Supporting Environmental Justice in Portland, OR

CCHD 50th Anniversary

Throughout the last five decades, the Catholic Campaign for Human Development (CCHD) has worked to address the roots of systemic poverty in the U.S. Our work has encompassed many social issues -- from affordable housing and immigrant accompaniment to food accessibility and environmental issues. For our 50th anniversary, we want to celebrate our successes as well as highlight the importance of ongoing efforts.

One of our many efforts is supporting the work for environmental justice. CCHD supports community organizations throughout the country, working to tackle many dimensions of the complex social and environmental crisis facing our world. But in order to understand the solution, it's necessary to understand the problem.

As a Catholic organization, we also wish to highlight the distinct perspective that the Catholic Church brings to environmental justice. It brings to the forefront the moral dimensions of climate change, which more severely affects communities of color, by calling attention to the needs of the most vulnerable among us and empowering them to enact change. As people of faith, CCHD teaches that we are all called to a deep reverence and respect for God's creation. This is central to our approach to addressing environmental problems that affect those who are experiencing poverty in our communities.

While we work with countless environmental justice advocates across the U.S., we will highlight some of the most successful campaigns and organizations working in the Portland, OR area, which is greatly afflicted by environmental issues. But first, it's important to know what environmental justice is, and the impact it has on our communities.

What is Environmental Justice?

Environmental justice is a movement that aims to address harmful environmental practices that disproportionately impact communities of color and low-income communities. Mainly led by said communities of color, the movement addresses issues such as: air and soil pollution, unsafe housing, deteriorated roads and sidewalks, inadequate access to public transit, disproportionate impacts due to climate change, polluted water, and even toxic waste in some cases. 

When you think of climate change, what's the first thing that comes to mind? Melting ice caps? A shrinking ozone layer? While these are all results of the climate crisis impacting our world, and will have dire consequences in the future, we are already seeing the adverse effects of climate change within our communities -- whether it's increasingly severe storms ravaging coastal neighborhoods, more frequent fires in California, or extreme heat and poor air quality. Unfortunately, these climate changes more severely affect communities of color. 

Race, more than class, is the top indicator for the placement of toxic facilities. A few years ago, a study was published about environmental demographics and observed:

“It’s certainly not news that minority and low income communities face more than what some would say is their fair share of pollution from industrial sources. We found that actually, the burden they face from these super polluters was even more extreme than you would think. . .the highest polluting facilities were also more likely to be located in proximity to poor and minority neighborhoods.” 

Historically, environmental discrimination has taken multiple forms. It ranges from the placement of hazardous manufacturing plants and municipal services such as waste disposal facilities and landfills to the location of travel hubs such as highways, airports, and even basic public transit routes.

Environmental Blackmail

Research shows climate change predominantly affects communities of color, which are often less likely to: 

  • have access to adequate healthcare
  • be able to rebuild or relocate after a natural disaster
  • have access to proper educational materials in their native language

Low-income communities and people of color are also most often affected by environmental discrimination practices because they generally do not have the means or training to advocate against, say, a large corporation trying to erect a factory in their backyard. For decades, those in the U.S. who have not been able to influence change politically or financially have gotten the short end of the stick when it comes to neighborhood pollution rates. Companies manage to convince local leaders time and again that job growth is worth the health risks that come with their harmful facilities.

"Polluting industries have exploited the pro-growth and pro-jobs sentiment exhibited among the poor, working-class, and minority communities. . .The sight and smell of paper mills, waste treatment and disposal facilities, incinerators, chemical plants, and other industrial operations were promoted as trade-offs for having jobs near 'poverty pockets'." (source)

This is now sometimes referred to as environmental blackmail. This toxic practice prioritizes economic growth, no matter how minimal, over the health and wellbeing of local residents.

Environmental Justice Organizations in Portland, OR

CCHD has invested over $6 million in more than 80 organizations led by low-income residents across 28 states and 42 dioceses who are working to address local environmental issues. These efforts include empowering grassroots organizations to address issues that range from air and water pollution, extractive industries, and disaster relief to promoting sustainable agriculture, green jobs, access to healthy foods, and community development projects. 

While CCHD fights to correct environmental discrimination practices throughout the entire United States, Portland, OR in particular has seen both the brunt of it as well as much progress.

Some of the issues they've seen over the years include but are not limited to:

  • Water contamination in Clark County.
  • Toxic hazards around Portland Harbor.
  • Pesticide exposure in rural communities.
  • Major highways in North Portland have created the most polluted corridor in the state.
  • North and Northeast Portland are home to over 500 waste sites that contribute to land, air, and water pollution. Asthma rates in this region are as high as 14% -- double the national average. This region also has the highest concentration of people of color in the state.

But it's important not to get discouraged. Many motivated and effective environmental justice groups have been furthering the just cause of providing a cleaner environment to local Portland residents. Some of the organizations that CCHD has been working with are:

  • The Northwest Hub - The Northwest Hub is a not-for-profit full-service bicycle shop, bike reclamation program and training center. They recruit volunteers to reclaim bikes that would otherwise be thrown into a landfill or scrapped, restore them, and give them to low-income community members and kids. Their work helps to reduce landfill waste and help mobilize their neighbors, since public transit is largely inaccessible in Northwest Portland. They also hire workers and train their volunteers in machining, welding, and bicycle repair, giving them valuable job skills and experience. In 2019 alone, they gave away 371 bikes to the community and recycled over 22,000 lbs of steel and aluminum.
  • Metropolitan Alliance for Common Good (MACG):  MACG is "an alliance of faith, labor, health education and community organizations dedicated to building a base of everyday civic leaders to effectively stand for change they want to see in their communities." Lately, they have begun a climate change and environmental justice campaign to rectify local polluting industries that adversely affect vulnerable people.
  • Unete Center for Farm Worker Advocacy: Unete is an organization of Oregon farm workers and immigrants that empowers and enriches the lives of immigrants through education, cultural presentations, advocacy, representation in issues that affect their lives, and organizing to defend immigrant rights. It is the oldest Latino-led non-profit in the Rogue Valley, OR. They provide legislative actions to help them file grievances related to all sorts of labor violations.
  • Outgrowing Hunger of East County: Outgrowing Hunger is a neighborhood organization that helps immigrants and refugees expand their job skills by creating community gardens and farms. This also gives community residents access to fresh fruits/veggies and teaches kids about the importance of nutrition. Outgrowing Hunger is improving neighborhoods one plot at a time.

Take Action in Your Community

Between the current coronavirus pandemic and the renewed attention on racial injustice in this country, it's clear that our world faces several interconnected crises. The climate crisis is no different and demands our integral and united response that recognizes the interconnectedness of all created life.  In order to call attention to these systemic issues and enact change, we must stand in solidarity with those most impacted by environmental issues.

Help us amplify the work of CCHD-support groups working to bring a clean environment to every Oregonian by sharing this article on social media. Follow us on Twitter and Facebook for more information about how you can join the work to break the cycle of poverty in your city.

Are you looking for additional ways to take action in your community? Visit our Take Action or  Support webpage to learn more.

Environmental discrimination isn't just an Oregon problem -- it's a nationwide problem. Get involved with your local CCHD-supported organizations today to bring a better tomorrow.

About Poverty USA

Poverty USA is an initiative of the Catholic Campaign for Human Development (CCHD) and was created as an educational resource to help individuals and communities to address poverty in America by confronting the root causes of economic injustice—and promoting policies that help to break the cycle of poverty.

The domestic anti-poverty program of the U.S. Catholic bishops, CCHD helps low-income people participate in decisions that affect their lives, families, and communities—and nurtures solidarity between people living in poverty and their neighbors.