BREATHE Oregon empowers communities to speak up about air quality
Author: Christina Williams
Posted: January 31, 2019
BREATHE Oregon community eventOn a foggy Sunday in January community members, nonprofit leaders, high school students and elected officials gathered in the Lents neighborhood to talk about air quality. Students made impassioned pitches for legislation aimed at curbing diesel emissions and health experts talked about ways to make home air cleaner by using air filter inserts and a box fan. A local banh mi shop catered sandwiches and attendees were encouraged to write to legislatures about their air quality concerns.

The gathering was the result of work by BREATHE Oregon, a collaboration between Portland State University’s Institute for Sustainable Solutions, Neighbors for Clean Air, and Lewis & Clark Law School’s Northwest Environmental Defense Center. Launched in 2017, BREATHE Oregon’s goal is demonstrated by community forums like the one in Lents: empowering community advocacy for cleaner air.

Since last year, BREATHE Oregon has focused its attention on diesel emissions, a particular problem in Oregon where regulations lag behind neighboring states like California and Washington. And while the emphasis of the BREATHE Oregon coalition is to empower community groups — including Green Lents, OPAL Environmental Justice Oregon, Verde, and Oregon Physicians for Social Responsibility — to take the lead in cleaner air activism, faculty fellows of the PSU Institute for Sustainable Solutions (ISS) continue to play a supporting role.

ISS, which exists to build effective community-university partnerships to support a more equitable and sustainable world, helps connect the work of Linda George, an environmental science and management professor and air quality expert, to BREATHE Oregon. Her work has informed community organizations about the sources of diesel pollution and, previously, of metals. Vivek Shandas, another ISS Faculty Fellow and professor of urban studies analyzed how communities across the United States have been regulating diesel pollution.

BREATHE Oregon diesel display Now the focus is pivoting to communication and activism involving Brianne Suldovsky, Assistant Professor of Communication and another ISS Faculty Fellow. Suldovsky’s specialty is helping scientists better communicate with the public and she’s teaching a winter term class focused on just that.  

Suldovsky, who conducted research with BREATHE Oregon through a series of focus groups last summer, offered up her class as a way for Neighbors for Clean air to uncover new ways to engage with community members on the topic of air quality.

“We were looking for cost-effective ways to move BREATHE Oregon forward,” she said. “This class, Science Communication and the Environment, is about public engagement with science and the environment, and was a clear fit with BREATHE Oregon and Neighbors for Clean Air.”

The class covers a range of different models of how science is shared with the public and examines ways to engage people in taking in that information and taking steps such as making recommendations for future scientific research or changing behavior. As part of their work, students will generate ideas about the different styles of engagement that can be used by Neighbors for Clean air in their outreach efforts. Graduate students taking the class will also collect public opinion data related to air quality and share that information with Neighbors for Clean Air and other BREATHE Oregon partners.

BREATHE Oregon work, which now also includes Lewis & Clark Law School’s Green Energy Institute, has been supported by Meyer Memorial Trust since 2017. Other supporters of BREATHE have included the Oregon Department for Environmental Quality, Multnomah County, and the City of Portland.

Through petitions, community forums, and workshops to propose legislation, BREATHE Oregon is working on moving the needle toward cleaner air for everyone — but especially for the low-income communities and communities of color that suffer disproportionately from poor air quality.

“My focus is on how to make the air better,” said Patrick O’Herron, a surgeon with Oregon Physicians for Social Responsibility, during his presentation at the Lents forum, “not how to help people put up with crappy air.”

BREATHE Oregon and other research on indoor and outdoor air quality is a signature community initiative of the Institute for Sustainable Solutions. You can read more about ISS initiatives online.