The Duwamish is Seattle’s only real river. It is also the city’s only Superfund site, and it’s a doozy, a complex mishmash of contaminated mud and sediment from years as Seattle’s main industrial artery. People live along the Duwamish, lots of people. 60 percent of these residents are people of color. According to a report by the Duwamish River Cleanup Coalition:
“Duwamish Valley residents are more likely to live in poverty, be foreign born, have no health insurance or leisure time, and are more likely to be sick. Georgetown and South Park residents have up to a 13-year shorter life expectancy (at birth) than wealthier parts of Seattle.”
So when Seattle Mayor Ed Murray came to banks of the Duwamish on the morning of Earth Day to announce Seattle’s new equity and the environment agenda, he was standing on ground zero for the connection, or far too often, the disconnect between social justice and environmental protection. As 2014’s Green 2.0 report outlined in stark terms, mainstream environmental groups remain predominantly white, both nationally, and here in Seattle. Jose Vasquez, the Director of Programs for the Latino Community Fund and a resident of the Duwamish Valley put it this way. “We are the first to be impacted and the last to be included.”
Of course this troubling gap between impact and inclusion is sometimes explained away by the baseless claim that people of color don’t care as much about the environment as white people do. If the consistent polling that shows the exact opposite to be true isn’t enough to crater that myth, the array of dedicated activists standing behind the Mayor when he announced the agenda presented a penetrating image of the real face of environmental change. Jose Vasquez said, “Today, we are flipping the script.”
The people doing the script-flipping are people of color who lead by working in and advocating for their communities. Their organizations often struggle to get funding, especially when compared to mainstream environmental groups. That is one of the discrepancies the people standing behind the mayor have been wrestling with for the last 12 months. They were part of a Community Partners Steering Committee that worked many hours to draft Mayor Murray’s ambitious agenda. At a high level, the agenda seeks to address inequities in the environmental health of the places people of color live, inequities in city-level decision making, inequities in the opportunities people of color have to participate in efforts to make their communities safer and more just. Running through all the agenda items is an idea that amounts to common sense. People bearing the brunt of a problem like poor water quality or inadequate open space or barriers to civic participation usually have some of the most insightful and specific solutions.
I saw that principle in action first hand when Resource Media participated in the latter part of the agenda development as a mainstream ally group. During one of the opening exercises, both the mainstream and people of color (POC) led groups were asked to list ideas for addressing environmental justice inequities in Seattle. The ideas from the POC led groups were specific and actionable. The ideas from the ally groups, including my own, were flaccid platitudes by comparison. It drove home a lesson for me that was very much on mind as I watched Mayor Murray on the banks of the Duwamish, flanked by the people who can actually make his agenda come to life if we give them the resources and support they need and deserve. As the Mayor himself said “We need to create environmental leaders who look like this city.” Based on my experience working with his steering committee, we already have them if we choose to listen.