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The Air we Breathe / El Aire que Respiramos

News Article
Smart City PDX partnered with Familias en Acción in Fall 2021 to deliver an interactive workshop on actions and resources to prepare for wildfire emergencies and smoke impacts.

During the 2020 wildfire season, Portland experienced the worst air quality recorded in Multnomah County since monitoring began in 1985. The sight of red skies in Oregon accompanied by images of scorching forests was terrifying for communities across the state. Communities that have been historically marginalized and put in vulnerable positions, like the Latino/x/e Spanish speaking communities, were greatly impacted by the devastation of the wildfires and health impacts due to the heavy smoke. The 2020 wildfire season highlighted existing inequities in air quality communications.

Familias en Acción is an organization passionate about supporting and empowering Latino/x/e individuals and communities to take agency of their health, especially those living with with chronic illnesses, outdoor workers, low-income, and immigrant communities. These are communities most impacted by wildfire smoke and poor air quality.

Familias communities shared knowledge about the importance of emergency preparedness, poor air quality, and other environmental concerns through a series of focus groups in summer 2021. There is a lack of resources available in Spanish. Community members and Familias staff also identified gaps in communications between organizations and communities in urban and rural communities. This project responded to those needs with a focus on actions.

  • What are the steps people can take for wildfire emergency preparedness?

  • How can we mitigate smoke health effects?

  • How can we find reliable, accessible information and resources about air quality in Spanish?

Smart City PDX was able to fund this work through a grant from Portland General Electric, focused on improving communication of air quality information and culturally specific materials.

A new partnership

Smart City PDX and Familias connected at the right time. Familias had recently launched their Climate & Healthy Equity program. Our goals and values aligned; build community resilience and support learning on the intersection of climate change and health. Familias found that their communities recognized the importance of emergency preparedness and smoke impacts. Now time needed to be invested to learn about how to prepare for natural disasters like wildfires. Community members felt ill-equipped to deal with the wildfire season in 2020. We planned to focus on actions for people during emergencies, using simple and clear information.

Designing the workshop

After hearing from Familias en Acción on the needs of the communities, we were ready to start designing the workshop together. Funds were divided into operational support for Familias staff, participation stipends, emergency kits, and materials for making at home air filters.

The content of the workshop was split into three parts:

  1. Background information on air quality

    1. Common pollutants, indoor/outdoor sources of pollution, health risks and impacts, how to measure

  2. Emergency preparedness

    1. Risk assessments, how to prepare and evacuate

  3. Resources

    1. Alerts, air quality index maps, emergency kits, air quality filters

The Smart City PDX team designed materials on air quality information and health impacts, utilizing in-house expertise. Familias staff prepared information on emergency preparedness, supported by Smart City PDX staff. Given the increased frequency of wildfires and growing needs for emergency preparedness, all workshop materials were designed with the idea that they would continue to be used by Familias in future events.

Lessons learned

The day of the workshop we had great success. Community members were eager to learn, full of questions, and held space for connecting with one another. Smart City PDX and Familias en Acción learned valuable lessons to implement in future workshops.

To start, the week before the workshop we held collaborative design sessions to review content and answer any questions. Familias staff identified ways to make materials more responsive to community needs and increase learnings. Some examples of these are highlighting types of pollution sources relevant to work and home activities. Before the workshop we received a list of participants and background information such as neighborhood, age, and occupation. This helped us better target messaging. We shifted some materials to be more culturally responsive to health impacts most present in the Latinx community. We add more descriptions of how air pollution can increase risks to those health impacts.

Co-facilitation roles were shared between our two teams. This allowed us to allocate more funds to support emergency kit supplies for participants. Community members also found it valuable to hear critical information from Latina presenters as it helped them feel more comfortable.

For a virtual workshop there was passionate participation. Most participants asked several questions and chimed in with their thoughts. Dedicating a significant portion of the evening for a Q&A was also a factor in community members feeling accomplished and more prepared. Lots of visuals including maps helped spark interest in learning more specifics of how they are impacted.

As Familias en Acción moves forward with other emergency preparedness and skill-building workshops, it was important to connect Familias staff with the Portland Bureau of Emergency Management.

A big thank you to Familias en Acción for their phenomenal work and partnership. We will apply learnings to future community and City partnerships. This would not have been possible without eager community members willing to attend a virtual workshop and start the journey to disaster preparedness.

Thank you to Portland General Electric for funding to support this work. This project implemented a partnership model to focus on improving communications of existing air quality data.

Resources and contact information

To stay updated on future offerings, check the Familias climate health education page. This page also contains a recording of our full workshop. For community resources check out this page with helpful information.

Resources such as the slide deck used in the workshop including information about Spanish alert sites and a handout on how to build a do it yourself air filter in Spanish are available below. We hope these will be helpful to others looking to learn about air quality, health impacts, wildfire smoke, and how to take care of yourself.

If you have any questions about how to adapt these learnings and materials for your own workshop including talking points for the slides, please reach out to for air quality and for emergency preparedness.