Q: Let’s start by talking about your current role with the city of Seattle.
I am the director of Environmental Justice and Service Equity for the Southeast Division at Seattle Public Utilities, and I am going into my fifth year in this position. My role is to be a champion and sponsor for equity work and make sure that our plans moving forward can be implemented, supported, and that we have the tools and resources necessary to be successful.
We have three strategy areas. One area is focused on embedding equity in Seattle Public Utilities and incorporating equity as a core component of our work. We also focus on creating culturally relevant and effective community partnerships and modeling them for adoption across the organization. Finally, we look for strategic opportunities to align our work, both internally and with other Seattle and King County agencies, to achieve end goals.
The division itself was established in 2005 and it has been operating for over 10 years. It came out of work that had already been happening in utility. When the Race and Social Justice Initiative came into being in 2004, the Mayor asked for departments to create change teams, so that’s exactly what Seattle Public Utilities did. We had already been doing work with a racial justice framework since 1998, so it felt like a good time to make the formal request to turn this division into a reality.
Q: What inspired you to do racial equity work?
I grew up in the 70s, and like many people at that time, was the product of the social justice and racial justice movements. I had been around the work happening in my community and had always been knowledgeable about the movement happening nationally. I like to say that I was born into this.
Professionally, when I was first out looking for work in the mid 80’s, work was really hard to come by. I had been doing environmental work and I managed to get a job doing conservation work for City Light. Then I moved on and started doing work in solid waste and curbside recycling. After that I worked for the water department and water conservation team. During this time, we had some severe water shortages in Seattle, affecting over 1 million residents and businesses.
The recurring theme in all this work was that people of color, immigrants, and refugees were not aware of or participating in the programs the city was offering. I knew that the answer to this problem wasn’t simple, and I began investigating this notion of lack of participation.
Q: In your opinion, what role does government play in addressing racial inequalities?
We work for the people. People pay our salaries, they are the reasons we have programs, and without them, we will not be successful. From an environmental standpoint, it’s really important to address racial inequity; we need to think proactively about how everyone can fully participate. It is important to make sure everyone understands and has the tools to participate to not only help us meet our community goals, but to exceed them. Resources are not infinite and we need to be thoughtful about what we are disposing of (and if it can be recycled or composted), so we all need to step up. Everyone is paying for these resources and the work we do, so we want to make sure that one group is not being benefitted over others.
Q: What’s been most challenging?
One of the most challenging pieces is helping staff and leadership understand the importance of building equity into end goals. We’re all busy and things were due two months ago, so we are constantly doing things by the seat of our pants. I can’t emphasize enough the importance of bringing equity into the conversation as soon as early work begins.
Change isn’t going to happen overnight and there’s a simultaneous level of urgency and patience that’s required. It’s hard to hold these two things in your head at the same time. Not just for me personally, but for the people who are impacted. They also need to have patience. It’s a challenge when folks feel the impact of decisions and actions taken where racial equity is not being accounted for and there is no opportunity to provide redress. If equity isn’t thought about or incorporated early on, it can be difficult to fix things after they launch. The legacy of having to clean up messes – that’s what keeps me up at night. It’s not that we are dealing with just a misstep, but centuries of legacy of racial inequity.
Q: What have been the most rewarding aspects for you personally?
The people. I love doing this work because I am part of something that’s much bigger than I am, something that I’ve benefitted from and will benefit the folks that follow me in ways that I can never imagine. The reward is in the fight, the relationships, and the opportunity to connect to people with whom I would not have otherwise. It’s so rewarding for me to see the light go on in my coworkers who had no awareness of the role of racial equity in their work. Now, when these same people share an idea, I don’t even have to ask whether a racial equity tool has been applied on a project. It is tremendously satisfying to see equity being considered and embedded as a core component of what we do as utility in alignment with business function and objectives.
Q: What do you think is holding back more cities from doing this work?
All I know is Seattle, and the communities here are fully engaged in this topic. It all comes back to agencies; communities are vocal and telling us what they need, so it is up to the government to listen and implement change. It’s difficult to build the capacity to face the biggest challenges in doing this work. And it’s difficult to broaden the circle of people willing to participate and create a space for folks to engage regardless of where they fall on the continuum. People who don’t even have racial equity on there radar, that’s fine, and we need to start there. We need to recognize and embrace folks where they’re at. I will keep doing my part to advance racial equity in the Utility and hopefully create a space for other utilities to partner with me and collaborate on models that strive to address these challenges.
Q: What do you think we could accomplish in the next decade?
I would like to see the demographics of the workforce in city government shift at all levels. I would like to see racial equity as a core component of goal setting and decision-making. I would like to see a matured understanding of community partnerships, engagement, and even leadership and narrative. Committing to these aspects in city government will lead to an understanding of what community ownership looks like. People will be able to take ownership and be aware of what it means for Seattle to be a great place, not just for some folks, but for all folks.
In ten years we won’t have to spend as much time cleaning up the messes we’ve made. We can create a place for people to thrive and not to be displaced. I’d like to see that neighborhoods aren’t being gentrified and that we are investing in neighborhoods that need it. And that investments aren’t closely followed by rising rents in these areas. I’d like to see equity 3.0 inspired by the work GARE is doing and Seattle as an example of the struggle that is needed to get there.