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Rising Stars: Meet Shaina Oliver

Today we’d like to introduce you to Shaina Oliver. 

Hi Shaina, please kick things off for us with an introduction to yourself and your story.
I am an Indigenous mother and wife of a family of six. As a Tribal member of the Navajo Nation, advocacy for Indigenous rights has always been at the core of who I am. We are descendants and survivors of the genocide known as the Indian Removal Act. My goal is to create a pathway for future Indigenous generations to thrive – a future they will want to continue fighting for. Northeast Denver is home. My husband and four boys were born in Denver so we feel rooted here in ways that run deep. 

Living in Denver means we can enjoy an active lifestyle outdoors with four distinct seasons. Many of my formative experiences as an adult led me to lead as a state coordinator for Moms Clean Air Force in Colorado, a million-strong grassroots group that advocates for clean air and climate solutions—with upwards of 40,000 members in Colorado. 

In 2015, after the EPA’s toxic mine spill affected the Animas and San Juan Rivers, which supply water to the Navajo Nation, I became more aware of how the environmental disasters that happen in Colorado also impact my tribe’s well-being and future. I began to feel an immediate responsibility to do my part as a mother, aunt, sister, descendant, and survivor of genocide. 

In 2016, the water protectors’ protests at Standing Rock Reservation were a catalyst. It truly moved the needle for me and it’s when my journey took a real turn. To see so many Indigenous people sharing their own stories with conviction made it important—even urgent—for me to follow their lead. 

In 2017, I learned about Moms Clean Air Force bringing families together to advocate for our children’s health on my local radio station. At that time, my youngest son was in preschool, and my schedule was beginning to open up. I joined their call to action on the Capitol steps shortly after, mainly out of curiosity. Before I knew it, I was engaged as a volunteer. The organization really gave my budding advocacy a state and federal platform. I felt compelled to speak up, on behalf of communities of color, about the need for environmental justice in the places our families live, work, and play. 

We all face challenges, but looking back would you describe it as a relatively smooth road?
As an Indigenous person from the Navajo reservation, I’m all too familiar with environmental violence, racism, and the health impacts that have resulted from industries that pollute our land, water, and air. Being Indigenous is unfortunately still so far from acknowledged in our history, our rights, and the inequities we face. My community lives between highways and busy streets, and increasingly we–Indigenous, Black, Latino, and low-income people–are being pushed further into heavily industrial parts of the city which provide the only options for affordable housing. 

This legacy of environmental injustice continues as communities like mine in North Denver, Colorado are repeatedly subjected to the harmful pollution-spewing onto our neighborhoods from the nearby Suncor Refinery. 

For over 10 years, Suncor has been operating on expired permits – which the state has turned a blind eye to as our families’ health is being sacrificed. Finally, there is a glimmer of justice. They heard us and are taking action. 

On March 25th, the EPA issued a letter objecting to Colorado state’s permit renewal request for the Suncor Refinery that regulates the level of various toxic pollutants the refinery can release into the air. In the letter, EPA Regional Administrator KC Becker said the location of the Suncor plant “raises significant environmental justice concerns, as illustrated by the severity of pollution and described health impacts facing the communities living in proximity to the Suncor site.” The EPA’s objections do not affect the Suncor refinery’s current operations but certainly does put Suncor’s permits under high scrutiny and raises public awareness. 

Having EPA acknowledge environmental injustices is important for families who live near Suncor experiencing firsthand the effects of toxic air pollution that can cause health inequities. While this action by the EPA is worth celebrating, it is also a testament to what we can do when moms work together and keep speaking up. It’s working. There’s more work to do. So, we will continue to raise our voices to fight for Justice in Every Breath until all communities are free from environmental harm. We will continue to hold our lawmakers and agencies accountable for protecting the health of communities living near the Suncor refinery. 

Thanks for sharing that. So, maybe next you can tell us a bit more about your work?
I work to ensure that families like mine are heard by our lawmakers and they take us into account for many decisions. As an Indigenous person, my work is focused through the lens of environmental justice. Indigenous people around the world are on the frontlines of climate change, which is forcing relocations, disruption of traditional food and water supplies, as well as making air pollution worse. 

Representation of Indigenous people is very important for climate action. We can no longer be left out of the agendas and infrastructure discussions. This is my motivation every time I speak before the Colorado legislature and the EPA in support of strong oil and gas methane regulations. In 2014, Colorado became the first state in the country to regulate methane from the industry—making our state a leader—but there is much more work to be done on strengthening health protections. 

In the U.S., Indigenous people have higher rates of many diseases linked to air pollution, including asthma. I am one of the 434,000 Coloradoans who live with asthma and have lived with this disease since I was an infant. In recent years, the air quality in Colorado has become much worse. In 2021, The American Lung Association’s State of the Air Report for Colorado gave us an “F” for ozone pollution. On days when we are suffering from high ozone levels in Denver, I feel the pollution. It sits heavy on my chest. 

I’ve lived in North Park Hill for five years, about five miles southeast of the Suncor Refinery in North Denver, and our air quality has only been getting worse. There are many days we can’t step outside for a breath of fresh air. On very cold days, my asthma flares, and I have to be very cautious and stay indoors. My youngest son suffers from allergies more than his brothers, and I worry that his allergies may be asthma-related, due to the pollution in the air around us. 

This uptick in air quality problems has led to Colorado officially designated as being in severe non-attainment for ozone pollution by the EPA. Air pollution puts people at increased risk of respiratory problems, heart attacks, strokes, and premature death. 

It’s why I help bring moms together to advance policies and actions that promote the cause of environmental justice here in Colorado and beyond. And as I like to remind our members here in the state, we moms are a powerful constituency, and when we come together, we can do extraordinary things! 

Coloradans can be proud to know that our voices are being heard. Recently, Governor Polis announced an aggressive plan to improve our air quality. I spoke at the press conference where this legislation was unveiled. 

I do this work in support of our leaders who everyday advance environmental justice for disproportionately impacted communities. Our priorities are funding electric school buses, providing free transit during high ozone days, and increasing air quality monitoring on oil and gas extraction sites. These are but a few hugely important steps toward protecting the health of all Coloradans. 

What I believe sets me apart is my passion. It’s interesting because my family members were not environmentalists per se, but their struggles and their respect for traditional practices have shaped the advocate I am today. I definitely stand on their shoulders! 

I’m known as someone who always speaks my mind. I try to hold others accountable for their actions and strive to instill a sense of respect and kindness in everything I do, as well as what I expect of others. 

Another thing that sets me apart is my belief that a sense of community transcends borders. For example, I beam with pride when I see other countries advocating and reimagining the future with the inclusion of Indigenous people. This energizes me and it’s my mission to be part of this re-imagination of Indigenous rights here in the U.S. 

What gives me hope is the youth who advocate and fight for climate change are now running for office. I am so excited to see the changes they are able to implement and build on. 

What matters most to you?
What matters most is supporting my family, my children, and our youth. Community service is something I pour my full heart into. I am committed to my work so that I can enable the next generation of advocates to fight for their future. For example, I work closely with the American Indian Academy of Denver to help our youth. We need our Indigenous children to have the freedom to be themselves. We want to drive up graduation rates, college acceptance rates and bring down suicide rates. I know non-native communities have the same concerns around mental health and youth. We need to give all youth a stable future. 

Contact Info:

Image Credits
Moms Clean Air Force
Shaina Oliver
Personal Collection

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