Editor's note: This article was sponsored by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.
What is the size and scope of the climate change problem? Daniela Cortez, a junior at Chief Sealth International High School, might answer this impossible question — at least initially — with a geographic response: 412 acres, which is the area encompassing her ethnically diverse riverfront South Park neighborhood in the Duwamish Valley that was designated as a Superfund Site by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) in 2001. Since she was 13, Cortez has been a part of the Duwamish Valley Youth Corps, a vibrant youth advocacy program of the Duwamish River Cleanup Coalition (DRCC). The DRCC exists to advocate for a clean, healthy and equitable environment for the people and wildlife impacted by the pollution of the Duwamish River and to act as a technical and stakeholder advisory group to monitor the EPA-mandated cleanup of the valley. Through its programmatic emphasis on environmental health and social and climate justice, the organization and its youth corps prioritize community action through education and empowerment.
Cortez credits her years of participation with the Duwamish Valley Youth Corps for helping her find her voice and grow a range of “life-changing” skills, including public speaking, managing youth-led events and projects, and providing mentorship to peers. Paulina López, executive director of the DRCC, in turn credits Cortez for her commitment and wisdom, saying, “Daniela has this warm heart for mentoring others, and because of that we have always identified her as a great leader. She’s our hidden treasure here in South Park, but she obviously has wonderful wings to fly, too, and the sky’s the limit — that’s always what we’ve taught her.”
I had the good fortune to speak with this impressive young woman about her youth activism and why it matters to her so much.
What do you think makes the Duwamish Valley Youth Corps program so unique?
Originally, I had no idea what environmental advocacy was or anything about the state of the environmental crisis that my community faces right now. This program has been able to create a curriculum for students who aren’t very aware about the situations that are going on in South Park and Georgetown, teaching them all the information that they need to know before jumping into this new world of environmental advocacy. We have a classroom setting during the week, on Tuesdays or Thursdays, and then on Saturdays, it’s more of an action-based, hands-on-learning kind of schedule where we go out into our community. We plant trees, install green walls and make sure that our community is maintained in a way that we hope to see.
We also go out to events and forums to make sure that our voices are being heard in every conversation that we need to be heard in. That’s one of the biggest parts that I am most passionate about: Making sure that people are aware of these things and that we’re not sitting on the sidelines anymore, we are actually raising our voices.
Do you look back at any projects with particular pride?
Every cohort has a new and exciting project and it always ends up being a work of art in itself. But for me personally, the pride comes in being able to open a lot of students’ eyes to situations that they didn’t know they were facing and make them excited to participate in the decision-making and problem-solving process.
Who or what do you think has motivated or inspired you in your young life to become involved in your community?
This work can be heavy and sometimes even frightening, but I stick to it because I have five siblings. I want for them to be able to grow up in a world where they don’t have to worry whether their planet is doomed or not; to go to school without having fears of an asthma attack because there are too many planes in the sky or too many trucks going by; and to be able to make sure that my sister can walk home without feeling scared of being mugged or confronted in the community that she calls home. I want to make sure that all of our families are protected, because we are all impacted.
South Park and Georgetown neighborhoods are mostly made up of marginalized communities and people of color. Our largest population is youths, so it’s important for me to be able to step up and make sure that all of our voices are being heard, and make sure that other kids are aware that they can be right where I am now. When I first started this work with the Duwamish Valley Youth Corps, I didn’t see a lot of people like me in the positions that I wanted to strive for. I didn’t see women in the seats that I wanted to take. And I didn’t see Spanish-speaking individuals being part of marches and speeches and all of these other amazing opportunities that I’ve been able to experience. And so, I want to be that inspiration for someone else, for my sister or my brother or anyone who ends up going through the things that I’ve been through.
That I get to be a source of inspiration for someone else is always encouraging to me. Because it’s so easy to give up — when one hard day hits or when your project is denied once or twice. But it’s so much more empowering to be able to keep going and to be able to be that person for someone else. I’ve always wanted to be a person who makes sure that no one gets left behind.
Where are you seeing signs of change either within your community or in the world at large that give you hope?
On a local scale, I remember a time where I wouldn’t dream of going and spending my afternoon in a community meeting and just listening to all of the different problems, projects and solutions that adults are talking about. But now all I think about is being there and bringing other students in to make sure we’re participating in these projects and having our youthful and innovative voices heard. On a bigger scale, we’re seeing things like the climate walkout, and we have people suing our government for putting us in a position where we have to reverse climate change and the effects that it has had for decades now. We see all of the new and powerful movements led by people of color, women and youths from all over the country and around the world. I see the success stories of people who are not much different than me, and I find that very empowering.
What do you see for yourself in the future?
When I was younger, I thought I was going to be a veterinarian or a nurse. Because they were easy answers to a big question that I didn’t yet know how to answer. But, thankfully, with my new passion for community advocacy, I’ve been able to look at that [what am I going to be when I grow up] question and reflect on not only the small kind of local change that I can create, but on what national or even global change I can create with my experiences and my eagerness to teach others what I have learned. I always say no matter what you learn or how you learn it, if it’s something that you believe in and see value in, make sure to pass it forward. For now, and in the future, I am going to focus on sharing the knowledge that I do have to make sure that it goes as far as it can reach.