East Oakland Youth Get Organized for Environmental Justice

By Geana Sieburger |

You may already know this. We redistribute 3% of our online sales to organizations that protect civil rights, empower marginalized groups, and protect the environment.

From July 1 - September 30, 3% of online purchases will be redistributed to Communities for a Better Environment. So we checked in with them to learn about their work, the change they're creating, and how we as a community can continue to support their work.

I spoke with Mykela Patton, their youth program Organizer for this post. I want to take a moment to express my gratitude for Mykela and all of the organizers out there who do this work out of a life commitment and deep calling. So much of the positive change that takes place in the world is due to their collective effort.


Geana: Let's get started? Can you give us a high-level introduction? What is CBE?

Mykela: Yeah! CBE stands for Communities for a Better Environment. CBE was officially founded in the late 70s, alongside the overall movement of growing environmental awareness and environmental consciousness. But CBE is different from the mainstream environmental movement and other big environmental organizations. We are what is known as an environmental justice organization. Environmental justice means we are fighting for the health of our planet, but also fight for every other social justice issue such as race, income, class, gender, sexuality. Environmental justice means we know that this isn’t a single issue fight—people who experience the most environmental injustices are often the same people who experience the most injustices in everything else I just mentioned. That’s not a coincidence, and Environmental Justice Orgs like CBE look at how all those interact with each other.

CBE originally began in Chicago, but we have been based in California since 1978. Our work began in the San Francisco/Bay Area and then we also moved down to include working in Southern California in 1982. Today, we still work in both SoCal and NorCal. Up here in the Bay, we work in Richmond and East Oakland. I’m the Youth Organizer for the East Oakland team. Down in SoCal, we work in Wilmington and Southeast L.A. And so all of the communities that we work in are marginalized communities, impacted communities, and specifically environmental justice communities; meaning that they have a really high environmental burden.

Here in East Oakland, specifically Deep East Oakland and the San Leandro Boulevard Corridor, our communities live right next to major heavy industries. Deep East Oakland is compounded with pollution from an international port, international airport, and multiple freeways like I-880 that constantly traffic huge diesel trucks. The other big freeway (I-580) that goes through more wealthy and white communities in Oakland actually banned diesel truck traffic, so Deep East Oakland is even more burdened from truck pollution. We also have a crematorium, a hundred year old foundry, and many more polluting industries. All of this is because of redlining—decades of racist zoning practices that put marginalized residents at risk. When they’re going to church, when they’re going to work, when they’re going to school, they’re always in really close proximity with these harmful and toxic sites. Their health is being compromised in serious ways—the community has the highest rates of asthma, respiratory issues, headaches, bloody noses, migraines, and coughing. But these also lead to long term illnesses like cancer, COPD (Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease), and sometimes even death. There is a fifteen year life expectancy difference between Deep East Oakland and the rest of Alameda County. Deep East Oakland also has by far the highest rates of childhood hospital visits due to asthma attacks and other respiratory issues.

Last year, Deep East Oakland COVID rates were nearly double compared to the rest of the city, and they tripled when compared to rates throughout Alameda county. Our members were also disproportionately impacted by the widespread job loss and housing insecurity from the pandemic. So many folks are part of the unhoused population now too, right here in Deep East Oakland. Especially due to gentrification, and we know that they are the most vulnerable and exposed to these compounding factors.  

Another thing is that Deep East Oakland has historically been home to the largest Black population, throughout all of Oakland. Today, it is the same. Once you start to line them all up, you can really see how all these issues are intersectional.

In the mainstream environmental justice field, sometimes it’s easy to focus on climate, the future and fears around that, which are very true and real. But, for our communities in Deep East Oakland, it’s really difficult to think about the future when you’re trying to figure out how you’re going to pay rent and survive on the day to day.

CBE does a really good job of getting people to think that they shouldn’t have to choose between your health, your safety, and making a living, while in your environment. We deserve green spaces. We deserve healthy, safe jobs, schools, and homes. Ultimately, CBE is a community-based organization, our members are at the center, and everything that we do is rooted in environmental justice. CBE works to empower our members to fight for justice and change in their communities.


Geana: What are some of CBE’s programs?

Mykela: Our Youth EJ Program is really important to me. Youth EJ stands for Youth for Environmental Justice, and I am the Youth EJ Organizer for Deep East Oakland. I’m really excited to talk about it because in East Oakland, we just launched this Program in January of this year. We are still working to fundraise to continue building out the Program for the Deep East. CBE’s other teams have had the Youth for EJ Program for a few decades, but here in the Deep East we are still working to build out this program.  We’re really trying to bridge the gap between youth representation and the people that are making the decisions in Oakland.

Mykela and Adele Watts (CBE's Adult Organizer) tabling at the Black Cultural Zone's Akoma Market where CBE regularly conducts outreach for youth and adult members.

Oakland is a really big city, and the regions are very different and separated. There’s the east, west, north, and downtown. Every region has very, very different issues, and a lot of the time, East Oakland, because of this history of marginalization and systematic racism, gets left out of the conversations with the City of Oakland about funding, resources and things that our community really needs.

In building out the Youth EJ Program here, I’m striving to make it a safe space for Black, brown and indigenous youth, any youth of color to really express their thoughts and understand that whatever they’re going through is real and valid—even though a lot of the time we might normalize things that they are experiencing in our community or society. Which is the opposite of empowerment, and that is why Youth EJ is so important. We are working to change that and we want to bring youth voices to the table. When I’m in these spaces with agency folks, like the Air District, or with folks that are making the decisions, like the Oakland Planning Department, we want to show them that youth are here and ready. Youth are ready to take the wheel, and to begin changing the world that they’re already on their way to inheriting. That looks like having more youth community meetings, getting on social media in different ways, and showing up to meet our youth where they’re at. Doing in-person tabling now that vaccines are rolling out and COVID is a little better. So, that’s what I’ve been working on personally with Youth EJ. We are an open club for all Deep East Oakland Youth (14-18).


Geana: Can you walk us through how the youth gets involved with CBE? For instance, are you showing them how they can advocate for themselves? Is there a lot of education happening?

Mykela: Yeah. So, it’s a mix depending on what level folks come in at. So far, we’ve had a good mix of folks who don’t really know too much about environmental justice and some folks that have been in the field for a little longer. So, the folks that have been in the field a little longer, we definitely do a lot of research and get them really involved in our active campaigns. CBE uses a tetrad model to do this work. Organizing is at the center, but we also have a research team, legal team, comms team and civic engagement side. So we have multiple ways to support youth with internships and building their capacity to engage in this work, and follow their dreams to build towards a better and more just future.

One of our longest running campaigns in Deep East Oakland is called our Freedom to Breathe Campaign. #BreatheFreeDeepEast. For this campaign, we are currently building out a timeline of events for a really big polluter in Oakland called the AB&I Foundry. AB&I is one of the largest polluters in Alameda County. Actually, at one point a few years ago, AB&I was considered the number three polluter in terms of air pollution by the State of California. Throughout the entire state. They’ve been around for 100 years, and AB&I has a lot of history and a lot of horrible incidents and accidents that the community doesn’t know about or has been forgotten over time. AB&I has covered it all up. So, CBE is currently creating a timeline to publish on our website and all of our socials to reground us in that history. Tracking the harm so people are able to really see the burden of this industry. You can follow our community-led Instagram for CBE’s East Oakland team @cbe_eastoak.

Oakland's number one polluter, the AB&I Foundry. The foundry emits toxic odors, of which are a main source of headaches, dizziness, and other negative health impacts for Deep East Oakland residents.

Another major campaign is related to the issues at our schools. Several schools throughout East Oakland have recently been found to be contaminated. Their soil has either lead, PCB, benzene, or other chemicals that are super toxic. We are also working to get testing for the air vapors. CBE’s members are working with our research department on this especially since many of them have gone to those schools or have siblings or friends that go to those schools. In 2019, CBE organized to get the first school air monitors in Deep East Oakland at Acorn Woodland and Encompass Academy. You can actually see AB&I, visibly, and smell their toxic odors from both of these elementary school playgrounds. That’s how close everything is.

For folks that are just now learning about environmental justice, it’s definitely an entire education to check out. Looking at the grounding documents of the 90s, like the Principles for Environmental Justice, and learning how the environmental justice movement got started and why. So many folks think that they know what social justice is. They know what justice is, but for the environmental justice movement, sometimes it’s not so clear how this intersects with the larger conversations around climate change. What environmental justice means is often so much more than what people think it means.

Another critical piece is our movement for a Just Transition. The profit-driven industrial economy rooted in patriarchy and white supremacy is severely undermining the life support systems of the planet. Transition is inevitable. Justice is not, and we must build a visionary economy that is very different from the one we now are in. CBE is a leading member of the Climate Justice Alliance (CJA).

All of our work is to build for a Just Transition for Deep East Oakland. To fully actualize a Just Transition to a safe, healthy, equitable and sustainable future, we must divest from all the extractive industries around us. This is why CBE’s role and our work is so important. For a Just Transition, we must be rooted and grounded in where we live. CBE and our members are grounded in East Oakland. We understand what we are up against–the histories of racism, redlining, systematic marginalization and intentional disregard of our communities in the East by the City of Oakland. That’s why this work is so important.


Geana: So, I’m wondering if you could talk a little bit about why have a youth program. What is the organization’s vision for that?


Mykela: It’s super important. As I mentioned, we organize using the Just Transition framework. And so, when we’re thinking about that, we need to make sure that when we’re building this new society, we’re thinking of the people who are going to be literally living in it, but also who have been left out for so long. The voices of Deep East Oakland’s frontline Black and brown youth must be centered and are critical to ushering in a Just Transition.

I’m only 21 so I still consider myself a youth although I am an older youth. I remember being a Black woman in Oakland, going to high school and also trying to participate in the city council meetings or even just trying to talk to my teachers or principals of my school. And it was just this unbelievable feeling almost of worthlessness, of just like, “Oh you’re too young. You’re just a kid. You don’t know what you’re talking about.” There’s this idea that kids don’t care. My experience taught me that there was no real or meaningful way for youth to get involved in the decisions that are being made about them by the City or Air District.

What I really, really want to highlight in this conversation is that Youth EJ is all about the meaningful representation. I think a lot of times, for all marginalized groups and especially for youth, those folks can even be present in decision-making settings and still not really have a voice. And so, I really want this youth program to empower and activate youth to understand it doesn’t matter how old you are. It doesn’t matter if you have a degree. It doesn’t matter if you’ve gone to school, if you dropped out. Whatever your path is, none of that matters because at the end of the day, you know your community and your lived experiences better than anyone else in this world.

No one can tell you what you’ve gone through. And so if you, as a youth, have been through so much coming from East Oakland––living with all the societal harms, the environmental burden, you or you and your family experiencing asthma or other respiratory illnesses––that’s all super valid. That’s all super valid and you can totally speak power to that and get folks to listen and to begin changing the power structures that are in place that created this.


Geana: Do you mind sharing a little bit about what got you involved in this work?

Mykela: I definitely was lucky enough that my mom always took me to the parks growing up. I went to Skyline High School in Oakland, California and they had this green energy pathway and I had no idea what it was, but it sounded interesting. They were talking a little bit about the climate. I started high school in 2013. At least in my mind, it wasn’t an issue that I heard a lot of people talking about.

So, I started high school and got involved with the Green Academy and stayed there for all four years. At Green Academy, I began learning about climate change. I realized that the way we are going, that by the time I’m an adult, with financial stability and all these things that could allow me to really enjoy life, and travel the world—it might not even be the same world anymore, or one we recognize.

And the whole idea of youth having to think “what am I going to sacrifice as I get older" like the choice to have kids or the choice to vacation. What am I sacrificing for something that I really have not had a part in, especially being both a woman, a woman of color and a Black woman.

In my junior year of high school, I worked with another youth program in Oakland, which speaks volumes for where I am now. The youth program, called New Voices are Rising program through the Rose Foundation, was really grounded in teaching about environmentalism by putting the perspective on environmental justice. That was a perspective that I never heard in high school at all and I just fell in love with it. I really began to see myself, my family and my community as Black and brown folks in the environmental movement. I wanted to envision a program that specifically works with Deep East Oakland youth who are the most impacted by all these issues. CBE does that, specifically for the Just Transition movement.

At college, I am majoring in environmental policy. I have been involved with environmental justice ever since I first learned about the movement. So, I think for me, it’s just shifting away from the idea that the future is going to be so scary and terrifying. We can build towards a better future with a Just Transition. I know so many people in my life that cannot think about next year because they don’t even know if they’re going to make it to tomorrow. So, that kind of duality and differences in lived experiences is what made me want to get involved so that people that look like me don’t have to make that choice.


Geana: Thanks for sharing that. Do you have any last words that you want to leave the readers with?

Mykela: Yeah. Just really take a step back and understand your privilege in this world—whatever that may be, even if you are a marginalized person, and specifically if you’re an older person, just really make sure that you listen to youth. Listen to little kids, children, middle schoolers, and high school students.

The thing that I love so much about youth is their childhood imagination. The imagination and the things that they can come up with are literally endless. As adults, society trains us to not think so creatively. And so it becomes really hard to think of transformative solutions. The youth have the answers, and they are literally changing society as we know it. It might not be in physical spaces, but on social media—Instagram, TikTok, and virtual spaces––they’re doing it.

Always speak up and empower the youth. I think that it’s really easy to discredit someone based on how much life experience they have. But that doesn’t mean anything, it doesn’t give credit to their imagination and their capacity to reimagine our world, and build towards that world and our future.

Also, definitely follow CBE and CBE East Oakland. It’s @cbe_eastoak! That’s where we have all of our live updates, but also we have a statewide page that’s linked in there. If you are in Oakland/Bay Area or Southern California, follow us and see if you can get involved and volunteer to support our work.

If you have the privilege and resources to do so, definitely donate. We are a nonprofit so support us financially if you can. Beyond CBE, also redistribute your wealth and your resources. Find ways to support your unhoused neighbors—masks (especially during wildfire season), extra gloves, hand sanitizer, food. I always think it is important to take a step back and see how you can support your community in a meaningful way. That is what solidarity, mutual aid, and building towards a Just Transition is all about—building towards a better and more just future for all of us.