Photo depicting climate activists in kayaks surrounding and blocking the Polar Pioneer drilling rig in the Port of Seattle.

350 Seattle: Adapting to the Ever-Changing Environment of Climate Activism

by Alex Garland

The words “climate activism” stir different feelings in different people in a town like Seattle. Known around the world for being a city that isn’t afraid to “shut it down” for a cause, Seattleites have seen their share of climate activists shut down streets, banks, railroad tracks, and even the Port of Seattle. For some, images of Greta Thunburg speaking to world leaders might be the peak of climate activism; for others, it’s the grassroots community building and support for those most affected by global climate change that motivates their determination.

Photo depicting activists marching across West Seattle Bridge in protest. Shell's Polar Pioneer artic drilling rig can be seen in the Port in the background.
Climate activists march across the West Seattle Bridge in protest of Shell’s Polar Pioneer arctic drilling rig parked at the Port of Seattle during a 2015 action supported by 350 Seattle. (Photo: Alex Garland)

Environmental organization was founded in 2008 by Bill McKibben as a type of central hub that works with and supports smaller 350 organizations around the country. (“350” refers to the parts per million of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, where 350 ppm is considered the ceiling for a stable climate — we’re currently at 421 ppm.) The national organization’s local offshoot, 350 Seattle, was founded in 2013. In the world of climate change organizing, many coalitions and organizations have come and gone. In some cases, an unwillingness to change, an unsustainable model, a gatekeeping hierarchical structure, or interpersonal strife have been causes of disillusionment and the dissolving of alliances. 350 Seattle is no stranger to those issues.

Despite the struggles it has faced since its inception, 350 Seattle is now moving toward a coalition-building strategy, leaving behind “parachute activism” (dropping into a community and doing things its own way) or, as described by Renaissance, the 350 Seattle co-director of campaigns, “popcorn activism” (popping up and then disappearing after doing an action). With a new focus on creating and sustaining community relationships, 350 Seattle is working closely with unions, like UNITE HERE Local 8 on May Day in 2023, and Indigenous activists, like Roxanne White and her leadership with the Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and People campaign.

Headshot depicting Shemona Mitchell.
Shemona Moreno, executive director of 350 Seattle. (Photo: Alex Garland)

350 Seattle’s activists range from children to those in their elder years, with Black leadership, and coalitions and affinity groups representing cultures often overlooked in environmental work. The low barrier to entry makes 350 Seattle an appealing option to many looking to get a start with climate activism. But while the COVID-19 pandemic affected the economy, it also affected activism, says Executive Director Shemona Moreno.

“I’ll be transparent. It’s been hard to get back to the way we used to do volunteer engagement before the pandemic. We’re finally starting to open things up and do more community-building events that make it easier for people to get involved,” says Moreno. “You don’t have to be a policy wonk to care about the legislative process, you don’t have to be a climate scientist to understand the need for action, and you don’t have to be an artist to paint a banner.”

Photo depicting activists carrying a large salmon puppet during a protest.
Activists carry salmon puppets during the 2016 Break Free PNW campaign supported by 350 Seattle. (Photo: Alex Garland)

While 350 Seattle is often known for its art-infused climate activism work, with puppets, and colorful banners, the organization is also involved at the legislative level. While it’s focused on Seattle, having worked in coalition to help launch a citywide Green New Deal campaign in 2019 that’s since led to multiple climate and community investments, it has also found a place in Olympia, forming and supporting campaigns, making current legislation understandable and accessible for its supporters, and lobbying politicians locally and statewide for climate justice legislation.

“We kind of found our lane [with] how we participate in the legislative process,” explained Moreno. “We basically run this accessibility campaign around the legislative session, where we research all these bills, highlight the ones that we really want to support — from a breadth of topics, not just climate. … It’s also a way for us to be in solidarity at the state level for front-and-center policies that they care about.”

Photo depicting activists drinking coffee beside tents pitched on railroad tracks under a large banner that reads, "Coal, Oil, Gas, None Shall Pass!"
Activists drink coffee while blocking railroad tracks near Anacortes during the Break Free PNW campaign supported by 350 Seattle in 2016. (Photo: Alex Garland)

David Perk is very familiar with policy and the legislative process. A Roosevelt neighborhood resident, Perk has lived in Seattle since 1992. He first became active in environmental work after his dismay with what George W. Bush was doing to the environment and what the Obama administration was not doing. Radicalized by the Keystone XL pipeline, Perk became educated about coal exports and oil export terminals being proposed in Washington.

Perk’s involvement with 350 Seattle came from being an empty nester and getting hooked by its “incubator, bootstrap, startup mentality, where good ideas could be brought forward and lots of people could just kind of volunteer to work on them.” Formerly on the communications team and working closely with 350 Washington, Perk spent a lot of time tracking bills and informing voters, but he is now transitioning out of a leadership role.

Headshot depicting David Perk.
David Perk, 350 Seattle activist. (Photo: Alex Garland)

New leaders are now being created within the organization, and Moreno is one of those leaders. Starting as a volunteer in 2016, Moreno transitioned to the director of art and engagement in 2018, and at the beginning of 2023 became the executive director of 350 Seattle. Born an activist and of an activist, Moreno has photos of herself as baby with her mother, a leader in the Hawaiian Refuse & Resist! movement, which opposed issues such as war, police brutality, and censorship.

She moved to Seattle in 1999, where the Refuse & Resist! movement wasn’t as strong, so Moreno and her mother became active with Food Not Bombs and Books to Prisoners. Moreno’s shift to environmental activism came after a friend’s invitation to a 350 Seattle climate justice event in 2017. 

Thanks to a combination of “right time, right place” and the deep connections and community she’s found within 350 Seattle, Moreno sees this as the right fit for her. Her appreciation for 350 Seattle also came from its “throw you in the deep end” way of allowing new folks to become organizers.

Photo depicting activists getting arrested while seated on railroad tracks.
Activists are arrested for blocking railroad tracks near Anacortes during the Break Free PNW campaign supported by 350 Seattle in 2016. (Photo: Alex Garland)

“I was definitely in a place in my life where I was saying yes to a lot of things. I just wanted to push myself,” she said. The autonomous style of organizing, where people are supported to lead, caught Moreno’s attention. 

While understanding that style of organizing doesn’t work for everyone, Moreno is working to help the organization’s leadership roles become more sustainable. Part of that sustainability is preventing burnout and overworking, and part of that is having the ability to pay a living wage. One of Moreno’s successes is in taking care of people.

“Last year, we did a lot of work to bump everybody up to a more livable wage in Seattle, so all of my directors make $80k plus benefits, like retirement, health insurance, and dental. … I’m really proud of our work culture, in a way, where people can take the time off that they need when they’re sick,” she said. “If we have to stop something, like put a campaign down because we physically can’t do it, yeah, I’m all for doing that.”

Photo depicting an activist seated on top of a teepee made of a tarp outside of a Chase bank branch while Seattle police surround it.
An activist sits on top of a “tarpee” during an action in protest of JPMorgan Chase’s funding of tar sands pipelines in 2018. (Photo: Alex Garland)

Not everyone with 350 Seattle is a paid activist. In fact, only eight folks are paid staff; the rest are volunteers. Volunteer Emily Hazelton, who was born in Everett but lived in Seattle most of her life, got involved with climate change activism simply out of concern as a citizen of the planet. Thinking a science degree might help her make an impact but understanding the significant commitment that would entail, Hazelton chose another route. When the IPCC report came out in 2018, she knew she had to act. 

“I started sending emails, like, ‘Hey, I want to get involved.’ And 350 Seattle was the most responsive. I talked to Shemona Moreno, who’s the executive director now. She was doing volunteer coordination and outreach at the time,” recalled Hazelton. “We talked, and they were definitely the ones that just had kind of the fullest menu of like, ‘Well, what do you want to do? What are your skills? Yes, we’d love to have you.’”

Headshot depicting Emily Hazelton.
Emily Hazelton, 350 Seattle volunteer activist. (Photo: Alex Garland)

Driven by the social justice and public health impacts of climate change, like world hunger, rising seas, and heat waves impacting food production, Hazelton knew “we already have so many problems with all this, and climate change is going to make it all worse, and … the people who did not cause the problems would be the ones who experienced the brunt of the impacts and had the least resources to do anything about that.”

That knowledge motivated Hazelton. “While I’m here in the U.S. … I have to use whatever voice and position of power that gives me to advocate as much as I can,” she said.

As co-creator of Story Circle, Hazelton helps provide a slower space for activists to thrive — an alternative, and complement, to the organization’s fast-paced, high-energy campaigns. She explained, “We really did kind of want to have a slower culture [in Story Circle], have a space where there were no expected deliverables. Like, we’re not trying to get a campaign passed. We’re really just here to challenge popular narratives, support creative agency, get to know each other.”

According to a recent survey, the 350 Seattle organizers learned having a space for building community is valuable to those involved with Story Circle. The group is currently about to publish its second zine, which it will deliver to the community through Little Free Libraries throughout Seattle’s neighborhoods.

Headshot depicting Hannah Lindell-Smith.
Hannah Lindell-Smith, 350 Seattle youth volunteer activist. (Photo: Alex Garland)

Even those too young to vote — who some argue are most at risk from impending climate impacts — have a place within 350 Seattle. Hannah Lindell-Smith, 17, has lived in southwest Seattle all her life, and after the wildfires of 2020, she started organizing for climate justice.

“I basically looked up organizations in the Seattle area and emailed a lot of them, and 350 Seattle was one of the ones that emailed back and got me looped in,” she recalled.

Now a community and political organizer, Lindell-Smith works on campaign strategy, planning campaigns and actions, coalition building, lobbying local politicians, and youth organizing. Seeing their work make a significant and lasting impact motivates them to continue. They have done significant work with the Healthy Through Heat & Smoke campaign, which was started in 2022 and “got the city to add in some changes to the parks levy that actually directed funding to retrofit community centers and equip them for dealing with heat and smoke events, so that there are places people can go in and stay safe.” 

The Healthy Through Heat & Smoke campaign secured state and federal funding to retrofit all of the community centers in Seattle to be “climate resilience hub ready in their infrastructure, with solar off-the-grid panels, electronic heat pumps which both heat and cool, and MERV-13-rated HVAC systems that could both screen out smoke from all the wildfires that are happening as well as viruses,” according to Renaissance.

“And we won that. When we started that campaign, what we were looking at was getting an analysis done for like two or three community centers,” continued Renaissance. “What we ended up winning was 13 of them to be done in the next levy with an agreement to finish all 26 by near 2030.”

Photo depicting a group of protestors marching with the lead one carrying a sign that reads, "Save the Glaciers, Abolish ICE."
350 Seattle supported multiple immigrants’ and workers’ rights organizations during the 2023 May Day march. (Photo: Alex Garland)

Renaissance hasn’t always been an activist. Growing up in North Seattle, he remembers learning about salmon habitats at Carkeek Park, and while he had heard the phrase “global warming,” his activism that began at the University of Washington was directed more toward the school-to-prison pipeline and Black Lives Matter activism. It wasn’t until he was introduced to climate activism by a friend, Sarra Tekola, that he began his journey toward becoming a climate organizer. “I got to see people power movement from underneath, a grassroots power moving to change things. It felt more like the First Amendment than anything that had ever been shown to me before.”

Headshot depicting Renaissance raising a fist.
Renaissance, 350 Seattle campaign co-director. (Photo: Alex Garland)

As a co-director of campaigns, Renaissance wears many hats. “Sometimes that means I’m doing some education, linking up things like the prison industrial complex with a just transition framework or what climate justice is. How can we fight for one if we’re not doing all of them? And sometimes this is like open discussion. How do we develop an analysis together?” he said. “But my role is to make sure that we have a shared analysis and that folks understand what they’re doing. So there’s also a lot of training for how to affect change, whether you’re going into a city council, whether you’re lobbying, or whether you’re doing protests or direct actions, and how do you safely accomplish that with informed consent.”

Because some of Renaissance’s previous interactions with 350 Seattle weren’t everything he wanted when it came to how things were done, he knew the path to change was to create it himself. As a board member, Renaissance is able to help guide the organization down a path of intersectionality and make sure its actions are aligned with the vision of the organization.

Photo depicting Renaissance carrying a megaphone giving instructions to march leaders carrying a banner.
Renaissance, the 350 Seattle campaign co-director, helps guide a march during the 2023 May Day march for immigrants’ and workers’ rights. (Photo: Alex Garland)

“As long as there’s still somebody breathing, there’s hope that we can make a difference,” said Renaissance. “At some point, humans no longer have a right to this planet. And whether we expedite that process by our behaviors, or we lengthen out and enjoy our time here, that’s up to us as a collective of people.” 

Proud of the work the organization has done and that it’s doing, but understanding the need to adjust and adapt, Moreno is hopeful for the future. “We live in a constant state of: Let’s learn and fix the things that we need to fix,” she said. “Whether that’s internally or our work culture, we’re down for changing things, and I am really proud of how much we’ve been able to change over the years. Also just excited for all the changes that are yet to come, because we still have a lot of work to do, both on ourselves in the community and externally in the campaigns that we’re running.” 

Learn more about 350 Seattle on its website,

This Project is funded in part by the City of Seattle’s Environmental Justice Fund.

Alex Garland is a photojournalist and reporter. With a degree in emergency administration and disaster planning from the University of North Texas, Alex spent his early professional career as a GIS analyst for FEMA. Follow him on Twitter.

📸 Featured Image: Climate activists in kayaks block Shell’s Polar Pioneer arctic drilling rig parked at the Port of Seattle during a 2015 action supported by 350 Seattle. (Photo: Alex Garland)

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