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Prizewinner Is Breath of Fresh Air

Oakland woman awarded $100,000 for environmental efforts

By Cathy Boyle

“I’m only 64,” said Margaret Gordon when she was asked about the idea of retirement. “People in my family work until they’re 86.”

Gordon is one of a growing number of Americans who are swapping the label “senior” for “social innovator” and opting out of retirement to pursue careers that serve the greater good.

Her drive to protect the environment around her hometown of West Oakland, CA, has earned Gordon the $100,000 Purpose Prize Award bestowed by Civic Ventures.

The $17-million Purpose Prize Program is the nation’s only large-scale investment in social innovators who are in their second half of life. The prize, funded by The Atlantic Philanthropies and the John Templeton Foundation, is a program of Civic Ventures’ Encore Careers campaign. Their aim is to engage the burgeoning millions of baby boomers in encore careers combining social impact, personal meaning and continued income in the second half of life.

Cleaning up the air

Gordon is a life-long asthma sufferer whose condition got a lot worse when she moved to West Oakland. She soon learned that she was not alone: others in her area were hospitalized with similar health conditions.

And when she made the connection between the high-rates of asthma and the pollution of the nearby port, a career in environmental activism was launched.

Knowing little about environmental issues, but hearing that utility workers near her home were overcome by carcinogenic vinyl chloride while digging to redirect the local freeway, Gordon joined her neighbors in a project to stop the construction.

Her participation in the project not only led to the area becoming a U.S. Environmental Protection Agency Superfund Site; it also led Gordon to become the co-director of the West Oakland Environmental Indicators Project.

The first research report the Project produced showed that diesel emissions in West Oakland were five times higher than in the rest of the city and that area children were seven times more likely to be hospitalized for asthma than children elsewhere in the city. With that data in hand, Gordon led the charge to reroute diesel trucks away from the residential neighborhoods in her community.

The prize

Gordon and her team won a string of other environmental battles, but it was the bad economy, not her achievements that motivated her to enter the Purpose Prize competition.

Winning the Purpose Prize is living proof that innovation is not the sole province of the young.

She had heard about the Awards in previous years but was always too busy to put together an entry. She wasn’t any less busy in 2010, but she was feeling economic pressures. “Our funding had been slow and bad,” she said. “We were just trying to find a way to make sure the doors stayed open. [Entering] was just one more thing I needed to do.”

Three months before the winners were announced, Civic Ventures called Gordon to say she had won their top prize and the $100,000. The only catch was she had to keep the news secret until the award ceremony. “I’m very happy to have won the prize,” she said. “It’s given me another level of security that I’ll be able to continue to do a lot of what I was doing.”

When asked what advice she’d give to others thinking about working to change something they’re passionate about, Gordon doesn’t hesitate. “You shouldn’t be intimidated,” she said. “Don’t psych yourself out before you try something. It’s about being positive. Take small steps.”

Winning the Purpose Prize is living proof that innovation is not the sole province of the young.

“It’s for those with the passion to make change and the experience to know how to do it,” Gordon said.

A list of the 2010 Purpose Prize winners is here.


Cathy Boyle is a writer, creative director, blogger and environmental/wildlife enthusiast with a penchant for gadgets and technology. Read her blog, Mobile Thinkers.