Interview with Fulcrum Fellow Alberto Rodríguez

Alberto gesturing

This week, we sat with Alberto Rodríguez, Strategic Advisor for Seattle’s Office of Sustainability & Environment and current Fulcrum Fellow, to discuss his work in the Duwamish Valley, a vibrant area in Seattle facing the real and urgent implications of climate change, sea level rise, and many long-standing inequities. Alberto shared with us how the fellowship has helped him strengthen a comprehensive approach for the area that would advance environmental justice and equitable development while addressing the disparities affecting Duwamish Valley residents and industrial businesses today.   

Tell us a little bit about your background, and how you ended up in your role with City of Seattle.
I was born and raised in Honduras. My entire family—which includes my dad, mom, brother, sister, and my beautiful niece, Giovanna—is still there. In Honduras, I got my undergraduate degree in biology with an emphasis in zoology and water quality. Honestly, I did this in school because I thought I would never want to work with people.  Over the next few years, I trained in the Seattle area, and one of my internships involved doing outreach and education on toxic sediment cleanup, which was an interesting challenge that forced me to start working with people… I mean, what could be more challenging than engaging people on toxic-sediment cleanup-related issues?  This is when I realized people are not so bad… just kidding, I love working with people now.

In 2011, I was ready to return to Honduras when one of my former employers, the small but mighty Duwamish River Cleanup Coalition, had a job opening.  They hired me to do a few different things, including amplifying the voices of the communities in the Duwamish Valley in the development of the first-in-the-nation municipal Equity & Environment Agenda.  One of the first commitments the City of Seattle made after the release of the agenda was the creation of a new position and a place-based program to advance environmental justice and equitable development in the Duwamish Valley.  I applied and got the position.  The role is the perfect fit for me.  I get to use my science background and community organizing expertise every day.  Additionally, sharing a culture and lived experience with people of color, immigrants, refugees, and people with low incomes makes a big difference on how I, as a City employee, approach the work, and how community members collaborate with us, the City, in transformational ways. 

Describe the community you work with.  What have you chosen to focus on during the fellowship?
Resilient communities have called the Duwamish Valley home since time immemorial–from the fishing and winter campgrounds of the Duwamish Tribe to the first European settlers in the Pacific Northwest, and up to the people living in it today. Four tribes have historical, cultural, and/or treaty rights on Seattle’s only river, the Duwamish.  Today, there is a high concentration of people of color, immigrants, refugees, people with limited English proficiency, people with low incomes, and skilled labor workforce folks. Its working waterfront supports the Port of Seattle.  In addition, one of the city’s principal industrial areas, the Duwamish Manufacturing and Industrial Center (MIC), is in the Duwamish Valley. 

The Duwamish River played an important role in Seattle’s development as a major, economically prosperous city, but that progress came with a price tag. Seattle’s legacy of pollution includes a 5.5 mile Superfund site as well as ongoing disparities related to air and water quality, noise, lack of access to healthy food, and more. According to recent modeling and analyses, climate change impacts such as flooding due to sea level rise will disproportionately affect the Duwamish Valley within the next 50 years.
 
For this and other reasons, I’ve decided to focus my fellowship project on designating the Duwamish Valley, including the neighborhoods of South Park and Georgetown, as a “Resilience District”. This designation could create a policy, organizing structure, and funding framework that will help the City address flooding and sea level rise, in addition to community revitalization, health equity, and local wealth building in ways that allows residents and businesses to stay and thrive in place.  Concurrently, this approach would build community organizational capacity to attract capital (federal, local, and private) at scale and fund, finance, and implement projects.  I believe this holistic approach, centered on equity, is imperative.  Through a Resilience District, the City of Seattle would stimulate investment, potentially make policy and regulatory changes, and support community capacity to create an organizational structure that attracts funding, partners with government, and drives community-based resilience efforts. 
 
Tell us a little bit about what you’ve learned throughout the program.  What has had the most impact on your professional and personal development?
I have learned so much.  I’m a scientist by training, so it has been incredibly helpful to learn more about financing and investment through the capital absorption framework.  Dr. Tiffany Manuel’s The CaseMade workshop gave me new ways to approach strategic case making and communications. Lastly, learning about equity time scales, a tool for outlining concurrent short- and long-term results, feels life-changing.  That tool is useful, as someone who tends to focus on the “now”, for staying focused on long-term goals and sustaining motivation and engagement of diverse stakeholders to achieve results that benefit everyone.

How has the fellowship changed your self-awareness? 
It’s inspiring, useful, and humbling to be around such a talented, passionate, loving group of people like the fellows and CCI staff.  The self-assessments have been incredibly useful.  I initially struggled with some of the feedback before realizing this was an opportunity for self-improvement.  They shed light on important aspects that I need to work on and other qualities and skills I should continue growing and practicing.  For example, as a non-native English speaker, sometimes I think I don’t communicate effectively.  I’m hyper aware of that.  But as I reviewed the data in these assessments, and through the coaching I’ve received in the fellowship, I’ve realized that my communication style is a strength, not a weakness.       

Share with us how your experience has been implementing some of the concepts you have learned during the fellowship back at your organization.  What have been some wins?  Challenges?
Though we’re still early on in the fellowship, I’ve applied a few things at home. I’ve identified the people I need to align with in order to effect change at scale.  I’m using some of the tools to be more efficient and cater to the needs of different audiences.  I’m working toward expanding my informal authority. It’s been incredibly useful to learn techniques on how to foster mutually beneficial relationships, understand the perspectives others hold, model reliability, take small steps, and accumulate a track record of success.  

A challenging aspect of this work is that it takes time.  City programs and most capital projects can take years to develop, fund, and implement.  It can take time to build the understanding within the City needed to modify policies or build support for exceptions needed to address specific local equity issues.  Developing transformational partnerships with community also takes a lot of time and trust.  At the same time, there is a great sense of urgency to address the racial inequities and health disparities that community members, workers, and businesses in the Duwamish Valley experience every day.   

Fortunately, we are acting on important, unprecedented ideas.  Moving this work forward methodically, in alignment with community and with urgency, will continue to be one of the greatest challenges—and opportunities—of our equity-centered initiatives.  

How has your systems orientation changed because of Fulcrum Fellows?  How does this show up in your work?
I’m fortunate to be participating in both the Fulcrum Fellows and Connect Capital programs where I have additional exposure to CCI’s frameworks, so it has changed quite a bit. With how much need there is in the community due to historical and current disparities and inequities, I tend to focus on the actions we can take now.  Through the fellowship, I’m getting to a place where I can hold a system-level perspective, giving myself time to think about the entire system and what is needed, making sure to think holistically about our investments and how we increase the capital absorption capacity of the community and attract external partners who can help us effect change at the scale that is needed, both in the short- and long-term. 

What most excites you looking ahead to the rest of the year?
I’m excited to continue learning from the other fellows.  I’m looking forward to making sense of the tools and processes I will continue to learn through the fellowship.  We have learned so much and now I want to figure out how I will share these learnings with my colleagues and put them into practice.  It will be great to continue working with my colleagues and Duwamish Valley community members, workers, and businesses on the Resilience District approach and, hopefully, see it come to fruition. ¡Si se puede!

Transforming investment in communities

CCI is supported by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, The Kresge Foundation, the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, The California Endowment, and The Annie E. Casey Foundation.

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