Stanford history project centers on marginalized Bay Area community

Graduate filming in front of Oakland Opera House

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...

Stanford historians are illuminating the complex story of environmental damage in San Francisco's Bayview-Hunters Point neighborhood.

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.