By Signe Predmore
Northwest Asian Weekly
It was a packed house at Jumbo Chinese Restaurant on Rainier Avenue on Nov. 12. More than 200 people turned out to hear what’s on the minds of Seattle’s young adults of color and those from low-income backgrounds, as they try to establish themselves in today’s economy. Got Green, a grassroots community organization with a focus on green jobs and equity, organized the evening to release their new report, “Environmental Justice, Jobs and Education: Seattle’s Young Adults Speak Out.”
To gather the report data, young people living in south and central Seattle asked their peers about issues preventing them from achieving their goals in life. Mo Avery, the lead organizer for Got Green’s Young
Workers in the Green Economy program, administered many of the face-to-face surveys. Avery said the conversations she had revealed stories that might not have been expressed through statistics alone.
“These kinds of stories are important for an organizer to know — unemployed and underemployed young people of color are working hard,” said Avery. Despite their earnest efforts, said Avery, they struggle to get ahead.
The report highlights three major areas of difficulty: transportation, education and work.
Project members presented the main sections of the report in the form of theatrical vignettes based on their real-life experiences. To begin, two young people who had just missed the bus shared their gripes about being reliant on expensive, inefficient public transit.
“I feel like I’m wasting my youth away on the bus,” said 23-year-old Florence McCafferty.
The report highlights the fact that young people of color are more likely to lack access to a car (32 percent, compared to 16 percent of the general population in Seattle) and are thus burdened the most when public transportation takes too long and costs too much. Yet use of mass transit is in keeping with the strong environmental values expressed by the majority of survey respondents.
Research participants recommend creating a low-income fare rate, and opposing transit cuts like those currently pending for King County Metro. They also suggest establishing a community college in the Rainier Beach area, currently considered an “education desert.”
In a second scene, a mock job interview in which a young man with education, volunteer experience, and clear dedication to his field was turned down because he had no prior professional position on his resume. He was encouraged instead to take an unpaid internship.
Khalil Panni, 22, has watched many of his friends emerge from college unable to get a foothold on a middle-class career.
“Trying to go into bio-chemistry or work for a nonprofit political organization, they ended up having to get jobs at Home Depot, Shell Gas Station, or Guitar Center,” Panni reported.
The young people surveyed also struggle to receive adequate compensation once they do find work. Seventy-five percent of the participants were making less $16.13/hour, cited in the report as the living wage in Washington state.
The report recommends increasing payment for internships and public service employment programs like AmeriCorps. It also endorses a $15/hour minimum wage and targets local hiring policies to ensure equity in public sector jobs.
In the final scene of the evening, Claira Le, a young Vietnamese American woman, spoke with a college admissions counselor who was more concerned with attracting a student of color for “diversity” than with making financial aid accessible to her.
In 2010, 25 percent of students eligible for college financial aid via the State Need Grant were unable to receive it, according to report data sourced from the Washington State Budget and Policy Center. This is considerably higher than 2007, when only 2 percent of eligible students were unable to benefit from that particular grant. These figures support young peoples’ perceptions that financial aid is getting more competitive.
To improve education access, report recommendations include city funding for a post-high school year of community college and repealing restrictions from financial aid for those who have drug-related convictions on their record.
Avery was excited by the evening’s success.
“All the young workers should have been wearing white ball gowns, because it felt like a debutant ball, like a ‘coming out’ to the activist communities of Seattle,” she said. People were enjoying themselves, feeling engaged, and getting excited to start taking action.
Several government figures were on hand for the report release, including representatives of multiple congressional offices, King County Department of Transportation Director Harold Taniguchi, and City Councilmember Mike O’Brien.
O’Brien has been a proponent of Got Green’s work, and noted that the Office of Sustainability and Environment provided part of the funding for this research because “the City of Seattle is trying to understand, as we build the green economy, what can we do to include the parts of our community that have historically been excluded from opportunity?”
He was impressed with the report on multiple levels, and said the research outcomes presented “lots of great ideas” that he hopes to address, particularly around improving transit and access to education.
Got Green was founded in 2008 by area residents who wanted to realize author and civil rights advocate Van Jones’ vision of a green job economy in Seattle, according to Jill Mangaliman, the lead organizer for the group. By hiring people in need of employment to help transition our country to a sustainable path, green jobs are “the best way to fight poverty and global warming at the same time,” the group’s website says.
“The next step is to decide on where the most energy is, and then continuing to grow our leadership and making a strategic plan,” said Avery. “That way, we can start to chip away at inequity together as a community, with our young people leading the way. (end)