Nicole joined 350 Seattle in November 2021 after gaining tremendous strategic grounding and practical knowledge in her 20 years in the labor movement. In her time as Executive Secretary at the Martin Luther King County Labor Council, she led a transition that helped to make the organization far more focused on racial, gender, and climate justice—while also invigorating its commitments to the need for working people to have a “great life in greater Seattle”.
Nicole is a journeyman electrician with IBEW 46, where she also served as the Executive Director of the Certified Electrical Workers of Washington. She holds an electrical engineering degree from George Brown College in Toronto and a bachelor’s degree at the University of Washington in Politics, Economy, and Law.
“The chance to make Seattle the greenest Green New Deal city in the nation while creating thousands of union jobs in electrification and other climate conscious infrastructure is irresistible,” she says. “My hope is that unions and organizations focused on climate and racial justice will continue to work together as often as possible to make our world a better place for everyone, and to secure the environmental justice our communities need to thrive into the future.”
Tell us about yourself! What was your career journey prior to joining 350 Seattle?
Many past jobs put me on the path to 350 Seattle. For the last six years, I’ve been leading the local labor movement as the Executive Secretary Treasurer of MLK Labor. That’s a “union of unions” that represents over 100K workers all over King County in jobs as diverse as healthcare, education, construction, bus drivers, letter carriers, grocery… the list goes on.
One thing all workers have in common is that climate change is hurting them. There were serious conversations during the wildfires this year about whether or not it was safe to work construction when the air quality was hazardous—and if you can’t work, do you still get paid? Rent is still due after all.
At 350 Seattle, I’m still standing up for workers in a way that is important to me.
I’m also a journey-level electrician and am very excited about the Green New Deal. It could be a chance for thousands of people to become electricians building rooftop solar and other electrification infrastructure to replace fossil fuels. As we look to rapidly scale up renewable energy infrastructure, now would be a good time for more women to get access to these traditionally male-dominated jobs. Women are only 2% of the construction industry nationwide. It’s also long past time for far more Black electricians, and for LGBTQ electricians as well. People carrying the burden of climate change should be able to be a part of the solution in ways that pay.
What was your pathway to getting involved in the climate crisis – is there a particular experience that stands out to you?
I actually got involved in the climate crisis through 350 Seattle. It seemed like every time I was getting active in something important to me, 350 was there. I’m an urbanist — I love dense and walkable communities with lots of amenities that are linked to high quality public transit. It was really hard to explain this vision for Seattle’s future to union members who are long-time Seattle homeowners. 350 Seattle stepped into the conversation and helped show that urbanist values are important in the battle against climate change because suburban sprawl is a major carbon culprit. From there it was one thing after another. We were together on the Seattle Green New Deal, we all love the Amazon Employees for Climate Justice, it just became a place I wanted to be.
What were some ways your work as Executive Secretary-Treasurer of MLK Labor intersected with the work of 350 Seattle? How do the labor and environmental movements intersect from your perspective?
I think the labor and environmental movements intersect in many places. Both movements are about people and quality of life. At MLK Labor, we didn’t stop caring about what workers need just because they’d punched out. All issues were on the table for the folks I represented there, and while it is critical to have workplace safety and other basic union issues satisfied, if workers can’t also find a place to live, or can’t stay cool in a heat event, it’s not enough. Likewise labor and climate action intersect on issues of race and gender. What’s the worth of union benefits and clean air and water if a person is badly hurt by gender violence or incarcerated in the racist criminal justice system? We need our movements to be additive.
GND (Green New Deal) policies are meant to be an extension of economic development policy, so that it embraces racial justice and climate needs. I imagine the best work will happen in coalition on GND policies in the coming years.
What made you want to join 350 Seattle?
I wanted to join 350 Seattle because climate change is already deadly for hundreds of thousands of people — and 350 Seattle is the most effective organization I know that’s fighting it, bringing activism that is appropriate to the scale of the problem.
What excites you most about the potential for 350 Seattle?
We have the potential to create a Seattle that is up to the task of protecting people from climate change and ending our reliance on fossil fuels. 350 Seattle went to the Seattle Public Schools board and demanded that solar panels be added to every school so that they could become cooling stations during power outages associated with extreme heat events — that’s the kind of resilience we need today. 350 Seattle is leading on that message of moral clarity–solutions AND the end of fossil fuels–unafraid, and supporting policies like transportation electrification that support these goals.
350 Seattle prioritizes climate justice, not just emissions reductions. What does climate justice mean to you? How will it show up in your work?
To me climate justice requires our climate movement to be anti-racist. Our economy and culture were founded on slavery and anti-Black racism is something that needs to be faced and countered everytime we try to change the economy or culture. Climate justice demands Black leadership in this movement. Climate justice demands a commitment to abolitionism as a policy because there can’t be justice when so many Black people are incarcerated or hurt or killed by police and there can’t be an effective end to our economy’s carbon addiction if we don’t address foundational issues like racism.
Climate justice also requires Indigenous leadership. No one can lead like the tribes, and this is their land.
The year ahead
What do you foresee as some of the biggest challenges as you enter into your role?
The power imbalance in Seattle is notorious. This is a very rich city full of extremely powerful corporations that are among the worst polluters. The biggest challenge is going to be to overcome those forces. It’s wild that people’s health and the survival of species are subordinated to billionaires.
You officially start as Executive Director just weeks before new city leaders are set to take office in January, and before the state legislature convenes. How are you thinking about keeping the climate crisis at the top of their agendas?
Unfortunately the climate crisis is hard to ignore at this point. I predict our new Mayor Bruce Harell will have his first record-breaking heat event during the first year of his term. It’s our job to make sure that he and other elected leaders know that there is real work to be done building climate resilience, and that it’s their responsibility to make sure it gets done.
350 Seattle is here to advise and work with any politicians who want to do the right thing.
City leaders have the chance this year to install solar power in public places like schools and community centers that can provide the power for AC and fresh air so people can cool off and be safe during power outages like the ones we’ve had during wild fires these last summers.
But even if there’s not a crazy wildfire or heatwave in the region this year, we can’t afford to wait on getting fossil fuel pollution out of our lives, of course. We’ll keep the pressure on locally to implement as many Green New Deal policies as seem possible–and then some. And statewide, the CAT (Civic Action Team) will do its usual nimble and attentive work to make sure that things that come out of the legislature implement or at least align with real climate action.
What unique role can 350 Seattle play in advancing a Green New Deal for the city?
350 Seattle is already leading Seattle Green New Deal efforts, and has great momentum securing public investment in new GND infrastructure projects. Because of work on the Solidarity Budget with anti-racist groups and housing and homelessness advocates, there is now new city money to fund GND projects, as well as policy changes and funds to protect Black Seattlites from police violence and get more people into safe housing. Strong coalitions are not divisible and 350 Seattle is a reliable partner in many campaigns. I think one of the unique strengths the group brings is that it can both turn out large numbers of folks to hearings and protests, and then fall back to a position of smaller-group strategy partnership and supporting the leadership of others. Few groups can effectively fill both of those roles.
What do you think is the most powerful thing 350 Seattle can accomplish this year?
I think we can change the way people think about, talk about, and act on the climate crisis. The time to hold back on messaging about climate is long over. The risks of inaction are clear and deadly. My kids can’t breathe the air outside for days or weeks every wildfire season. We can’t be worried about hurting Puget Sound Energy, Amazon, or Boeing’s feelings at this point. Two of the richest men in the world are in our community and we can’t afford to offer free transit and electrify our local transportation systems? That’s just unacceptable.
Who do you see as the organization’s allies and partners?
350 Seattle is people-powered by folks from all different walks of life because everyone can be a part of shaping a more just and climate resilient Seattle. I go to our events and people from every vocation you can imagine are expressing their desire to act on the climate crisis. Our best allies are also people-centered, they have a focus on humanity and having a good life in a healthy natural world. That’s why we have labor unions like the ones that represent healthcare workers supporting 350 Seattle, it’s why anti-racist groups who oppose mass incarceration support us too, and housing-focused groups, and other groups that aren’t obviously “climate groups”. There’s a shared vision of the world we need. And if you add these groups to the more traditional environmental groups that are also partners, it’s…a lot. We’re building a lot of power.
Climate change puts us at risk for a dangerous competition for resources. It’s the kind of scarcity that can drive serious humanitarian crises like displacement and war. So that shared vision is really important, and it’s our job to make sure that local folks who can spend time and energy demanding an end to fossil fuels and investments in climate resilience, know that they have a way to do it.
Do you see 350 Seattle as having an important role in spurring and/or continuing essential momentum on climate policies in cities across the country?
The 350 network is worldwide. It’s been exciting to get to know 350 activists in cities across Washington, the west coast, nationwide and beyond. Being able to see other cities’ victories, the changes 350 Minnesota made to city zoning, for example, so they could have more climate resilient communities with less carbon impact, was inspiring and makes me want to get that here. It also turns competitors into allies. For instance it’s not a question of what pacific rim city gets to build a coal export facility but rather a movement to make sure that no city does. Our job is to inspire and support each other.
If you look back a year from now, what’s one thing you will be proud you have accomplished?
A year from now we will be able to say that we rose up in protest for the health of our families, communities and world when there’s a major heat or smoke event. We’re not staying quiet through that again. Fossil fuel companies want to sweat us? We’re going to sweat them. And this is going to be the passion and street heat that mobilizes voters and communities to win policies that control carbon. Let’s end 2022 with free public transit, with more safe and affordable housing in walkable communities, with solar installations being installed on our public schools and funded for our community centers. And we’ll do it with leadership from tribes and a focus on elevating Black leadership.
Boston just elected its GND champion, Michelle Wu, as mayor, so the city seems poised to make real progress. Do you worry that our mayor is too middle-of-the-road for us to accomplish as much?
Mayor Elect Harrell has been around for a long time. He may not have run on a platform that climate organizations supported but he must know that he is responsible for serving the people who live and work in Seattle. It’s up to us to make our needs clear–the baseline needs of the city. We have to be able to survive and thrive, even during heat and smoke events. Everyone has to be 15 minutes from a safe place they can go to cool off and breathe fresh air. That’s a lot of infrastructure to develop and a lot of people to house. We can’t let the big polluters act with impunity any more; we have to take control. As things get worse, even middle-of-the-road politicians are realizing this; it’s our job to make sure Harrell does.