By Ilana DeBare
Golden Gate Audubon was saddened to learn of the death this month of Whitney Dotson, one of our former board members and a leader in the fight to preserve shoreline open space in North Richmond.
Whitney built a bridge between the East Bay’s conservation and social justice movements. He understood the connection between healthy open spaces and healthy communities, and helped to strengthen both.
Whitney grew up in Parchester Village, a master-planned community built in the 1950s that was one of the first parts of Richmond open to African-American home buyers at a time when redlining was commonplace.
Parchester sat near open San Pablo Bay shoreline that residents often used for fishing, swimming, wildlife viewing, and even foraging.
“I can remember coming out here as a kid with my mom,” Whitney said in an excellent High Country News profile in 2009. “We’d gather up mustard greens and wild turnips from the marsh. All the women in the community did it. You still see the Laotian women out here.”
When developers threatened to turn that shoreline—known as Breuner Marsh— into an airport in the 1970s, Whitney‘s father mobilized the community against it. Later Whitney picked up the fight as proposals flew to turn it into housing, an industrial park, or a transit center.
With a master’s degree in public health, he saw connections between the lack of open space and low-income health problems like asthma, heart disease, and diabetes.
“Through my involvement with [open space] groups, I became aware of plans to develop the Breuner Marsh,” he said. “So I pulled together my own plan that would preserve the marsh and give the public access to the shoreline. It also addressed health concerns by giving the community a place to walk and exercise.”
Finally, in 2011, Breuner Marsh was purchased through eminent domain by the East Bay Regional Park District and restored to a healthy tidal marsh, an extension of Point Pinole Regional Shoreline.
Whitney’s work for Richmond open space won him an elected seat on the board of the East Bay Regional Park District from 2009 until 2019. He served on the GGAS board too, where he particularly cared about our Eco-Education program, which serves three elementary schools in North Richmond.
“I always enjoyed seeing Whitney, usually along the main path of the beautiful Point Pinole Regional Shoreline park, because he always greeted me with a smile,” said Anthony DeCicco, former Eco-Education director for GGAS. “He made me feel that he truly appreciated my efforts working with the students and families from the nearby schools and within the park itself….
“I also felt very fortunate to represent GGAS with bird walks at the North Richmond Shoreline Festival that Whitney helped to create. It was always a heartwarming blend of family fun and environmental stewardship, and reflected the cultural richness of the nearby communities.”
Former GGAS Executive Director Mark Welther described Whitney as “a passionate yet soft-spoken conservationist, and a real gentleman.”
“We had lunch several times where I would give him the GGAS update and also talk about his youth [visiting relatives] in Louisiana, his care for his mother, and his strong beliefs about the connection between the environment and community,” Welther said.
Whitney was awarded Golden Gate Audubon’s Elsie Roemer Conservation Award in 2007.
A few years later, the East Bay Regional Park District recognized him in an even more meaningful way—renaming Breuner Marsh, in 2017, as the Dotson Family Marsh.
So next time you’re looking for a spur-of-the-moment birding outing, consider the section of Bay Trail that crosses Dotson Family Marsh. Look for egrets, dowitchers, or a Ridgway’s Rail in the reeds. Peer out across San Pablo Bay for an Osprey in flight.
And think of Whitney, the connections he understood between community well-being and environmental well-being, and the legacy he left not for just residents of Parchester Village but for all of us.