Photo depicting Black youth carrying orange buckets in a park setting as an adult in an orange reflective vest gives directions.

Symposium Highlights Immigrant and BIPOC-Driven Environmental Justice Initiatives

by Vee Hua 華婷婷


In a day of networking and presentations by community-led immigrant- and BIPOC-driven environmental justice initiatives, the Port of Seattle hosted the South King County Environmental Symposium on Saturday, June 18, at Highline College in Des Moines, Washington. Included in the programming were three panel discussions focused on “Cultivation and Cultural Belonging: Equitable Access to Healthy Foods through Community Gardens,” “Community-Led Stewardship and Youth Activism,” and “Green Jobs for a Just Transition.” In total, 10 different nonprofit and public sector groups were represented.

Welcoming the conference-goers was Port Commissioner Toshiko Hasegawa, who said the hope for the day was to “break down silos and create opportunities for people to collaborate.” She mentioned the Port of Seattle’s South King County Community Impact Funds (SKCCIF), which “develop equity-based partnerships and provide resources and support in historically underserved near-airport communities.” Many of the day’s participants were recipients of the fund, and its next cycle of recipients will be announced in mid-July.

Michael Carter, green jobs lead at King County, further grounded the need to bring resources to South King County, especially to “frontline communities” — those who are affected first and worst due to the climate crisis because of a lack of resources. He spoke to the need for “activation” through deep-rooted investments, and to quote Malcolm X, “by any means necessary.” In line with the County’s Strategic Climate Action Plan, many of the day’s presenters focused on regional leadership, external partnerships, youth empowerment, jobs training, and BIPOC-led initiatives.

The first panel featured the work of Bridging Cultural Gaps, which highlighted a youth engagement program between Indigenous and African families, as well as Wakulima USA and World Relief Western Washington, two organizations that focus on immigrant farmers and culturally relevant farming. In Swahili, Wakulima USA’s “Afya Bora” program translates to English as “Better Health.” As Programs Manager David Bulindah — who is a Kenyan immigrant and mental health therapist — shares in a film on KIRO 7, their organization’s partnership with Living Well Kent and King County fosters cultural belonging, mental health, and connections between families. Afya Bora creates opportunities for immigrant communities to grow crops that are relevant to their cultural needs, such as amaranth and African nightshade. With multiple farming plots throughout South King County and 16 families in its “Afya Bora” program this year, Wakulima USA hopes to expand its influence in future years and to eventually own its own land.

Similarly, Lucas McClish, community garden coordinator at refugee resettlement organization World Relief Western Washington, spoke of its Paradise Parking Plots Community Garden, established in 2017. Founded in part by Bangladeshi immigrant and former World Relief employee Tahmina Martelli, the project was born from community listening sessions where refugees and immigrants expressed a desire to farm foods from their homelands as well as to find safe places for their children to play. In response, World Relief partnered with Hillside Church in Kent’s East Hill, which allowed it to take over a half-acre of unused parking lot, de-pave it, and transform it into a multicultural community garden. Like Wakulima’s Afya Bora, the land has now become a space for the growing of a number of North American vegetable staples in addition to culturally relevant foods, from managu and mustard greens to amaranth, chayote, bitter melon, and hairy gourd.

Another common theme throughout the entire day was the transformation of public and private lands, whether through Serve Ethiopians Washington’s efforts to improve SeaTac’s Angle Lake Park in partnership with Forterra; Bridging Cultural Gaps’ planting of 200 trees from a Native perspective; and the City of Burien’s new environmental goals. In addition to planting new trees, organizations like Serve Ethiopians Washington focus on removing invasive species and installing native plants to restore natural habitats.

African Young Dreamers Empowerment Program (AYDEPI) youth at the South King County Environmental Symposium. Photo courtesy of the Port of Seattle.

Three youth presenters — Fiona Okech, Ashley Stephen, and Faith Njega — represented the work of African Young Dreamers Empowerment Program (AYDEPI), which focuses on youth-driven programs and brings together African American and African immigrant communities to discuss topics of shared interest. Director Beatrice Kiraguri started the project because she felt a gap between parents and young people.

“We did an assessment in 2019 whereby the youth suggested that they be given a space — a space where they can express themselves without fear or stigmatization,” Kiraguri explained.

AYDEPI is also led by two youth directors under the age of 23, and it actively champions a peer mentorship model, where each youth leader then goes on to train 10 more youth leaders. Of AYDEPI’s board of directors, 70% are between the ages of 14 and 23; the remaining 30% of the board offers perspectives and knowledge that teens and young adults may still need due to lack of work and life experience.

One of its AYDEPI’s youth directors, 21-year-old Fiona Okech, has been in her position since she was 19, and she has been given the opportunity to represent other youth and strengthen her own voice. “Putting us in those leadership positions can help us bring up some new ideas that aren’t done before, and I feel like our generation that is coming up is the most diverse generation ever,” she shared. “We are so eager to learn, and eager to take those responsibilities, and through us being diverse, we can bring different cultures and bring different ways into our environmental justice system.

“AYDEPI has also helped me in different ways, speaking about mental health, which is an issue many migrant families face, especially thinking that it’s a taboo, or thinking that it’s a health issue but not a mental health issue,” she continued.

Kiraguri added, “We’ve lost a lot of [the AYDEPI youth] through suicide, drugs, and alcohol; that’s also all things [sic] which is happening to the communities and the communities are not talking about. In African [communities] we talk of those things as taboo, so for sure, we [at AYDEPI] want to say it is not taboo. Mental health is there, and we need to tackle it head-on.”

African Young Dreamers Empowerment Program (AYDEPI) youth at Sonju Park in Des Moines, where AYDEPI hosts two events every month until October 2022. Photo courtesy of AYDEPI.

Another organization that literally let youth take center stage was Unleash the Brilliance, a nonprofit that grew out of truancy courts and challenges the school-to-prison pipeline. It brought the youthful energy of high schoolers Chloe Trujillo and Sharlene Pioquinto, who showcased their data-heavy work on stream monitoring and the restoration of the Lost Urban Creeks Project in South King County. Shown were polluted urban waterways — those that have been unnaturally straightened, are polluted by heavy industry, and where salmon are no longer able to return. Their water quality reports have been shared with “local decision-makers” for advocacy work; the project is now in its sixth year and will continue.

Job training was also a major focus of the day. Programs like Partner in Employment’s Youth Restoration Training Crew (YRTC) help, according to its website, “prepare immigrant and refugee youth to enter environmental fields by providing paid training in restoration and environmental sciences.” Since summer 2020, it has employed 43 youth to complete restoration programs in South King County and South Seattle parks. Numerous organizations, including Serve Ethiopians Washington, further recognized the need to pay youth to have them involved in urban renewal projects.

Nonetheless, nearly every presenting organization expressed the need for more financial resources, especially since many have only found financial stability through partnerships with larger government or nonprofit entities or been reliant on grants, such as the SKCCIF. They also named the importance of lowering barriers to access funds, especially given the immigrant, refugee, and BIPOC communities they serve and are led by. Community-specific outreach, multilingual marketing materials, transportation to help with access to nature, and the general need for more community gardens and green spaces were also uplifted as solutions to consistent challenges.

For its part, the Port of Seattle is actively working on addressing these issues, especially in relation to SKCCIF.

“As we prepare to launch cycle three of the SKCCIF, we are working with South King County communities and listening to their good ideas to drive economic recovery for projects connected to Port-related industries, including aviation, maritime, construction trades, and green career industries,” said Guadalupe Torres, community investments program manager at the Port of Seattle. “Forums like this help identify, ‘What are the projects that need investment now and that will make a difference?’”

Andy Gregory, senior program manager of environmental engagement and external relations at the Port of Seattle, added, “What we’ve been doing is working with trusted community members to do both trained outreach as well as internal process improvement. We have heard that in-language support and technical assistance to the grant process is huge. We’ve learned that fiscal sponsorship — being able to connect small community groups to nonprofits so that they can contract with the Port — is really important, and there are other items that we’re working on improving now.”

Torres concluded, “A wonderful aspect is the Port’s commitment, the staff, leadership — and the commissioners; we have their support and we believe in this investment in community.”


The Port of Seattle’s South King County Community Impact Fund (SKCCIF) will announce its second round of funding in mid-July, with the opening of the third grant cycle to follow later this year.


Vee Hua 華婷婷 (they/she) is a writer, filmmaker, and organizer with semi-nomadic tendencies. Much of their work unifies their metaphysical interests with their belief that art can positively transform the self and society. They are the interim managing editor of the South Seattle Emerald, editor-in-chief of REDEFINE, and co-chair of the Seattle Arts Commission. They also previously served as the executive director of the interdisciplinary community hub, Northwest Film Forum, where they played a key role in making the space more welcoming and accessible for diverse audiences. Their latest short film, Reckless Spirits, is a metaphysical, multilingual POC buddy comedy, and will be released in late 2022. Follow them at @hellomynameisvee or over at veehua.com

📸 Featured Image: African Young Dreamers Empowerment Program (AYDEPI) youth at Lake Geneva Park in Federal Way, where AYDEPI hosts one event every month until October 2022. Photo courtesy of AYDEPI.

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