With programs to reduce pollution, improve transit and cut energy consumption, Seattle ranks highly in its commitment to environmental progress. In fact, STAR Communities, a framework and certification program for local sustainability, named Seattle the most sustainable city in the U.S. in 2014.

Good news, right? Not completely. Despite the five-star overall rating, the full report revealed that the city scored low in “equity and empowerment,” citing deficiencies in public health outcomes, environmental justice outcomes and civic engagement. Indeed, Seattle struggles much like other cities to engage marginalized communities in its otherwise excellent environmental programs.

Thanks to a new era in environmentalism, that tide is changing. Local leaders like Got Green and Puget Sound Sage are redefining environmental priorities and leadership. Their work instead follows in the footsteps of environmental justice leaders before them by prioritizing the people and communities most impacted by environmental harm. “To do climate work, we must take the lead from those who are most directly impacted by climate change -- communities of color and indigenous communities -- as they know best how to improve the conditions of their environment,” says Jill Mangaliman, executive director of Got Green.

Puget Sound Sage’s most recent collaboration, “Our People, Our Planet, Our Power,” is a survey of the concerns of communities in South Seattle around climate change. With the goal of a climate resilient future, Got Green and Puget Sound Sage used a community-driven process to identify the survey’s priorities and placed racial and social equity at the center of their analysis.

Their approach also improves upon typical top-down community engagement models that are often standard in the nonprofit sector. To lead the survey project, the two organizations assembled a committee of South Seattle community members, all people of color and all ages from 23 to 45. The committee collected research and stories from peers, neighbors and grassroots community groups and used them to create community-focused environmental solutions.

“Without active engagement with communities of color, the environmental movement as it stands will become irrelevant,” says Lylianna Allala, a Got Green board member. “The time is now to strategize on how we can support youth from communities of color and low-income communities to become the leaders that will take us into a new era.”

In order to increase community participation, both on the committee and from survey respondents, Got Green and Puget Sound Sage offered food and transportation as well as made sure they conducted the survey in places where people already gathered. These efforts helped foster authentic relationships, creating an important foundation for further collaboration and leadership development.

This intentional process of listening to and taking leadership from South Seattle community members resulted in findings relevant to philanthropy, local government and peer environmental organizations. Community members’ chief climate concerns were rising food costs, increased diseases and other health issues. The survey also found many residents are already facing serious exposure to environmental hazards in their neighborhoods, such as living near polluted industry; infestation of pests, insects and rodents; and exposure to toxic chemicals.

Lack of affordable housing was also identified as a critical climate issue – linking the housing affordability crisis to growing patterns of urban displacement. “Interviewees made the case that any local efforts to build climate resilience for our communities will be undermined if low-income people and people of color continue to be displaced to suburban cities, particularly if those suburbs are under-resourced and unable to conduct rigorous climate resiliency planning,” states the report.

With the results of the survey in hand, the committee worked with community members to develop a set of actionable recommendations. Throughout this planning process, the committee kept its focus on self-determination and increased democracy. They also identified a number of policy solutions including access to green jobs and leadership pathways, funding for community-led projects, development of community land rights and culturally appropriate environmental education. They also highlighted the importance of accountability measures in order to ensure that programs and policies truly benefit marginalized communities.

A Community Zine will offer culturally relevant peer education and be used as an outreach tool to connect with community members who could be developed as future leaders. Peer-to-peer education is an important next step in empowering communities to truly be part of, not simply affected by, the growing environmental movement.

Got Green and Puget Sound Sage are confident in the power of their communities and clear about their hope for the future. “To be resilient in the face of climate change, we must know our history and learn the lessons of the past. While resilience is a response to a looming threat, we also see it as an incredible opportunity to (re)imagine a more just future for all.”

Got Green and Puget Sound Sage reflect the powerful impact of Seattle Foundation's Neighbor to Neighbor (N2N) program. N2N supports grassroots efforts that increase engagement, power and influence of community members affected by poverty and racial disparities.

Environment is a core element of Seattle Foundation's Healthy Community Framework. We support organizations that cultivate and conserve a healthy environment that benefits all.

Learn more about environmentalism in Seattle by the Seattle Foundation.