South Seattle

Partner Spotlight: ECOSS

“We specialize in multicultural outreach.”

Those were Ruben Chi Bertoni’s first words when he introduced us to the work of ECOSS. Quick to follow was this impressive statistic: there are 15 languages currently represented on the staff (and at times, that number has been even higher).

Ruben is a Community Outreach Associate at ECOSS, formerly known as the Environmental Coalition of South Seattle. He sat down with us to talk about the work of this environmental non-profit and his role with the organization.

ECOSS staff assisting a contractor.

Photograph by ECOSS

ECOSS staff assisting a contractor.

Photograph by ECOSS

So, what do multicultural outreach and multilingualism have to do with the environment? Just look at ECOSS’s involvement in RainWise to see the connection.

RainWise is a program of King County and Seattle Public Utilities that provides incentives for installing green stormwater infrastructure. A homeowner in Seattle who lives within the area eligible for the program can receive a rebate that covers up to 100 percent of the cost of installing a rain garden or cistern on their property.

Where does ECOSS come in? As Ruben told us, when RainWise started in 2012 there was a lot of participation by residents in North Seattle but little engagement or interest from folks living in South Seattle. Part of the issue was the way the program’s benefits were communicated. South Seattle is home to a diverse group of residents from a wide variety of cultural and socioeconomic backgrounds. Compared to their North Seattle counterparts, South Seattle residents include more immigrants, refugees and non-native English speakers. The language barrier made it challenging for South Seattle residents to utilize the RainWise program. Added to this is the complexity of the RainWise process. First, participants go through a site visit to check eligibility; then, a contractor walk-through and inspection and rebate calculation (based on the square footage of the homeowner’s roof); next is the installation; and after that comes the post-installation inspection and final paperwork. Whew! The whole process can take 4-6 months.

ECOSS’s interwoven relationships in the communities of South Seattle made it the perfect organization to talk to community members about the multiple benefits of green infrastructure and remove the barriers to participation in RainWise. Starting with a community survey in 2012-2013, ECOSS set out with the goal to make the RainWise program more equitable. They translated and adapted RainWise materials to make them accessible to people of different lingual and cultural backgrounds. They also made a concerted effort to bring in new contractors: 15 Rainwise-certified contractors have been added since 2015, resulting in an increasingly multicultural pool of contractors that can be matched with South Seattle’s multicultural clients. For example, it is now possible for a homeowner from Vietnam or Latin America to work with a contractor who speaks Vietnamese or Spanish.

The Chua Co Lam Pagoda Temple was the site of an ECOSS-led stormwater project previously featured on the City Habitats blog.

Photograph by ECOSS

To build trust and credibility, ECOSS hires people who come from and speak the languages spoken in the neighborhoods of South Seattle. Many on ECOSS’s staff come to the organization with established networks, having grown up and lived in the area. Born and raised in South Seattle, Ruben is well-equipped to manage ECOSS’s work on RainWise and help residents navigate the program. Ruben’s roots in the community are a core part of how he experiences his job. He put it this way: “Bringing an asset to the community I am from is something that really motivates me. When I was in school studying environmental studies, everything was so theoretical. That really bothered me because it didn’t feel genuine. You can make anything sound great when you are writing it on a piece of paper. It’s different when you’re talking with people and seeing things happen on the ground. Seeing something that works on the ground and people are happy about it really motivates me. Being true to myself and being true to the community that I serve is so important for programs to be an actual benefit to the community.”

RainWise is just one of several programs that ECOSS supports. Another example is the Environmental Stewards program, which is focused on encouraging people to take action in their homes to benefit the environment, such as checking for car leaks and using alternatives to pesticides. In our short hour with Ruben, he only had time to go into detail about a couple of ECOSS’s initiatives, so we recommend a visit to their website to learn more.

By providing education, access and resources, ECOSS empowers local residents to be stewards of their own communities. As we seek to bridge the gap between social equity and environmental challenges, it is increasingly important to have organizations like ECOSS around, working hard to align local government with the priorities and needs of communities.

Ruben (far right) and other ECOSS staff with the owners of Young’s Restaurant, which was the first business to become RainWise.

Photograph by ECOSS

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© Kevin Arnold