Seattle Foundation Blog

Environment: Ensuring Climate Justice

Supported by Seattle Foundation, powerful coalitions work together to lift up the people most impacted by climate change


June 17, 2019

By Jane C. Hu. Read this story and more in Volume 6 (pdf) of Seattle Foundation's Heart & Science magazine.



Chart - Across the US, race is the most significant predictor of a person living near contaminated air, water, or soil.  

When Risho Sapano arrived in Seattle nearly two decades ago and began working as an advocate for victims of domestic violence, she heard people in the African community talk about needing help to access services and to advocate for health, employment and educational opportunities.

In response, Sapano founded Mother Africa, a community-based organization dedicated to supporting and connecting African refugee and immigrant women with resources, services and leadership opportunities. The group’s latest focus may surprise some: raising awareness about climate justice. But Sapano, who is originally from Sudan, quickly connects the dots. “Refugees displaced from their home country didn’t have a choice where they settled,” she says. “Many are funneled towards certain communities, without realizing that those are the areas struck by pollution, in food deserts, or high in crime.”

Scads of recent studies add data to what many communities in Seattle and King County have experienced firsthand: that communities of color are disproportionately affected by environmental burdens, making them more vulnerable and at risk from climate change impacts, like air and water pollution, flooding, drought and wildfires. Exposure to these environmental hazards diminishes both quality of life and lifespan. And the impacts are significant: an analysis of the South Park and Georgetown neighborhoods, the most polluted in Seattle, shows that residents have a life expectancy eight years shorter than the city average and 13 years shorter than residents of Laurelhurst, one of Seattle's most affluent neighborhoods.

Climate change and climate justice

It’s research and statistics like these that led Seattle Foundation to create its Climate Justice Impact Strategy. In the state and region, low-income people and communities of color are suffering first and worst from the impacts of climate change and pollution. The Foundation’s climate justice strategy is designed to ensure that the communities in Seattle most impacted have the resources and support to create their own solutions.

Kayakers in front of the Seattle waterfront  Long the center of Seattle’s heavy industries, the Duwamish River continues to be an industrial and shipping corridor. (Photo courtesy of DRCC)

That includes supporting advocacy organizations that work in neighborhoods like South Park and Georgetown to push policies that decrease the pollution burden on residents and increase their resilience to climate change. Located next to the Duwamish River as well as heavy industries, major highways and port facilities, these areas have a history of inequitable conditions, including high pollution, disinvestment and unfair bank lending practices. Their lower property values and rents attract many lower-income people, including refugees and those who speak a language other than English at home. These residents are often less likely to have the time, resources or connection to advocate for their environmental needs with influential groups, lawmakers and other decision-makers.

Building new power

Advocacy groups across the region are organizing to change that, working towards equitable environmental and climate change solutions. A key leader, and an organization that Seattle Foundation supports through its strategy, is Front and Centered, a statewide coalition of more than 60 organizations led by people of color tackling environmental and climate disparities.

“Environmentalism has traditionally been a pretty white field, and issues have historically been siloed,” says Deric Gruen, Front and Centered’s program director. “There was a sense that we could solve environmental problems if scientists could just understand how to fix pollution, but the reality is we live in a complex society, and we need to really pay attention to the complexities of who’s affected.”

Front and Centered advocates holding signs for 1631  Members of Front and Centered gathered to show support for I-1631, the statewide ballot initiative to increase clean energy, decrease pollution and strengthen the leadership of communities of color in decision-making. (Photo courtesy of Front and Centered and Hanna Letinich)

Front and Centered recently hosted a summit of 225 leaders from around the state for the largest gathering of people of color on environmental and climate justice. “The work is to focus on how can these communities – people who are directly and personally impacted by climate change – be engaged in the conversation in which they have a huge stake?” said Aiko Schaefer, director of Front and Centered.

The group also launched a groundbreaking interactive map that displays environmental disparities and related health risk factors by neighborhood. It’s the first time that the cumulative impact of those risk factors across the state have been quantified, making it a valuable tool to inform policy decisions to improve access to clean air, clean water and a healthy environment throughout the state.

Schaefer said that climate justice is really about people’s ability to shape the lives they want to lead. “That can mean a clean and healthy neighborhood, and a child free from asthma or the ability to drink clean water, as much as it is about casting your ballot or being able to drive your car down the highway and not be worried about someone pulling you over because of the way that you look,” she said.

Moving policies forward

Stat: The cumulative impacts of pollution contribute to a situation in which Black adults die 10 years sooner than whites on average as a result of breathing air pollution over time or, cumulative impacts of air pollution. On average, Hispanic adults die 12 years sooner than whites due to air pollution.

Front and Centered is a leading member of the Alliance for Jobs and Clean Energy, a coalition of more than 250 Washington organizations that led the charge on the statewide Initiative 1631. The initiative proposed the nation’s first carbon fee on greenhouse gas polluters to reinvest the proceeds into communities, clean energy and jobs. It earned support from a broad spectrum of corporate and government leaders, including REI, Microsoft, Expedia, Bill Gates and Governor Jay Inslee, as well as a majority of voters in King County. While it did not pass, the coalition that united around it is optimistic about where the movement will go.

“We built a policy which didn’t pass this time around, but the most durable and important thing we did was come together and create a structure with shared governance, where decisions were made through partnership with communities of color and labor organizations,” says Becky Kelley, president of the Washington Environmental Council, a leading member of the Alliance.

The Alliance and Front and Centered are charting a path together and moving forward with 2019 legislative goals, including the Healthy Environment for All (HEAL) Act (SB 5489), which acknowledges environmental and health disparities and declares that state policy must incorporate environmental justice principles.

Grassroots actions

Beyond big-picture, state-level initiatives to acknowledge and mitigate climate and equity issues, individual members of the coalition continue their local, grassroots work.

For instance, Sapano’s Mother Africa, a member of Front and Centered, recently hosted a listening session for 15 Arabic-speaking women from eight countries to discuss what they know about climate change. Working with the King County Department of Natural Resources and Parks, they are creating an infographic in Arabic about climate change to increase the community’s understanding of the issue.

Another group that brings community expertise to the movement is the Duwamish River Clean-up Coalition/Technical Advisory Group (DRCC/TAG). The group empowers the Duwamish Valley community to build a healthier, more just environment by improving water quality, creating more green spaces, and connecting neighbors to green job opportunities and training. The nonprofit also leads community engagement efforts around the long-term cleanup of the river, which was declared a Superfund site in 2001.

“We need to keep pushing the government, but we also need to be doing some mitigation as a community,” says Paulina Lopez, the DRCC/TAG’s executive director. “We’re working at being better stewards of our community, and educating ourselves better about what we can do.”

Paulina Lopez, executive director of the Duwamish River Cleanup Coalition  Paulina Lopez, executive director of the Duwamish River Cleanup Coalition, leads community efforts to make the Georgetown and South Park areas cleaner and healthier, and to advocate for effective cleanup of the river. (Photos by Danielle Motif Photography)

The balance between environment and economy

The Coalition hosts community cleanup days, collaborates with area businesses on projects and plays a critical role in educating the community. Despite the river’s heavy pollution, it remains a popular place for residents to catch fish and crab. “There’s lots of people fishing on the river, for cultural practices, or for business — some tribes have access, and the immigrant community fishes there as well,” says Lopez.

Though the DRCC/TAG and other local groups have tried to spread the word about the polluted waters, that message doesn’t always reach anglers. Even when it does, it can be difficult to dissuade residents who fish as a cultural practice, or cannot afford to do so elsewhere. “We’re working with them to make sure their voices are heard, and to help provide alternative spaces for them,” Lopez said.

Leading the way

It will take those kinds of grassroots efforts and groups working together in committed coalitions to ensure that the communities most affected by climate change lead the way to solutions.

As Front and Centered’s Schaefer says: “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.”


Heart & Science Magazine

Read Heart & Science magazine Vol. 6 for more on how philanthropists, community organizations and Seattle Foundation are working to create a healthy community through supporting the environment and arts & culture.

Interested in making your giving more impactful? Connect with one of our expert philanthropic advisors.

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