Meet Our Allentown Ambassador
Meet Ekua Monkah. She recently graduated from high school in Tukwila, Washington and is currently a college freshman at Mills College in Oakland, California. Last summer, she participated in an internship working with the Puget Sound Clean Air Agency’s community liaison to better understand the Tukwila-Allentown community needs, concerns, and interests in order to connect with the people and better meet their needs around air pollution.
I had the opportunity to chat with Ekua to hear her concerns for her community, what environmental justice means, and her hopes for the future. I often worry about what kind of future we are leaving for the next generation. After meeting Ekua, I was refreshed knowing that we’ll be in good hands when young folks like her begin to follow their passions and create positive change.
What caught your attention to the environmental justice movement? What does it mean to you?
Ekua Monkah: Before this internship, I had only been exposed to this movement briefly through a documentary I watched about a large oil corporation ignoring the health concerns of a Southern community close to a refinery. Seattle is constantly marketed as a clean and environmentally friendly city, so I was shocked to find out that the surrounding cities like Tukwila were not as clean. The environmental justice movement means to treat the value of all lives in all communities the same no matter the zipcode, socio-economic status or race so I want to be part of that.
What do you think are the major barriers to a community’s access to environmental health and sustainability?
EM: To me, environmental health policy is synonymous with the environmental health of a community. The lack of or absence of equitable environmental policy creates barriers in a community’s access to health and sustainability. Environmental health and sustainability is a matter of justice, which is why it doesn’t strike me to know that the highest polluted areas in King County include areas where people of color live.
Why did you get involved with the Puget Sound Clean Air Agency’s equity and community engagement efforts?
EM: Initially before I knew much about the Puget Sound Clean Air Agency, my motive was to find a summer job that I could learn something new from and gain more experience. Then, once I knew more about this internship, it became more valuable to me than just a summer job because I realized the impact that the Puget Sound Clean Air Agency could have on my Tukwila Community. It became enriching to learn about the harmful pollutants in a place that I’ve grown up in my entire life.
What are some of the challenges that the Tukwila-Allentown community faces around environmental justice and air pollution and how can community members be empowered to advocate for change?
EM: If there was a history of the Tukwila-Allentown community voices being heard, I don’t think that we would have much of an air pollution issue. Did Allentown residents have a seat at the table when the decision to put a freeway through our community was passed? The people who live in the community deserve to have an opinion too.
What frustrates you about the traditional environmental movement? What is your “smh” moment?
EM: The traditional environmental movement can sometimes put too much blame on the individuals who are most impacted by a polluted environment. I agree that we can mitigate our exposure by using specific fans in our homes or bike to work, but the government also needs to do their part by holding big corporations accountable for their contribution to air pollution and the local government needs to collaborate with communities to make good policies that promote a green environment. This way we won’t have to bandage the problem but instead implement long-lasting solutions.
Where do you think politics and environmental groups are missing the mark?
EM: Politicians and environmental groups are missing the mark by forgetting the voices of the communities that are most impacted. The most sustainable and credible data is when you go straight to the source and find out from the people what their needs and concerns are.
If you could have five minutes with a current environmental leader what you say to them?
EM: The best research comes straight from the source—the communities most impacted by environmental issues. A college degree doesn’t always mean you know better for that community, so its imperative to not always work for your community, but with them as well! (Just like the PSCAA does!)
What can the traditional environmental movement learn from the next generation, from young leaders?
EM: Young leaders often come with a clean state of mind, ready to learn, and be present with new acquired knowledge. Young leaders can erase traditional modes of thinking by bringing inventive ideas to the table.
As a young leader, what message do you have for other young people that want to make a difference but may not know how to start?
EM: Find passion in something that you are truly interested in. You can do so by taking advantage of all the free programs and opportunities in your school or community. You may come to find out that there is something that interests you or that gives you new knowledge that can help improve your life and the lives of people around you.
If you have a passion, do not be afraid to explore that passion even though it may seem unpopular.
What is your hope for the future?
EM: My hope is communities across the nation will be given the same resources they need to meet their own needs. We can only do this if we have change makers from all sectors of a community value each other’s opinions.
Interview by Joanna Gangi, Equity and Community Engagement Communications Specialist