Mykela Patton is returning to the Rose Foundation as our New Voices Are Rising Program Manager. She joined Rose in 2016 as a Summer Academy student and over the years took on more leadership roles in the program. Mykela has played an integral part in defining and building New Voices’ youth leadership pipeline including designing youth leadership positions and mentoring many students to help them develop their skills and gain experience in environmental justice work. We are thrilled to have her back now that she has completed her environmental policy degree with a justice concentration at Colby College.Last week, the city of Oakland tentatively announced that it will not be moving forward with the proposed development of a coal terminal in West Oakland. Mykela played a big role in organizing New Voices students in advocating against the coal terminal which would have created significant air pollution and health impacts in an area with a long history of environmental injustice. Her work at the Rose Foundation and beyond embodies the leadership and confidence we hope to instill in all youth who enter our New Voices program. We had the opportunity to interview this impressive young leader about her background with New Voices Are Rising, youth leadership, and environmental justice. Read on to learn more about Mykela Patton.
You joined Rose as a New Voices Summer Academy student in 2016 and over the years took on more leadership roles in the program, becoming integral to the New Voices’ development and success. You are now returning in a part-time role to help shepherd our various youth leadership programs. Can you say a bit about the different roles you have assumed at the Rose Foundation?
I started with the program in 2016 as a summer academy participant through the ECO program at Oakland Unified School District. That was my intro to environmental justice and when I feel I found my calling in environmentalism. A lot of the conversation at that time was around greenhouse gasses, global warming, and climate change. And as a summer academy student, New Voices took that information and showed me what environmental justice was, which as a low-income black woman from Oakland was much more relevant to my lived experiences and my community.
I stayed on as the Fall Admin Intern which was really cool because it gave me professional development skills for working in an office. I continued into the next year with the Summer Academy in 2017, our first year with the POD leader system. Program Director Carlos Zambrano, who also joined the program in 2016, and I developed the POD program. Based on our reflections from the summer program and just learning together, we wanted to develop a way to further emphasize youth leadership in the New Voices Program. Previously, the students would just continue to do the summer program and maybe a presentation here or there. Carlos and I thought there needed to be one more step above so that there’s more work and ways to apply knowledge. So that’s how the idea of POD leader came about in 2017. POD leaders are students who have been through the summer academy at least once that want to take that next leadership step of receiving the information, being more in charge, and leading the activities that go along with lesson planning. Each POD leader has 3-4 students that they work more closely with and support those individuals on a youth to youth teaching level.
I started college in the fall of 2017 and went across the country to Maine. I came back for the summer of 2018, which was my first year of being the youth co-coordinator. This position was the next step after POD leader. Similar to the reflections of the other summer, sometimes there were students that wanted to be involved with New Voices for a third year or sometimes more who wanted to continue growing their leadership skills within the program. The position opened up as a way to support Carlos and Rose Foundation President, Jill Ratner while developing critical youth leadership skills and making youth leadership a pillar of the program. I was the first youth co-coordinator. This was much more hands-on than being a POD leader and involved interaction with folks on the backend. So it wasn’t only student facing work, although that was the majority of it, it also involved maintaining relationships with externship hosts, contacting organizations that we might want to partner with, and coordinating with rose staff for the newsletter, social, and board meetings. It also involved smaller things like figuring out the bus schedule, or the food and going shopping. It was much more responsibility. There was also student facing work. So just as the POD leaders have their individual students, as youth co-coordinator you are directly supervising POD leaders and making sure they know what they’re doing. But you are really developing the lesson plans and the day to day activities and seeing how those match up with some of the grants and the deliverables that need to be tracked. The idea is that you are able to grow more each year.
You played a big role organizing New Voices students in advocating against the development of a coal terminal in West Oakland, which would have created significant air pollution and health impacts in an area that is already burdened with environmental pollution. This environmental justice fight has been going on for six years now. How do you feel after last week’s announcement that the coal terminal project will most likely not be moving forward?
It’s amazing. 2022 is the year for environmental justice in Oakland. East Oakland has the AB617 designation and the West Oakland coal terminal has hopefully been stopped. For me personally, what I’ve gained from this experience is what it means to be involved in environmental justice work. An understanding that this fight has been happening since the late 80’s. Definitely even before then but as a term, environmental justice started in the late 80’s. Even in Warren County that was started by black folks and specifically low-income black folks who didn’t want their communities to be poisoned. So I think it’s interesting that a similar thread can still be seen in West Oakland, a part of the city that traditionally has been black and brown, mainly low-income folks facing a large variety of environmental injustices. From the freeway, the truck traffic, and the port, to getting its first grocery store only a few years ago. There’s so many different issues and those are just the environmental justice issues. Then also thinking of the social justice implications that harm our communities as well. I’m really happy the community was listened to. Especially with the No Coal in Oakland fight because just the history of it really showed the power and influence of money. The initial decision was that the coal terminal wasn’t going to be a thing. The City Council then ignored the community and decided to go with the developer because it was a lot of money. So it’s been a really really long fight for years. It’s been something youth have been really involved in. Obviously the storing and handling of coal would have had immediate impacts. I think the impacts on air quality would have been seen on a longer time scale and would have really impacted youth when we are at the peak of our development. I’m really happy that it’s stopped. NVAR was really involved before I was there and we did the Youth v. Coal at the beginning of 2018. The continuous pressure of really letting folks know and letting folks with power know what the community really wants.
Since you ended your last position at Rose in 2020, you have completed your undergraduate degree and worked with Communities for a Better Environment. What skills have you developed during this time that you will bring to your newest position as a New Voices Program Manager at Rose?
I have a much better understanding of what it means to do environmental justice work. What that really means from my identity and position working with impacted and marginalized youth. When I hear the word environment with regards to environmentalism and climate, there are definitely certain perceptions. I think working with youth and really anyone, and specifically in Oakland. I understand New Voices has expanded to include communities in Contra Costa County and Bayview Hunters Point and so similarly to those communities, sometimes it’s hard for us to picture what the environment is. There’s always the idea of trees or hiking or the ocean – something you have to go to. And when I started this work it really made me feel like I couldn’t talk about my environment because my environment is wood and concrete and buildings. I want to remind folks that there is no separation. This is our environment even though it is a built environment. And even the fact it is so built up is very intentional. And you don’t see that in all communities. So I think I’ve developed a different understanding of what it means to be an environmentalist and having it not just refer to work around the natural world.
I also understand systems better, like the nonprofit system and how it works. And I think trying to mesh together what the youth want to do and are interested in and then putting that in a grant so we can get the funding and money to actually do that. I think I’m able to better coordinate activities or projects that agencies or funders think are really cool and also youth think are really cool. And I think big picture stuff of how these systems tie together and why our communities really are the way they are. One presentation I’ve given quite a bit at this point is about redlining in urban planning and how it still impacts our cities today even though it happened over a hundred years ago. I took suburban politics in school and “The Color of Law” was the first book we read and the introduction was about Richmond, CA! But the clicking moment of when I really got involved in environmental justice was after doing a toxic tour of Richmond. We went to a trail next to the Chevron refinery and I really understood the terms they use – fenceline communities, impacted communities, marginalized communities. Because people were literally separated from these huge refineries by one block and like a fence. It’s a really interesting parallel that Richmond was the first city mentioned in the Color of Law. It’s why I got interested in redlining and zoning and urban planning.
I think a lot of the time our communities normalize things that are not normal. Because it is our normal. And folks already know this but I really want them to understand and develop the awareness, confidence, and vocabulary to say our communities don’t deserve this and this is not normal. And if anything it’s actually harming and killing many folks. So just advocating for what our communities really deserve and honestly what’s owed to them. Because America, California, and the Bay Area have built themselves off the sacrifices of people of color.
You have an extensive background in youth organizing and leadership. What has drawn you to this work and what about it most excites you?
Youth are amazing. I am always learning something new through this work, and something new that’s so relevant to the modern world and how things are advancing now. It’s nice to work with youth because in the nonprofit world so much of our work is tied to grants. Bureaucracy and government is slow and outdated and not as engaging or keeping pace with how society is developing. Speaking with youth, especially in the days of the internet and social media and seeing them make Tik Toks that deliver the same amount of information as a two hour presentation in under two minutes is mind blowing. Like the work Andrea is doing or the really cool podcast that youth did for the Summer Program was amazing. The different ways to communicate with people. Especially on social media but also in the Covid world when we aren’t able to meet in person and have these conversations. There’s just so many amazing things and skills that folks have. So I’m always learning something new.
And just reminding myself that things should be different draws me to this work. When I interact with agency foks, I am always pushing them to understand that the community is constantly evolving and that they are a bit behind. I want to be able to bridge those two things so engagement is productive and meaningful.