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Environmental Justice Leadership Spotlight: Paulina López

Paulina López has lived and worked in the South Seattle region for over a decade, engaging her community on the grassroots level through volunteer work in South Park, where she promotes action on local social and environmental justice issues, such as the Superfund clean-up of the Duwamish River. A key force in the Community Partners Steering Committee that created the Equity and Environment Agenda and alumni of the Environmental Justice Committee, she currently serves as the Executive Director of the Duwamish River Cleanup Coalition

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

We have a very robust youth program here, and every time I see the youth I feel motivated; we have been very late in making changes to the screwed-up world we are leaving them, but that motivates me, to make sure that at least their voices won’t be silent when it’s time to be making a decision. The time is right now for our youth to be voicing their concerns. They have a lot of wisdom and experience themselves that we can learn from, and I wish our politicians would always take the time to hear from them and make decisions based on their experiences.

What does environmental leadership look like to you?

Leadership should be represented by those who are directly impacted by environmental issues. This is everyone! I think traditionally, people have thought of the environment as this outside entity, like, “green” people trying to recycle, or “save the orcas;” but “environment” goes way beyond that, encompassing health and its social determinants. When I say that, I mean the people who have specifically been impacted by environmental injustice. Unfortunately, traditionally we haven’t seen that representation in leadership. Most nonprofits have not been representative of the communities they’re supposed to be serving, and their leadership development and structures haven’t always benefited impacted groups. Ideally, environmental leadership must represent people impacted, people of color, people who will be leaving a legacy for generations to come.

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

I think my educational background studying human rights helped me see the intersection between basic rights and the environment, like clean air and water access. Through experiencing the neighborhood where I live, the Duwamish Valley, for years we have been trying to improve our community’s living conditions, given there’s such a big disparity in health and life expectancy compared to other areas in Seattle. I prepared for environmental leadership through my own experience, and it’s brought me some good perspective. I was able to bring it to the table working with the EJC, making sure our discussions reflected back into the reality of the community, and consequently bringing EJC perspectives back into the community.

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

It’s been a great opportunity to meet other likeminded people who are at the forefront, doing the work. What they’re doing can sometimes be exhausting, but I think I witnessed a lot of synergy among us and different organizations that are already led by people of color, and the EJC was a great way to bring these forces together and have a direct impact on policy.  Through the EJC, we’ve been able to advance the Equity and Environment Agenda, which has been the base for many of the projects that are coming through right now. When I look at that agenda, I remember the process of discussion and work that went into the product, and it can take awhile to see the results, but they are finally coming into fruition. It’s great that people are learning what it means for community to have ownership in policy decisions, and I think City programs are now understanding that. We don’t need “a seat at the table,” we need to be in the kitchen, making the menu.

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

I see so much potential in the EJC, and I would love for the Committee to be even more involved in the policy decision-making process. An advisory board is being put together for the Seattle Green New Deal, so I think there is a way we can fully utilize the knowledge, wisdom, and experience of our team and bring these two things together.

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.