Equity, the environment, and you: a Q&A with Sara Cubillos

Fighting climate change involves more than taking shorter showers and remembering your reusable grocery bags. It’s a systemic crisis that requires a systemic response, and it’s an issue that will affect different communities in disparate ways.

That’s where people like Sara Cubillos come in. As an equity and environment program coordinator at the city’s Office of Sustainability and Environment, Sara was instrumental in crafting Seattle’s Equity and Environment Agenda. Today, she works as a strategic advisor for Seattle Public Utilities, focusing on drainage and wastewater. 

We recently caught up with Sara to ask for her thoughts on environmental justice, equity, and the role of cities in addressing the climate crisis. (Responses have been edited for length and clarity.)

Q: How is the city of Seattle working to bring more diverse voices to issues of sustainability and climate change?

A: The old messaging was that people of color just don’t care about the environment. And that’s not true. So our community outreach and storytelling work aims to bring a fresh perspective.

Communities of color are like the O.G.s of environmentalists, even if they don’t call themselves that. The principles of environmentalism are just what families in these communities have done because they needed to — helping your family, reusing things, sharing, and only taking what you need. That’s a core part of many of the communities of color here in Seattle.

Q: Seattle has a reputation as one of the most environmentally friendly cities in the U.S. How do you think we’re living up to that reputation?

A: It’s all about what are we comparing ourselves to. In terms of across the country, Seattle is a major sustainability leader. But that’s often a hard place to be, because then who do we look to to work with or develop new innovative strategies?

You can’t evaluate our progress without looking at the environmental justice angle. Even if we’re the leaders of sustainability, many people in the south end are still living near contaminated air, water, and soil.

Q: What’s the most pressing thing we need to tackle at a citywide or government level?

A: In addition to environmental justice, I always talk about the willingness to take risks and to try new things even if we don’t know how they’re going to end.

In government and policy, we want the silver bullet that’s going to solve everything. But actually it’s about each of us finding our own way to save the city and trying it out and seeing what works for us. Even if an experiment or a thing doesn’t work out, we’re still learning from it.

To me, it’s more about finding different opportunities and leverage points and unlikely partnerships, and I think that’s something we could be doing better. It’s like that saying, “Don’t let perfect be the enemy of the good.”

Q: I’m just one person. I bring my reusable bags to the store. I try to drive alone as little as possible. What else can I do?

A: You could do all of those things right, and we will still experience climate change impacts with the way we’re going. So the one thing you can do is get to know your neighbors.

How we stay resilient is through our connections. If you are singularly doing things right, that’s great — but networks are better. Connecting with a neighbor or an organization and learning about their experiences is something that I would say is as core to sustainability as recycling.

Want to hear more from Sara? Don’t miss our Setting the Table event coming up on June 19!


By Caitlin Moran
Caitlin writes newsletters and stories for The Evergrey. She's worked as a journalist in and around Seattle since 2010 and is a proud resident of Capitol Hill's Summit Slope neighborhood.