in even greater numbers.
The Black community in Portland is not very large. To authentically engage this small population (who have legitimate reasons to distrust government) requires paying trusted community leaders to bring the voices of their community to the table. And its becoming the norm to compensate people of color and other underserved groups to participate in the public process. I know this because I have had experience with it and I believe that is what is happening here. It’s not the same as reaching out to white people who have privilege and power and are conditioned to influencing outcomes. You can’t look at this through a white lens.
I appreciate the point about the white lens, Chuck, but to go back to the original intent: ODOT said they had to dissolve the committee which was telling them what they didn’t want to hear and instead engage authentic Black voices to undo the harm caused by the rupture of the Black community in NoPo. Are they actually doing that? Or is it more AstroTurfing? (which must be a verb now).
I know what I suspect. I’m fine with paying underserved groups to participate, but it should lead to a result that is best for the community ODOT purports to serve and care about.
Thank you for sharing that, Ka’sha.
Grew up in New Orleans, moved to Portland, and became an environmental lawyer. I can relate! Great piece.
As someone who had the opportunity to be a fly on the wall of the inner sanctum of political power in Oregon, let me just say that this kind of skullduggery is the tip of the iceberg. Eventually, you realize that you are dealing with a vast network of people who will look you in the eyes and lie without regret and who will literally do anything to create the outcome that preserves the status quo. It’s rigged, and it will take a literal war to undo this evil power bloc.
Thanks for writing this Ka’sha! This is a fantastic piece and a crucial perspective to hear.