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Environmental Justice Leadership Spotlight: Debolina Banerjee

Bringing with her an extensive background in environmentally sustainable city planning and grassroots activism, Debolina Banerjee joined the EJC committed to amplifying community voices in the fight for just, equitable development. She currently works as a Climate Policy Analyst for Puget Sound Sage, where she delivers research-based analysis of climate policies and provides support to climate justice campaigns and coalitions around Seattle.

What motivates you in your work in the environmental justice sphere?

One thing my mom used to tell me is that “there are enough good people on this Earth to keep the world going,” and I hold onto that optimism. I’m also inspired by the resilience I see in the face of disaster and adversity, environmental or otherwise. There’s a quote by Mahatma Gandhi that I love: “Be the change you wish to see in the world,” and I believe in living my life this way. I have seen this spirit in action among so many people in my community, especially young people. I feel very hopeful about our youth today, because if the harms of the past can be remedied, it will be by new generations; if they are prepared and motivated, which I have found to be the case, I believe they can make it happen.

What does environmental leadership look like to you?

Oftentimes we conflate leadership with someone who is the “face” of an organization, but to me that is not the only way to define leadership. I feel that in any justice-based issues—social justice, economic justice, or environmental justice—leadership looks different for different people. It’s about having the courage to question the status quo, to question whether policies in place are truly benefitting the people they’re supposed to serve. That courage can manifest itself in many ways: writing, advocacy, giving speeches. Asking these questions, of yourself first, then community and broader society, is what leadership means to me.

How has your background prepared you for a leadership role within EJC?

Multiple phases of my life have prepared me for this work, not just in the EJC but in climate and environmental justice overall. One of the most important aspects of environmental justice work is understanding intersectionality in social justice work, and how that plays out in the issues we see in our communities. My personal background has helped ground me in that understanding of social-justice issues. I was born and raised in India, so I grew up seeing the effects of discrimination in society due to class, caste, and the refugee crisis. My parents have been extremely supportive of my work aiding these communities, and as I grew up, I felt my academic interests steering me toward building a better society, whether it be my education in architecture and its relation to crisis housing or my work in urban planning. At the same time, the lived experience of being in a country with tremendous geopolitical and environmental challenges also informed my future trajectory.

Can you share a highlight from your work with EJC in the past couple years?

There are several projects that I feel very proud of having worked with the team on, one of which was the EJ Fund Pilot Project, so much work went into that, so it felt great to see it come together. There was our work making recommendations to the City on how to implement equity in public spaces design. I’m also proud of our work on the Drive Clean Seattle Program, keeping eyes on deliverables and who the program would benefit. It’s been great to see our efforts be considered in City decision making.

What do you hope to see EJC accomplish in the next year?

I’m very excited! This past year, we convened on a bit of an ad hoc basis; we weighed in on many issues, but the process was less formal. Now we have a wonderful program manager and program coordinator, and with the new members will come new perspectives, while we will begin the transfer of knowledge from existing members. These processes need a cycle of unlearning and relearning, and I think that inspires new growth in the Committee. I’m looking forward to seeing what comes next!

This article is part of the series: “EJC Spotlight”- highlighting the backgrounds and work of current and former Environmental Justice Committee members. Since 2017, the EJC has strived to uplift those most impacted by environmental inequities and center community needs in the City’s environmental efforts while building partnerships between community organizations and local government. This interview series is being conducted by Karen Bosshart, a UW Program on the Environment student and current intern at OSE.