On a beautiful, sunny January Saturday at Northwest Outdoor Center on Seattle’s Lake Union, a volunteer group of girls and young women from South King County piled into kayaks for a water cleanup. 

At Lake Union, “plastic, toxic waste and runoff [are] all major issues,” said Ebony Welborn, co-founder of Sea Potential, the Seattle marine education organization that coordinated the event. “At the end of the cleanup, we gathered [a] majority [of] plastics and Styrofoam.”

Through creative educational curricula and hands-on experiences for young people ages 12 to 18, Welborn and Sea Potential co-founder Savannah Smith encourage a practice of water justice and stewardship among youth from communities of color.

The goal for the kids who volunteered on that brisk winter day “was to have fun and know they are supporting the water with their efforts,” Welborn said. “Knowing that day was a moment they could embody their reciprocal relationship with water,” as opposed to just learning about it, was the intent.

Sea Potential programs feature field-based environmentalism in the Puget Sound area to inspire curiosity and learning about marine surroundings. Put simply, they want Seattle kids to love the water. The organization also aims to bolster equitable representation for professionals of color in maritime careers, or any profession connected to water.

The roots of Sea Potential are tied to Welborn and Smith’s own childhoods. As young Black girls, both leaders learned the importance of mammalian and aquatic life in their nearby ecologies. Welborn was raised across the Carolinas, and spent a lot of time outside with her brother and dogs at a creek near their trailer park community. Smith spent her childhood at a home in Renton, where her family hosted a rotation of nonhuman relatives, including hermit crabs and peacocks.

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Welborn and Smith would go on to earn undergraduate degrees in environmental studies and marine biology, respectively. The pair united while doing environmental service work in Seattle.

A friendship bloomed, and dreams were shared. Many of their early goals were meant to mitigate impostor syndrome for people of color in environmental spaces. “It’s really important for youth to see that they can exist in these spaces,” said Smith, in her typical contemplative manner.

“And we are focused on creating that heart-based connection to water,” added Welborn, energetic and sunny. “There are so many aquatic spaces around us, whether that be a stream, or a creek, or the ocean or the Sound,” she continued. “We want to encourage people to spend time on water in all seasons, even the winter.”

As Sea Potential grew from its official beginnings in October 2020, so did its roster of funded programs. Now, its events run a range of gleeful activities, including tide pooling, beachcombing, decorative kelp pressing and even dancing in the rain. During a summer adventure with Seattle nonprofit Young Women Empowered at Discovery Park in Seattle, participants splashed about in the briny ripples, overturning seaweed-covered stones to reveal small creatures scuttling out from beneath. At one point, the group discovers a plainfin midshipman, a member of the toadfish family, languid and big-lipped in the sunny shallow.

Silvia Giannattasio-Lugo, development director for YWE, believes the Sea Potential event was a good opportunity to get their youth, who identify as female or nonbinary, or are assigned female at birth, to engage hands-on with the outdoors. “Anything that involves outdoors activities, our youth love. They want to get outdoors and touch and do things,” Giannattasio-Lugo said.

YWE and Sea Potential’s collaborative programs allowed the girls and young women to seek “connection and community” through safe and respectful interactions with intertidal creatures, Giannattasio-Lugo added. “During COVID, people have been desperate to be together right now, and especially our youth. A lot of them were doing school virtually. That need to be together was there, and not to be so isolated from everyone. They want to get outdoors and touch and do things. They love to play games, socialize and explore.”

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Science-based environmental activism is foundational to the core of Sea Potential, which has an ultimate goal of building a reciprocal relationship to water among children from diverse backgrounds.

Welborn and Smith hope to highlight the rich histories of people of color connecting with water in positive ways, and to cultivate that practice within their immediate communities here in the Pacific Northwest. As such, Sea Potential plans to focus on a “cultural resilience that isn’t really talked about mainstream,” Smith said.

Another element of Sea Potential’s mission is “to acknowledge the individual and intergenerational trauma that exists for BIPOC [people] in [water] spaces,” Smith said during a summer 2021 panel with Young Women Empowered, referring to Black, Indigenous and people of color. This part of Sea Potential’s work touches upon a foundational truth: that the generational histories of marginalized communities and water have, in some cases, been experiences fraught with fear, abuse and mistrust.

From stolen Black ancestors on the Middle Passage, to the wartime exodus of Southeast Asian communities across treacherous waters, to industrial pipelines threatening Indigenous water supply and sovereignty, the demands of imperialist capitalism have oppressed the livelihoods of Black and brown folk and their water for generations, the organizers noted.

During that summer 2021 outing, YWE and Sea Potential participants spent time reflecting on King County’s Clean Water Plan, gauging its effectiveness and brainstorming improvements to the policy. The plan commits billions of dollars in municipal resources toward improving water quality protections.

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But the attendees posed questions around conflicting priorities in achieving water protection, pointing out a perceived contradiction.

In 2001, the Environmental Protection Agency declared the Lower Duwamish Waterway section of the Duwamish River a Superfund site. The urban artery had already endured a harsh century of commercial activity and abuse; hazardous layers of carcinogens, plastics and even arsenic formed sedimentary swaths along the riverbed. Long-term polluters in industries such as construction, recycling, oil and gas shirked responsibility until 2014, when local advocacy groups successfully lobbied the EPA to increase regulations for riverbed cleanup and prevent further pollution.  

‘They are supposed to protect us’: Community wants more from EPA for Duwamish Superfund cleanup

However, Port of Seattle, King County Wastewater and Seattle Public Utilities lobbied to reverse cleanup requirements for the Duwamish River last fall, leading to an updated cleanup proposal from the EPA. Suggested policy reversals would allow higher levels of waste compounds like PCBs, arsenic, dioxins and furans into the Duwamish River. The rollbacks would also lessen accountability for longtime corporate perpetrators of Duwamish pollution, like metal producer Jorgensen Forge, which closed in 2018. 

Lower standards for the waterway cleanup would compromise the health of local low-income, largely nonwhite communities connected to the river, said Seattle writer and activist BJ Cummings.

In a 2020 interview with Crosscut, Cummings characterized the neglect of the river as “blatant environmental racism.” Noting that the river’s cultural history is shaped by “10,000 years of the Duwamish people … [and] seven generations of settler and immigrant history,” today, Latino, East Asian and East African immigrants are among the diverse communities that live along the Duwamish. Removing environmental protections from this ecosystem will reintroduce toxins into the life in and connected to the river. 

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With a Duwamish water crisis on the horizon, activists across King County are focused on empowering diverse communities to become protectors of both the Duwamish River and its surrounding rivers, sounds and seas. Sea Potential is one of these activist programs, and has contributed to educating young adults on water rights and environmental policy through their programs. Although Sea Potential focuses on the intellectual development of younger generations, the lessons gleaned from their activities are valuable for all of us.

As Chandrika Francis, environmental educator for YWE, put it: “It is helpful to think about water as having a relationship with a person … there are so many ways where we are all in very deep, lifelong connections with water … our entire history is a relationship with water,” she said. “In a lot of Indigenous African cultures, water is where ancestors lived. The relationship is already deep, already intricate, already there.”

Water is universal: An element that links us all, a building block of basic survival, our water and its health are critical to the well-being of our human communities, our surrounding species and the connected environment.

This is the message that Sea Potential strives to share every day. And, at a time when the sanctity of our local Duwamish is under threat, it’s worth listening up.

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