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 Maggie Angel-Cano, community engagement and communications specialist for the Duwamish River Cleanup Coalition.
Growing up in South Park, Maggie Angel-Cano spent years without realizing Seattle’s only river ran through her neighborhood.
“We had no idea there was a river in the community,” she said. “We just, you know, lived our daily life: work, school, back home.”
It didn’t help that the waterway was more or less off-limits. Around the time her family moved to the area, about 20 years ago, the Environmental Protection Agency declared the Duwamish River one of the most polluted places in the country. Groups such as the Duwamish River Cleanup Coalition (DRCC), the environmental justice nonprofit where Angel-Cano now works, have been part of restoring the river’s ecology ever since. The group hosts regular cleanup activities and educational events, and it advocates on behalf of marginalized communities in the Duwamish Valley that have borne the brunt of industrial pollution.
Much of Angel-Cano’s activity at DRCC focuses on engaging youth and encouraging them to develop close connections to local water systems, both in their personal lives and in some cases professionally. She’s currently helping to launch Maritime High School, a school focused on the environment, marine science, and maritime careers. It’s scheduled to welcome its first class of ninth graders in September.
The school, a collaborative project between Highline School District, DRCC, the Port of Seattle, and Northwest Maritime Center, is designed to prepare students for jobs on or near the water. It will combine traditional classroom learning with hands-on experience and two days of fieldwork each week, with a learning hub in the Duwamish Valley. The school will also help students with tasks such as crafting a resume and applying to college.
“All kinds of opportunities that we don’t see now are coming to our community,” Angel-Cano said, including hands-on exposure to a variety of maritime careers as well as general life skills. “Financially, budgeting is something that traditionally I never got support with, and now our youth, we’re hoping that they will.”
Students in past DRCC programs would sometimes ask about what kinds of jobs are available along the Duwamish, she added, but often weren’t prepared to pursue them.
Angel-Cano herself was about high-school age when she first became involved in environmental activism. When she was 14, her mother introduced her to Paulina López, a social and environmental justice advocate who now serves as DRCC’s executive director.
Angel-Cano became an early participant in what’s now known as the Duwamish Valley Youth Corps, a DRCC program for young people that focuses on environmental justice and job skills, particularly among students of color, low-income families, and immigrants. Group activities such as regular adventures through the neighborhood inspired her to ask questions and get involved.
“We started being more conscious about what was surrounding us,” she recalled.
That environmental mindset continues to this day. “Everything just kind of plays differently in my mind,” she said. Visiting family in Oregon, for example, might prompt the question: “What’s the stormwater process here?”
When she was in high school, Angel-Cano made a few suggestions on how a nearby park might be improved. After planning documents for the park were published, she was shocked to see some of her recommendations reflected in it.
“That’s what empowered me,” she said. “I was like, wow, my voice was heard!”
In college at the University of Washington, Angel-Cano studied gender, women, and sexuality studies. “For me back then, finding myself and learning about my identity and learning about others was really important to coming back to the community,” she said.
After UW, Angel-Cano went back to South Park and the organization that first inspired her environmental stewardship. One of her first jobs was helping host the summer Duwamish River Festival, which celebrates the river and honors the Duwamish Tribe and their land.
She said there are all sorts of simple things residents can do to better respect local waterways, such as picking up pet waste so it doesn’t drain into the Duwamish River or other nearby bodies of water. She also encouraged volunteering at community cleanups, which DRCC hosts on a monthly basis but are often arranged by other local groups.
In addition to her community outreach work and the launch of Maritime High School, Angel-Cano’s responsibilities over the years have included leading boat tours on the very river she once didn’t know existed. The tours have continued as online events during the pandemic in order to keep community connections strong.
“We used to do physical boat tours and just go up and down the river showing people what the industries along the river look like, and how it looks like from inside the river,” she said, “but now we do those virtually. If you’re ever interested in anything like that or just talking to us about what you’ve noticed in your community, we’re more than happy to have a chat with you.”
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: Maggie Angel-Cano (Photo: Chloe Collyer)
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