Passion meets policy

Whether starting clubs in high school to plant trees and pick up litter or advocating for pesticide free parks and urban tree canopies as an adult, 2015 alumna Megan Dunn has always been a steward of the environment.

Alumna Megan Dunn
2015 alumna Megan Dunn, chair of the Snohomish County Council

“For as long as I can remember, I have been that ‘bleeding-heart, environmental rights’ type of person. I was often described as a ‘do-gooder.’ And, as you can probably tell from the various clubs I started in high school, I was also a bit of nerd,” Dunn joked.

It was ultimately her passion — and intellect — that led her to pursue a Master of Arts in Policy Studies at the University of Washington Bothell. “All of the change I pushed for in the environmental world was tied to policy, so I needed that background to carry out the change I advocated for,” she said.

Now the chair for the Snohomish County Council, Dunn uses what she learned in the program to champion both people and the environment. “I am grateful to have been entrusted with this leadership role and to work with my colleagues as we continue to respond to and recover from the pandemic, address climate change and work to provide better opportunities for the people of Snohomish County.”

Protecting the vulnerable

After graduating, Dunn hit the ground running. She was hired by the parks department in Everett and created a pesticide-free park program. She explained that pesticides were used in most every park, mainly for aesthetic reasons.

“Exposure to toxics increases a person’s risk of getting cancer. Kids play at parks, and they are often on the ground and putting things in their mouth,” Dunn said. “More important than having perfect green grass is the safety of the children.”

She worked with the city to create an integrated pest-management plan that was approved by the Everett City Council. “It was great to create a policy that not only mitigates risk but protects the youth, who are among the most vulnerable,” she said.

Her work creating pesticide-free parks led to a job at the Northwest Center for Alternatives to Pesticides. She spent five years at the organization as the policy manager and then as the program director for healthy people and communities. She worked with other organizations to create toxic-free parks, reduce pesticides in schools and put protections in place for farmworkers who are exposed to some of the harshest chemicals.

“Working with pesticides highlighted how civil and environmental rights are so closely related,” Dunn said. “It is often the most vulnerable — children and immigrant farmworkers — who are exposed, and it’s up to people in positions of power, like myself, to correct that.”

Turning negatives into positives

Dunn next continued her community advocacy by creating voting districts. She led the successful Everett Districts Now campaign to establish city council districts for Everett, her place of residence. It was a nonpartisan, grassroots coalition dedicated to addressing disparities in representation and giving communities greater participation in the democratic process.

She explained that Everett had voter representation at the time, but five out of the seven council members lived in the northern part of the city. “This created a lack of representation of people from the south end, where residents are predominately people of color and household incomes are lower.”

Dunn spent close to five years meeting with council members trying to get better district representation and running petition campaigns.

“So many people either told me no, that it wasn’t time yet or that the community didn’t want that,” Dunn said. “I kept saying that I am representing the community, and that is what we want. It was that process of being told no over and over again, when I knew it was the right thing to do, that lead me to run for council.

“I thought, you know, I could be that person — I can be that decision-maker and I’m going to tell people yes.”

Caring for her community

She ran for a seat on the Snohomish County Council in 2019 and won. Shortly after, COVID-19 hit.

“There is no guidebook for what to do when you’re newly elected, and a pandemic hits,” she said. “I had to put a lot of my original plans on the back burner and focus on what needed immediate attention.”

One of Dunn’s top priorities was helping the unsheltered population, who she said had to bear the brunt of COVID-19. “We had to close shelters that had too many people in one place,” she said. “Then, when the fires from Eastern Washington hit, they were subjected to the poor air quality. It was a tough position because we didn’t want them to congregate together indoors and risk exposure, but we also knew they shouldn’t be inhaling contaminated air.”

Thankfully, the county was allocated $80 million in pandemic relief funds, and part of that sum was spent on hotel housing for the unsheltered during the fires. Along with helping the unsheltered, the council also extended support to small businesses. It provided direct grants, promoted the county to entice visitors to eat at local restaurants and even started a phone service for seniors to call for support when feeling isolated or lonely.

While the council members made a significant effort to prevent businesses from going under, they knew they would not be able to save them all, which is why they decided to focus on workforce development. “We retrained people who may have lost their jobs or who wanted to pursue a higher-paying job. It was great to invest in the community in such a meaningful way,” Dunn said. “I got a few notes from people thanking me, saying that without these efforts their business would have closed.”

A responsive leader

Dunn has also been thanked by community members for how responsive she is to their needs. “People often tell me that I am the first council member to reach out to them, call them or answer their emails,” she said.

“I once reached out to a hairdresser and asked her what she needed to reopen. She told me she had never had a politician call her and ask her what she needed. It feels good to make sure people know they are valued and important.”

With better systems now in place to mitigate the impacts of COVID-19, Dunn has been able to turn her attention back to the environment. One of her current projects is the Commercial Property Assessed Clean Energy and Resiliency program, which focuses on energy and environmental upgrades or retrofits on new and existing buildings.

“I am working on that now with Vice Chair Jared Mead, also a UW Bothell alumnus, and we plan to implement it next year. This will allow buildings to have a financial tool so they can make those changes and be more energy efficient,” she said.

Dunn said being chair of the Snohomish County Council has been one of her greatest accomplishments.

“I am so thankful to UW Bothell for preparing me to be successful in this undertaking. I use the knowledge I gained in the policy studies program every day,” she said. “I wouldn’t be where I am without the University.”

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