Sustainable Seattle to Host Virtual Leadership Awards Event to Celebrate and Connect Local Sustainability Experts

by Jack Russillo

They’re calling it “Campfire Stories,” and the event will shed light on some of Seattle’s most innovative and ambitious leaders working toward a sustainable and equitable future.

On Tuesday December 8 at 6 p.m. Sustainable Seattle (S2) will host its eleventh Sustainability Leadership Awards, where it will recognize and celebrate the efforts of local experts, organizers, and organizations that have produced exceptional sustainability work in the past year. This year, the free event will take place online. Virtual doors will open at 5:45 p.m. and the event will commence shortly after.

Since 1991, S2 has worked to guide initiatives, create events, assemble a diverse range of community members, and spread awareness from around the Seattle area to activate a world that is safe, accessible, and enduring for all.

In November 2019, S2 hosted a community think-tank event, and community members assembled to identify what they thought were the most pressing sustainability priorities at Seattle’s forefront. Steering away from more industry-centric honors awarded in past years, the discussion produced four categories for the sustainability awards that S2 felt were more responsive to community needs, such as equitable land use and industrial accountability. Each honoree will receive a physical, handmade award and $150 from S2 to be contributed to an organization of their choice.

“[All of the honorees] are conduits for their community,” said Em Piro, S2’s executive director. “I think one of the remarkable things about these honorees is that two of the groups are very clear about having collective leadership. There’s not even a single person that we could give the honor to. They’re specifically focused on being collectives — on being a movement … It’s something that’s dependent on the ownership of many, many people not just following but tapping into that leadership for themselves. I think that’s one of the hopes of the Leadership Awards in general, is that we’re not just sitting and admiring somebody else, but that we’re being inspired by somebody else’s actions to tap into leadership ourselves.”

The first award to be announced will be for Culture and Environment, and the recipient is Black Star Farmers (BSF), a collective of more than 60 co-organizers that gained publicity when they started a community garden at the Capitol Hill Organized Protest (CHOP) in June.

“For me, there is no difference [between environmental and cultural sustainability],” said Marcus Henderson, who helped initiate BSF after he set up a garden space at Cal Anderson Park over the summer. “I think we live in a society that separates culture and the environment. Historically, I think most Indigenous cultures were the environment, they were intertwined … Our work was to connect culture and the environment to show that growing your own food is political and that the process of defunding also requires you to replace all of [the] existing systems with your own support systems. We’re all about trying to give and teach those skills and create those experiences that allow people to connect to the environment and make it a part of their lives.”

Henderson and other BSF organizers will speak during the event about their experiences of starting a garden in the center of the protests against police brutality, their ideas for community-owned uses of public space, and their mission to improve BIPOC peoples’ ability to live sustainable lives. Currently, BSF has established multiple sites throughout Seattle that aim to empower BIPOC individuals to reclaim public spaces to meet their needs, including access to cultivating plant medicines. BSF led a “Cannabis Equity Rally and March” in October and regularly hosts stewardship work parties welcoming people of all experience levels. 

“There’s a lot of gratitude toward Sustainable Seattle,” said Natalie Kaye Garcia, a BSF co-organizer. “Being a part of the Interweave program, we’ve worked really well with them and so far they’ve been faithful to their word in really trying to empower BIPOC groups to do work for their communities.”

Leanna Keith of the musical duo Crows at a Crosswalk will perform a live, virtual set at the 2020 Sustainability Leadership Awards. (Photo courtesy of Sustainable Seattle)

The second award, for Community/Access/Data, will honor Kamal Patel, a civic designer known for his deep commitment to equity and integrating community voices.

The sustainability sector is data-driven, and while community members are often surveyed or utilized to collect data, the data doesn’t always serve them directly and the jargon of experts interpreting the data can often be inaccessible. To combat this, Patel has created a strategy that he calls a “just transition to circularity,” merging the labor rights and equitable governance emphasis of movements such as the Green New Deal with participatory budgeting and regenerative systems for energy consumption and waste.

The third award category, Aligning Forces for Sustainability, will honor King County Equity Now (KCEN) for its work against systemic and superficial racism, wasteful capitalist models, and extractive relationships that lack reciprocity. Formed this year, the Black-led coalition of more than 30 organizations has helped establish a social justice politic centered in reclamation and transforming historical harm. 

“I think the movement only spotlighted a lot of the work that was already happening,” said TraeAnna Holiday, the director of media for KCEN. “And then you have groups like King County Equity Now and Black Star Farmers that said that we need to do something more collectively. Yes, people were looking and people had known these things, but for some odd reason we just had my one organization over here and your one organization over there. It wasn’t bringing about the equitable solution we needed.”

The KCEN coalition includes researchers, policy advocates, community organizers, and business owners with backgrounds in land use, reproductive health, food access, and music and art. Their solutions for Black equity include maximizing underutilized land under the leadership of Black-led community organizations, halting gentrification in the Central District and other historic areas of color, and establishing a $1 billion land acquisition fund to help the Black community acquire property. 

The honoree for a fourth award — titled Deep Democracy for the recipient’s efforts in responsible industrial governance — will be announced during the live virtual event.

Once all of the Sustainability Leadership Awards recipients are announced, the event will include stories told by the honorees, interactive discussions with attendees, live music from Crows at a Crosswalk, an online winter market, fundraising events, marshmallow-involved games, and gift dispersal for those who donated during registration for the event.

“S2 is known for its ability to bring community together. It was important to us to maintain that sense of liveness even while we must remain in our homes for safety,” said S2’s Em Piro. “People from all walks of life can expect to connect with familiar faces, meet new people, and move into 2021 with hope, ambition, and purpose.”

Jack Russillo has been reporting in western Washington since 2013. He covers the environment, social justice, and other topics that affect a sustainable and equitable future. He currently lives in Seattle’s Beacon Hill neighborhood.

Featured image: Members of the King County Equity Now Coalition, with TraeAnna Holiday centered. (Photo: King County Equity Now)