According to a 2013 report partly funded by the Environmental Protection Agency, residents of South Seattle’s Duwamish Valley are more prone to asthma, diabetes and cancer than those in other parts of King County.
They have some of the highest rates of air pollution and contaminated waste site exposure in the city. That is one of many reasons why, to Sudha Nandagopal, environmental work is inextricably linked to racial, social and economic justice.
On April 22, Mayor Ed Murray announced the Equity and Environment Initiative, meant to address disparities in effects of environmental policy in Seattle and the voices of those who shape it.
“This is an exciting opportunity where the mayor has called out, really specifically, that our environmental policy can’t be in one silo with race and social justice in another,” said Nandagopal, who will be overseeing the initiative as program manager in the city’s Office of Sustainability and Environment. “These things have to come together.”
The initiative aims to ensure all communities — not just the wealthy and the white — benefit from environmental progress in one of the nation’s greenest cities. But it also looks at addressing the lack of diversity in who creates environmental policy, actively seeking and including people of color, immigrants and refugees and low-income populations.
A 2014 report from Green 2.0, a working group dedicated to increasing racial diversity in the environmental movement, found that ethnic minorities occupy less than 12 percent of leadership positions in the environmental organizations studied.
“That study said what many of us already know of the environmental mainstream movement, which is that we have a real challenge in making sure that those impacted most by the issue are setting the agenda and are at the forefront of how we are making decisions and creating policy,” Nandagopal said.
The initiative creates the Community Partners Steering Committee, comprising 16 local environmental leaders from diverse backgrounds, including Jill Mangaliman of Got Green, Roxana Norouzi of OneAmerica and Alberto Rodriguez of the Duwamish River Cleanup Coalition.
“The vision for the steering committee is that this is a set of really skilled, thoughtful leaders from our communities who have great experience in engaging various populations,” Nandagopal said.
Mangaliman, executive director of Got Green, is one of those leaders. One of Got Green’s objectives has been to ensure that opportunities arising from the green economy, such as local green jobs and healthy housing, also reach low-income populations and communities of color that are often left behind.
“Whenever there is a movement like this, those are the communities who are not at the table and don’t get the benefits,” Mangaliman said.
The committee will partner with other stakeholders, such as local businesses, to come up with guiding policies and an action agenda for the initiative.
Mangaliman said the initiative is encouraging: It is a step toward becoming “not just a green city, but a just city.”