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Environmental Justice Leadership Spotlight: Melissa Watkinson

A citizen of the Chickasaw Nation and descendant of the Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma, Melissa Watkinson partnered with the Urban Indian Health Institute during her first year on the Environmental Justice Committee, serving as Co-Chair her following years as a community liaison. She currently works at Washington Sea Grant as a social scientist.

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

I grew up here in Washington State, in both Yakima and Puyallup, and with family who are members of the Upper Skagit Tribe. Marine foods, like salmon and crab, have always been vital to my family when we gather. Over the last decade or so, when we go to harvest these foods, they’ve become harder to obtain. When I moved to Seattle after high school and began building my community in the area, I started learning how other people and communities are affected by environmental injustices. Even when I was living in Seattle, being surrounded by water, accessing the environment and traditional foods was not always easy. Going off this, working on addressing the environmental changes that I have observed affecting my community and the Native community overall became a big motivation to me.

What does environmental leadership look like to you?

Environmental leadership is embodied in a person or group of people who work towards creating space and bringing new voices into policy-making arenas, so that environmental work is not only supporting the dominant culture in a society, but recognizing the reality of environmental racism and that those most impacted need to be able to participate and lead in decision-making.

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

Initially, when I started my education, I focused on international affairs and human rights. After I graduated with my bachelor’s degree, my grandmother passed away, and the one thing I remember her telling me regarding my undergrad career was that “our people need help, too.” Although it was difficult to confront the hardships and inequities that some of my family has faced over the years, as a consequence of what I now know is a result of inter-generational trauma, I decided to work with and on behalf of Native peoples. When I went to graduate school, I started working with one of our coastal tribes here in Washington state, focusing on the impacts of climate change affecting that community. Through that process, I learned a lot about how the histories of colonization and settler colonialism have affected tribes’ abilities to cope with environmental changes, including displacement caused by sea level rise, lack of funding and historic assimilation policies affecting the ability to develop infrastructure, or the ability to adapt to the loss of salmon and other traditional foods. This really drove my work in environmental justice, and being active with the Seattle urban Native community, I wanted to be able to bring a Native perspective to the EJC. I don’t believe, nor do I expect, that I represent all people within the community, but I work to ensure that I bring a perspective that reflects other Native voices.

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

One of the priorities I hoped to address, in addition to elevating voices and priorities of other EJC members, is the recognition of Indigenous peoples in Seattle, along with working to increase access to traditional and first foods. The EJC worked with Carina del Rosario, a Seattle-based visual artist, who developed a community-led project focused on addressing those issues. She worked closely with the Muckleshoot Cultural Committee, who led the Muckleshoot TEKnology Expo back in May. The intention was to bring in City department leaders and the Mayor’s office, along with City Council members to learn about the importance of acknowledging tribes and first food access throughout the Seattle area. It initiated difficult, but critical conversations within the City and the Mayor’s office, and the EJC is continuing its work to learn and acknowledge how to support the multiple Indigenous peoples and area Tribes in environmental justice work in the greater Seattle area.

What are you looking forward to in your next year’s work outside of the EJC?

I am now an alumni member of the EJC, and we are currently wrapping up a recruitment process for new EJC members, so I’m excited about the opportunity to create new space for different voices to be leading on the Committee. This will broaden the collective perspectives of the EJC, ultimately influencing policy within the City of Seattle. As it grows, the EJC continues to deepen its connection across communities of color in Seattle, keeping the momentum that the committee has gathered thus far. I’m excited to see how the EJC’s work will continue to shape city policy in upcoming years!

This article is part of the series: “EJC Spotlight”- highlighting the backgrounds and work of current and former Environmental Justice Committee (EJC) members. Since 2017, the EJC has striven 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.