Cancer diagnosis redirects Sen. Rebecca Saldaña's energy this legislative session


Last updated 2/28/2024 at 4:40pm

Photo courtesy of Senate Democrats

Sen. Rebecca Saldaña is seen here on the floor of the Senate wearing a colorful rebozo.

In the mainly white, buttoned down, business suit environment that is the Washington State Legislature, Sen. Rebecca Saldaña stands out.

The Seattle Democrat swapped heels for cowboy boots, has Chicana roots, wears brightly colored traditional rebozos and recently lost her hair to chemotherapy.

"It's about making sure that whatever makes you feel powerful that you want to wear without feeling that you are putting yourself in an unsafe situation," she said.

Saldaña has held this seat since 2016 and recently announced her candidacy for the State Commissioner of Public Lands. Before becoming a member of the Senate, Saldaña held the position of Executive Director at Puget Sound Sage, a nonprofit organization dedicated to advancing fair and accessible housing and transportation policies, environmental equity, and labor rights.

Her diagnosis of ovarian cancer in October has directed her energy toward specific priorities this legislative session and is a major reason why she is running for the State Commissioner of Public Lands.

Recently becoming a grandmother to a baby whose parents run an outdoor preschool program on Vashon Island, she said it has become clear her kids and grandchildren are looking to her generation to see what they are doing to address climate change.

"The way we fuel our economy and fuel our bodies is not sustainable," she said. "I mean, on a personal level, like, I feel like, this is what cancer is, right? It forces you to say that the way you have been doing not sustainable."

She's been working at the intersection of environmental labor, human rights, and worker justice for years and she's adamant about pushing forward on climate change without forgetting about folks who often get left behind.

When prompted to select a bill or project most significant to Saldaña this legislative session, she promptly highlighted SB 6105, aimed at improving working conditions for "adult entertainers." While some may initially see this as an isolated issue, Saldaña emphasizes that she sees connections across all her endeavors. This bill passed the Senate and awaits a decision in the House

"My whole career has been about prioritizing the most vulnerable workforce, that are often invisible and undervalued, and work in really unsafe work conditions," she said.

She said she believes as a society we should focus on providing mutual benefits, like clean air and water. How we manage our forests, nurseries, and agricultural lands is also critical, she said. Improving conditions for agricultural workers is just as important, as they are experiencing more heat exposure and fires.

Several pollinator-related and bee-related bills were brought to the Legislature during this session. In one of them, Saldana proposes a task force that measures the human side of pesticide use.

"I think it is easier to love bees...than to face our complicity in commodifying people and our natural resources," she said. "Food is medicine, and yet we are always trying to commodify it...The only way you can dig your way forward is either lowering wages, lowering standards, lowering costs, but at the expense of who?"

Upon her arrival in the Senate, she encountered a mix of warmth and hostility. When she introduced the bill to establish the pesticide application committee, numerous lobbyists opposed it, labeling it as the worst bill ever.

Much like the lack of division between pesticide drifts and rural areas and mixed opinions from her colleagues, in an attempt to protect her energy, she began wearing rebozos, flowing pieces of clothing that look like a mix between a scarf and a shawl. The history of this garment is long, and indigenous artists in Mexico continue to make rebozos. They are thought to embody indigenous resilience, adaptability, and self-sufficiency. She says they offer an additional layer of detachment between her and the demands of her work and incorporate her Chicana roots.

"It's putting on something that gives me a boundary," Saldaña said.


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