When you imagine a Seattle environmentalist, chances are it’s some variation on the stereotypical theme of fleece-clad hiker. But amidst a summer so dry half our state is on fire, it’s hard not to feel that — increasingly— everyone has a stake in the health of our planet.
As Americans prepare to commemorate the ten-year anniversary of Hurricane Katrina and U.N. members gear up to for the Climate Change Conference this fall, it may be time to acknowledge that those impacted by global warming are far more diverse than our Northwest outdoorsman stereotype implies.
“We’re wanting to make sure that low income communities and communities of color are involved in shaping this [climate] policy from the get go,” says Jill Mangaliman, executive director of “Got Green” — a Seattle-based environmental-justice organization.
To help ensure that inclusion, Got Green has joined forces with dozens of local groups — from immigrant rights organizations to the Seattle King County NAACP — to form “Communities of Color for Climate Justice.” It’s a coalition devoted to linking social and economic justice issues with climate change through lobbying, events and surveys that help identify the climate-change-related priorities of diverse communities.
People of color and low-income communities often don’t see themselves represented in the environmental movement says Ellicott Dandy, an economic and environmental justice advocate.
“I think there’s a certain amount of elitism that comes with having ownership over the kinds of scientific backing that we need to do something about this [climate change] problem,” says Dandy who works with OneAmerica, a member of the coalition, “There’s a certain amount of white affluence that describes a lot of the people who fit that profile.”
Beyond elitism, many activists in communities of color and low-income areas feel they have to prioritize immediate social and economic issues — like racism and unemployment — over environmental issues.
“My first involvement with volunteering and organizing was not around climate change, it was around social justice issues and definitely addressing… incarceration and economic disparities,” says Rashad Barber who volunteers with the Climate Justice coalition.
Barber says working with the coalition has encouraged him to connect some of those issues of disparity with climate change — especially in his own life.
He grew up in Denver Colorado and spent the first half of his childhood in what he describes as the “inner city,” where many of his relatives suffered from asthma. When he moved to the suburbs later on, he noticed fewer people suffered from respiratory problems. Lately he’s wondered if his neighborhood’s proximity to manufacturing (“everything from dog food to rubber”) might have contributed to his family’s health problems.
“Climate Change affects all of us,” says Barber who helped Got Green conduct a recent survey in South Seattle exploring climate change concerns in the community, “It’s something we’re all a part of.”
Those environmental connections can be felt in terms of employment, says Mangaliman, who points out that many of our country’s “dirtiest” jobs — those involving resource extraction and heavy pollution — are held by low-income workers and people of color.
There’s also a housing connection, especially in a region where poor people are increasingly pushed further outside of the city center due to rising rents. It’s a trend that increases carbon-heavy long distance commutes and could keep communities isolated from help in the case of a weather emergency like a heat wave.
To help encourage communities to continue to make these climate change connections, and to honor the tenth anniversary of Hurricane Katrina the coalition is hosting a free movie showing of “Trouble the Water” — a documentary about the storm. The screening, with discussion to follow, is this Saturday from 6-9 p.m. at The Hillman City Collaboratory (5623 Rainier Ave S). They also plan to host a larger summit on climate change this fall.
Still not convinced that southern hurricanes and U.N. debates relate to Seattle’s housing crisis? No issue exists in a vacuum, argue advocates.
“When we talk about transit we’re also talking about housing and jobs, when we talk about the environment we’re not just talking about climate change, we’re talking about displacement,” says Mangaliman, “All of these issues are linked…”
And so are we.