Emma Amiad, real estate broker, social justice activist and environmentalist, will move off the island this month and leave behind an island changed by her presence here over the last 32 years.
Her reach has extended into multiple areas of island life, and a list of just a portion of her accomplishments stretches for a page and a half. Some of it centers on her environmental work, including founding the Vashon-Maury Island Land Trust and the Vashon chapter of the National Audubon Society, along with serving as the first board presidents of both. Some of it centers on her work in social services. For more than 14 years, she served as the president of the Interfaith Council to Prevent Homelessness and for much of that time as a delegate to Vashon’s Social Services Network. She also helped create the Neighbor to Neighbor program, which helps island seniors age in their homes through the help of island volunteers. Along the way, Amiad has been active with the Havurah, where she led services and served on the board repeatedly and raised funds to purchase the building on the Westside Highway. She sang with the Vashon Chorale and Free Range Folk Choir, but wanting to branch out musically, she began and managed the group Vashon Voices for six years. In the mix, too, was creating an annual observance of Earth Day and of Martin Luther King Day — an event she coordinated and hosted for 28 years. On the lighter side, she is also credited with envisioning and overseeing a fundraising chicken coop tour, an annual event for several years.
In between her volunteer efforts, she ran her own business, Amiad & Associates, where she worked with people buying homes on Vashon and mentored others along the way.
Fellow activist Hilary Emmer noted Amiad’s wide influence.
“Emma is going to leave a massive hole,” she said. “Her leaving is affecting so many people and areas on this island. She is one of the few people who crosses over between social services and the environment. She has her hands in almost everything that is good on this island.”
Amiad and her wife Susan White are not leaving by choice, as many islanders know, but for health reasons. Amiad developed chronic obstructive pulmonary disease from the wildfire smoke in recent summers, and her doctor advised her to seek cleaner air. The two have sold their home on Vashon and have bought another in Sequim, where they will begin settling in this month. This month, Amiad will close her office in town, and the Vashon Alliance to Reduce Substance Abuse (VARSA) will move into that space.
Recently, amid goodbye events, where Amiad has been feted for her wide-ranging work, she spoke about her time on Vashon, both to The Beachcomber and to Voice of Vashon’s Eric Pryne. She professed to having been born an activist and being guided not by religious beliefs, but ethics.
“I am just drawn to the whole idea of ethical behavior and helping others,” she said on Pryne’s show. “It is really the whole bottom line of any belief system: ethical, honest behavior in everything you do, business and social, and reaching out to help others. To me it gives you the kind of life that is very rich and rewarding.”
Recently, The Land Trust honored Amiad for her conservation work, which extended beyond establishing the Land Trust in 1990 to the present. Now, a trail at the Christensen Pond preserve bears her name. Amiad and White lived nearby. Land Trust Executive Director Tom Dean credits Amiad with being “absolutely instrumental” in saving it after she saw survey flags go up on the property some years ago.
“She told us, ‘You guys have to save this pond,” Dean said, noting that Amiad has come to the office bearing the same message about many pieces of property over the years, with considerable success: Since its creation, the Land Trust has preserved more than 2,000 acres of land.
Dean also credits Amiad with setting the tone of the Land Trust’s work with its first purchase, putting some of her own money down on the purchase.
“Emma’s opinion was that our work was urgent,” Dean said.
That sense of urgency around conservation was also evident in her 10 years on the Vashon Park District board. During her tenure, she negotiated the transfer of parks from King County control to the local district. King County had not been maintaining the properties well, she said, and even at Ober Park, the building was boarded up and the playground dangerous. She also helped acquire Fern Cove as well as Lisabeula, and she helped negotiate the Point Robinson lighthouse property from the Coast Guard to be under the park district’s umbrella as well.
In addition to environmental work, Amiad has focused extensively on addressing the needs of low-income islanders. Much of that work has been through the Interfaith Council to Prevent Homelessness, which the Methodist church began about 16 years ago. She joined on shortly after it started and was voted in as president shortly after the first president moved on. She remained in the post for more than 14 years. It was work she said she was honored to do and included helping to create the all-volunteer community meals program, which offers free meals seven days a week, and raising funds for the nonprofit, which provides rental assistance and assists with a wide range of emergency needs.
Nancy Vanderpoool worked closely with Amiad through her long tenure there.
“Her work was very important because she had the vision — current and long term — as to what the organization could do,” Vanderpool said. “She was very good at getting people to support our work, which was very valuable to the organization. We valued her leadership because of the amount of time she had been on the island and her deep caring for what it was important that we offer.”
Amiad has also been involved with King County’s planning efforts on the island. She served on the 1996 Comprehensive Community Plan — a process that took three years. She also served on the committee in 2017 that created the current Community Service Area plan. That effort included a contentious public process about affordable housing, and at the final meeting, Amiad walked out in anger.
At the time, she said that her work as a real estate agent and her volunteer position with the Interfaith Council gave her an up close view of the changing nature of the island, with increasing numbers of people coming to the island and buying houses with cash, while others, typically longtime island residents, struggled to remain on the island. She likened the experience to standing with one foot on different icebergs that were moving farther and farther apart — a situation that she foretold.
“I sounded the alarm numerous times that we’ve got to do something or we will become Nantucket,” she said. “And here we are.”
Amiad and White moved to the island in 1987, and Amiad and opened her business five years later. At first, she said, she was not accepted as a buyer’s broker, but that changed over time. Denise Katz, a broker at Windermere, credits Amiad with helping her get into the industry and supporting her in her career.
Katz recently hosted a party for Amiad, whom she called a “respected, fair and smart business woman” at Vashon Center for the Arts and shared a story from years ago. She and her nephew were considering entering the real estate business and consulted with Amiad about it. Amiad responded to them with her trademark frankness.
“She said I should go into real estate, but that he should find something else to do,” Katz said, laughing. “When I go to Emma, she is going to tell me the straight story. She is not going to sugar coat it. That is one of the amazing qualities that she has. Sometimes you do not want to hear the straight story, but it is important to know it.”
Patte Wagner, now of Evergreen Home Loans and formerly of Washington Mutual and Puget Sound Cooperative Credit Union, also worked closely with Amiad over the years. They first met in 1992, when Wagner became the branch manager at Washington Mutual. As she tells it — with laughter — Amiad came in and told her everything to do and not do to succeed on Vashon.
The two became friends, and together, they looked for creative ways to help people afford homes and offered several workshops together, including for first-time homebuyers and women interested in owning their own businesses.
Like Katz, she noted Amiad’s frankness.
“She always called a spade a shovel,” Wagner said, putting her own spin on the familiar expression.
At a “women in business” lunch some years ago, Wagner said, a quiet woman with curly hair and wire rim glasses was sitting in the front row taking copious notes.
“Her name was Sylvia, and she worked at the Thriftway floral department, and she always wanted to open up her own nursery and went on to open up Dig,” Wagner said, noting the now-closed, but much respected nursery on the island.
“That is the thing that both Emma and I took a lot of joy in — helping people move to the next phase of life,” she said. “We both really enjoyed making people’s dreams come true.”
In conversations and in social media posts, Amiad has been open about her sadness about leaving this island, particularly the home and land she and White shared — and rejuvenated from a former dump to a beautiful property with a garden, nature trail, chickens and sheep.
Amiad, who credits many others with working alongside her, said she is also sad to leave the island’s people.
“I will really miss the liberal community, the many friends we have here, the fact that I know almost everyone on the island and they know me, and having my office where folks can drop by to ask questions, seek counseling or just say hi,” she said. “I will really miss that.”
But Amiad is also looking forward, trying to look at whatever is coming next as an adventure and a new start.
“I am trying to abate my grief at leaving by concentrating on the new thing that might be coming for me,” she said.