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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