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2019 Bullitt Environmental Prize Winner Announced: Maria Blancas

on Wed, Oct 9, 2019 at 12:47 PM

SEATTLE (Oct 9, 2019) – The Bullitt Foundation announced today the winner of the 13th annual Bullitt Environmental Prize, which recognizes young people from varied backgrounds who have overcome adversity and demonstrated the ability to become powerful environmental leaders. The goal of the program is to help broaden and diversify the leadership of the global environmental movement.

The 2019 Bullitt Prize winner is Maria Blancas, a doctoral candidate in the School of Environmental and Forest Sciences at the University of Washington. Blancas focuses her research on cumulative social and environmental impacts to farmworkers in Skagit and Whatcom Counties.

“Agricultural produce touches everyone through the food we eat, yet too often we forget the people working to bring it to our tables,” said Denis Hayes, CEO of the Bullitt Foundation. “Maria’s work gives voice to people who are frequently hidden from view, highlighting impacts to their health and bringing their needs out of the shadows,” he added.

The daughter of two immigrant farmworkers in Quincy, Washington, Blancas began working in the fields during high school. As the first member of her family to graduate from college, she never expected to pursue a PhD. Originally her work focused on global health, until an undergraduate professor at the University of Washington encouraged her to look at the needs and opportunities in her community.

“I’ve seen how hard people work in the fields, and the impact the conditions have on their health,” Blancas said. “Their work feeds us all, but harmful stereotypes devalue the people behind it. I want to use my skills to change the stories we hear about immigrants and farmworkers,” she added.

Blancas was born in the Mexican state of Michoacán, moving to the United States with her parents as they worked in farms in California and Washington. At 9 years old she gained legal residency, aided by the Northwest Immigrant Rights Project.

Agriculture accounts for more than $10 billion of economic activity in Washington State annually, producing more than 300 agricultural commodities. Yet farmworkers experience significant health disparities and environmental inequalities, including harmful living and working conditions, non-livable wages, exposure to hazardous pesticides, and limited access to health care. Language barriers exacerbate these impacts, especially for hard-to-reach populations that do not speak English or Spanish; many workers speak Indigenous languages such as Trique, Mixtec, or Coracholan.

The Bullitt Environmental Prize comes with $100,000 awarded over two years. Blancas plans to use these resources to complete her PhD, creating a digital platform for storytelling about farmworker experiences in the region.

Past winners of the Bullitt Environmental Prize include a soil carbon researcher, Bahamian marine biologist, wildlife conservation leader trying to reduce conflict between wolves and ranchers, veterinarian with a doctorate in public health who studies zoonotic diseases, a researcher focused on climate change adaptation, and an advocate for organic food security.

While the Bullitt Foundation recently announced plans to sunset its grantmaking at the end of 2024, it is reserving funds to continue awarding the Bullitt Prize in perpetuity. The 2019 Bullitt Prize is being presented to Blancas at an awards banquet in Seattle on October 9. 2019. Rosalinda Guillen of Community to Community will offer the keynote address.