What does it take to center equity in Green Stormwater Infrastructure (GSI) projects? How can others replicate successful community engagement models?

ECOSS’ many years of multicultural education and outreach have broadened the inclusion of communities of color around rain gardens and cisterns, including pioneering installations for community spaces and businesses. These are key examples of Green Stormwater Infrastructure (GSI), which have provided home improvements and green jobs in some of Seattle’s most vulnerable communities while reducing the amount of polluted stormwater runoff entering the Duwamish River and other local waters. What does it take to center equity in GSI projects? How can others replicate ECOSS’ successful community engagement models?

A recent Green Infrastructure Partnerships (GRIP) Panel featuring ECOSS and partners in King County’s RainWise program tackled these questions with an audience of municipalities and organizations passionate about GSI.

RainWise managers and ECOSS’ multicultural outreach team led the GRIP Panel. Photo Credit: William Chen / ECOSS.

Conversation circled around a central theme: bridging gaps. Economic, cultural, language and more. GSI installations are expensive for both property owners and the contractors that install them. For low-income residents, contractors commonly must front installation costs before being reimbursed for materials months later. For property owners, only certain basins are qualified for the RainWise financial rebate. When these financial hurdles arose, ECOSS helped find solutions, such as leveraging other grant opportunities.

But financials are only part of the journey. Contractors that want to work with RainWise must first get trained, which is only offered in English. ECOSS recruits contractors from the communities that it serves, then joins them in training to act as interpreters and mentors. Similarly, ECOSS walks property owners through the RainWise paperwork and processes. The GRIP panel illuminated the work and dedication that is required to overcome the barriers to making GSI accessible for all.

The audience included municipalities, nonprofits and others working closely with Green Stormwater Infrastructure. Photo Credit: William Chen / ECOSS.

The setting for the panel could not have been more appropriate. Co Lam Temple is a central location for the local Vietnamese community and the site of several cisterns that ECOSS helped establish. It also illustrates the challenges of expanding GSI access. The temple is not located in a RainWise-eligible basin. Many community members were not native English speakers nor familiar with GSI. ECOSS helped bridge these economic and language gaps while building trust within the community. After a productive discussion of how other municipalities could help promote equitable GSI, ECOSS led a tour of Co Lam Temple to show how the cisterns were being integrated into the temple and broader community.

To bridge gaps, ECOSS builds personal connections with communities. The installation at Co Lam was a success in large part because an ECOSS staff member was already a regular attendee of the temple. When he approached the head monks about installing GSI, it wasn’t as an outsider offering a service; it was as a community member suggesting a solution.

Cisterns are now a prominent feature around the Co Lam Temple, accompanied by educational signage in English and Vietnamese. Photo Credit: William Chen / ECOSS.

ECOSS has grand visions for further advancing the equity of GSI installations. A revolving fund would expedite contractor payment by reimbursing installation costs up front and refilling from completed installations. Additionally, an ECOSS-administered fund would build on native language capacities and rapport with multicultural contractors to lower bureaucratic barriers.

The GRIP Panel was a precious opportunity to share insight on ECOSS’ equity lens with other cities, counties and organizations. The buzz of excitement after the events of the day provided hope that the lessons learned will inspire similar programs across Puget Sound.

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