Puyallup Watershed Initiative connects sense of place, identity in environmental work

The Puyallup Watershed is facing consequences that come with widespread development such as polluted stormwater, the loss of farmlands, forests and recreation areas, and greater social and economic inequities. Puyallup Watershed Initiative has a wide array of public outreach and engagement programs aimed at addressing these issues head on. (Photo by Jefferson Mok—PWI.)

By Kamna Sashtri for Puget Sound Future-Makers

The Puyallup Watershed Initiative is unique in that it takes a holistic approach, promoting solutions that come directly from the community on everything from transportation, to agriculture, to environmental education. Now officially a nonprofit (spun off from The Russell Family Foundation), its leaders have designed a structure for six focus areas—called communities of interest. Their community-centered approach allows for these six focus areas to become a braided connection between groups, identities, and localities. These communities can now use these pathways to improve their social and natural environments, which solidifies a sense of identity, and belonging.

In the following interview, PWI acting director Jennifer Chang and community board member Kathryn Mahan talk about the ways that environment and identity coalesce in both their own lives as well as the work they do with PWI.

Note: Interview has been edited for clarity.

What is the Puyallup Watershed Initiative all about?

Jennifer: The PWI is really working to mobilize a community movement that develops shared solutions for a high quality of life and a healthy environment for all here in the Puyallup watershed. We envision the Puyallup watershed as a thriving natural and social environment where all can participate, prosper, and reach their full potential.

How did you get involved with PWI and this kind of work?

PWI acting director Jennifer Chang. (Courtesy photo.)

Jennifer: I started off in atmospheric sciences and applied mathematics and I had an environmental focus. And I enjoyed that work very much but what I realized was that I was engaging on a topic that had a direct effect on community, on people every day. That led me down a path towards an MPA and focusing on policy and how to communicate around these important topics. I’ve really explored in my work since then, any nexus of community and decision making and science or environment or technology.

I have had the opportunity to participate with the PWI since its launch in 2012. I started as one of those non-profit participants who heard about this new, exciting initiative, and I was doing environmental education work as well as urban greenspace restoration in Tacoma and the greater South Sound area through a local nonprofit. I found my way to the table of the environmental education community of interest that was forming.

PWI community boardmember Kathryn Mahan. (Courtesy photo.)

Kathryn: I have worked in the watershed since 2001 primarily as a project planner and a fundraiser for a division of state government and I do environmental type projects or local food projects. When I was very young I read a book called Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee and I was very touched by that and I fell in love with Native American cultures and so I’ve always tried to be connected to whatever local tribes there are. Here in the Puyallup watershed that is mainly the Puyallup Tribe and the Muckleshoot Tribe. I really enjoy my contact with tribal members.

I’m transgender and I’m fairly well known in the local area. I spend a lot of time out in the watershed more towards the foothills than towards the urban areas. And as a young queer kid, in order to not be beaten up or otherwise mistreated I spent a lot of time in the forest. I feel this really strong connection to the forest and streams as a protector for me.

Last year I heard that the initiative was taking the formal step of becoming an actual non-profit and that they were recruiting community board members, and somebody suggested that a Queer Perspective may not be a bad thing there so I applied and got on.

How do place and identity come together for you, in your personal and professional lives?

Kathryn: The areas of the watershed that I am most connected with, where my heart is really touched are areas of high interest for the tribes because I work with them and it is work that is very meaningful to me. The tribal members I know depend very much on salmon production and fishing. Beyond that it’s a cultural icon for them. Most of my heritage is Celtic, and for the Irish and Scottish people salmon matter, too. I’ve done a lot of work out there and I’ve spent a lot of time wandering through the forests and the prairies and the streams and developed special bonds with some of the wildlife.

Let’s say I run across a family gathering of elk, or I cross paths with a little black bear or I wade through a creek and I feel hordes of salmon brushing against my leg, it doesn’t matter that I am transgender. They don’t care, they just accept you as you are and that has always been strong for me.

Jennifer: Tacoma is my home and the Puyallup watershed is my watershed and so that has done a lot for me. I feel a desire to give back to the community and a place that played a role in shaping who I am. I know that is part of the driver in my work.

When I was growing up I didn’t realize how much the natural and the social environment had really shaped me. So that has been really exciting for me to explore as we do work in the PWI and we connect with more and more communities within the Puyallup watershed; how do each of those communities connect with their environment and where they are at? How does it shape their identity? How do we within the PWI really explore and create processes that trust in community and value people as experts in their lived experience?

How do we actively make sure that community infrastructure and services reflect the power of environment on out identities?

Jennifer: How we engage or interact with environment or place does have a direct effect on who we are and how we participate in our community. We are trying to create and hold the space that does honor and value lived experience along with academic experience and professional experiences. Creating those spaces that bring more voices [and] different perspective to the table is only going to make us stronger. I am hoping the more and more we work together, the deeper the collaboration is, the more collective action we can take, the greater the ownership will have for this place.

Kathryn: I feel like the way to ensure that place is recognized is to as much as possible let the communities determine their own futures. I think that it’s best realized right now in the just and healthy food systems community of interest. They have energized between dozens and hundreds of regular people, people of color, people from marginalized communities, people from refugee immigrant communities into planning a better food system. To me that is the dream that PWI should aspire to.

Jennifer: From the beginning of the work of the PWI, there was this belief that people who live and work in a community understand its issues best and when supported with the right resources have the greatest ability of lasting change.

What are the challenges of the marginalized communities you serve?

Kathryn: You can go out into a crowd of people and say, “No really, we want to know what you think because we really want you to help,” but you are talking to people who have been historically pushed aside and they are not just going to automatically believe it. It’s [also], incumbent upon the people who are going out into those communities to really go in good faith and really offer that power. It’s also incumbent on the people who are being approached to try to take it at face value and set aside their anger.

When you feel oppressed and you feel beaten down daily, it’s hard to extend that gracious space but when you do you find that there is common ground that you can build on and I think all of us need to be able to do that.

Jennifer: I think that point really gets to relationship and trust building, that is a big part of the work that we do and is continuously happening. I think it also emphasizes the importance of long-term commitment to a place when you are doing place-based work. As we engage with the marginalized communities I think it continues to, for me, reinforce the everyday struggle or just basic, to meet basic needs that our community members are experiencing. Whatever we can do through our work, our spheres of influence, or connectedness to engage all people, that is what I am really interested in.

What you are getting at is this very core idea that our communities and individual identities are deeply rooted in place, in where we are. How do you communicate this to folks you are working with? What are the challenges?

Jennifer: I actually think where the challenges are are where many of the opportunities lie. Something that is great about the PWI is that each participant has their own connection to the watershed, they have their own connection to the work, to the PWI as a whole.

So that is where the opportunity and the challenge is, to knit the shared story that commits all of us to the shared future of the watershed.

This story is part of the series “Puget Sound Future-Makers,” a partnership with the Russell Family Foundation, Resource Media and The Seattle Globalist, which recognizes the work of diverse leaders in the Puget Sound region in shaping the strength and resilience of our future environment and communities.