OPINION: Adoption of Duwamish Valley Community Benefits Commitment by Port of Seattle is First of its Kind Agreement with Duwamish Communities

by The Port Community Action Team

On December 10th, Port of Seattle Commissioners voted unanimously to adopt Resolution 3767, The Duwamish Valley Community Benefits Commitment (DVCBC).

This adoption marks the culmination of over 2 years of community collaboration between the Port Community Action Team,  made up of South Park and Georgetown residents, and the Port of Seattle, bringing the two closer towards institutionalizing the voices of the Duwamish Valley into Port of Seattle processes.

The roots of this latest milestone lie in a U.S. Environmental Protection Agency Environmental Justice grant that focused on strengthening engagement between the Port of Seattle and near-Port communities that have had historically suffered from negative environment impacts.

Since the turn of the 20th century, the residents of the Duwamish Valley have beared the brunt of these inequities, beginning with the Duwamish Tribe.

South Park and Georgetown is home to Seattle’s only river, the Duwamish River. It’s cosmetic reconfiguration was undertaken to accommodate the city’s industrial growth resulting in straightened and dredged Duwamish River to allow for ships to sail.

This change decimated the fishing and shellfish stock, rendering the river delta uninhabitable for the indigenous people whose diet depended on it for sustenance.

These changes in the natural landscape marked the beginning of how environmental changes negatively impact marginalized communities in the Duwamish Valley.

The Cumulative Health Impacts Analysis (CHIA), written by Just Health Action and the Duwamish River Cleanup Coalition/Technical Advisory Group in 2013 found that “a range of health exposures and impacts disproportionately affect people in the Duwamish Valley, an area with the greatest number of contaminated waste sites, poorly built environment characteristics, and severe air pollution compared to the rest of Seattle. Life expectancy in the neighborhoods of Georgetown and South Park is up to 13 years shorter than wealthier parts of Seattle.”

A need to address these findings birthed a pilot project between the Port and the PCAT, also focusing on economic accessibility for the community.

The Duwamish Valley has a large population of Latinx, Somali, Vietnamese, and Khmer residents and is one of Seattle’s poorest neighborhoods.

“There are families that don’t have the finances to have one of their youth not work. I know families that [have] their children work for cash, like at their parent’s job. So bringing in money to the house is really important for some of the families and they live off of it. Having paid opportunities is really important, [and]at the same time, creating opportunities to learn new things. Many times at home, immigrant families or refugees, we don’t have the same opportunities as other youth that have parents that have graduated from college or even high school.” said Magdalena Angel Cano, a 21 year South Park resident and the youngest member of the PCAT.

She was part of the first graduating class of the Duwamish Valley Youth Corps. Since then, she has gone on to take on many leadership roles in the community and is the youngest member of the PCAT.

Magdalena understands first hand the impact that economic access through youth programs has had on her  life, “I think having community leaders and having programs to get involved kept me out of the streets and gave me the opportunity to have an internship to volunteer and to just get the hang of what I wanted to get done in my life.

Among the many strategies, youth engagement was an essential component of the pilot project.

The Duwamish Valley Youth Corps was tapped to help facilitate a workshop designed to create access for youth to the Port’s Youth Internship Program through resume building and career readiness. Since 2018, seventeen youths have worked for the Port.

In addition, the PCAT helped drive collaborations in other career pathways projects, environmental impact studies with the Northwest Seaport Alliance, and community enhancement projects such as the Duwamish River Mural Art.

As the pilot project neared its end, the Port of Seattle and the PCAT sought to continue its partnership.

On May 28th, 2019 Port Commissioners unanimously passed a Motion that established the Duwamish Valley Community Equity Program (DVCEP), formalizing the collaboration between the Port and Duwamish communities.

In the following months, the PCAT and the Port began collaborating on what would become the Duwamish Valley Community Benefits Commitment.

The DVCBC sought to create a framework for continued collaboration through three conduits:

Community Capacity Building – How do we leverage and share assets so that all communities thrive? The Port through its institutional access and the Duwamish Valley communities through its contributions to the cultural and economic tapestry of the region?

Healthy Environment and Communities – How do we collaborate to ensure that the people most disproportionately impacted by environmental justice inequities don’t continue to bear the consequences of living next door to industry?

Economic Prosperity in Place – How do all who work, live and worship create a sustainable relationship to keep everyone who has historically been in the valley to help stave off displacement.

Over the past four months, the PCAT led outreach to ensure that the DVCBC be centered on community voices; they engaged community stakeholders on their terms by taking outreach to their space. Meetings, presentations, and one on one conversations through culturally competent and language access lens were ways in which the PCAT sought to receive information on what the community felt collaboration should look like.

“We’re not only collecting input from folks when we engage, we’re trying to build community,” said Bunthay Cheam, a 29 year South Park resident and PCAT member, who alongside Magdalena Cano, helped lead a Multi-lingual Boat Tour of the Duwamish.

The Port of Seattle has previously offered Multi-lingual Boat Tour of the Duwamish River and parts of Elliott Bay. As part of its outreach strategy, the PCAT helped lead the design for a fall boat tour centered on the pillars of the DVCBC.

“For many of these residents, this is the first time they have been engaged in this way so we want to make sure they have a great experience engaging in community and that they also understand the work the PCAT and the Port is doing and more importantly, that we understand and hear them,” Bunthay added.

The creation of the DVCBC has also fostered unity from both sides of the Duwamish within the PCAT.

“We’ve grown in the knowledge of the Port and we’ve grown in the knowledge of what the issues are. We’ve grown as a Duwamish Valley community. I think that this process has also brought South Park and Georgetown together which is a really beautiful sideline that’s happening behind the scenes that you might not see, “said KC Steimer, Georgetown resident and PCAT member.

Hannah Kett, a South Park resident and PCAT member, echoed those sentiments, “What I value so much about collaborating with the Port Community Action team is that we all bring such a diversity of perspectives about South Park and Georgetown – but they are all positive.  While we do not shy away from the challenges that face us around pollution, safety or displacement – we are fiercely proud of the beauty and richness in the neighborhood. We bring that into the collaboration with the Port of Seattle, and find ways for the Port to fall just as much in love with the Duwamish Valley as we are.  These different perspectives are evident in the final product of the Community Benefits Commitment.”

In all, over 300 community stakeholders and 27 community-based organizations were engaged through outreach for the Duwamish Valley Community Benefits Commitment.

“We started this project two years ago and you didn’t know a lot about us and we didn’t know alot about you…The work is done but it’s just beginning in a lot of ways,” said KC Steimer addressing Port Commissioners during testimony in support of the DVCBC.

Next on the list for the PCAT and Port of Seattle is to construct a work plan that would put the priorities outlined in the the DVCBC into practice.

The PCAT will also begin drafting bylaws as it begins to create more capacity towards serving the community even further.

In her last public meeting as a Port Commissioner, Courtney Gregoire, during a special recognition period in honor of her service, ended her speech by reflecting on the culture of community building at the Port during her seven year tenure, “…actually, what’s emblematic of it, is the Duwamish project, that is about going and saying, ‘we don’t know everything.’ Let’s build a community to work together for where we can make a partnership that’s meaningful. That to me is the change in culture in seven years. So, I know it was driven bottom up it’s never driven top down, but thanks for letting me be a little part of it.”

The Port Community Action Team (PCAT) is a community-convened advisory group established in 2017 and consists of Duwamish Valley community members that engage the Port in collaborative action and strategic planning in order to address historical and current disproportionate, cumulative impacts affecting the Duwamish Valley community.

Featured image: PCAT members and Port Commissioners toast to the adoption of the The Duwamish Valley Community Benefits Commitment. (Photo: Bunthay Cheam)

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