By Carol Aragon, Environmental Justice Storytelling Youth 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.
Young Women Empowered’s (Y-WE) mission is to “cultivate the power of diverse young women* to be creative leaders and courageous changemakers through transformative programs within a collaborative community of belonging.” Y-WE offers various outdoor programs including Nature Connections and Y-WE Grow. I had the honor of learning more about Y-WE Grow by interviewing Neli Jasuja who manages this program that was founded on forming a bond with the Earth. Y-WE Grow lives and thrives in South Park’s Marra Farm harbors youth and giving gardens, while being an educational space for those learning about food-related issues.
Neli leads Y-WE Grow alongside Tayah Carlisle and has focused on food justice throughout her career. I had the wonderful opportunity to hear from Neli about how the EJ Fund has supported Y-WE Grow, her hopes for youth participants, and her emphasis on sustainability through farming while remaining respectful of and connected to the land.
“I love the Environmental Justice Fund,” Neli said. “It feels grounded in respect and trust. Rather than requiring us as an organization to prove ourselves constantly, it feels truly like a relationship. OSE staff have joined Y-WE volunteer work parties and been in community which has meant a lot. And with that trust, with that respect, comes openness for creativity. We don’t have to submit a rigorous grant proposal around what the youth will produce; there’s sometimes pressure around that. Instead, it’s more about letting the magic happen, like what emerges for the youth.”
While the EJ Fund currently supports Y-WE Grow, they were also a recipient of a grant in 2018 which supported their Nature Connections programming. Nature Connections is an opportunity for young women to deepen their relationship with nature and themselves through outdoor activities that allows them to experience nature and dive into environmental justice topics. As a result of their grant, Y-WE served over 230 young women through Nature Connections and the youth had access to outdoor activities including invasive species removal with Snoqualmie tribal leaders and working at Marra Farm, and connecting with the South Park community to share community meals while learning about the environmental justice issues they face.
Currently, the youth who participate in Y-WE Grow contribute to the environmental justice movement through their dedication and participation at Marra Farm and beyond. Once finished with Y-WE Grow, Neli hopes the youth walk away having a respectful relationship with the land, and that they are happy with the work that they accomplish.
“I want them to feel belonging and connection with the land from the start and to know that anywhere they go, they can approach their environment and observe, listen, and converse in relationship. It’s also a lot of pressure to inherit climate chaos and hold the responsibility that is pushed onto them by adults to fix it. What’s special about this space is that young people can heal and contribute at the same time. Action on its own without purpose or understanding of the land’s history, people and environmental justice movements can be dangerous. Self-care without purpose or action can be an avoidance mechanism. Because we have action, purpose, and healing integrated here, the youth know that it’s possible to have all three and build sustainability in environmental justice work long-term. You can experience joy while fighting environmental racism in community.”
Y-WE has collaborated with numerous programs that are focused on environmental equity. Here, Neli describes the importance of the different organizations coming together and the sense of community present at Marra Farm.
“I think that what’s special about Marra Farm is that it’s not just one group farming here. It’s a collection of organizations, neighbors, and individuals all doing cool projects. I think that sometimes when we hear that there’s people engaging in the environmental justice movement, there can be a hero-industrial complex, as though there’s this one person doing it all. We should recognize that people are coming together and sharing resources. That’s the mosaic of it. We’ll have foods next to each other at the market; we’ll look out for each other. It’s very relational, knowing that it also has a much bigger impact across the community. I feel very lucky that there’s so many people in Seattle doing this work. The community is very strong. It’s nice to have someone you can call, and to have people you can ask to join you in the movement. The community aspect is what gives me a lot of life in this work, in addition to the farm work.”
Lastly, Neli shared some words of wisdom for those beginning their environmental justice work.“I’d say it’s urgent and never too late to begin. I started doing this work, fully dedicating my life to it at twenty-five years old. To see where I’m at now and to see where our youth are now, it’s never too late to start building with people in community around this work because it’s work that needs to be done.”
Find out more about the Environmental Justice fund on our website, and consider applying before 4 p.m. on September 16.
*Y-WE uses this term to refer to those who identify as women or were assigned female at birth, inclusive of trans and non-binary folks.
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.