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.
Michael Neguse is a former social worker and community activist who has co-managed the East African Senior Center (EASC) for nearly the past decade, along with program partners Senayet Negusse and Nerea Workneh. He has been an active program organizer, cook, and overall contributor to the work the Center achieves. Throughout the years, he has befriended and put food on the table for many people, especially the elderly. I recently had the chance to visit the Rainier Beach Urban Farm and Wetlands, one of the three locations that is home to EASC (which is also based at the Northgate Community Center and the Yesler Community Center). Through this visit and an interview with Michael, I got a glimpse into the activities that elders, youth, and individuals of all ages in between partake in, gained valuable insight on the program’s achievements, and learned how the EJ Fund supported their impact on the communities it serves.
EASC’s work on the farm began ten years ago when it was an abandoned lot. Since then, they have experienced considerable growth, both literally and figuratively.
“Individually, we wanted to bring people together and make peace. They come here and make friends, helping each other emotionally. Throughout the years, we lost people who used to come here, but they support each other and try to help other families. When someone gets sick, there are people from this program who go visit. It’s good to have that neighborly connection. Most of our people don’t speak English, but when they come here, they meet other people they can relate to and bond with, which also helps them improve their English. This program is very special to us because the community is underserved, and we think it’s important to share our cultures.”
The program participants of EASC have adopted a morning routine that is full of life and neighborly connection. It is also a chance for them to tend to the garden’s many features, where plenty of plant species flourish. Michales shared that the seniors have access to “culturally responsible nutritious meals, culturally appropriate health and wellness education, agricultural activities, and social engagement alongside fitness activities.”
“This is what they do when they come here in the morning: they stretch and do some exercise. Then they tend to the vegetable garden. At 12 p.m., we eat lunch and then when they go home, we give them food to bring. There is a ‘You-Pick’ garden and anyone who comes can pick what they need. We planted trees in the wetlands seven or eight years ago, and it’s now a habitat for insects and birds. We have orchards here, and bees. The garden across the way is for the seniors, where they plant things like corn and peaches. There are also greenhouses over there, where we can grow more food in the wintertime.”
People from numerous backgrounds visit the farms to feel a sense of tranquility, belonging, and happiness. Michael wishes for the seniors to walk away feeling as such, and the feedback from community members reflect his sentiments. Some participants realize that their mood has significantly improved.
“I want them to feel great. They come here; they laugh. Because of a language barrier, most of them are isolated, and without this garden, there is no other place they could go. But they come here, they meet their friends, eat together, laugh together, work together, and learn about nature. We want them to have a community here. I’m a community builder. It is good to bring the program participants to a place of nature – trees, water, plants, flowers. Their mood positively changes. We’re planning to do a cultural event where everyone here can bring their loved ones and enjoy the outdoors. The other day I was speaking to someone who is physically ill – the program here has helped her mental health. She says she feels upbeat, loved; there’s people who speak her language. She feels better now. And that’s the impact we want to have on people’s lives. We want them to have a good time. It is a very kind and welcoming atmosphere.”
As a result of the EJ Fund grant it received in 2020, EASC has expanded, from the number of participants to the assistive services available within the program. During my tour, children were watching live displays of food preparation and gathering around different program volunteers. It is important to note that the farm not only serves seniors, but also the youth who are learning about food sovereignty and what it means to have meals that are farm fresh – or as Michael put it, “from the farm to the table.” He recognizes these effects that the grant has had on the farm and those who come to enjoy their time in the wetlands.
“The EJ Fund helped us a lot. The number of seniors is growing, and we now have a social worker from Sound Generation, as well as a social worker program coordinator. We give the seniors stipends to show appreciation for what they do and encourage the seniors to come and walk around with their kids and grandkids. This is a safe and beautiful place for community members, especially the elderly. You can hear the birds singing, and the community tells us the air here is fresh. The EJ Fund has given us a chance to help people intergenerationally. There are younger people coming and working. We have day camp for the children and they really enjoy the environment. Everything is done by the seniors – growing food and restoring the wetland – and they learn about the environment including the birds, insects, and trees that grow in the Northwestern United States. Growing food and harvesting is very inspiring for them.
“We also learned a lot of things thanks to the grant. We have a deep knowledge now about different plants, birds, trees; we learned about pollinators and how they help the environment. There are trees that we can use to make our own necessities, like shampoo, conditioner – there were people who visited here to teach us these kinds of things. There was a guy that came here the other day and taught us about different birds here, which was very inspiring. He showed us which birds live in this wetland. It’s nice to see all the plants and I’m very proud to be a part of this program. Many years ago, there were no buildings here, nothing. We started working hard with planting and cleaning the wetlands. Now, we see the trees and it gives us hope, and inspires us. We have a trail that moves through the wetlands where we welcome everyone to bring their loved ones, and the children also love picking the blueberries that we grow here.”
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.