Planting the Seeds of the Future
The neighborhood of Allentown in Tukwila is nestled along the Green River with a big presence of major transportation routes including trains, vehicles, and airplanes, which runs through the heart of the community. These major transportation routes contribute to air pollution and have disproportionate impacts to community members. As a focus community, the Puget Sound Clean Air Agency is committed to working closely with the community in order to better identify and collaborate on efforts to create awareness about air quality and reduce pollution.
There have been several challenges to making deeper connections in the community, so we have been working closely with a liaison to better learn the community’s needs, concerns, and interests around air pollution and environmental justice. Alma Villegas, our community liaison, has ample experience in community outreach, previous work in the community, and has knowledge of residential dynamics in the area. After working with Alma and community members, some of the things we were able to confirm were that the community felt left behind with city programs and there was mistrust of the genuine nature of community centered engagement. These factors, in addition to lack of knowledge about the Agency were some of the hurdles we had to overcome.
We defined success in this early phase as having the ability to engage in a sustainable manner with community residents that are disproportionately impact by air pollution and negative health impacts. A specific goal was also to identify a number of community ambassadors who are interested in learning more about clean air and willing to engage with us and with their neighbors about community health and environmental justice issues.
It became clear that traditional methods of community outreach were not effective so upon Alma’s recommendations, we decided to develop a partnership with students from Foster High School’s Environmental Science Club and engage them in a summer learning project. With the student population at Foster High School being 89% students of color, engaging in a conversation about environmental justice and air quality felt like the right approach that would develop relationships and motivate the youth to want to share their learnings with their community.
The Agency supported the work of the Environmental Science Club by providing training about clean air, pollution, and environmental justice. Alma managed the student projects throughout the process and provided leadership development training. We also showed students how to build their own filter fans as a hands-on approach to learning and mitigating air pollution.
The partnership culminated in a student-led tree planting project where the students offered trees to Allentown residents. Part of the experience was to exercise community engagement skills and to learn basic horticulture principles. On the final day of the Environmental Science Club, students met with community members to give them a tree and provide step-by-step instructions for planting and maintaining their new tree. The students were able to connect with diverse residents who expressed interest in the continuing engagement with the Agency.
“I truly enjoyed this project. It was an amazing opportunity for the members of my club to be engaged through a community movement. Not only did students receive knowledge on the basics of ecology and air pollution, we were also taught leadership and outreach, both of which are invaluable to our futures. Overall, I truly do believe this project will help retain members for my club and inspired continued environmental action at Foster High School.” Abigail Chellin Batinga
The project left a lasting impact on the 16 youth who actively participated in the project’s summer leadership sessions, the 2019 club activities and the two community events in which community members learned about the negative impact of poor air quality affecting Tukwila neighborhoods. Investing in the city’s future generation by educating and creating awareness specific to youth not only helps them understand how to mitigate poor air quality issues, but also exposes them to opportunities as to how they can lead the charge for environmental justice to benefit all communities.