Becton, Gordon: Two East Bay women of power
When Trevor Noah signed off at The Daily Show for the last time, he told viewers that people who want to learn about America should “talk to Black women because, unlike everybody else, Black women can’t afford to f— around and find out.”
Nowhere is that more true than in the East Bay, which is blessed with many strong, powerful Black women who have found their missions and continue to fight for them. Here are two of them.
D.A. Diana Becton: Justice for All
State Sen. Nancy Skinner announced that Contra Costa District Attorney Diana Becton was being honored as the 2019 “Woman of the Year” for the 9th California Senate District by describing Becton’s career as “extraordinary.” Far from an exaggeration, the word is entirely appropriate for the woman born in East Oakland who went on to become an attorney, a judge and as of June 2018, the first woman and first African American elected as Contra Costa’s district attorney since the office was established in 1850. Becton was re-elected in 2022.
Sitting in her Martinez headquarters, Becton described what it was like growing up during the week in a working-class neighborhood in Oakland (“the city”) and on weekends at her grandparents’ home in the Russell City area of Hayward (“the country”). “My grandparents left Louisiana to get away from Jim Crow, but they [recreated rural] Louisiana at their house. They basically lived off the land. My grandma even kept bees for honey,” Becton said.
As a young girl, she absorbed the lessons of the lunch counter sit-ins and Ruby Bridges’ desegregation of the all-white William Frantz Elementary School in Louisiana in 1960. “Collectively, these experiences helped shape my drive to be involved in the law,” Becton recounted. The Allen Temple Baptist Church in Oakland, and the leadership of Dr. J. Alfred Smith Sr., also inspired her. Smith’s memoir, On the Jericho Road, “told us we needed to get out of our ‘lazy rocking chairs of religion’ and actively work to better our community,” she said.
Her dreams of being involved in the law began to become reality when she graduated from Golden Gate University School of Law. She went on to serve for 22 years as a judge in Contra Costa County, where she was eventually elected as presiding judge. In September 2017, she was appointed Contra Costa County’s interim district attorney, replacing Mark Peterson, who resigned after pleading no contest to a felony perjury charge. And then, after a hard-fought campaign, she was elected to office in 2018, heading a staff of 200.
Retired BART Deputy Chief of Police Jan Glenn-Davis first crossed paths with Becton more than 18 years ago, when they both volunteered for the “Know Your Rights” program, which helps educate youth of color on what to do if stopped by police. “She is absolutely brilliant,” said Glenn-Davis, “but what really stands out about her is how down-to-earth she is.” Add to that her ability to think strategically, and there is a person who “doesn’t play checkers. She plays chess,” Glenn-Davis said.
After starting her second term, Becton has highlighted three policies and programs that are priorities.
One is a data dashboard that will help the DA’s office improve how data is captured and analyzed internally. Data-driven decision-making aligns with Becton’s ongoing policy to be more transparent with the public. “Focusing on data analysis of cases, and how they are reviewed, will reduce disparities in serving the interest of justice,” she said.
Becton is also focused on a comprehensive violence-reduction program. “By analyzing the drivers of violence, we can find better preventative approaches in reducing it in our communities,” she said. “Those who focus singularly on incarceration as a ‘one size fits all’ solution to public safety overlook the variety of causal factors of violence.” She believes a comprehensive program will help improve strategies to decrease violent incidents in Contra Costa County.
Third, Becton is implementing Contra Costa County’s first comprehensive restorative justice program. Called T.A.Y. (Transition Aged Youth), it’s a pre-charging diversion program aimed at reducing youth incarceration, recidivism, and decreasing racial and ethnic disparities among young adults ages 18-25. “T.A.Y. aims to bring young people, who committed crimes, together with those they harmed into a process that repairs the damage and rebuilds relationships,” said Becton.
All of these programs tally with Becton’s longstanding commitment to being “morally and ethically top-notch,” said Glenn-Davis. “She is not motivated by what is politically favored at the time, but by what is right for the people she serves.”
This was echoed by Becton when asked what she hopes the legacy of her time in office will be. She listed helping to reduce mass incarceration, diverting youth before they become entangled in the system and giving people a second chance. In 2015, while still a judge, she hosted a “Clean Slate Day,” at a Richmond church. “By 6am, there was a long line of people waiting to come in,” she said. “We resolved a thousand cases that day.”
Overall, her goal is to give the Contra Costa district attorney’s office an ongoing “Clean Slate Day.”
Ms. Margaret Gordon: Grandmother—and eco-hero
Many people have been described as “a force of nature.” But few fit the bill as truly as Ms. Margaret Gordon, co-founder of the West Oakland Environmental Indicators Project, former Port of Oakland commissioner and committed fighter for environmental justice.
It wasn’t always so.
In a classic anecdote in Bay Area eco-circles, Gordon was working in the late ’90s as a housekeeper for Michael Herz, founder of San Francisco Baykeeper. Up to that point, she had been an activist in other ways, leading a rent strike in her former apartment building in Oakland’s San Antonio area, but considered environmental activism to be about “kissing birds and whales.”
“And frogs,” she added.
Yet the magazines she came across at Herz’s house, containing articles about the effects of pollution on health, rang a bell. Herself an asthmatic, she saw one of her children, and eventually, three of her grandchildren, develop asthma. She read that children in West Oakland were seven times more likely to be hospitalized with respiratory complaints than the California average. She became aware of the “black stuff” on her window sills.
Herz, who now lives in Maine, believes Gordon “was in the right place at the right time.” The 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake, which brought down the Bay Bridge, helped focus the eyes of the world on West Oakland and its pollution, as plans commenced for rebuilding. “The concept of ‘environmental justice’ had not yet fully evolved,” he said. “But she was thrust into a leadership role.”
At the time, Gordon was a single mother of three sons. She was not a trained community organizer. But she began pulling West Oakland residents together, and, with help from the Pacific Institute, learned about finding data, research and about the concept of “environmental indicators.” The West Oakland Environmental Indicators Project (WOEIP) was born in 2002 with Gordon as co-founder, and started to take on the Port of Oakland and the city about air pollution in the neighborhood.
Diesel trucks heading to and from the port were a huge factor. WOEIP was pivotal in helping craft and support an ordinance that ultimately regulated their routes, while providing drivers with an information center and small truck stops, minimizing polluting idling.
By 2006, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) had officially recognized WOEIP for its work to improve local air quality. In 2007, Gordon was inducted into the Alameda County Women’s Hall of Fame for her leadership on behalf of West Oakland’s residents. And, in recognition of her work, former Oakland Mayor Ron Dellums appointed Gordon as a commissioner to the Port of Oakland in 2008, where she served until 2012. Under President Barack Obama, the official White House website featured her as a “Champion of Change.”
It wasn’t easy then, and it still isn’t. The reaction from many was, “Who is this lady and why is she in my business?” Gordon said. Now, as a senior African American woman, she still “keeps having to rise to the occasion.” But people have gone from “How dare you?” to “I wish I had five of you,” she laughed.
It sometimes seems there are five of Gordon. Under her leadership, WOEIP has been participating in air-quality monitoring, forming a partnership with Intel, which provided air monitors for the group’s use. In 2015, WOEIP began partnering with the Environmental Defense Fund, allowing Google car air mapping in the streets of West Oakland.
A relationship with UC Berkeley placed 100 air sensors for 100 days. All this monitoring work meant that West Oakland, identified as one of the communities most needing remediation under California Assembly Bill 617, designed to address the disproportionate impact of air pollution on low-income neighborhoods, was able to transition immediately into creating a plan for mitigation.
Of multiple AB-617 strategies presented by WOEIP, four are currently being implemented, Gordon said. Another project Gordon and the WOEIP are exploring is how the proposed Howard Terminal project would affect West Oakland residents. “The environmental process here is very incomplete,” she said. Overall, if a major environmental disaster struck West Oakland, “Who would have to leave and who would get to stay?” she asks.
Janet Johnson, Richmond resident and organizer with the Sunflower Alliance and No Coal in Richmond, has known Gordon for years. “Ms. Margaret is as ferociously persistent as anyone I’ve ever met. Her fearlessness and sense of urgency are extraordinary.”
“When you think about the transformation Margaret has gone through,” said Herz, “it’s remarkable.”
It might well be argued that this mother of three adult children, 17 grandchildren and great-grandmother of one has done her part. Gordon said she has tried to cut back, working primarily at home, doing more delegating, “but I just never get that far out the door.” There is so much more to be done, she added: educating the next generation in West Oakland about environmental justice, helping other communities organize.
“She called me one afternoon to discuss the AB-617 program,” said Johnson. “When I started to whine about my frustrations, she let me know in blistering terms what I should tell the folks who were not down with the program. I thought my phone would melt. It was my introduction to Ms. Margaret’s School of Powerful Advocacy.”
Gordon dreams of Oakland’s port becoming “the most progressive and environmental sound in the world,” resembling the Netherlands’ Port of Rotterdam, which she described as “pristine.” She’d like to see the birds return to her neighborhood and trees replanted, as the air clears and children can breathe without harm.
If anyone can help achieve those dreams, it’s likely Gordon, whose great-aunts moved in the 1940s from El Dorado, AR to Richmond, where one became a Rosie the Riveter at Bethlehem Steel. “We can do it,” they said, and did. And so has she.
We need a statue or something to commemorate the change in awareness and attitude about pollution and environmentalism that Ms. Margaret has brought not only to West Oakland but to the entire Bay Area, often called the “Strongest Regional Economy in the World.”
By consistently asserting that no economy can be called strong – or even vaguely viable! – if its pollution load or homeless camps or blighted neighborhoods or inadequate health systems are tolerated as necessary to the overall equation of what constitutes an economy in the first place, she has put everyone on notice that we really can have a far stronger and more sustainable Bay Area by addressing and ultimately fixing its weakest links.
Her dream of upgrading our Port to a Rotterdam-or-better operational status is something we can do right now, thanks to the current administration’s bipartisan Infrastructure Bill aimed at upgrading our highways, bridges and ports, all three of which are found in West Oakland and its surrounding Waterside Oakland neighborhoods.
There’s another layer to all this in that global warming will likely cause mass starvation and early death throughout sub-Saharan Africa in the tens of millions for the foreseeable future, making the “Drill baby drill” mantra of the Fox-stoked right as much of a racist chant as “Stand back and stand by” was for the January 6th Insurrectionists.
So let’s hope that someone is out there is sculpting away at that long-overdue statue so we here in the Bay Area – and maybe even the entire country! – can have some hope that the most notable and productive champions of our threatened environment are duly venerated and loved for their persistence in the service of humankind.