Margaret Gordon did a happy dance after learning she had won a $100,000 Purpose Prize for her work battling industrial pollution and educating people about the health effects on her West Oakland neighbors.
Then, in typical fashion, she got back to work.
The Purpose Prize is awarded by Civic Ventures, a San Francisco nonprofit think tank that honors work done by people over the age of 60 who make a social impact on the lives of others.
Gordon, 63, a longtime activist and Port of Oakland commissioner, was chosen from among 1,400 other worthy nominees and was one of five people awarded the top prize of $100,000.
"I think she's an excellent role model for reinvention in the second half of life," said Alexandra Kent, director of the Purpose Prize. "The award is about combining strengths, passions and skills to make the world a better place, and Margaret is doing all of those things."
Gordon suffers from asthma, as do a disproportionate number of her West Oakland neighbors -- especially children. Her low-income neighborhood is nestled between two freeways and abuts the Port of Oakland, the fifth busiest port in the country.
She often remarked that the constant truck traffic made it impossible to keep the industrial dust out of her home, no matter how often she cleaned.
She got involved in the fight against Red Star Yeast, and organized her community to picket the company and pressure the Bay Area Air Quality District to enforce its emissions standards. The company eventually left and the building was torn down.
After that battle Gordon got her first taste of notoriety when the East Bay Community Foundation awarded her $5,000 and bestowed the title of "Most Effective Volunteer."
She joined the Pacific Institute, an environmental justice organization, as an intern and began working on reports about the health impacts of pollution in West Oakland. She joined the organization's staff to help conduct an indoor air study for seniors to judge the impact of nearby freeway traffic.
Gordon cofounded the West Oakland Environmental Indicators Project with Brian Beveridge in 2005. They helped develop truck routes around the neighborhood so that diesel trucks going to and from the port are not traveling or idling in front of homes, cutting down on dangerous particulate emissions that can lodge in the lungs and cause cancer and respiratory illnesses.
Their research helped get air filtration systems installed in senior housing, and Gordon is currently using a prototype cell phone outfitted with a computer chip to monitor air quality, courtesy of a grant from Intel.
Beveridge said the prize could raise their profile, and perhaps help them get more funding. But more than anything, it showcases the very effective way in which Gordon works.
"This is a really special thing, not only well-deserved by the recipient, but it truly reflects the style of work that Margaret has done over the years," Beveridge said. "Educating people, empowering people with knowledge and exposing them physically. 'You've got to get down here and take a look at it,' she'd say, taking people on (tours of toxic sites). It's been the nature of her life to educate."
Gordon's work on behalf of the West Oakland community led to her appointment in 2007 by Mayor Ron Dellums to the Port of Oakland board of commissioners, which she considered the pinnacle of her achievements, until now.
"Nothing like this has ever happened to me," she said. "I thought that being a commissioner was the thing. I thought that doing my organizing work was the thing. Now this. I never imagined it."
Gordon said she will use some of the money to go back to college. She'll also buy medical insurance, which she doesn't have, and see a dentist.
The Purpose Prize, funded by The Atlantic Philanthropies and the John Templeton Foundation, is a program of Civic Ventures' Encore Careers campaign (www.encore.org), which aims to engage millions of boomers in encore careers combining social impact, personal meaning and continued income in the second half of life.