A profile of Jess Wallach, by Sheryl Feldman

“We’ve changed politics in this city!”

The “we” in this instance, includes Jess Wallach, the 350 Seattle staff member who is a leader of the organization’s campaign work, particularly the Green New Deal.  Her to-do list is intimidating, and could be defeating were it not for a primary characteristic of 350: that the “we,” — staff, volunteers, allies and, in the case of the GND particularly, the thousands of Seattle citizens who signed a petition in its favor — drives the organization.

“I see a tremendous amount of community power and connection and commitment in 350 Seattle.” Jess says.  “I’m drawn to its approach to volunteer leadership.  People show up desperate to do something about the climate crisis and we say, ‘What are you good at?’ ‘What’s your skill set?’ ‘What do you want to learn? ‘Do you want to take some risks?’  The organization offers opportunity, structure, training and community; the volunteers take an idea and run with it.”

She knows whereof she speaks.  When she came aboard in 2017 she didn’t think of herself as an organizer. An educator, yes.  She taken a degree in urban environmental education, done outdoor research, worked in small-scale agriculture in India and Ecuador.

“I developed an understanding of soil and ecology and I began to think creatively and caringly about ecosystems. I saw how the relationship of humans with the Earth must be mutually beneficial.”

Her growing awareness of the tie between Earth and human helped reconcile a tension she’d held between her two core values – the empathic, social justice lens through which she naturally sees the world – and her commitment to climate issues.  Teaching and researching at Got Green and Puget Sound Sage, she stitched the elements fully together.

None of that made her an organizer.  But at 350 Seattle she met powerful, passionate volunteers, worked on their campaigns, and grew.  “Our capacity grows with practice.  It’s not innate.  It’s muscles we build.”

Hence the organization’s success in convincing the Seattle City Council to commit to a Green New Deal.  Some months later, with more action by 350 and its allies, the Council passed the “Jumpstart” tax to pay for some of the projects. In the process, a relationship developed among the climate activists and city; one which is working through the Covid emergency and the anti-racist uprising.

“We did that,” she says. “We did that.”