Colleen Echohawk had tears in her eyes when she visited Sovereignty Farm last fall. The acre of donated land in Tukwila will be planted starting next month with a bounty of foods — beans, squash, pumpkin, onions and garlic — and farmed by a group of urban Native Americans experiencing homelessness. The executive director of the Chief Seattle Club, Echohawk said she felt emotional when she envisioned the workers returning to their roots as they harvested traditional food.

The farm is a hands-on project of the nonprofit’s workforce development program, Native Works. It was made possible by a $100,000 grant from the South King County Fund, a Port of Seattle program that offers resources and support to historically marginalized communities living near airports. 

“Our folks out there who have been suffering in homelessness for a long time are going to get out here and find comfort in the land,” Echohawk said. “They’re going to get out here and find that good feeling of working.”

The grant will cover the farm’s setup costs and maintenance over the next year. By the end of the month, 10 organizations including Chief Seattle Club, will receive the first round of funding amounting to over $981,000 to pursue projects that bolster economic development.

Established in 2018 by the Port of Seattle — a municipal corporation that manages the Seattle-Tacoma International Airport, Fishermen’s Terminal and other facilities — the fund will have $10 million in tax levy dollars to support projects proposed by South King County airport communities until 2023. 

The fund was initially designed to address sustainability, airport noise and environmental health. But amid the COVID-19 pandemic, it expanded to include economic recovery projects that focus on workforce development and job creation for communities hit hardest by the pandemic. 

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“COVID-19 caused tremendous economic damage to near-Port communities,” Port of Seattle Commission President Peter Steinbrueck said in a statement. “We need an equally bold response.”

Grant proposals were reviewed by a panel consisting of two community members who live near airports and three Port employees, and were then authorized by the Port Commission. The organizations, chosen from among 27 applicants, receive 12-month contracts. 

“Empowering community-led organizations offers a direct and powerful path to ensuring that disproportionately affected and historically underrepresented communities can access and benefit from the Port’s community programs,” Steinbrueck said.

Another recipient, Seattle-based nonprofit Washington Maritime Blue will use its $99,995 grant to introduce young people to the maritime sector through its Maritime Youth Accelerator Project. The eight-week summer program aims to train youth of color in the state’s maritime sector — including work in water transportation and the naval industry — where it said jobs pay 20% more than the state average.     

“This funding is important because many youth from underrepresented communities are not aware of the diverse job opportunities in the maritime sector or that maritime is a prominent economic driver within Washington state’s trade and commerce sectors,” Veasna Hoy, a program director, said.

Veasna Hoy is director of the Youth Maritime Collaborative, a nonprofit that introduces and educates young people about careers in the maritime industry. A part of Washington Maritime Blue, it received a $99,995 grant through the South King County Fund for its Maritime Youth Accelerator Project. The eight-week summer program aims to train youth of color in the state’s maritime sector, including work in water transportation and the naval industry, where it said jobs pay 20% more than the state average. (Bettina Hansen / The Seattle Times)

Up to 20 young people will be selected from applications expected to be available between the end of January and mid-March. Funding will pay mentors, also young people of color, who will spend each morning training participants in topics such as professionalism, communication, time management, confidence building and problem-solving. Then they will receive hands-on job experience by shadowing trained maritime employers. 

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“We especially want youth to see themselves as innovators, contributors and leaders of the next generation of the maritime workforce,” Hoy said.

Another grant recipient, Seattle-based nonprofit Businesses Ending Slavery and Trafficking, dubbed BEST, received $100,000 to serve human trafficking survivors in Des Moines, Burien, Normandy Park, Federal Way, Tukwila and SeaTac. Funding will expand the nonprofit’s program, The Safe Jobs Collaborative, into South King County. The program provides trauma-informed training to employers, and connects survivors and people at risk of being trafficked to job training programs.

The nonprofit also will recruit five new employers from port-related industries to join the collaborative and will pay three interns who are survivors of trafficking through the grant funding. Additionally, it will help them support job agencies that will train 120 survivors and people at risk of trafficking.

The program has already helped participants find stability, CEO and Executive Director Mar Brettmann said.  

The BEST staff helped one participant, a woman who had been exploited through trafficking for seven years, secure an internship with a local nonprofit organization where she flourished, she said.

“She was able to get into stable housing through that time and is now in a house and looking for her second work experience in the square world, as she would call it,” Brettmann said.

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The significance of Sovereignty Farm dawned on Echohawk as she watched her children run around the lush land on a hill with overgrown grass and a fig tree. Gardening connects Echohawk to her childhood and heritage as a member of the Kithehaki Band of the Pawnee Nation and of the Upper Athabascan people of Mentasta Lake in Alaska.

Echohawk grew up in rural Alaska where she hunted and foraged berries. She brought her connection to the land with her when she moved to Seattle more than 20 years ago, and where she’s always tended a garden.

The removal of Native Americans from their traditional homelands to reservations in the late 19th century initiated a loss of culture, Echohawk said. During the Indian Relocation Act of 1956, the United States government incentivized Indigenous people to move from reservations to cities by offering transportation, jobs and housing. Many tribal members brought seeds from their homelands to the areas where they relocated, but sometimes the plants didn’t grow in their new land.

Sovereignty Farm is a way to bring traditional farming back to urban Native Americans. Nettle, camas, peppers and other vegetables will be grown on the farm. Set to open in October, Chief Seattle Club’s café in Pioneer Square will source food from the farm for dishes such as salads, smoothies and rice bowls. The harvest will also be used in free meals for nonprofit participants and the public. 

Grants from the South King County Fund will allow the nonprofit to buy equipment, build a shed and pay a farm mentor as well as a Native farmer to run the program. Apprentices working on the farm, who must be experiencing homelessness to be hired, will receive minimum wage. The Native Works program currently supports apprentices who make jewelry, crafts, T-shirts and candles that are sold at Pike Place Market. Participants have found housing and set up bank accounts with program support.

The expansion of Native Works to a farm in South King County is a full-circle moment for Echohawk. She’s excited to see the fruition of the apprentices’ work, and for them to learn skills that they’ll take back to their communities. 

“I consider them those precious seeds that I get to support and lift up, hear their stories, and to give them as many resources as I can,” she said.