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Black Futures for Black History Month –
Yolanda Matthews

Black Leaders on the Frontlines:
Yolanda Matthews Leads Front and Centered Coalition with Integrity and Insight

Photo: Puget Sound Sage

The Front and Centered Community Council leads our growing statewide coalition of community groups. One of the CoLeaders stewarding coalition governance is Yolanda Matthews. When asked about what brought her to this intersectional work for racial and environmental justice, Yolanda remembers how the impetus to get involved grew out of a frustration of being undervalued in her prior roles – whether it was limited opportunities to lead and make a difference, or the income disparities as a woman of color. She had a desire to “get into serving my community within the racial and environmental justice movement, serving BIPOC communities in a positive way.” It is no surprise then that Yolanda has emerged as a powerful voice and community expert for over seven years, serving as a climate justice organizer for Puget Sound Sage, board member for Got Green, food justice activist, and an alum of the Rainier Valley Corp Fellowship program.

As Front and Centered’s Community Council CoLead, Yolanda helps steward and provide strategic guidance for Front and Centered’s coalition relationships, resources, and portfolio of policy and capacity building work. She stepped up into the position during a time of incredible change not only for the world with 2020’s pandemic and Black Lives Matter marches across the nation and in other countries, but she also leaned into leadership during a time of change when Front and Centered was just taking shape as an independent organization with a new core team last year. When the COVID19 hit the Northwest and Front and Centered was only a month into its nonprofit status, Yolanda jumped into what was then called the Steering Committee (now Community Council) of Front and Centered and actively engaged in the development and deployment of the Frontline Response Fund, providing guidance for emergency grants to over 60 frontline community groups in seven counties.

“…get into serving my community within the racial and environmental justice movement, serving BIPOC communities in a positive way.

As she reflects on the most important issues she sees facing the Black communities in Washington State, Yolanda says it is systemic and ubiquitous – to understand what the most important issues are she “starts with being confronted with anti-blackness/racism in all aspects of our lives. Consistently being underrepresented, underserved, under-resourced, and underestimated in general is what has led to the Black community at the bottom of the list with barriers to the ability to build intergenerational wealth, and always close to the top of the list when it comes to statistics outlining poor health outcomes in relation to quality of life. We need equal access to all the resources that lead to a high quality life.”

Yolanda points out that with this coalition work, “environmental and racial justice issues are entirely intertwined.” She goes on to paint a picture of her lived experience and observations of her South Seattle neighborhood:

An example of harmful impacts in relation to EJ/RJ issues often can look like corporate entities not investing in a certain level of awareness – or in some cases – being fully aware of who’s residing in a particular part of town, not caring, and setting up climate-altering, dangerous practices in what was already a marginalized community. I learned that this is the history of the area in which I reside in the Rainier Valley.

The challenge for frontline communities is understanding, accounting, and redirecting the patterns of historical development of communities so that the essential structures of wealth, health, housing, and opportunities for civic engagement move toward a Just Transition.

Front and Centered and the coalition at large are incredibly fortunate to be guided as CoLead by Yolanda, who describes her vision of leadership as “all-inclusive, centering underrepresented (BIPOC, women, youth, poor/low-income, LGBTQIA+, immigrant/refugee, low-wage worker, etc.) communities at the decision-making table, leading the conversations that get us all to equitable real-world, truly impactful solutions.” Thank you, Yolanda!

This is part of a series of blog posts highlighting Black Leaders on the Frontlines in our state who are working at the intersection of environmental, racial, and economic justice.