Shape Our Water: Shelagh Brown, Reconnecting Communities With Nature

by Ben Adlin

Shape Our Water is a community-centered project from Seattle Public Utilities (SPU) and KVRU 105.7 FM, a hyperlocal low power FM station in South Seattle, to plan the next 50 years of Seattle’s drainage and wastewater systems. Funded by SPU, the project spotlights members of local community-based organizations and asks them to share how water shapes their lives. Our latest conversation is with Shelagh Brown, a member of the Alphabet Alliance of Color. 

Shelagh Brown won’t reveal her secret hideaway. All she’ll say is it’s a nearby lake with a lone public entrance, where the water is clean and powerboats are forbidden — a little slice of paradise. She’d like to keep it that way.

“You know when you go there, people are going to clean up after themselves and take care of the place, whether they’re swimming, fishing, rafting, whatever it is. There’s just a really good vibe,” she said in an interview for the Seattle-based Shape Our Water project. “It’s also, unlike a lot of the other beaches in Seattle, it’s just very diverse.”

“Everybody just coexists, and I love it there.”

Brown, an herbalist and writer who swims in her free time, has lived in Seattle for the past decade. She earned a bachelor’s degree in herbal science and a master’s in traditional Chinese medicine and is now studying for a second master’s degree in social justice and community organizing. She’s a member of the Alphabet Alliance of Color, a community organizing nonprofit that centers queer people and People of Color “who are healers, caretakers, dreamers, organizers, and community leaders.”

Growing up in Missouri and Kansas, Brown developed an early interest in plant medicine. Her mother, a master gardener, set up urban gardens in the ’70s and ’80s, decades before the idea became mainstream. “I would say I’ve always been an herbalist” she recalled, “I’d always been in the, like, natural or holistic nutrition and organic agriculture world.”

As she traveled the country and eventually landed in Seattle, Brown turned that passion into a career. She spent four years working with several local nonprofits, teaching yoga and working to provide naturopathic and holistic medical care to low-income and houseless communities around the city. She also teaches youth about the environment and facilitates anti-racism workshops and training in healthcare, professional herbalism, and wellness.

“My goal has always been just about reconnecting communities with nature via plants and creating a healthcare system that actually is caring for everyone and safe for everyone,” she said, “Just a whole new healthcare paradigm that’s completely integrative and holistic and accessible to everyone.”

Clean water is crucial when growing food and herbs, Brown explained. “We need good soil to grow plants,” she said. “When we don’t have a healthy hydrologic cycle, when the water that’s coming out of the sky, that’s running over the earth, when it’s filled with toxins, that’s going to disrupt you growing good medicine, growing your food.”

Not only does pollution create health hazards of its own, but contaminants can also seep into herbs and vegetables. That can threaten home gardens.

In Black and Brown communities especially, “there’s been this huge resurgence, a renaissance” of local gardening — a trend that’s only picked up during the COVID-19 pandemic, Brown said. More and more people are growing food and herbs of their own. 

“People like to call them ‘victory gardens,’ like from the war,” she added, referring to a public campaign that encouraged households to grow vegetables to support American troops in the world wars. “I’ve actually created the term ‘liberation gardens,’ because I don’t want to be associated with war.”

Brown has also taught a youth water science class at the nonprofit iUrban Teen, emphasizing the importance of clean water in supporting healthy, self-supporting communities. “I teach them about water systems, like the basics of water science, the hydrologic cycle,” she said. “And then we go through all the different water systems, from marine to the rivers and the wetlands and the oceans.”

Environmental justice is a core principle of Brown’s class. She notes that the health effects of human-caused pollution and climate change have disproportionately impacted Black, Brown, and Indigenous people.

“We have a lot of data that shows us that Black people, Indigenous people, Brown people in the U.S. tend to live in places where they have less access to clean water and natural spaces,” Brown said, explaining that on average, “Black people, regardless of their income, live in more environmentally toxic places than white people, regardless of their socioeconomics.”

In some communities, she added, “We have elders living without running water. They’re 30 miles away from their nearest potable water source. Right here in the U.S.”

Western Washington is far better off than much of the rest of the country, Brown tells her students. Officials, tribal governments and local community organizations have worked together to invest in cleanup and green infrastructure and explore new ways to keep water clean. 

“It’s great because I can show them examples from Puget Sound, what we’ve really tried,” she said, “You know, Seattle, we’re really lucky, because they’ve done a lot here infrastructure-wise.”

Puget Sound is also home to natural features that help keep the environment clean: plenty of wetlands — which help filter contaminants from groundwater, among other benefits — and kelp forests that produce clean air while capturing carbon. 

Brown said she appreciates “being in a place with such clean water where they’re really working hard to change the infrastructure and make it more sound and more environmentally friendly.”

“Y’all who are from Washington, you really don’t understand how lucky you are nature-wise,” she said. “Where I’m from, it’s very different.”

Homeowners can help do their part, she added, by replacing lawns with native plants or a garden. “The best thing that anyone can do is just, like, grow your own garden,” Brown said. “Start with a couple of plants, even if you don’t think you have a green thumb.”

She’d also like to see big businesses do more to support local groups, such as the Duwamish Tribe and King Conservation District, working to ensure the region’s water supply stays clean.

Water is an essential part of who Brown is, she said. “I am a quadruple Scorpio, double Pisces. I have six placements in water. My mother put me in the water when I was six months old and I swam away.”

Years later, she’s still swimming. While the pandemic has meant fewer trips to her secret lake hideaway, she can’t wait to return. “I can swim for like an hour under the sunshine in clean water,” she said, “and just be very happy.”

Ben Adlin is a reporter and editor who grew up in the Pacific Northwest and currently lives on Capitol Hill. He’s covered politics and legal affairs from Seattle and Los Angeles for the past decade and has been an Emerald contributor since May 2020, writing about community and municipal news. Find him on Twitter at @badlin.

Featured Image: Shelagh Brown by Chloe Collyer

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