By Carol Aragon, Environmental Justice Storytelling Intern
In the United States, race is the most important predictor of a person living near contaminated air, water, or soil. That’s why Seattle’s Environmental Justice Fund was founded in 2017 to support efforts that benefit, are led by, or are co-led with those most affected by environmental and climate injustices: Black, Indigenous, People of Color, Immigrants, Refugees, Low-Income People, Youth and elderly people. The Environmental Justice Fund supports a variety of community-led projects that promote environmental justice and respond to the impacts of climate change. This story series showcases some of the incredible work being done by community groups and organizations supported by the Environmental Justice Fund.
Michael Neguse is a former social worker and community activist who has run the East African Senior Center (EASC) for almost a decade alongside program partners Senayet Negusse and Nerea Workneh. He was an active program organizer, cook and contributed to the work of the center overall. Over the years he has become friends and has brought food to the table for many people, especially the elderly. I recently had the opportunity to visit the Rainier Beach Urban Farm and Wetlands, one of the three locations that are home to EASC (which is also based at the Northgate Community Center and the Yesler Community Center). Through this visit and an interview with Michael, I gained insight into the activities that elders, youth, and individuals of all ages participate in, gained valuable insight into the achievements of the program, and learned how the EJ Fund is making an impact on the supported communities, whom it serves.
EASC’s work on the farm began ten years ago when it was an abandoned property. Since then, they have seen considerable growth, both literally and figuratively.
“Individually, we wanted to bring people together and make peace. They come here and make friends, help each other emotionally. Over the years we have lost people who used to come here but they support each other and try to help other families. When someone gets sick, there are people from this program who come to visit. It’s good to have that neighborly connection. Most of our people don’t speak English, but when they come here they meet other people they can relate to and connect with, which also helps them improve their English. This program is very special to us because the community is underserved and we think it’s important to share our cultures.”
EASC program participants have adopted a morning routine that is full of life and community. It is also an opportunity for them to take care of the many features of the garden where many species of plants thrive. Michales shared that in addition to fitness activities, the seniors have access to “culturally responsible, nutritious meals, culturally appropriate health and wellness education, farming activities, and community engagement.”
“That’s what they do when they come here in the morning: they stretch and do a bit of exercise. Then they take care of the vegetable garden. At 12 o’clock we have lunch and when they go home we give them something to eat. There is a “You Pick” garden and anyone who comes can pick what they need. We planted trees in the wetlands seven or eight years ago and now it’s a habitat for insects and birds. We have orchards and bees here. The garden across the street is for the seniors where they plant things like corn and peaches. There are also greenhouses over there where we can grow more food in winter.”
People from all backgrounds visit the farms to feel a sense of calm, belonging, and happiness. Michael wishes the seniors would walk away with that feeling, and feedback from parishioners reflects his feelings. Some participants find that their mood has improved significantly.
“I want them to feel great. You come here; They laugh. Due to a language barrier most of them are isolated and without this garden there is no other place to go. But they come here, they meet their friends, eat together, laugh together, work together and learn about nature. We want them to have a community here. I’m a community builder. It is good to bring program participants to a place of nature – trees, water, plants, flowers. Your mood changes positively. We are planning a cultural event where everyone here can bring their loved ones and enjoy nature. I was recently speaking to someone who is physically ill – the program here has helped her mental health. She says she feels optimistic, loved; There are people who speak their language. She feels better now. And that’s the impact we want to have in people’s lives. We want them to have a good time. It’s a very friendly and welcoming atmosphere.”
As a result of EY Fund grants received in 2020, EASC has expanded, from the number of participants to the support services available through the program. During my tour, children watched live demonstrations of food preparation and gathered around various volunteers from the program. It’s important to note that the farm not only serves seniors, but also youth who are learning about food sovereignty and what it means to have farm-fresh meals — or as Michael puts it, “farm-to-table.” He recognizes the impact the grant has had on the farm and those who come to enjoy their time in the wetlands.
“The EJ Fund has helped us a lot. The number of seniors is growing and we now have a Sound Generation social worker as well as a social worker program coordinator. We give scholarships to seniors to show appreciation for what they do and encourage seniors to come and walk around with their children and grandchildren. This is a safe and beautiful place for community members, especially the elderly. You can hear the birds singing and the community tells us that the air is fresh here. The EJ Fund has given us the opportunity to help people across generations. Younger people come and work. We have a day camp for the kids and they really enjoy the surroundings. Everything is done by the seniors — growing food and restoring the wetland — and they learn about the environment, including the birds, insects, and trees that grow in the Northwest United States. Growing and harvesting food is very inspiring to them.
“We also learned a lot from the scholarship. We now have a deep knowledge of various plants, birds, trees; We learned about pollinators and how they help the environment. There are trees from which we can make our own necessities, like shampoo, conditioner – there were people who came here to teach us such things. A guy came here the other day and taught us about different birds around here which was very inspiring. He showed us which birds live in this wetland. It’s nice to see all the plants and I’m very proud to be part of this program. Many years ago there were no buildings here, nothing. We started hard planting and cleaning up the wetlands. Now we see the trees and that gives us hope and inspires us. We have a trail that winds through the wetlands where we welcome anyone to bring their loved ones and the kids also love to pick the blueberries we grow here.”
Learn more about the Environmental Justice Fund on our website and apply by September 16 at 4 p.m.!
About the author
Carol Aragon is a storytelling intern for OSE in the Seattle Youth Employment Program and assists in interviewing Environmental Justice Fund grantees. She is an incoming student at Washington State University.