CHS: We already spoke to you way back when. It felt good to be out in front of the buzz around your campaign, so I’m glad we had a chance to get you on. These are boom times for the city, but clearly boom times aren’t necessarily happy times. There seems to be a lot of concern and worry when I talk to the candidates, and I know that’s part of the reason you’ve got involved. So, what’s going on in the city? Why are we this way? Why is it a bummer to be so successful in the way we are structured now? What’s broken and what’s the start of fixing that from your perspective?
“I do feel moved in terms of knowing that there are some incredibly wealthy people in our city who do want to see equity become a reality.”
Oliver: Yeah. I think what’s beautiful about Seattle is people are attracted to our city. It’s green. It’s next to water. There’s an incredible amount of culture here, and some attempts to preserve that and so I think it’s what make it an attractive city. I think the struggle is, is we have lacked a vision for equitable development. We have a race and social justice initiative. We use a lot of equity terms, but in practice we don’t really know what that looks like, and also have not been willing to ask our developers and corporations to invest in that. Also having such an upside down tax system and in some ways legally being relegated to using those structures has really put us in a bad place.
Unchained by a damaging sex abuse scandal that removed incumbent Ed Murray from a powerful pole position, 21 candidates are vying this summer to be the next mayor of modern-day Pacific Northwest boomtown Seattle, Washington. Of those 21, only two will survive the first round cut from the August 1st primary. CHS may be on a summer news break but we couldn’t resist opportunities to talk with the candidates most likely to be on the mind of Capitol Hill voters in the coming weeks: Jenny Durkan, Nikkita Oliver, Cary Moon, Bob Hasegawa, Mike McGinn, and Jessyn Farrell. The interviews were conducted in recent weeks at locations across the city including coworking spaces, campaign offices, and a diner. The talks varied but revolved around a core set of Seattle issues: Black Lives Matter, affordability, addiction, and homelessness. We have edited the conversations for clarity and length.
Below, CHS talks with Nikkita Oliver, the poet, teacher, lawyer, and community activist whose campaign has also formed a movement in the Seattle Peoples Party. We asked Oliver about how her social justice vision applies to issues as ranging as development and transit — and if her views of the city and its issues around race and equity have changed as she nears City Hall. You can learn more at seattlepeoplesparty.com.
Oliver (continued): But also, I just think all in all our city has lacked a vision, not just in terms of urban planning but also in terms of the city we want to grow into be. We have a lot of great language around it and so I could see where people maybe would see it as a bummer but I also see an incredible opportunity for Seattle to take the lead and show what it looks like to see where your city maybe has been failing and admit that, acknowledge it, be accountable for it, and then actually make a real plan forward that challenges this placement and makes our city more affordable and more equitable. So, while I could see where people who maybe share your sentiments are coming from, I also just see an incredible opportunity. There’s so much wealth in this city, and I’m incredibly moved by the number of people who have access to that wealth, who do desire to see our upside down tax situation corrected.
CHS: Has your perspective changed in that regard? You’ve got a chance now… You’ve been exposed to maybe some of the power brokers of the city. Do you feel better about Seattle now that you’re in the race than you did before?
Oliver: I feel, I wouldn’t say better or worse, but there have been some… I do feel moved in terms of knowing that there are some incredibly wealthy people in our city who do want to see equity become a reality. What that does is it lets me know we’re on the right track. Because I think some of the argument against changing our tax structure is, “Well, you can’t force people to do that,” and I just simply don’t think we’ll have to force people. I think there are lots of people who want to get on board in mobilizing, not just in Seattle but in the other cities that are within King County, which we think is gonna be essential to making that happen. That’s encouraging to me and it lets me know we’re on the right track. But also many of the other candidates are sharing those same sentiments, which means substantively the conversation, in my opinion is in the right place, and maybe it ended up there because we got in the race so early and we pushed it there. I like to think it’s there because it’s really the right thing for our city to do and a lot of people are seeing that as the substantive response.
CHS: So what do you think about the equitable developments that are happening now in the Central District? Is the stuff that’s going on around Midtown Center, the stuff that’s going now around the Liberty Bank Building, is this the right start? Is this not enough? How do you see what’s going on with that corner at 23rd and Union?
Oliver: It’s a start. It’s not enough, and what I would like to see is that we start really encouraging a practice where we incorporate equity and affordability into every new development, without community having to rise up to get it. That’s part of the challenge. I’m in a lot of different circles, and I know the different tactics and leverage points that had to be used to make those new deals possible, and I think that’s where I see it. It’s a good start, but it’s also unfortunate that community has to fight so hard just to have the right to stay.
CHS: Energy burned on protest or energy just burned on pushing is an issue.
Oliver: When we could think about what’s even beyond this, instead we’re still trying to just get some space. And while that’s a win it also feels… The challenge is still there in a lot of parts of the city still.
CHS: I think the Liberty Bank Building’s a really interesting project, but at the same time you can say there’s not that much really going on. It’s like, the look and feel, is that important? Yes. The art and stuff, but sometimes I think they lean pretty heavily on that. I know that that’s a concern. So do you have a sense of maybe what something more substantive would look like? I know getting people at the table sooner, it sounds like from an energy standpoint. But what else structurally can be done around these kinds of market developments?
“We cannot forget that neighborhood was a red-lined area.”
Oliver: I just think we cannot simply overlook the value of having actual space that the community, black community specifically, that was… like, we cannot forget that neighborhood was a red-lined area. That’s where black folks were forced to go in Seattle, because we couldn’t live anywhere else. Now the population of black folks in Seattle has substantially decreased, and I’m sure by the time we get to the next census it’ll be far less than what we think it is because displacement has been so bad.
I have to talk about the Central District as a museum we can visit but we can’t live in. It’s great that they’ll preserve the art and preserve some of the spaces, but we don’t get to access them. We don’t get to live near them. We don’t get to live where our history in the city is. And in some ways the cultural capital that we’ve created, there are people who are going to benefit off of the continuation of that, not just by the history continuing to exist, but it makes that neighborhood more viable. We’ve made that a culturally viable place, which then makes it, under capitalism, a viable place that then we cannot financially access.
So, I think one route the city absolutely has to go in, selling off the Yesler Terrace was probably one of the worst decisions we could make. As we need to figure out how we establish more public housing in the Central District, not only to combat anti-displacement but to ensure the people who call the Central District home can come back, and then those landlords and those residents who still own property in the Central District, figure how we keep them there, whether that’s vouchers or addressing the ways in which the continued leveraging of property taxes has put people out of their homes. We need to figure out a way to help people not be displaced in the first place, and then we need to provide that public housing that the city owns to invite people back into their neighborhood.
I’m an artist. I love art. I’m a historian, and a storyteller. I love preserving the history and the story, but it’s heartbreaking to go into the Central District and know I can’t live there anymore. I actually lived there a year ago. I lived on 25th and Cherry. My landlord is one of the few black landlords left in the Central District. And the reason he raised our rent so much was because he was afraid, with property taxes and the possibility of rent control that maybe wasn’t going to have the necessary nuance to keep him in business, that he just needed to raise rents quick. And so he’s afraid, and so I see that and we’ve got to protect the existing residents, but then also create space for residents to come back.
CHS: It reminds me of a lot of discussions that unfortunately are part of the LGBTQ community in Capitol Hill. “We made this place,” and now there’s not really a spot for them.
Oliver: And to be honest, it’s not even really a safe space anymore. As a queer person, I used to be able to come to Capitol Hill and know I would find other queer people to be around, but also a queer scene that meant we could be queer people in queer spaces, and as Capitol Hill has become less and less space for queer community, it’s also become less and less safe for queer people and trans people, and so that’s incredibly problematic. Where do we go now to have safe spaces?
CHS: “Where do these people come from?” And the answer I guess more and more is, “They come from right here.”
Is affordability the key in this election? Should we talk more directly about race? Sometimes I think affordability’s become safe code for folks like me to talk about race.
“I think income inequality and inequity has become code for not addressing their racial ramifications.”
Oliver: That’s an excellent point. I actually made a post yesterday on Facebook, how in Seattle we need to talk about income inequality as to what it really is. In a lot of ways it’s actually become more like income apartheid, because it is highly racialized. If you look at who’s having gains in their median income each year, it is predominantly white folks, and black folks and native folks remain at the bottom of that income gain, and the Latino folks are just a little bit above. And so I think affordability is an important part of that discussion. We do need to talk honestly about the race conversation. We’re a city with a race and social justice initiative. We have a race and equity tool kit. So, you’re right, I think it has become code. I think income inequality and inequity has become code for not addressing their racial ramifications. But the reason I think discussing affordability is important is because, if we’re going to combat displacement and actually welcome people back into Seattle, we need to redefine affordability using what we know about the intersection of income and race, and also gender, to define what affordability’s going to be.
60% of our median income in our city is soon going to be $60,000. The median income is almost $100,000, which impacts white folks, but impacts black and brown folks even more. And so, if we want our city to continue to grow more homogenous and more wealthy, we can continue on the track that we’re on with the definition of affordability we’re using, or we can try to combat that and see our city become healthy and diverse by changing the definition of affordability. And one way to simply do that is to change their percentages, what we consider affordability when we look at the average median income instead of saying that 60%, maybe for workers it’s 50% and for low-income folks it’s 20%. I think we really have to start adjusting those definitions, but with that race and equity lens when we talk about income and inequality.
CHS: Alright, so using your lens, what is your focus for our view of homelessness and addiction in the city? Is there a philosophical framework you can give me for your campaign that fits in the race and equity discussion around specifics of homelessness and addiction? Is that something you feel like you can explain?
Oliver: So equity, my definition of equity is giving people what they need to succeed, and in a context where people have started at different places in their life, people need different things to succeed. Equality is about fairness. It’s about sameness. We’ll give everyone the same thing regardless of the fact that we didn’t start in the same places. So, when I think about equity and what we’re facing with the homelessness crisis, it’s remembering that the solution to the macro problem is not one-size-fits-all, so neither is the solution to the micro instances. The individual stories of people is not going to be one-size-fits-all. And we continuously, even in our response now, we keep trying to give everyone the same pathway to getting into a home. And when we talk about addiction, which we have to stop criminalizing. We have to start understanding it for the public health crisis that it is. We need to understand that people are going to enter that and deal with that from different places and in different ways, and people are coming with different trauma. When we talk about why people start using, and not everyone who’s unsheltered is using drugs, like that is an incredible misconception. We need to acknowledge that moving forward from addiction is a lifelong process and it doesn’t happen the same way for everyone, so we can’t provide the same resources.
We need 24/7 storage. We need shelters that have different hours. We need low-barrier shelters. We need family shelters. We need wrap around services and transitional housing, and then we need to reconsider what we consider permanent housing, and really think about supportive permanent housing. When we talk about rapid rehousing as a solution, if we’re not thoughtful about the pack into being housed, what we do is we give someone an apartment that they’re not going to be able to work to pay for, because they are dealing with trauma or they are dealing with addiction. And let’s be real, sleeping outside… I went to Standing Rock for a week, I chose to sleep outside of Standing Rock. Could you imagine what it is to sleep outside day-in and day-out? Live in fear of sweeps, live in fear of police? Just the sorta trauma that builds for a person is going to take time. But also folks who live in encampments are incredibly self-determined, to develop community, shared networks or resources. They do work very hard everyday, harder than the average person, to stay alive and to have a space to sleep and call home. And so, I think equity, going back to the definition means giving people what they need to succeed and that’s just simply not going to be the same for everyone. We need a multi-faceted toolkit of service providing.
CHS: So the safe injection sites, I think are an interesting part of the discussion. I assume you support the idea. I’m kinda curious to know, in your administration, how would you go about things like siting something like a safe injection site? Because it seems easier to put them in a place like South Seattle than it is to put them in a place like Ballard because of the way Seattle works and the way that cities tend to work. How do you see something like that playing out, where these kinds of facilities should go and in general making decisions like that in the city?
Oliver: So, I think when it comes to something like safe injection sites, we really have to ask ourselves about the cultural shift necessary to make those successful. And the community that we place them in does matter. How does the community perceive those but also perceive the people who use those, what sort of stigma’s created in that space? Will it deter people from using them? And so I think there’s a certain amount of culture education that we need to do throughout our whole city, and that’s one reason why I think partnerships with our schools and our community centers is an incredibly viable option for doing that. Safe injection sites are evidence-based that tell us they actually work. They decrease the number of deaths and they increase the number of people who actually eventually seek help. I met with some of the folks that are doing the organizing work for it, and they told me numerous stories, different family members who a safe injection site could’ve saved, many of whom come from those neighborhoods that you describe may not be as receptive to them.
19:04 Oliver: I’m a poet and storyteller, and I could go to those communities and I could give them every statistic in the world and all the scientific evidence as to why these work, and they still wouldn’t see the human reasons why it’s important. Part of the work that the coalitions who have been working on this are doing is going into these communities and having those stories be told. As mayor, I can provide resources to help make that happen, that people can come, access these stories and hear about them, but I would absolutely push for them to happen in those places. Because the opioid addiction that we’re facing in this city is huge, but if you look at the evidence, drug use across populations is actually pretty standard. It’s pretty stable, and so we know that it’s not in the south end anymore that it is anywhere else, and so providing those safe injection sites in those places and dealing with this as a public health crisis is going to be essential to turning it around, but so is the cultural education that’s necessary to help communities see why it’s valuable.
I feel the same way when it comes to addressing the encampments. I met with a pastor not too long ago who told me her community didn’t want the encampment at that church, and so they held a number of town halls for the community to come and unabashedly and unapologetically share their abuse. So whatever you said was fine, but the church went ahead and had the encampment. And what they did was they allowed the community to come have dinner or make dinner or share dinner with the families that were staying there, and over time you started seeing people bringing their whole family to hang out with these families and their kids, ’cause they started to see homeless folks with more of a human lens. I think drug use and addiction is the same way. Stories can be incredibly powerful, especially when coupled evidence. And we live in an incredibly academic, intellectual city, so I think there’s value to that.
CHS: How should we look at the city’s transit issues through an equity lens, and even things like, is there an equity lens that could speed up things like light rail?
“Those young people and their families are not getting what they need to succeed, because we’re not providing a transportation system that helps them get in and out effectively.”
Oliver: That’s an investment question. Let’s talk about construction, embarrassing construction. How long did it take Bertha to do what Bertha was doing?
We live in a place that is just geologically not the same as the cities that we’re trying to mimic. So in terms of construction timelines, yeah, we’re looking at 2040 for the big picture thing, but really how far are we looking? So that’s one thing. But equity lens around transportation. Yes, it’s highly possible. There’s actually a lot of studies that tell us that urban sprawl, especially when it displaces already marginalized and disenfranchised groups, actually decreases their access to educational and job opportunities. They spend more time on transit, and are less likely to end up getting those jobs, and young people spend more time in transit. So they’re less likely to get to school on time, less likely to get educational benefit. They don’t get to do co-curricular, extracurricular things, and their educational opportunity suffers. So, those young people and their families are not getting what they need to succeed, because we’re not providing a transportation system that helps them get in and out effectively.
But also, we have to really… I struggle with this question, the density. Adding density more holistically throughout our city, with a transportation system that moves in lockstep with that density, is going to be pertinent to ensuring that we actually have equity within our city. The cost of transportation is so high if you think about it. So I have the young people who are not able to get access to those 3,000 first-come first-serve bus passes.
So, I think we need to invest in our public transit system, because urban sprawl and lack of access to effective transportation does decrease people’s access to opportunity, and it is inequitable, especially when we consider who’s being displaced. How do we do that? One way is I think partnerships with corporations and developers that incentivize, especially corporations with lots of employees, using public transit, and those can come in various ways and that can beef up our investment in public transit. Impact fees are important for infrastructure. We need to increase the infrastructure of our transit system, and there are some aspects that we can speed up. Light rail, maybe not so much, but in terms of the actual effectiveness, efficiency, timeliness, and number of bus routes that can certainly be addressed, and to be honest we’re not the first city in the world to try to figure out how to make our transportation meet the level of our development. We need to be willing to reach outside of just our natural context and also look at other places globally that have effectively made this transition.
The other the other thing would be really thinking through… And we know this if we really look at maps, where are the people who most need access to public transportation now living? And really figuring out route-wise how we can expand those routes first is going to be very important. But I 100% believe our transportation has to move in lockstep with our development, which we haven’t done… we have put a ton of money into it. The new transportation dollars plus ST3 are all geared towards getting us to a more equitable transportation system. One thing I have heard though is our race and equity toolkit, is just simply not the most usable toolkit, so if every department in our city is using it including Transportation, they’re gonna have a hard time really thinking about equity within transportation. I would also venture to say there’s probably not a lot of black and brown low-income transit riders getting the opportunity to have voice into what transit looks like in our city, at least not meaningful voice. There were a number of town halls and comment opportunities, but we all know how those go. And as a black and brown person who has lived in many low income neighborhoods in Seattle, I get that intuitively, and so will make lots of effort to see us change that process and make speed-ups where we can.
CHS: What’s next for the youth jail process here as far as your vision of it and what you’re seeing? So, what do you think’s happening with it? It seems like a good moment for a progressive cause, but maybe I’m being fooled.
Oliver: No, you’re right. We actually are in a great moment. And so much admiration for the organizers and the coalition voters who have been working on it since 2012, they’ve really had to put in a long haul of work, of moving our electeds forward in terms of seeing what the evidence tells us about juvenile incarceration and the juvenile criminal legal system. What do I see moving forward? I’ve been impacted by incarceration, via my own family and my relationship with my father. As a black, queer woman, we are one of the fastest growing populations in the prison population. As an attorney and a case manager with young people, what I see our city being able to do now, because the county is starting to be more aware what the evidence says, and I think some of the folks on the council are wanting to do something different, is the opportunity to transition those funds to actually building something that allows us to build our way out of the use of the system we have now, and to actually start putting the infrastructure in place for a restorative justice system that actually focuses on restoring and people to where they need to be with a equity lens.
If you’ve always started behind the line and now you’re caught up in the system, we now have a lot of access to you, so we should be able to give you all the tools you need to succeed. Some of the suggestions that the communities brought forward is having a north end and a south end reception center, where accessing that center for services or in a time of crisis will not land you court involved. It will instead ensure that you get immediate services and wrap-around services. I think another important thing we could do is actually build shelters that focus on young people who have not reached the age of majority. And I feel like this is important because I’ve actually worked with multiple youth in the past few years who are in that facility not because they’ve broken a law but because they have nowhere to go, and they maybe have allegedly broken a law. And so, as a result those young people get in a cycle of juvenile incarceration that’s incredibly damaging for them. We need shelters, and there is no place for me to send young folks within our city limits that meets those needs, especially if they have say a low level, alleged third degree assault, there are lots of places that will reject them and not give them shelter, so then what does this young person supposed to do?
So there are options. And a position like mayor, what it allows me to do is have conversations with the elected that I’ve never been able to have before, and from a position of… I don’t wanna say power but for me at least the position of really having some authority on the issue. And so that is important not just for the campaign, I think it’s more important for all of the people in our city who have been marginalized and disenfranchised from having a voice in these systems that continue to marginalize and disenfranchise, and there’s no one within our elected government who actually is able to speak intuitively to that experience, and so it would be a drastic transformation and a really big opportunity to see our city develop a more human point of view on how do you work with folks who… How do you work along side communities that we know are historically and presently pushing the margins.
CHS: Not to put in terms of like, “Gee, this is a great personal opportunity,” but for the People’s Party, it seems like something that build off of. So, I don’t know. Do you see that? Do you think then you can take that forward into the campaign and translate then to things like transit and everything else that people are going to care about?
“That’s beautiful to me, because it means that there are people who have rarely had access to politics now interested in being a part of it…”
Oliver: Absolutely. Part of the reason why we’re running and part of the reason I think folks asked me to run is I’m very committed to a community organizing model, and very committed to the power of coalitions and driving transformative change. We’ve seen a lot of reform, and reform’s not the worst thing, it is a step forward. But I think Seattle really sits in a unique position with the amount of access, wealth and opportunity we have to do something transformational, and so… When the election happened there were so much political apathy, and now we’re at a place where instead of giving into that apathy people said, “Let’s organize. Let’s organize hyperlocally.” And I think the reason we have, what is it, 882 individual contributors to our campaign, it’s… We’ve only raised $50,000, which I say “only” in comparison to Jenny Durkan. But it’s with over 880 contributors, which means that our average contribution is probably like $50. That’s beautiful to me, because it means that there are people who have rarely had access to politics now interested in being a part of it, because I think they see an opportunity to change the way the machinery works, and that’s part of why we decided to run.
I think I told you in our first conversation, we spent months talking about what are our options for making serious hyperlocal changes that hopefully will one day reach the national level, and starting a party that holds candidates accountable that is built on community organizing and coalitions and relationship, is transparent, accountable and works with an equity lens and an intersectional analysis, just kept coming up as the right answer, and so… We’ve seen it work before, and we’ve had the opportunity to learn from history of all the ways in which it didn’t work or that it broke down. We stand on the shoulders of our elders, which means we get to stand taller with a much broader view and have the opportunity to make some changes, and I think Seattle’s ready for it. We’ve got an incredibly warm response and people are consistently reaching out. Our volunteer base is pushing 1,000.