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SW WA exerts EJ organizing muscle

“Environmental Justice is recognizing and fighting against institutionalized systems of discrimination”. – Jorge Ceullar, Vancouver area high school student

Front & Centered members in Southwest Washington are actively focused on making environmental justice a state policy priority. At the Washington’s Environmental Justice Task Force (WAEJTF) third public meeting, which took place in Vancouver, WA on January 14, area community of color groups elevated key issues like healthy food and transit access and dangerous local mining operations. The meeting was punctuated by poignant statements on these matters from high school students and community leaders. 

The objective of the WAEJTF is to deliver recommendations to the Governor and Legislature by October 2020 on what new actions are needed by the government of Washington State to achieve environmental justice. It centers on improving the way State Agencies create and fund programs, enforce regulations, and engage the public.

Bridgette Fahnbulle, President of the Vancouver NAACP, kicked off the opening public comment portion of the meeting with stirring remarks highlighting the importance of a holistic approach to EJ. 

“Our schools in Vancouver are harsher on African-American and disabled children. As the map shows, access to a quality education is a strong indicator of one’s access to a healthy environment”

Task Force members spent time reviewing the work of the two subcommittees which cover mapping and community engagement. 

Staff from Washington’s Recreation and Conservation Office presented on their process for allocating state grant funds for local parks. Parks can improve community health, preserve ecosystems, and create jobs and investments. Check out their presentation to see their criteria for deciding which park projects to fund. The mapping sub-committee’s task includes producing recommendations on how State Agencies can use the Department of Health’s cumulative impacts analysis tool to fund grant projects.

Next, WAEJTF Project Manager Elise Rasmussen (left) and Tacoma Urban League of Young Professionals Member Emily Pickney (right) facilitated a discussion on the community engagement sub-committee. This committee has the vital task of recommending how to improve the relationships between State Agencies and the public it serves.

Millie Piazza, the agency representative for the Department of Ecology, also raised an important question about how the impact of public comments on policy outcomes are measured. 

After these presentations, the final three hours of the event were devoted to the community statements. We ate a healthy and tasty public dinner of fajitas and salad and heard eloquent opening presentations from teenagers from the SW WA LULAC and NAACP Chapters, and staff of the Noble Foundation.

“Poor students should not have to rely on bringing lunch from to eat well.”

“Show cultural humility, spend a day a month visiting community to create awareness of issues and build relationships.”

These presentations gave Task Force members deeper background on the local issues as they then broke out into discussion groups with the public audience. 

The feedback presented was deep and varied. Some key highlights include: 

1) Brought up repeatedly, universal access to nutritious food is critical to be healthy. Some participants raised concerns about the potential of a community owned farm that provides fresh food to people of lower incomes getting sold for private uses. 

2) State Agencies should hire staff from highly impacted communities and staff should be mandated to take cultural awareness training. 

3) Community centers are a critical asset and benchmark to ensure the public has a safe space for shelter. This will become increasingly important as extreme weather events create more frequent and dangerous public emergencies. 

4) Access to reliable public transit and mold free homes are among the key signs of a healthy community. 

High school students providing written feedback to the Task Force.

Big shout out to the SW WA LULAC and NAACP Chapters and the Noble Foundation for hosting ‘community conversations’ to prepare local residents to engage in this crucial work and strengthen the movement. 

Next up, Spokane on April 2. Stay tuned for more information!