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Environmental Justice Leadership Spotlight: Jaimée Marsh

Jaimée joined the EJC in 2020 and participates on the Healthy Environment for All Sub-committee. They currently serve as Executive Director of FEEST, a non-profit organization centering youth as leaders working towards school food systems change in Seattle and South King County. 

What motivates you in your work in the environmental justice sphere?Growing up, I lived really close to the Spokane River, and I remember adults talking about pollution in the water, which meant there were times we couldn’t eat what we’d caught. I became really mindful of these environmental problems, and I started asking myself, “what can we do to stop companies and industries from polluting our natural resources?” As I step into a leadership role within the world of environmental justice, my goal is to create space for young people’s voices to be heard in the environmental justice movement, as they’re deeply impacted by environmental issues. The particular lens that I’m approaching environmental justice in right now is through food access, especially looking at food apartheid and the ways that racism is embedded in our systems and in our built environment, reducing people’s access to fresh, healthy food. When I think about what environmental justice means in that context, it’s this: how do we create and expand access to fresh and healthy food for young people and their families?

What does environmental leadership look like to you?
Leadership looks like centering the people who are most impacted by environmental injustices, and in the neighborhoods where I work in South Seattle and South King County, they represent some of the greatest impacted communities by environmental hazards mentioned in the Equity and Environment Agenda. At the same time, they are also experiencing issues surrounding food access, meaning they are navigating multiple marginalities. Leadership looks like paving the way and removing barriers for the voices of those young people and families in the community who are most impacted by environmental injustice, and hearing from them about what the best solutions for their communities look like.

How has your background prepared you for a leadership role within the EJC?
A lot of my work has been focused on centering youth voice, but my lens on food justice and food access was shaped by work I did in Detroit, over ten years ago. At that time, I was doing my social work practicum, working on several youth-led, community-based projects. Some of those projects involved going to parks and finding out ways to transform these spaces to better serve their communities, or going to farmers markets and working with community health centers in the area to figure out how we could create greater access to fresh produce, as these areas also exist in a food apartheid state. We would also do community assessments with youth groups, where we would start at the top of one street, and follow it all the way down, writing and taking photos to describe what we saw in these communities. Students described a lot of blight prevalent in these neighborhoods: abandoned homes, rusty nails in the street, stray dogs, all things that kids would see even on their way to school. They also noticed a disproportionate amount of alcohol advertising, along with a lack of access to grocery stores. Where there were stores, often food was noticeably unfresh. Many students said their main source of food was corner shops, so we connected with local farmers to bring fresh produce to these places, making it more accessible to the community. That was a transformative experience for me, in terms of how I thought about the ways that community can come together to shape public health outcomes.

How do you see your community coming together in response to COVID-19?
I’ve been really inspired by the mutual aid efforts I see popping up all around the city. When schools closed in March, we at FEEST were no longer able to run our dinner program, and our campaign meetings had to move online. We pivoted pretty quickly, listening to our young people about their needs at the time, and we asked, what can we do? What’s within our capacity to help out with? And we decided that grocery delivery would be one of the best ways to break down some of the access barriers our community is dealing with right now. Many of the youth we work with are living in multi-generational homes, so if folks are going out of the house, they could be unintentionally sharing it with vulnerable people at home. We thought that doing contactless delivery of free groceries was one of the best ways we can serve our community and ensure that access needs are met, especially in South Seattle. We established a system where families can submit their grocery lists to us, including items like produce, other food staples, cleaning supplies, and diapers; we pick up the goods and offer contactless delivery to any family with students at Rainier Beach, Chief Sealth, Evergreen, and Tyee High Schools. In a way, it’s a great opportunity for us to get the word out about FEEST and our goals surrounding food justice, because we’re able to reach more students and families in the school than we might have been able to just by meeting in classrooms after school. So far, we’ve served over 400 families with free groceries, and we’re continuing the program through June.

What do you hope to see EJC accomplish in the next year?
I’m excited to get out in the community and hear from people, to bridge the knowledge of the community with that of the committee. Obviously, that may look different moving forward, so I’m excited for the creative ideas we come up with to keep up with engagement and tap into our community’s experiences and needs at this time, getting their ideas for how we can be most responsive. I deeply believe that the people who are most impacted have the best solutions on how to address any given issue. Making sure that we’re out there hearing from our community any way that we can is a big priority of ours in the EJC.