‘I woke up to the climate crisis’

Sara Papanikolaou near melting glacier
Sara Papanikolaou near melting glacier that made her think of climate change. Courtesy photos

By N.L. Sweeney
When Sara Papanikolaou graduated from UW Bothell in 2008, she was well on her career path. Based on a project she’d developed in her entrepreneurship class, she created Open Road Wine Co., a boutique winery based in Bothell.

It was a successful venture and still going strong in its 10th year. She shared the fruits of her labor with her Business Administration cohort from UW Bothell, often connecting with them at the annual Bothell Block Party where she would serve some of her wines.

After devoting a decade to her wine business, she took the bold step of leaving her winery to lead a climate nonprofit.

An unconventional path

Sara Papanikolaou
Sara Papanikolaou

Two events in 2017 led Papanikolaou to veer from her well-established course. The first took place on the island of Maui with her daughter. It had been years since Papanikolaou visited the coral reefs of her youth, and she was excited to pass on her memories of colorful splashes and clear waters to her daughter.

However, what she found felt like a graveyard, bone-white twists of coral scattered about. “All the color that I saw when I was a girl was just gone,” she said. “It was nothing like how I remembered.”

The second event occurred on a mountaineering trip in the Cascades. As someone who grew up on its trails, Papanikolaou was used to long treks deep into the woods. High up, she had seen the sheer, icy faces of glaciers and snow-capped mountains. On this trip, she looked out on a valley and was shocked to find a missing piece. The glacier that had once filled the space between the peaks was almost completely gone.

“I woke up to the climate crisis,” said Papanikolaou. “The images stayed with me, and I felt I had no choice but to switch direction and work on what is arguably the greatest challenge of our time.

“The shift brought great new challenges for me, but it’s imperative that we leave a stable climate for future generations.”

Environmentalism in an urban community

Papanikolaou founded 350 Eastside to empower members of her community to make positive environmental change. It is a local affiliate of 350, a global climate movement aiming to end the age of fossil fuels and build a world of community-led renewable energy for all. 350 was named after 350 parts per million — the safe concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. A website that tracks CO2 reported 413 ppm on July 23.

“People can sometimes feel like the issue is too big,” said Papanikolaou. “One of our goals with 350 Eastside is to show people some of the ways they can be part of bigger, systemic change.”

Papanikolaou worked with the Sustainability Club at UW Bothell to create community-based internships. For 2019 intern Elena Pham, working with 350 Eastside, reaffirmed her passion about climate change. “I’ve always been interested in environmentalism,” said Pham. “Working at 350 Eastside gave me the chance to bring knowledge and understanding of climate change to others in the community.”

With Chelalakem Pamela Bond, a member of the Snohomish Tribal Council, Papanikolaou co-directed the film “YÉ™how.” It is the story of their work combatting the North Seattle Lateral Upgrade, which is a pipeline expansion in south Snohomish County. While the pipeline was ultimately completed, she and Bond hope the film will shed light on the impacts an expansion of this scale will have on Snohomish County and the environment.

Environmentalism and intersectionality

Environmentalism, however, does not live in a vacuum, and Papanikolaou has made connections in her work to other societal concerns. “When you pull one thread, you see that environmentalism is tied up in systems of racism and oppression,” she said. “Pollutants are more prevalent in communities of color. Studies have shown, for example, that there is an 8-year difference in life expectancy in the Duwamish Valley compared to the Seattle average.”

Looking ahead, she is passionate about uplifting voices of color and increasing her activism.

“At 350 Eastside, we recognize that there is still a long way for us to go in terms of activism and equity on the Eastside,” said Papanikolaou. “Our next step is to continue building momentum on the work we’ve already done.”

“Personally, the last three years have been the most fulfilling of my life. I could not have predicted that the steps I took on that mountaineering trip would lead me here.”

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