East African Senior Center connects generations via environmental learning

East African Senior Center connects generations via environmental learning

By Environmental Justice Storytelling Intern Carol Aragon

In the United States, race is the strongest predictor of a person’s proximity to polluted air, water, or soil. This is why Seattle’s Environmental Justice Fund was established in 2017 to support efforts that benefit, are led by, or are in partnership with those most affected by environmental and climate inequities: Black, Indigenous, People of Color, immigrants, refugees, low-income individuals, youth, and elders. The Environmental Justice Fund supports a vast array of community-led initiatives that promote environmental justice and mitigate the effects of climate change. This series of articles highlights some of the remarkable work conducted by community groups and organizations funded by the Environmental Justice Fund.

Michael Neguse, a former social worker and community organizer, has co-managed the East African Senior Center (EASC) with Senayet Negusse and Nerea Workneh for about a decade. He has been an active program organizer, chef, and contributor to the Center’s general success. Over the years, he has befriended and fed a large number of individuals, mainly the elderly. I recently had the opportunity to visit one of EASC’s three venues, the Rainier Beach Urban Farm and Wetlands (which is also based at the Northgate Community Center and the Yesler Community Center). I obtained important insight into the program’s accomplishments and discovered how the EJ Fund supports their influence on the communities it serves. I also had a look into the activities that seniors, youth, and adults of all ages in between participate in.

Prior to EASC’s involvement, the property was an abandoned lot. Since then, they have undergone both actual and metaphorical expansion.

“Individually, we wanted to unite people and establish peace. They come here to form friends and provide emotional support for one another. We have lost visitors over the years, but those who remain support one another and attempt to aid other families. When someone is ill, members of this program will pay them a visit. It is beneficial to establish this neighborly relationship. The majority of our population does not speak English, but when they come here, they meet individuals with whom they can connect and form friendships, which helps them improve their English. Because the neighborhood is underserved and we believe it is vital to share our cultures, this initiative has a particular place in our hearts.

The EASC program participants have established a morning routine that is full of neighborly connection and vitality. It is also an opportunity for them to maintain the garden’s many features, where several plant species thrive. Michales said that the elderly citizens had access to “culturally responsible nutritional meals, culturally acceptable health and wellness education, agricultural activities, and social involvement in addition to physical activities.”

“When they arrive in the morning, they stretch and do some little exercise. Then, they care to the garden of vegetables. We have lunch at noon, and when they go, we offer them food to take home. There is a “You-Select” garden where anybody may pick what they need. Seven or eight years ago, we planted trees in the marsh, which is now a sanctuary for insects and birds. We have orchards and bees here. The garden across the street is for older citizens, who cultivate maize and peaches. There are also greenhouses where we may raise more food throughout the cold months.”

When the initiative started, the Rainier Beach Urban Farm and Wetlands were devoid of vegetation. Today, it is verdant. On the farm, tall, healthy trees stand amid the numerous fruits and vegetables. This image shows seniors planting over a dozen trees. Michael revealed that one of the trees is a crabapple tree, which the elders harvest by shaking a sheet below it. They produce jam from the fruit.

People from many backgrounds visit the farms to experience serenity, belonging, and joy. Michael desires that the seniors leave with this impression, and the responses from community people echo his feelings. Some people recognize that their mood has improved dramatically.

“I want them to experience joy. They come here, and they laugh. Most of them are secluded due to a language barrier, and without this garden, they would have nowhere else to go. However, people come here to meet their friends, dine, laugh, work, and study nature. We want them to feel at home here. I am a community organizer. It is beneficial to bring program participants to a natural setting with trees, water, plants, and flowers. Their disposition improves. We want to organize a cultural event where everyone may come their families and enjoy the outdoors. Recently, I spoke with someone who is physically unwell; this program has improved her mental health. She reports feeling optimistic and appreciated, and there are those that speak her language. She now feels better. And this is the effect we want to make on the lives of others. We want them to enjoy themselves. It is a really friendly and inviting environment.”

As a consequence of the EJ Fund grant it got in 2020, EASC has increased, both in terms of the number of participants and the range of provided assistive services. During my trip, children were seeing live food preparation demonstrations and interacting with other program volunteers. It is crucial to mention that the farm feeds not just elderly citizens, but also young people who are learning about food sovereignty and what it means to eat farm-fresh meals, or as Michael put it, “from the farm to the table.” He acknowledges the impact the award has had on the farm and individuals who visit the marsh to spend time there.

“The EJ Fund assisted us much. The number of older citizens is increasing, and we now have a social worker from Sound Generation and a social worker coordinator for our program. We provide the elderly stipends to demonstrate our thanks for their service and to encourage them to move about with their children and grandchildren. This is a lovely and secure location for community members, particularly the elderly. The birdsong can be heard, and the locals assure us that the air is clean. The EJ Fund has enabled us to assist individuals across generations. There are younger workers entering the workforce. We provide day camp for youngsters, and they appreciate the surroundings tremendously. The seniors are responsible for producing food and repairing the wetland, and they learn about the ecosystem, including the birds, insects, and trees native to the Pacific Northwest of the United States. The cultivation and gathering of food inspires them greatly.

“We also learnt a great deal because of the award. We now have extensive knowledge about many plants, birds, and trees, and we have learnt how pollinators benefit the ecosystem. There are trees that we can utilize to create our own essentials, such as shampoo and conditioner — individuals came here to teach us these skills. The other day, a man came here and educated us about the local birds, which was extremely enlightening. He demonstrated which birds inhabit this swamp. I am pleased to be a part of this program and like seeing all the plants. In the past, there were no buildings or anything else on this site. We immediately began planting and cleaning the marshes. Now that we can see the trees, it gives us hope and motivates us. We have a walk that traverses the marsh where you are welcome to bring your family, and the youngsters enjoy picking the blueberries we produce here.”

The Building Bridges partner of EASC led the seniors on a nature walk and taught them about various plants and trees. Seniors depict various flora and trees and identify their artwork in English, Amharic, or Tigrinya. Below, one of the elders tends to the garden’s produce plants.

Visit our website to learn more about the Environmental Justice Fund and consider applying before September 16 at 4 p.m.!

Regarding the Author

Carol Aragon is an OSE Storytelling Intern with the Seattle Youth Employment Program, working with the interviewing of Environmental Justice Fund recipients. She is a first-year student at Washington State University.

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