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  • Danielle Henderson

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Mayor Murray met with several leaders of the African and African American community yesterday at the Langston Hughes Performing Arts Institute to start a conversation about race and inequality in Seattle. The room was packed, and the mayor listened to two hours of presentations on education, housing, arts, community and economic development, STEM professions, digital access, family services, and youth culture.

This event was organized by the mayor’s transition advisory team, including co-conveners Dawn Mason and Mohammed Sheikh Hassan, who joined hands in a historic moment as a show of strength that joined the African American and African immigrant population. Mason said that there is no difference between the two groups, and they welcome the chance to “march together towards justice and freedom.” She also noted that there was plenty of opportunity to work with the city, and hoped that they would “no longer have money used in the name of our children” without community input on how those funds can best be utilized.

Most of the speakers were quick to tell the mayor that Seattle is not as diverse as it thinks it is, and Murray agreed.

Elmer Dixon, co-founder of the Seattle Black Panthers and President of Executive Diversity Services, Inc., said that Seattle is seen as liberal and progressive, but only if you look at it through a white lens, and that “Seattle’s black community jointly experiences a different Seattle that offers a less engaging reality.” Fourteen-year old Marcelas Owens backed that up by saying he and other African American children in the city “struggle harder because we’re looked at differently.” Education was a big focus of the event—Erin Jones, Director of Achievement for Federal Way Schools, passionately informed the crowd that “public schools in the US were not designed with our children in mind," and Seattle native Zithri Ahmed Saleem, a non-profit executive and developer, said that he felt unsupported at school and had to look outside of the educational system to find opportunities to embrace his “inner nerd.”

Organizer Karen Toering brought up the hot topic of city-wide internet access, saying the “municipality can help us be a 21st century community by ensuring the least of us has access to the whole internet.” A lot of people say that the library is a good option for people who don’t have internet access, but Toering pointed out that you can only sign up to use library computers for 30 minutes at a time, which is not enough time to get creative and be engaged. Also, it's sort of messed up to just be okay with the fact that entire neighborhoods have less than sufficient internet access, right?

Felix Ngoussou of Community Capital Development got a standing ovation when he said, “We want to be at the table—for too many years we’ve only been on the menu,” and the crowd flipped out when Lola Peters introduced Mayor Murray by asking him to “pay attention to the dozens of people standing up here telling you how we can grow and strengthen ourselves—give power to our voices, not voices that speak for us.”

When Mayor Murray took the podium, he talked for about ten minutes, which was respectful considering he was primarily there to listen. He didn’t come to the event with prepared remarks, instead choosing to respond on the spot, which was a smart move. Murray heard a lot of people asking for a space at the table, and said that he’s “trying to build an administration where you don’t have to ask that.” There was a huge standing ovation when he brought Interim SPD Chief Bailey to the podium for a few seconds, and Murray wondered why it took “the first gay mayor to appoint the first African American chief of police” even though he had heard nothing but stellar comments about Bailey over the years. K. Wyking Garret of the Umoja PEACE Center wants to move forward on a project to recognize Africatown, and Murray got a standing ovation when he said he wants the city to say Africatown Central District the way we say Chinatown International District. There were a shitload of standing ovations—everyone was really excited for the chance to be heard!

I was most surprised when Mayor Murray admitted that diversity in Seattle was stagnant, and that “Seattle likes to talk diversity, but statistics don’t bear that out.” He thinks that collaboration is the way forward, and challenged everyone in the room to check in with him next year to see if he’s made any movement on the issues presented. He said it, so let’s hold him to it!