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Stanford history project centers on marginalized Bay Area community

Stanford historians are illuminating the complex story of environmental damage in San Francisco's Bayview-Hunters Point neighborhood.
Undergraduate students listening to a lecture at Bayview Hunter's Point
Stanford undergraduates particpate in a toxic tour of the Bayview-Hunters Point neighborhood as part of history professor Gabrielle Hecht’s course Nuclear Insecurity in the Bay Area and Beyond during spring 2020. (Image credit: Aliyah Dunn-Salahuddin)

Tucked in the southeast corner of San Francisco, Bayview-Hunters Point is like a sidebar to the story of Black communities in the Bay Area. It’s easy to forget, with areas like Oakland, East Palo Alto and the Fillmore receiving most of the attention in conversations about marginalized neighborhoods.

Stanford historians hope to change that story. Gabrielle Hecht, professor of history in the School of Humanities and Sciences, and PhD student Aliyah Dunn-Salahuddin are producing an open-access, online archive of Bayview-Hunters Point’s toxic legacy from nuclear waste emptied into the neighborhood’s former shipyard after WWII. Their work arose through funding from a 2020 seed grant from the Sustainability Initiative that inspired Stanford’s new school focused on climate and sustainability.

“Some of the highest rates of asthma and cancer are in Bayview. It shows us how vulnerable we all are to this threat in our water, the air we breathe, the soil – and this problem is not going away,” said Dunn-Salahuddin, who grew up in Bayview-Hunters Point. “For the safety of us all, we need to not look at environmentalism as this big national problem, but really start to look at local communities.”

A Bay Area case study

The researchers have partnered with the Bayview Hunters Point Community Advocates, a grassroots organization comprised of community members advocating for issues of environmental and economic justice. Hecht sees the project as a case study for how research can be carried out through the lens of environmental justice, in which goals are driven by the needs of community members, rather than just scientists’ perceptions of solutions.

“On-the-ground experiential reports are key to how frontline communities identify patterns of contamination and ill health,” said Hecht. “Working with such evidence is crucial for any effort at environmental justice – efforts which, in turn, are key to a sustainable planet.”

The grant that gave rise to the archiving project also supported Hecht’s Cardinal Course offered last Spring, Racial Justice in the Nuclear Age, in which undergraduates explored the neighborhood’s long history of toxic and radiological contamination and documented residents’ oral histories. This class represents one effort by Hecht and her colleagues to weave environmental justice research and scholarship into the university and its relationship with neighboring communities. This year, the project also received support from the Center for Comparative Studies in Race & Ethnicity (CCSRE) and the Haas Center for Public Service.

“With this and many other examples, we’ve learned that the security of the nation has come at the expense of the health and environmental security of many marginalized people,” Hecht said. “I hope to show students that there is no such thing as an engineering project that operates in a vacuum – it always responds to social needs and social constraints.”

Stanford history professor Gabrielle Hecht teaches undergraduate students about the toxic legacy of Bayview-Hunters Point during a tour of the neighborhood as part of her course Nuclear Insecurity in the Bay Area and Beyond. (Image credit: Aliyah Dunn-Salahuddin)

A history of environmental injustice

Dunn-Salahuddin has recruited four other scholars and alumni from City College San Francisco – including some who live in Bayview-Hunters Point – to help document the experiences of its community members. According to historical records from government agencies, officials have previously excluded the neighborhood’s residents from decision-making by dismissing their concerns about racial and environmental injustices as anecdotal, rather than research-based.

Aliyah Dunn-Salahuddin
PhD student Aliyah Dunn-Salahuddin films in front of the Bayview Opera House. As a professor at city college before coming to Stanford, Dunn-Salahuddin gave several public lectures about the Black history of the Bayview-Hunters Point neighborhood. (Image credit: Kenny Dzib, Leonard Caoili and Otto Schmidt)

“Scholarship is enriched when you include the perspectives of as many people as you can, so we’re trying to compile a database of voices, images, stories and sources so that when others want to research Bayview, it's not such a task,” she said. “I just want to make this history accessible.”

The story of Bayview-Hunters Point is connected to the narrative of many urban centers that have struggled with some of the same problems, according to Dunn-Salahuddin. And its history “exposes the myth of San Francisco as a liberal melting pot and shows the ways that oppression and racism function to marginalize a community,” she said.

“But I think the community itself shows the power and resilience of a people who are determined to maintain place,” Dunn-Salahuddin added. “Think about how that would shape the national narrative of the African American experience, if we were able to better incorporate and make visible the stories of these communities that are often set aside.”

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