EDITOR'S NOTE: This is the first of six profiles of 2017 mayoral candidates we'll be publishing in the coming weeks.
In a community center just blocks away from King County's juvenile lockup, Nikkita Oliver stares at a whiteboard marked with the names of teenagers considered for enrollment in Creative Justice, an alternatives-to-incarceration arts education program for youth.
Money is tight, and five of the 23 names on the whiteboard need to go. Aaron Counts, the program's lead engagement artist, puts a yellow mark next to students who might not be able to return. One student came to the program through a friend but isn't currently involved in the court system. Others may just not be the right fit for this particular program.
But Oliver desperately wants to avoid telling students they can't return to the program, which she views as a safe space for youth who aren't afforded the same benefit at home or at school.
"I mean, there are so many referrals," says Counts, by which he means juveniles sent from police to the King County Prosecuting Attorney's Office.
"I will sponsor one of them for $40 a week to keep them engaged," Oliver says. There simply isn't enough staff or resources to meet the program's demands. "We need a plan. I don't want to tell them they can't come back. That would be detrimental. I'm down to take on more work."
"Nikkita, you don't have time," Counts says.
"This is more important."
Less than an hour later, Oliver, wearing a Black Panther Party hoodie and hoop earrings, moves to another room of Washington Hall in the Central District, where she's holding her first Friday evening volunteer fair since declaring her candidacy for mayor of Seattle.
Dozens of prospective volunteers file into the second-story room to lend their time to the first candidate for Seattle mayor with a background in slam poetry, pro bono legal work, arts education, amateur boxing, and radical activism. Tables arranged at the room's periphery carry sign-up sheets for canvassers, campus outreach coordinators, and policy advisers. Another table sells multicultural cookbooks for $12 (two for $20).
Beanies and backpacks make a good showing at the fair. So do people of color, marking a stark contrast to gatherings of other Seattle leftist groups like Socialist Alternative or the local chapter of the Democratic Socialists of America. (The former, led by city council member Kshama Sawant, endorsed Oliver this month. The latter has yet to endorse a candidate for mayor.)
Asked why he came out today, 22-year-old Carlos Nieto, a barista, tells The Stranger: "I believe what she says. I believe it because I've seen her in the streets."
Oliver entered the race on March 8 under the banner of the Peoples Party, a new political group that formed in the wake of the November elections. Much of the party's core volunteer group connected during a recent surge of local and national activism: Black Lives Matter, NoDAPL, and movements against a proposed juvenile detention center in the Central District (No New Youth Jail) and a police station near North Seattle College (Block the Bunker).
"We're all homies. We all work together," said Peoples Party member Jerrell Davis, 24, who met Oliver in 2006 when he was a middle schooler enrolled in a South Seattle summer program run by the nonprofit Urban Impact. She had recently moved to Seattle from Indianapolis to pursue a nursing degree at Seattle Pacific University. (Davis and Oliver have become close friends over the years. Together, they've led protests and organized open mics in South Seattle coffee shops.)
As Seattle reeled from the election of Donald Trump, young organizers and activists started to seriously think about running one of their own for office. Their platform would not shy away from intersectionality, an analytical model that recognizes the inexorable links between politics, economics, race, class, gender, sexuality, and religion. Oliver, the daughter of a factory worker and a pharmaceutical rep, emerged as an obvious choice for the face of the Peoples Party.
"She represents the change we need to see," says Davis, who took part in the party's formative meetings. "She's black. She identifies as queer. She is a woman. People will see why we all love her." As Oliver puts it: "My life and my identity don't allow me to escape the realities of injustice. I see it all day, every day. Either I can choose to engage in a way that is about solution-building and transforming the system or I can just let it bring me down."
With a background in public speaking, Oliver also proved an effective messenger for the Peoples Party's stump speech, which centers on a question of who gets to remain in Seattle during this period of rapid development and soaring housing costs. Oliver expressed this existential urgency in response to a question on The Breakfast Club, a New York City–based radio program known for its interviews with hiphop artists. One of the show's hosts, Charlamagne Tha God, asked Oliver whether she could have more of an impact as "an activist or a politician."
"You know, that has been my struggle," Oliver said. "We are at a crucial pivot point, a crucial time where if we don't actually grab some elected power, especially in Seattle, we're not going to get to live in that city anymore. We won't exist there, and so it won't matter how many times we march in the street in Seattle or how many times we shut down city council meetings, we won't have homes there."
Last week, Oliver stood with Sawant and independent city council candidate Jon Grant to announce a three-pronged housing affordability plan: (1) pushing for rent control, which is currently illegal in Washington State, (2) raising taxes on the wealthy to fund public housing (this leg of the plan is short on specifics), and (3) bumping up the current 2 to 11 percent set-aside requirement for affordable housing in new developments.
Like Sawant in her 2013 city council campaign, Oliver counts her outsider status as a strength. The Peoples Party online platform lists "Declaring Independent" first, followed by "No Corporate Donations." According to Oliver's latest campaign finance filing—she had raised $34,360—the majority of her campaign chest comes from small donations, $50 or less. Fourteen people have donated the limit, $500. Her smallest donation came from a child who gave up her 13 cent allowance at Oliver's campaign launch event.
At the same time, Oliver's independence from the Democratic Party may prove to be her greatest weakness in an increasingly competitive mayor's race. When she announced her candidacy, Oliver was considered the most formidable challenger to incumbent mayor Ed Murray. But child sex-abuse allegations tanked Murray's reelection campaign and opened the gates for at least five other serious candidates for mayor, most of whom are elected officials.
Can Oliver convince high-income, overwhelmingly white voting blocs, which reliably turn out for Democrats in off-year elections, to vote for a candidate who wants fewer police officers and higher taxes for the wealthy? She says, "We should all have to take some of the burden of making our city more accessible and equitable as we continue to grow, and I think there are wealthier, whiter Seattleites who really want to do that. They just don't know how."
On a rainy Monday evening, three days after her volunteer fair, Oliver returns to the same second-story room at Washington Hall for a community meeting with members of Seattle's Eritrean diaspora. One of Oliver's volunteers, an Eritrean American, got the word out through Facebook.
We're here for the Peoples Party's fifth "listening post," essentially a longer, more in-depth meet and greet. Oliver has already held sessions with the Somali and deaf communities, as well as neighborhood-specific listening posts in the University District and Mount Baker. Up next: Chinatown-International District and Fremont.
"To see communities of color showing up, to see anarchists showing up in a space just because Nikkita is showing up—that to me is amazing," said Yin Yu, a 32-year-old volunteer who helps coordinate Oliver's listening posts.
Hiphop blares from next door, where a class called Beats to the Rhyme is taking place. About a dozen Eritrean Americans and Eritrean nationals sit in chairs arranged in a circle. After brief introductions, Oliver opens the floor to her prospective constituents.
Yonas Fikak, a 28-year-old who works at an education nonprofit, asks the first question. He says he works in a school with big Eritrean and Ethiopian populations: "I see them as the future, and I get upset because they're being cheated on big-time. It's very sad. Now, given the funding situation with the Seattle Public Schools, what's your vision for education, especially for low-income students who are in schools set to fail for life?"
Oliver leans forward and nods her head through Fikak's question. In her answer, she first acknowledges that the public school system's struggles can be traced to Olympia, where state lawmakers have failed to adequately fund education as required by the landmark McCleary decision. But that's not enough, Oliver says, "On a Peoples Party perspective, we're interested in not just getting people in office at the city and county, but we're looking at the school board, too. Within the next 10 years, we're hoping to be running school board members."
Correction: A previous version of this article listed Yin Yu's age as 38. She is 32.