Violet Saena: Reaffirmed Passion

This article was originally written by Morgan Aitken-Young, Leadership Program Class of 2016. It was updated by Green Foothills staff in 2023.

Violet Saena can’t recall a moment when she realized environmental protection was important because this awareness was a part of her daily life growing up in Samoa. “The ocean was my backyard,” she explains, “and I saw so many environmental problems from my back door.” Her father would report illegal dumping in the river that ran through her family’s home, her brother was a geographer who studied the land, and she received an environmental scholarship from New Zealand to bring back her knowledge to Samoa and work in the Samoan government as the first resident climate change expert. Straight out of undergrad she was in charge of ensuring the country delivered on commitments to the United Nations Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC). But she soon found her real passion was working with communities impacted by climate change; this was not an easy task.

“[It] was very top down at first and there were no resources when I started,” Violet said. “My job evolved because we saw the impact. We wrote a project to make sure the money [from the Canadian government and the World Bank] went into communities. I helped identify community priorities to help minimize the effects of climate change.” Violet brought this experience with her when she moved to the US and completed a Master’s degree in Environmental Studies with a focus on community resilience. She kept seeing the same problems in different places. Of the US, Violet said “most of the high risk communities are not involved. Government focuses on infrastructure but not the impact to the community.” Violet wanted to put her experience and education to work, but was unsure how to proceed given the troubling frameworks she had identified. Around this time she found out about the Green Foothills Leadership Program from a friend in 2015.

“I was looking for networking opportunities with like-minded environmentalists in the Leadership Program but found much more,” she shared. “I will never forget gaining the confidence to fundraise and to navigate the political system effectively. I now have the advocacy tools and stronger connections with other people who care about the same things I do. Now we can support one another.”

After completing the Leadership Program, Violet joined Acterra and the Green at Home project, where she created similar community-based programs for people who are particularly susceptible to the negative impacts of climate change. “The communities we’re working in, it’s not that they don’t know about climate change, but it’s often portrayed as something that’s 20 years away,” she says. “But the reality is they’re already suffering now, from smoke, from extreme heat. The way to get them involved is through real programs that address the impacts already happening in their communities. And if we are thoughtful about the way we address them, and start with a community perspective, then we can do more than just avert the worst consequences.”

Within the Leadership Program, Violet found the program, support, and network to get to work helping those who most need it. Violet says, “The Leadership Program reaffirmed my passion. I love working on climate change, I want to build resilience as a community person with the hope and goal to influence policy makers. I don’t know where I would be without the Leadership Program.”

In September 2020, Violet led the branching out of Climate Resilient Communities (CRC) from Acterra into its own nonprofit organization in service of diverse, under-resourced communities in the San Mateo Peninsula that are disproportionately vulnerable to climate-related stresses. CRC’s approach involves learning residents’ specific needs, cultivating environmental awareness, and helping provide community-based solutions by facilitating stronger alliances between residents, schools, local government, and community-based organizations. It operates in San Mateo County cities such as Belle Haven, East Palo Alto, and North Fair Oaks, and is now expanding its programs into Santa Clara County. Examples of its projects include building a climate change action team in Belle Haven, providing more than 400 homes with HEPA air filters to address air quality issues, and working on a variety of environmental justice issues. You can learn more about their programs on the Climate Resilient Communities website.

Violet actively promotes the Green Foothills Leadership Program and has referred many new program participants over the years. Thank you, Violet, for growing new leaders, practicing your passion, and helping build climate resilience! 

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