In May, people filled FareStart’s venue in downtown Seattle to celebrate environmental justice organization Got Green turning ten years old. They piled plates at the buffet line and sipped the signature cocktail of the night—“The Southend”—as lime green balloons floated to the ceiling.
Jill Mangaliman, executive director of Got Green, stood on the stairwell to speak, first acknowledging that the Duwamish and other indigenous people of the Northwest have long been stewards of the environment. But Mangaliman didn’t talk about traditional environmental concerns like conservation, cleaning up rivers or planting trees. Instead, they raised the alarm about a rapidly changing Seattle, with the city’s vulnerable communities under siege from displacement and gentrification.
“We’re gonna try to ensure that our communities can stay rooted, our communities can come back,” Mangaliman (who uses “they” and “them” pronouns) said. “We’re gonna make sure we’re building a Seattle for everyone who wants to live here, not just the wealthy, not just folks who can afford $300,000 dollar condos or million-dollar homes….That means communities of color, working-class folks, young people, queer people, immigrants—Seattle should be for everybody.”
Got Green’s definition of environmental justice is expansive. Its philosophy is that healthy communities must have more than just clean air, water, and protection from toxic waste. Got Green’s works on access to healthy food, livable green jobs and internships, and fighting to prevent people from being displaced by Seattle’s housing market, the hottest in the nation.
Hodan Hassan, on staff at Got Green as Climate Justice organizer, puts it this way: “It’s like a well-rounded view of a person’s life—so we’re not just talking about making sure that air is clean and the sea levels don’t rise.”
At the ten-year anniversary party, Mangaliman said: “The community tells us what they need and we go and do it – that’s our accountability.”
Got Green decides which campaigns to work on after conducting community participatory research: Talking to people, conducting surveys, running town halls. The goal is to find out what people’s priorities are in low income communities of color, Mangaliman says.
“It starts with listening and asking questions,” says Johnny Mao, a volunteer with the Young Leaders committee. “A lot of young people have a lot of information just right at their fingertips.”
Mao remembers a survey that asked low income people and people of color what it would take for them to get involved in environmental justice work. “People wanted to get involved, but they had to put food on the table first,” Mao says. “They have so many problems with race and social justice and economic issues that we need to connect with people and meet them where they’re at.”
To help young people of color see how their daily lives intersect with the environment, Nancy Huizar, program manager for Sustainable Seattle and a volunteer with the Young Leaders committee, often talks about health. Her mother came to Seattle as an immigrant, and developed asthma after living in Beacon Hill for more than 30 years. Her brother also developed asthma. Beacon Hill, one of Seattle’s most ethnically diverse neighborhoods, is also disproportionately affected by pollution and negative health consequences.
Got Green’s priorities shift and change based on community needs, Mangaliman says. They’ll engages with local government —“we go to City Hall when we need to,” Mangaliman says—but when that doesn’t work, they’ll march and protest, whether against the Shell oil rig, King County’s planned youth jail, or a developer on the verge of destroying people’s homes to build new properties, displacing them.
Many of Got Green’s efforts have been achieved, such as a tax on sweetened beverages Seattle passed in 2017. But Got Green also pushes for policies the City will likely never accept, such as requiring 25 percent of all new housing in Seattle be affordable for low-income people.
Sometimes it’s important to advocate for positions you really want, Mangaliman says, comparing it to the worldwide “Keep it in the ground” campaign to stop extracting fossil fuels. “It’s our job to push the dial,” they say. “When we say a moratorium on luxury development, people get really freaked out. But maybe that will push them to consider other things too, if they’re not willing to do that.”
In 2016, Got Green publicly opposed a carbon tax in that went to Washington voters. It would have been the first in the nation. Got Green opposed it, Mangaliman said at the time, because it was revenue-neutral and wouldn’t raise money to help the people most impacted by climate change. After the first carbon tax failed in 2016, Mangaliman told the Seattle Weekly: “There are two environmental movements—there’s one that is connected to the communities that are most impacted, and there’s one that wants to keep the status quo.”
Mangaliman is inspired by Seattle’s long history of environmental justice activism, from the World Trade Organization protests, which drew connections to environmental justice and globalization, to “Uncle” Bob Santos and the Asian Pacific Islander elders and youth who fought to stop the Kingdome, and worked to build healthy, equitable living environment. “Workers rights and housing rights and also environmental justice are all tied together—it’s not separate,” Mangaliman says.
A team of young leaders
Got Green focuses on south Seattle; at the ten-year anniversary party in May, a table was piled with signs and shirts that read “Don’t displace the Southend.” A young staff, diverse in race and gender, and with a high proportion of women, work on three main committees: Food Access, Young Leaders, and Climate Justice. When it comes to staff, Hassan says, “what makes Got Green special is that we center the people most impacted.”
Got Green’s Young Leaders committee focuses on helping young people of color break into the environmental field with living wage green jobs.
“When I’m talking with young kids of color, they really are seeing how it’s not only in politics where there’s institutionalized racism,” says Huizar. “They’re seeing that in the environmental field they’re affected as well.”
At first, Huizar had a hard time finding a job doing environmental work, despite holding a B.S. in Fisheries Sciences and work experience in labs, city government and the environmental field starting when she was in high school.
“Folks of color are among the most affected by environmental issues, yet we’re not at leadership, we’re not even at the table,” she says. Huizar hopes to help young people of color who were once in her position.
In 2016 the City Council passed a “Green Pathways” resolution that Got Green lobbied for, to create more living wage green jobs and help young people of color break into them. Huizar told her story during Council testimony.
Unlike Huizar, Hassan was never interested in doing environmental work before she joined Got Green. “In my mind at the time, that was work for white people,” she says. The only people she saw talking about climate change were canvassers on the street and class teachers. “I was sure at the time that we as people of color had bigger problems than climate change. We’re facing poverty and police brutality and gentrification and I just felt that all of those things were much more immediate.”
But Hassan changed her mind after a friend invited her to a meeting about the impacts of a changing climate on people of color. Hassan left the meeting with a new viewpoint, realizing that “climate justice includes ridding the world of poverty and police brutality and gentrification, and I could do all of the work that I want to do with a different lens.”
Hassan’s Climate Justice committee is focusing on displacement in south Seattle. The focus came from surveying communities of color and finding people were particularly concerned about Seattle becoming less affordable.
How is displacement connected to climate justice? Communities that can stay in place and be resilient will be able to weather the impacts of climate change, Hassan says. “Living in a climate-just world means that people have dignified work that pays them well, healthy and affordable housing, access to transit, an ability to be in their community.”
The committee has zeroed in on the plight of Esther “Little Dove” John, a longtime activist and retired professor whose apartment in Beacon Hill was sold to developers who plan to demolish it. It’s the fourth time John has been displaced within Seattle. This time, John wants to serve as a visible example, a “poster elder” for displacement.
Hassan’s committee also advocates for a “right to return” for people who lived in housing demolished to build more housing, along with a mitigation fund to help them afford higher rents if the developer raises prices on the new housing. The committee also calls for an 18-month moratorium on “predatory development,” which Hassan defines as unaffordable development in communities of color. As an example, Hassan points to the Koda condo project in the CID: Condos starting in the $300,000s in a neighborhood with a median income of less than $35,000 dollars.
“Big-picture, dreaming-wise, I want our campaign to have a lasting impact on the city by slowing down or stopping rapid displacement of people of color in Seattle,” Hassan said.
Violet Lavatai, now the executive director of the Tenants Union of Washington, had never done activism or political work before she joined Got Green. She was buying vegetables at a supermarket in Rainier Beach when someone from Got Green asked her to take a survey. Lavatai became involved with a project focusing on women in the green economy. When surveys among women in the south end told them that access to healthy, affordable food was top priority, Lavatai and fellow volunteer Tammy Nguyen successfully lobbied the City to permanently fund the Fresh Bucks program, which matches money those with food stamps can spend at farmers markets.
Lavatai became a housing advocate because of her work with Got Green, where she is still a board member. “It all ties together, everything ties together,” Lavatai said. “Advocating for tenant’s rights, with Got Green, we’re advocating for the community on different issues, whether climate justice, the youth leaders at Got Green, and the food access team.”
When Mangaliman, Got Green’s executive director first joined the organization, they were more interested in social and economic justice than the environment.
Got Green hired Mangaliman to knock on doors in low income communities and install energy-efficient devices, like CFL light bulbs and special shower heads, that would save people money in utility bills. It was Got Green’s first major project, funded by a federal grant soon after the organization was founded. The goal was to help low-income communities become more energy efficient by “weatherizing” their homes.
Mangaliman then joined the team looking at environmental issues important to women in the south end, became involved with Got Green’s leadership, and then the board of directors. In 2012, Got Green co-founder Michael Woo wanted to retire and entrust the organization in Mangaliman’s hands. After a two-year leadership transition, Mangaliman became director in 2014.
The organization employs eight full-time staff. In February, Got Green moved into a new office in south Beacon Hill.
Building a green organization like no other
Labor rights, green jobs and racial equity were central to Got Green ever since it started, say its founders, Michael Woo and Kristyn Joy, during an interview at a Beacon Hill cafe. Woo wore one of Got Green’s “Don’t displace the Southend” shirts.
Since retiring from the organization, Woo has gone back to his “working class roots” as a plumber. In 1972, he helped found the United Construction Workers’ Association, which successfully broke down racially segregated barriers and ended some racially-exclusionary hiring practices in the construction industry.
Joy, a self-described “middle class white girl who was raised in rural New England,” moved to Seattle and became the first campaign manager for Larry Gosset, one of the “Gang of Four” along with “Uncle” Bob Santos, and now a King County Councilmember. She first met Woo in 1993, when he was volunteering for the campaign. Both Woo and Joy had long histories with the Legacy of Equality, Leadership and Organizing (LELO), a racial and economic justice workers’ rights organization.
Woo had also worked with the White Center Community Development Association to connect people with living wage careers in the construction industry, with a focus on green jobs.
Woo thought labor and environmental groups lacked a racial justice perspective. He was also concerned that, despite talk of an emerging “green economy,” it wasn’t clear what exactly the benefits would be for young workers. He wanted to find out.
With the help of a Department of Neighborhoods grant, Woo and Joy brought young people to public meetings, engaged politicians, toured wind farms and visited union halls, trying to understand what the green economy would mean. But union members told them they weren’t thinking about green jobs because they were “small potatoes.” Green, energy-efficient work was mostly being done non-union.
“It was totally opposite of what you’d think labor organizations should be about —training, organizing for better conditions,” Woo said. “They had the opportunity to kind of write the framework for how this industry grew, and they really kind of turned away from it.”
Woo and the group decided to set out on their own, and train themselves for the new green economy.
Got Green began in 2008 with the nine-month home weatherization program, helped along with a federal grant.
The idea was that energy efficiency couldn’t benefit low-income communities if they didn’t have the resources to get the work done. So recruits, Mangaliman among them, would install energy-efficient devices in people’s homes.
Labor, green jobs and racial justice were central to Got Green from the beginning, according to Woo and Joy. But Woo and Joy felt there was a gulf between the work they were doing and mainstream environmental work.
Woo remembers talking to a young East African immigrant who was encouraged to undergo a carbon footprint training with a mainstream environmental organization. The young man lived in an apartment shared with eight other people, didn’t go on vacations and didn’t drive. He and other members of his community had such a small carbon footprint that it would be impossible to shrink it any more. He found the training irrelevant to his life.
This was an awakening for Woo and Joy. “The environmental movement’s trajectory didn’t match what our community needed to learn about,” Woo said.
It was important for Woo and Joy that Got Green form organically at a certain place and time, and stay a grassroots organization. As such, there was no other organization they consciously modelled themself on — though the Community Coalition for Environmental Justice was doing similar work, at a small scale.
But they also made sure it was defined broadly enough that it could evolve and shift as people’s conditions changed.
But Joy and Woo say they never could have imagined just how much Seattle would change.
“I don’t think we were envisioning at that point our city sort of getting turned on its head post-recession, and the new jobs being created, if you want to call it that, by Amazon that then imported a workforce and displaced and continue to displace historic communities of color, immigrant communities, working class communities,” Joy said. “But Got Green is defined in a broad enough way that it could shift and flex, and now is making the link between the displacement of low-income communities and climate change.”
The focus on environmental justice came with Mangaliman’s leadership, Joy said.
Mangaliman sat down for an interview after canvassing the CID neighborhood gathering signatures in support of the new pollution fee initiative.
“The displacement issue is weighing heavy on my mind and our organization’s mind,” Mangaliman said. Mangaliman moved to Burien last year after being unable to afford living in Seattle.
Mangaliman’s hope is that “everyone who wants to live in Seattle gets to live in Seattle.”
Mangaliman hopes to see some wins in the next ten years: More green jobs, climate resilient hubs, closing the food security gap, and hopefully bringing displaced people back to Seattle.
For the future, Got Green is looking at out-of-the box ideas; looking at creating a community land trust and a movement school where people of all ages can have a political home and learn how to organize. In 2019, the Green Pathways campaign launches.
As the region changes, Mangaliman wonders whether the organization should concentrate its energy in Seattle, or start up in other places too. In the future, when they have the capacity, they might support people who are fighting displacement and environmental justice in north Seattle, Kent or Renton.
“For me what’s satisfying is knowing that ten years later, the organization is not just viable, it’s needed even more now,” says Woo. “And in that ten years there’s not been another organization emerge that even resembles Got Green.”