Chio Saeteurn is a Mien American, who immigrated to the United States from a Thai refugee camp at the age of 7 during the Vietnam War. She later graduated from the University of Washington School of Social Work with a master’s degree focused on policy. Today, she is a community organizer for Got Green, a grassroots organization that started in 2008. Got Green’s mission is to create opportunities for low-income people and communities of color in Seattle/King County to gain equal access to the green movement and the green economy by cultivating leaders of all ages to educate, advocate, organize and build coalitions.
What happened in your personal life that inspired your work in this cause?
Saeteurn: Seeing my family’s struggle in the United States as refugees, hearing about their experiences in Laos during the war and as refugees in Thailand, and having lived the refugee experience and low-income living in the United States — especially in Columbia City during the ‘80s and ‘90s where there was gang violence — shaped my compassion for others who struggle to survive.
I’ve also seen my mother, who’s been in the same job for 20-plus years and working another part-time job doing yard work in the evenings and weekends to provide for my brother and I. This pushed me to be an advocate for and stand with those that have been marginalized by society. Her hard work, constant struggle to make ends meet and love showed me that I need to be in the cause to ensure that systemic change and workplace policies benefit my mother and others like her.
Why is there a need for an organization like Got Green?
Saeteurn: We need to start reframing the environmental movement to include environmental justice where ALL communities can benefit from the sustainable green economy, including low-income and people of color. The environmental movement needs to go beyond the mainstream message of saving polar bears and icebergs. Those are important, but the messaging needs to touch at the core of what’s important to people — especially low-income and people of color — and that is their family’s health. If the environmental movement really wants to make an impact in saving our planet, we need to reframe the message and reprioritize. That’s why Got Green is focused on ensuring that low-income and communities of color have access to green jobs, green homes, healthy and fresh foods, and public transportation.
How is your organization operating on limited funding?
Saeteurn: All of the staff help each other beyond their roles and duties because we know what’s at stake. We do our work until it’s done. It’s not a Monday-to-Friday, 9-to-5 work schedule. We are talking about families’ lives and our communities’ needs after all. We also rely on lots of volunteers to help us do our work. There’s always a need for volunteers to ensure that we meet our vision and mission of an inclusive environmental justice movement for our communities.
Got Green offers access to job training in the burgeoning “green economy.”
Beyond offering job training to low-income communities of color, how else does Got Green benefit their quality of life? How does job training and access to better-paid positions benefit whole communities and why should people care? Why do you care?
Saeteurn: Got Green, in partnership with the labor union, LIUNA, led two weatherization-job training programs in July 2010 and March 2011 as a step in the green jobs sector. Oftentimes, our communities don’t have access to jobs, let alone access to jobs in the new “green economy.” Many of our communities feel that they do not have the training to access better paid positions. If our communities have living-wage green jobs, it’s a pathway out of poverty. They would be able to buy healthy and fresh foods for their families, start to accumulate assets and bring their skills back to the community as community reinvestment.
What are some challenges you’ve experienced through this cause? What do you do to get through the challenges?
Saeteurn: It’s been challenging in environmental justice. Mainstream messaging has not reframed and reprioritized needs and issues so our communities can understand and see it as important. Another challenge is organizing in Southeast Seattle where there are diverse languages.