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A pioneering Tacoma politician put environmental justice on the map

An older Black woman wearing a red hair wrap hat and red and gray patterned coat smiles next to a microphone. A smiling Black man stands behind her in a radio studio.
Bellamy Pailthorp
Tacoma resident and former Washington state senator Rosa Franklin at KNKX studios in February 2023. Behind her is son-in-law Kelvin Phillips.

Tacoma named a park in her honor last February for Black History month, but still relatively few people seem to know much about Tacoma resident Rosa Franklin.

She was the first African American woman to serve in the Washington state Senate and the first African American woman in the United States to be voted senate president pro tempore by her peers.

The former state senator told KNKX in an interview to mark Black History Month that over more than two decades in office, she got used to being mistaken for a more famous Black Rosa. But she takes it lightly.

“To make a long story short…kids would come to Olympia, and I would always encourage them all of the time. Once one of them said, ‘are you Rosa Parks?’ I said, ‘Nope, she's dead. I'm still living!’ ”

Franklin’s laughter is infectious. She’s clearly someone who knows the value of a positive attitude and fun as a counterbalance to hard work in the face of adversity.

Now 95, she said her body is wearing out. And she sometimes has to check her memory of the legislation she was involved in, over her two decades in office.

A Democrat, she was first elected as a state representative in 1990, then appointed to the Senate and elected to a full term in 1993. After 40 plus years in nursing, she ran on a platform of community health. She delivered on that promise by working in the emerging field of environmental justice.

“You cannot have an unhealthy environment and then have a healthy body,” she said. "So my interests then really were crossed with medical health and environmental health as having healthy communities.”

In 1994, Franklin introduced the state's very first Environmental Equity Act, which passed the Senate, but not the house. She struck a deal to get language from the bill included in the budget, securing money for an environmental equity study. The study confirmed that people of color and low-income communities in Washington were disproportionately affected by toxic pollution. This paved the way for the current Healthy Environment for All or ‘HEAL’ Act of 2021.

Franklin said her staff in the Senate helped her strategize to get the legislation on environmental justice before the governor in the 1990s. Some 25 years later, the governor’s interagency council on the issue is still meeting today. Washington has an environmental health disparities map and a law that gives people of color and tribes a place at the table in the work of seven major state agencies.

The story of her life is chronicled in the book, Rosa Franklin: A life in Health Care, Public Service and Social Justice

KNKX reporter Mayowa Aina helped produce this story.

Updated: March 2, 2023 at 1:23 PM PST
Changes headline, minor edits.
Bellamy Pailthorp covers the environment beat for KNKX, where she has worked since 1999. From 2000-2012, she covered the business and labor beat. Bellamy has a deep interest in Indigenous affairs and the Salish Sea. She has a masters in journalism from Columbia University.
Mayowa Aina reports and produces special projects, including podcasts and series, for KNKX. Mayowa started her public radio career at KUOW in Seattle. She's worked at NPR in Washington, D.C. and Alaska Public Media before moving back to her hometown of Tacoma to work at KNKX.
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