By Stacy Nguyen
Northwest Asian Weekly
“Tell me your zip code, and I can tell you what problems you suffer from, or the problems you will suffer from. And I can tell you how long you’re going to live and how long your children are going to live,” said Ngozi Oleru. “That is a very quick way of saying that our environment matters.”
Oleru is the director of the Environmental Health Services Division (EHD) for Public Health Seattle-King County, where she manages programs related to the environment that affect 1.9 million residents.
She was also one of 18 honorees at Northwest Asian Weekly’s Women of Color Empowered Luncheon, held at New Hong Kong Restaurant on Sept. 23. The event’s theme was Eco Women Making a Difference in the Environment.
Other honorees included Maria Batayola, Amanda Bruner, Leda Chahim, the Danny Woo Garden, Lekelia Jenkins, Jourdan Keith, Elizabeth Leavitt, Sharon Lee, Paulina Lopez, Tammy Nguyen, Savitha Reddy Pathi, Joyce Pisnanont, Shefali Ranganathan, Sharon Sutton, Emily Washines, Emma Zavala-Suarez, and Jane Zepp.
It’s not all about trees
“Close your eyes for a second and picture an environmentalist,” said Bruner, an outreach coordinator for SoundCitizen and research scientist at the University of Washington (UW) School of Oceanography.
“There are three things that always get brought up: tie dye, Birkenstocks, and tree huggers.”
Lee, founding Executive Director of the Low Income Housing Institute (LIHI), doesn’t fall into the stereotype. She wore dark colors to the luncheon, and her work deals primarily with people, not trees.
LIHI is a nonprofit that develops, manages, and advocates for low-income housing as well as provides supportive services. LIHI’s staff members have developed more than 3,800 units of rental and ownership housing in Washington state. It was six years ago that LIHI decided to go green.
“[Today], we do not want to mention affordable housing without also mentioning the word green,” said Lee, who pointed out that going green can actually be more cost effective, which she learned through one of LIHI’s buildings, McDermott Place in Lake City. “We found out after two years that the residents’ monthly electric and heating bill was only $17.”
McDermott Place provides 75 permanent units for homeless individuals and 38 for veterans.
For some of the honorees, their relationship with environmentalism goes far back.
“My first experience of urban renewal occurred when my aunt’s house in Ohio was taken by eminent domain so a highway could be built,” said Sutton. “I was 16.” Sutton remembers an elaborate, beautiful closet that she used to play around, acting as a backdrop to what she called her girlish imaginings. “Imagine my disappointment when [my aunt] was relocated to a perfectly ordinary house.”
Eminent domain is a state’s power to seize a citizen’s private property or property rights, with monetary compensation but without the citizen’s consent. Most commonly, the seized properties are used for public utilities or highways.
“When I was 18, I moved to New York City,” she said. “Another highway was being built near my home in Cincinnati. The construction dragged on, and over time, my neighborhood became ever more deteriorated. [Later], when I was 23, working as musician in New York, there were other nonsensical urban renewal projects.”
These incidences would later inspire Sutton’s activism and work. Today, she is a professor of architecture and urban design, adjunct professor of social work, and director of the Center for Environment Education and Design Studies (CEEDS) at the University of Washington
“I think that the identity of an environmentalist and what they do needs to be broadened,” said Bruner.
Seattle’s South Park neighborhood is located between Tukwila and Seattle’s Georgetown. Surrounded by an industrial area, it faces the Duwamish River, and both it and the river have been polluted by heavy metals and toxic chemicals — resulting in relatively low property values compared to those in the rest of Seattle.
“I belong to a community where the leaders and females, just like me, we think of ways we can work with the community to engage them [on environmental issues],” said Lopez. “But … we have many other priorities other than thinking about the environment — we’re thinking about our status, we’re thinking about immigration, when we’re thinking about families being left behind.
Lopez, who works with the Duwamish River Cleanup Coalition, is originally from Ecuador. There, she developed community projects for indigenous populations, mainly educational, social, and environmental. She brought this passion for her work when she came to the United States and has made South Park her home for the last 10 years.
Pisnanont, manager of Seattle Chinatown International District Preservation and Development Authority (SCIDpda)’s IDEA Space, faces a similar challenge, which she sums up in one word:
“Cynicism — there are naysayers that think human behavior can’t be changed, or that we can’t overcome forces larger than ourselves. There are those who have completely given up on the idea that our community can and should be better and stronger.”
“It is shocking that 36 people died on the streets in Seattle in the last year, from the cold, from violence,” said Lee. “Of those 36, 11 were women. Since the year 2000, there have been 400 people who have been homeless who have perished on the street in Seattle. There should be zero tolerance. No one should live on the street. No one should die on the street.”
Reaching new people
At the luncheon, Keith was asked an offbeat question: What do women and whales of the Pacific Northwest have in common?
She responded with, “If you knew that you were a body of water, would you protect yourself? If you knew your water-body was connected to every other water-body, human and non-human, would you protect the water?”
Keith’s work is about reaching individuals when they are at their most impressionable. She is founding director of the Urban Wilderness Project, which organizes programs primarily for youth that puts them into the natural environment, such as hiking trails, and teaches them that connecting to the natural world is important to social causes, such as restoring and building communities, reducing domestic violence, and healing historic injustices.
“You are a body water, surrounded by land, on the estuary we call the Puget Sound,” Keith said, explaining how the environment and people are intimately connected. “You are a human estuary, an aquatic environment with 20 feet of blood vessels.”
Zavala-Suarez is chair of Community to Community Development (CDC) and a former farm worker. CDC has a program called Las Margaritas Catering Cooperative.
“[The cooperative] takes traditional Mexican cuisine and incorporates organic ingredients,” said Zavala-Suarez. “Now, a seemingly normal, everyday cooperative doesn’t seem revolutionary, but add in the fact that these women are former farm workers or farm workers and we are empowering them.”
Maria Batayola, principal at Jump Start, also believes that, despite the tie dye stereotypes, immigrants and people of color are concerned about their environment.
“I came to the U.S. at 14 years old, having grown up as part of the [racial] majority [in the Philippines] Now, remember that because we grew up the majority, we end up saying stuff like, ‘Why do you do that? That’s not right,’” said Batayola, explaining how newer immigrants respond when faced with policies and decisions about their environment that do not make sense to them.
She concluded the luncheon by saying, “We can help, so let’s go out and help.” (end)
The next luncheon is on Feb. 3, 2012. For more information, visit womenofcolorempowered.com.
Stacy Nguyen can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.