By Carol Aragon, Environmental Justice Storytelling Intern
Across the United States, race is the most significant predictor of a person living near contaminated air, water, or soil. It is for this reason that Seattle’s Environmental Justice Fund was created in 2017 to support efforts that benefit and are led by, or in partnership with, those most affected by environmental and climate inequities: Black, Indigenous, People of Color, immigrants, refugees, people with low incomes, youth, and elders. The Environmental Justice Fund supports a wide variety of community-led projects that advance environmental justice and respond to the impacts of climate change. This story series features some of the incredible work led by community groups and organizations supported by the Environmental Justice Fund.
César García began his environmental justice work in 2017 as a member of the Environmental Justice Committee. Later, he co-founded the Lake City Collective with his wife, Peggy Hernández. Lake City Collective is a nonprofit organization that works to ensure improvement of living quality in Black, Indigenous, and People of Color (BIPOC) communities, particularly those who are environmentally disadvantaged. For the interview with César, photographer Devin Muñoz and I had the splendid opportunity to visit the organization’s office in North Seattle’s Little Brook Neighborhood. César took us on a walking tour of the area, explaining the various art in and around the building, while additionally describing the impact of the EJ Fund on Lake City Collective, his previous experience in the environmental justice realm, and how people can get involved in the environmental justice movement.
César led the way throughout the building, displaying a picture of the mural honoring Indigenous land and discussing how Lake City Collective created a more walkable space for community members. He noted the importance of acknowledging whose land we reside on, as well as the neighborhood’s safety.
“Part of the Equity & Environment Agenda is to own your narrative, which is one of the things we want to do. If you go two blocks [northwest] of our center, you will see this mural on the street. With this design, we are recognizing where we are. It is important for us to show people that we are on Native land. The Chief Seattle Club helped us contact the artist that helped us create this mural. We also partnered with the Department of Transportation to place safety barriers for pedestrians at the intersection of the mural. Nothing has happened on that level before, so we are very proud that we were able to do these things. This is for us to show people where they are and that they are safe within their community – it’s very empowering for everyone that cares about it.”
In 2020, Lake City Collective received a grant from the Environmental Justice Fund to lead a community empowerment project in the Little Brook neighborhood focused on various environmental justice and sustainability (environmental, social, and economic) issues in the area. One of the organization’s goals is to make this information easily accessible to the community, and to create an Environmental Justice Action Plan through a community-led visioning process to improve social and environmental conditions in Little Brook. Their grant has allowed the organization to beautify the neighborhood, allowing the community to unite through joyful and educational activities. But it also helped them better understand the area environmentally, and made Lake City Collective realize how there is a huge need for community-based organizations to learn how to form genuine and equitable relationships with other organizations.
“The grant helped us move forward in many ways – the first [part of the] project is the garden we have outside. The neighborhood kids will come here and play or relax on the bench. There is a stage, where we would play music here for the people to enjoy. Before we did the street mural, the surrounding blocks that make up the neighborhood looked duller and grey. This gave us the opportunity to create something beautiful for the community. However, there is also deeper work happening. One piece of that work was for the community to identify environmental indicators, and from there choose what is most important, and then implement solutions that address them. The goal is to implement easy solutions, then ask ][community members] how it changed their lives.
“The grant also had long-term impacts. A piece of our project was to find equitable partnerships. Before we started thinking about those partnerships, other organizations would come to us with requests to do outreach for them and offering a small amount of grant money, while they were getting huge amounts of money from our work – work that gave them the visibility they needed to get even more funds. As a small community organization, you realize people are tokenizing you. Something we do is ask, ‘Who are the people we can actually work with?’ We have learned that it is about finding the partnerships that are more equal.”
César shared his start within the environmental justice movement and how it has impacted his work within Lake City Collective. He explains that the more he learned about injustices in his community, the more he acted to solve them.
“When I first started, I didn’t know what environmental justice was. I was invited by staff at OSE to join the Environmental Justice Committee when I worked as a community liaison at Seattle’s Department of Neighborhoods. I began learning about it and realized I lived in a placed where I could work on environmental justice issues. Through that group, I started learning a lot about environmental justice. When Peggy and I started this organization, from the beginning, we started to work on these problems – social justice, economic development – and it was important to address environmental justice issues as well. This is one of the most polluted areas of the North End. My experience has helped us bring the conversation to these communities.”
As the interview concluded, César shared some final words on how others can get involved in the environmental justice movement and what that involvement looks like.
“At first, we were using a lot of lingo people couldn’t understand, and it’s not their fault. If you’re going to invite people into the environmental justice movement, you must remove the things, such as words or concepts, people really don’t need to understand, and instead work together with them on something they can relate to. You want to create groups where people feel comfortable. It’s not easy, and I think we, the grantees of the EJ Fund, encounter the same issues. How do we recruit more people? And I think it also has to do with how we get people to organize. When people move here, maybe they don’t see the impacts of living this way and that’s what makes it hard to organize. [When these issues] really affect them, then they can say that it’s not right. So, I would say it’s also about showing them these conditions are not right and we go from there.”
Find out more about the Environmental Justice Fund on our website and consider applying by September 16 at 4 p.m.!
About the Author
Carol Aragon is a Storytelling Intern for OSE through the Seattle Youth Employment Program, assisting in interviewing grantees of the Environmental Justice Fund. She is an incoming undergraduate at Washington State University.