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Environmental Justice Leadership Spotlight: Dennis Comer

Dennis Comer, a small business owner and former military officer, serves as the Executive Director for the Central Area Collaborative. A founding member of the Central Area Collaborative and Central Area Land Use Review Committee, his work within the community helped facilitate the creation of Central Area Design Guidelines and a Central Area Design Review Board, which he worked as a member of.

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

One of the things that motivates me is, when you’re serving a community that’s disenfranchised, aside from paying rent, food, shelter, and affordable housing, the next piece is health, which is a product of environmental concern. Many times, lower-income neighborhoods are located near landfills, or in areas with industrial pollution. So we wanted to make sure that in the Central Area, there was some organization that was looking at that as a part of the whole environmental justice strategy. The EJC acted as a place to plug in and create a two-way communication channel with these communities in Seattle.

What does environmental leadership look like to you?

To me, it’s maintaining awareness of what’s going on at all levels, from federal, to state, to the local levels; staying engaged in the scientific community to see what’s new and possible, and making sure that you as a leader can serve as a point of contact or guidance for your community members. There are always folks interested in learning more, they just might not know how to access this information. For example, all the buildings folks are talking about LEED certification, while from the community standpoint, they’re saying, “I just need a place to stay.” You have to know how to explain why these environmentally-friendly features are so important, and how they can ultimately benefit a neighborhood.

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

I’m a retired military officer, so leadership’s pretty much second nature. It’s helped me take a neutral stand and make sure that I’m hearing both sides of a situation. On the one side, environmentalists may be saying, “the world is ending tomorrow.” But somebody needs to say, “well let’s balance that because today people need to live.” For a leader, that means approaching issues with patience, the ability to calm folks down, and balancing competing priorities, bridging gaps basically. For the EJC, because of my familiarity with issues in the Central Area like affordability, gentrification, displacement, and senior housing, I’m able to synthesize information and see where we can take advantage of what’s out there, moving the community forward without favoring one side or another.

How do you see your community coming together in response to COVID-19?

The Central Area Collaborative oversees the administration of small business relief funds. When all this started, we knew how it would affect our local businesses. So we took the community funding we had and provided ten immediate $500 grants to several Central Area businesses that we know are hurting. On our website, there’s a video of one of our leadership committee members, Hayward Watson, going to businesses with a check. You can see the excitement; no one just hands out money. While our community is waiting for funding from the national and state level, this was our way of providing a quick band-aid and letting the City know that we can mobilize quickly since we live in these neighborhoods. We’re now looking at doing another round of grants, hopefully up to 40 businesses this time. It’s not a lot of money, but it’s something, and can be used for anything these businesses need in the meantime while waiting for other funds.

What are you looking forward to in your next year working with the EJC?

I am looking forward to exploring how the impacts of COVID-19 have helped or harmed our community’s environmental posture. To find out what lessons are being learned through this pandemic that may help change the way we do business as it relates to the environment and climate justice.

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 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.