Taking Control

Amidst Rapid Change and Development, Puget Sound Millennials Aren't Willing to Just Sit Back and Watch

By Kai Blatt, Amy Huýnh, Bilal Karim and Henry Nelson

Photos by Henry Nelson

 

Photo by: Henry Nelson

Executive Director of Seattle’s First Hill Improvement Association. You might imagine the person behind this title is someone in her 50s. But Alex Hudson is 32. And with one cancer battle behind her, she has the kind of drive and unapologetic passion necessary to do her job well. She’s building community in the “densest residential area north of San Francisco.”

Hudson grew up in a rural environment, but she embraces her new identity as an “urbanite.” She hosts a podcast about cities and urban planning from her apartment. But because her apartment is tiny —and there are several of us — we meet at her neighborhood hotel,The Sorrento.

“There’s nothing more powerful than making people fall in love with the place they live because once somebody falls in love with something, then they’ll take care of it,” she says.

Hudson’s can-do attitude doesn’t come from a place of blind optimism. It’s actually more of a must-do attitude.

“We need to not be afraid to fail,” Hudson implores, “because we are already failing.”

Failure — whether it’s a growing economic inequality, irreversible climate change or raging racial injustices. Hudson, like many local millennials we’ve met, have much to say about these subjects and how they need to urgently be addressed.

For six weeks this summer we travelled throughout Western Washington, speaking at length with over two dozen millennials. We are twenty-something college students ourselves who care about the intersections .of social and environmental justice. We wanted to get past the narrow perceptions of millennials as lazy, entitled technophiles. So we sought out individual, nuanced stories to get a sense of the region.

We heard about the local housing crisis.

“Gentrification is real,” Carlos Nieto, 21, told us.

Nieto, a spoken word poet and student at Seattle Central College,knows several friends and family members who have been displaced from their homes.

Sonny Nguyen, 25, who uses they/them pronouns, told us about how their mother was priced out of Skyway and had to move further south to Renton.“At one point, I commuted an hour-and-a-half door to door,” said Nguyen, 25, a community organizer in Seattle’s Chinatown International District.

We heard about environmental concerns: energy consumption, ocean acidification, pollution.“We’re fucked,” said Peter Wells, 24, who volunteers at the Beacon Food Forest in Seattle. “I’m really sad to say this but it is going to take more large-scale disasters for people to really wake up and understand how serious this is.”

“There’s nothing more powerful than making people fall in love with the place they live because once somebody falls in love with something, then they’ll take care of it,” she says.

Others chided how much of the public embraces recycling as their one and only environmental act. Then there’s the way businesses tout sustainability to market recyclable products, rather than addressing the culture of disposable consumerism.

We also heard a lot about race.

Khatsini Simani, a 24-year-old Black woman, was born and raised in Seattle. The tension in the city when it comes to race feels “really thick,”she said. Seattle feels polarized. It also feels segregated, she said.Valerie Saucedo, 25, who is Latina, has felt that same alienation.Mohamed Abdi, 19, said he’s been racially profiled for being Black and Muslim.

In a region where people love talking about getting out of the city and spending time in the outdoors, we heard millennials point out how reluctant this region is toward having a conversation about race.

Photo by: Henry Nelson
But even with these obstacles — or maybe because of them — we heard how millennials are deeply invested in shaping the future of this region.

But even with these obstacles — or maybe because of them — we heard how millennials are deeply invested in shaping the future of this region.

Whether they’re directing a neighborhood association (like Hudson),leading an entire city (like Erik Larson, the 24-year-old mayor of Aberdeen) or running a local business.

Solomon Dubie, 28, is making an impact in his community with his Café Avole in Seattle’s Rainier Beach. The place is filled with art from Ethiopia, and Dubie brews coffee using a traditional jebena. When we visited the first time, a group of men were laughing and hanging out at a corner table.

Dubie is investing in his community both financially and emotionally,working 12 to 13 hours a day and living with his mother in Tukwila while hoping to make this a viable business for the long term. Nieto the poet utilizes spoken word to channel his politics. He’s currently working with local nonprofit Got Green to advocate for more affordable housing.

“I wouldn’t say I’m an activist,” he said. “But, I’m trying to do something about these injustices.”

Like many millennials we met, Nieto says real change begins with an empowered community rather than a community waiting for the panacea to trickle down.Which sounds like something we can all get behind.

The authors are University of Washington Doris Duke Conservation Scholars who spent the summer at Forterra. To watch video interviews and read the results of Forterra’s survey about Puget Sound millennials, go to millennialsurvey.com

  • Amy Huynh

    Amy Huynh is studying environmental economics and geography at the University of California at Berkeley.

  • Kai Blatt

    Kai Blatt is studying biology and studio art at Wesleyan University.

     

  • Bilal Karim

    Bilal Karim is studying biology at Cal Polytechnic University-Pomona.

  • Henry Nelson

    Henry Nelson is studying public policy at the University of Massachusetts Amherst.

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