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Working with BIPOC businesses to safely manage hazardous waste

Different car parts seen in the foreground with vehicles in the background inside an autobody shop

(Photo caption: Inside an auto body repair business)

Safe management of hazardous products and waste is good business. At the Hazardous Waste Management Program (Haz Waste Program), we offer our region's small businesses education, outreach, technical assistance, and incentives to help make improvements that protect workers, the community, and the environment from exposure to hazardous materials. 

We recently spoke with two members, Trevor Fernandes and Gordon Okumu, of the Business Services Team about their work to support business owners and employees who experience disproportionate exposure to hazardous materials.  

Trevor has worked for the Haz Waste Program for 30 years and Gordon joined the Program in 2021 with an extensive background in environmental consulting locally and globally. Both have deep experience and commitments to serving under-resourced communities. Presently, Gordon and Trevor are working together to reach Black, Indigenous, and other People of Color (BIPOC) businesses in King County to help them learn and apply safe management practices for hazardous waste.  

Do you have a typical day?

Trevor Fernandes (Trevor): No, every day is different. One key principle of our approach in doing outreach to BIPOC businesses owners and employees is to understand your audience. For example, when I started doing outreach in 1994 with dry cleaning shops, I quickly realized that how you set up a meeting with a Korean shop owner will be different with how you set up a meeting with a white shop owner. This applies people of all identifies and cultures. We must be flexible and understanding so that we can reduce the barriers that businesses may have in getting important health and safety information about safe haz waste management. We strive to understand every business’s unique needs and motivators so that we can start building a real relationship with them built on trust and transparency.  

You are doing in-person outreach deliberately as a duo. Why?

Trevor: This work is relationship-based and therefore building trust is essential. I have observed that BIPOC business owners can be doubtful of people’s intentions – especially if they work for a government agency. Even if I walk in and say, “I’m here to help you,” that doesn’t mean anything until the other person believes me. Often, businesses believe there is a catch to our services, so we take the time to explain to them that our educational, technical, and financial support does not come with obligations or fees.  

Gordon Okumu (Gordon): I’m working directly with Trevor to provide outreach because Trevor has been doing this work for decades and has built strong relationships with BIPOC business owners in King County. He has credibility. So, it is valuable for me to have the credibility of Trevor to jumpstart my own relationship-building process with BIPOC business owners and employees. Trevor is the bridge that connects us.  

What impacts are you seeing from this work? 

Gordon: In our work, we are not only providing solutions to the problem of unsafe haz waste management, but we are also creating long-lasting relationships with businesses. There have been many instances where a business will call our team a year later with a problem and ask for our help. Sometimes, the problem is not directly related to hazardous waste, yet the business is calling us because of that relationship we have built with them – they trust us to guide them in the right direction. I think of the impacts of our work is like planting a tree – once it grows deep, strong roots it will produce fruit for the people who planted it and for the wider community for generations to come.

Trevor: One impact I have seen from this work is that people are spreading the word about the Haz Waste Program within their communities. More people are becoming advocates for sharing information about why reducing hazardous waste exposure protects their employees, families, and our environment. This organic sharing helps the Business Services Team get our services out to more people that, again, have credibility or influence at home, places of worship, hobby groups, professional associations, and more.  

Do you have any lessons learned or takeaways from your experience so far? 

Trevor: Building relationships is not instantaneous. For example, we visited an auto repair shop in Burien three times before we were able to help with properly disposing of motor oil. The business owner did not speak English as his preferred language and was visibly nervous when greeting us the first few times that we visited. The next time we dropped by, we were able to talk to the business owner and his wife together which made the business owner feel much more at ease and able to express himself and chat about what support he needed. This is just an example of the effort that is required to help these businesses. So, you must ask yourself if your commitment is genuine.  

Gordon: This work is challenging, but it is essential. Like Trevor said, it takes a lot of effort and commitment to do equitable outreach to business owners and employees who experience disproportionate exposure to hazardous materials. I have learned that sometimes people are fearful of this type of work because they fear that others will misunderstand them or vice versa. For me, it is important that I face those fears straight on so they can go away. What helps me is that I have been on the other side of the table – I speak English as a third language and have an accent so I know it can be hard for others to understand me. When I am talking with someone who speaks English as a fifth language about hazardous waste, I know I need to give the same care to them to express themselves as I would want. Although the work is tough sometimes, I firmly believe that someone must be out there to serve those people who don’t get equal opportunity. It is imperative that someone is doing the work to provide information, access, and service to people who do not receive it through the status quo systems. I feel very privileged to do this work! 


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