By Paula White
I first met Whitney back in 2005 during a field trip organized by the Sustainable Urban Planning class I was taking at Merritt College. Whitney met us at the Richmond BART station and we caravaned to Fred Jackson Way and Gertrude in North Richmond, where we talked about the history of the area and nearby Parchester Village, where Whitney lived most of his life. At the time, Whitney was in the midst of the fight to preserve Breuner Marsh from development, a decades-long battle that culminated with the 2017 opening of the Dotson Family Marsh. Whitney came across as very humble, not seeking the spotlight, but fueled with a passion to protect the things he loved–nature, and his community. His passing on January 8, 2020 is a great loss to the Bay Area environmental community but his legacy lives on in the natural places he helped preserve and make accessible to the public.
The Dotson family moved to Parchester Village in 1950, when Whitney was 5 years old. Parchester was unique in being developed primarily for African-American families who were excluded from purchasing homes nearly everywhere else in the Bay Area and across the United States. Whitney had fond memories of growing up in Parchester, saying in a 2005 interview with the West County Times, “We’d be gone the whole day exploring, looking for tadpoles or picking blackberries,” he said during a recent walk along the marshland at the edge of the Breuner property (now the Dotson Family Marsh). “Our parents knew it was safe, and coming from rural traditions in the South, they were comfortable with us experiencing the environment, the nature out here.”
Whitney started the North Richmond Shoreline Festival in order to share his love for nature with young people. As a director of public health he worked to provide opportunities for youth in North Richmond to be active outside. The first festival featured a walk from the Wildcat Creek trail to the then Breuner Marsh followed by a barbecue in Point Pinole. During his tenure as an East Bay Regional Park District board member, Whitney advocated for several projects that improved access to recreation, including the Atlas Road Bridge at Pt. Pinole, completion of the Bay Trail between Pinole Shores and Bayfront Park, restoration of Albany Beach, restoration of the now-named Dotson Family Marsh at Point Pinole, and the soon-to-be-completed Bay Trail segment between Berkeley and Albany behind Golden Gate Fields. He also helped the park district acquire 362 acres of parkland in El Sobrante that were slated for development. Whitney commented, “Homes should be built in the existing developments. Open space should not be used for private homes. It should be enjoyed by everyone – a beautiful place to take a walk, enjoy the quiet, relax.”
Whitney inspired and supported many of us who work to protect the environment. At The Watershed Project we are thrilled to be giving children the opportunity to explore nature during our field trips to Pt. Pinole, Alvarado Park, Kennedy Grove, and Redwood Park. And we are hopeful that perhaps some of the local high school students who helped North Richmond homeowners plant trees in their front yards will seek out future adventures in the great outdoors.
Whitney was described by Manuel Alonso, Executive Director of Earth Team, as a determined fighter, like an “old wolf”, an expert at leading the pack, forging alliances and serving on boards and committees to get things done. Richmond Planning Commissioner Andrew Butt remarked, “It was my great honor to have known him, shared his friendship, and served for several years with him on the TRAC (Trails for Richmond Advocacy Committee) steering committee. He will be deeply missed, and his legacy long remembered. Richmond needs more people like Whitney Dotson.” Juliana Gonzalez, Executive Director of The Watershed Project shared a happy memory. “ I enjoyed exploring Pt. Pinole with Whitney as we toured Giant Marsh together and talked about the history of the site. He was always excited to share his memories and dreams for the future. I will miss him.”
We will think of Whitney every time we bring kids to the North Richmond Shoreline. Rest in peace, Whitney Dotson.