Seattle Foundation Blog

Climate Justice in Focus

Leaders say ‘We need everybody leaning in,’ as Seattle Foundation advances its climate justice strategy

March 07, 2019

This call to action came at a Seattle Foundation-hosted conversation about the need to support communities of color and low income residents to cope with climate change. National climate justice leader Michelle J. DePass, President and CEO of the Meyer Memorial Trust, and statewide leader Aiko Schaefer, Director of Front and Centered, shared insights on the fight for a cleaner, more just future.Tony Mestres welcomes guests to Climate Justice in Focus event

The event, produced in partnership with Grist, a nonprofit environmental media site, also shared the Foundation’s new Climate Justice Impact Strategy. Bringing together research, investments, partnerships and leadership, we are committed to investing in community-led solutions that support those most impacted by climate change.

Tony Mestres, President and CEO of Seattle Foundation, said climate change is not a distant global abstraction, but is having immediate impacts on people here and now, particularly for low-income residents and communities of color. Sally Gillis, Managing Director for Strategic Impact and Partnerships and lead for the Climate Justice ImpactStrategy, introduced the speakers and moderated the discussion.

DePass, the former Assistant Administrator for International and Tribal Affairs at the EPA in the Obama Administration, said environmental justice work is challenging but essential.

“And so climate justice for me … is holding the mirror up and seeing the communities that are grappling with these issues right now. We don’t need to forecast, because it’s already happening,” DePass said. “Climate Justice is our activism to make sure that we make those changes for all of us going forward for the future.”

A New Unity

Schaefer said Washington state is full of diverse communities who care deeply about climate change and understand its link to our economy and structural injustices. She said she focuses more on the justice part of climate justice.

“The cornerstone of climate is justice – why do some people have power and some people not have power? Why can some people determine what kind of life they want to lead and other people don’t have that ability?” she said.

Schaefer also outlined the positive legacy and incredible unity of the fight to pass Initiative 1631, a fee on polluters to support clean energy and climate justice. “We built the largest, most diverse coalition our state has ever seen. How many times do you see Pearl Jam and Bill Gates and our communities working together? It was really great to see everyone coming together,” she said.

Now, Front and Centered, which represents people who speak nearly 100 different languages and dialects, is crafting plans for the future.

“We mobilized a lot of people to vote yes for climate action. While our initiative did not pass, we’re not rolling over. We can’t roll over. We don’t have time to roll over. So the question is what do we do together next?” Schaefer said.

Hope for the Future

DePass said another sign of hope is the recent passage of the Portland Clean Energy Initiative. This one percent business-licensing surcharge will raise an estimated $30 million for green jobs in Portland and provide grants to nonprofits to weatherize homes, install renewable energy and build green infrastructure. It levies the surcharge on revenue generated by retail corporations with over $1 billion in annual revenue and at least $500,000 in Portland revenue.

She also sees hope in a new generation of leaders who embrace the intersectionality of environment, race, economics and more. She said many of them took advantage of federal government knowledge in previous administrations, paving the way for them to be informed activists and leaders today.

“People are organized and activated in the local arena and part of the reason is that there was a lot of sharing of information, of data, opening up your buildings and your staff to organizations on the ground. So, there’s a little bit of a head start,” DePass said.

‘We Need Everybody Leaning In’

Schaefer encouraged people to get to know groups of color who are leading environmental justice work and who support and protect people every day.Aiko Schaefer and Michelle J. DePass speak at Climate Justice in Focus event

“Not only do people care deeply about climate, they are pivotal to winning on any policy, they have great ideas and they know how to solve this problem as well as others,” she said.

DePass agreed and said that people in communities know just as much as those at traditional environmental organizations that are being funded 50 times more.

Schaefer said it’s critical that organizations and leaders come together across sectors. “There is no one person or organization that can do this by themselves. No one’s coming to save us. We are our own saviors,” she said. “This is a time when we need everybody leaning in, when we need every idea coming forward, everyone figuring out how we can address climate change and ensure a just future.”

Learn More

To learn more about climate justice, our partners at deliver comprehensive coverage of environmental justice. To learn more about our impact strategy or our climate justice fund to support communities of color in developing solutions and resilience to climate change, contact Sally Gillis at




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