When A Changemaker Runs For Mayor: An Interview With Nikkita Oliver

Seattle’s progressive mayoral candidate is ready to shake up an increasingly white, rich, gentrified city.

This time last year, my friends and I were convinced that we were going to have to spend another two years with Ed Murray as mayor of Seattle. For those of us who were dismayed by the seeming reluctance of the mayor’s office to push forward on court-mandated police reforms, for those of us appalled by the city’s hostile and counterproductive approach to our homeless population, for those of us who were hoping to see real efforts made to protect racial and economic diversity in a city becoming richer and whiter — it was a tough pill to swallow. We all made dismayed Facebook posts or lamented together at social gatherings: Who would step up against a mayor so popular with the city’s business interests? Who would take on the mayor with enough “liberal” cred to satisfy comfortable Seattleites and not enough actual “liberal” practice to make them nervous?

After the November election results, things looked even more bleak. We were going to have perhaps the worst president that this nation had ever seen, and a city with the ideals to fight back was going to be left with a leader who only seemed to pay lip service to what we stood for and wouldn’t hesitate to retaliate against activists who pushed for real change.

So when Nikkita Oliver surprised us all by becoming the first serious challenger to stand up for election against Murray, many in my community were overjoyed. A young, black woman. A lawyer, community organizer, and activist. A woman who had been by our side fighting to protect the dignity of our homeless population, fighting for the future of our youth of color, fighting to protect communities of color from rampant gentrification that was pushing them out of the city. We all knew her and knew she was for real.

But I know a thing or two about what it’s like to be a loud black woman in this city. This majority-white city loves to hold up its activists and artists of color — provided they don’t do or say anything to threaten the status quo. Almost immediately she was written off as a “protest candidate” instead of a legitimate candidate. She’s far more likely to be labeled a “community organizer” with the same disdain that Obama was similarly labeled, than to have her law degree or years of experience working with government offices and business leaders referenced. Her endorsements by prominent white Seattleites were written off as white guilt endorsements.

But Nikkita has run a surprising campaign in spite of the lack of respect from mainstream press. Her campaign launch party had lines around the block as hundreds of Seattleites of all races, genders, sexual orientations, and classes showed up excited for a truly progressive candidate. Her supporters are strong and growing. It has been a tough race, but Nikkita is not giving up.

I know a thing or two about what it’s like to be a loud black woman in this city.

A few weeks ago, we sat down for coffee to talk about the race and her vision for Seattle. Sitting in the North Seattle coffee shop, we were the only two black women in the room, a common experience that we have both been working, in our own ways, to change.

I asked Nikkita about the strain of the election, what it’s like running as a black woman in this predominantly white city. I asked if any of the hurdles she’s faced in this election came as a surprise to her, and she responded thoughtfully:

“I expected the age critiques and the experience critique, because I know that people do not value activism, organizing, or coalition building when it comes to public service. Even though that might be more valuable than career politician experience in the sense that career politicians often get so isolated from actual community members, so their ability to work in coalition — we’re usually convincing them to work with us. But I expected that. I’m not sure what I didn’t expect but every day there is something unexpected, if that makes sense. Every day there’s something that pops up where I’m like, ‘Is any other candidate dealing with this?’ and the answer usually is no.”

Nikkita briefly discusses a few of the weird controversies that some have attempted to drum up around her candidacy, but it’s clear that isn’t what she really wants to focus on in this discussion.

She quickly moves the conversation forward:

“I have an incredible team. They are mostly people of color, mostly women and queer folks and — we get it. When something happens that would throw other people off, we just keep moving. We are resilient. I think that is a really big advantage for us. It doesn’t always feel like that, but I look in the mirror and I’m like, ‘Hey, I’m still looking healthy, I’m not getting sick, I’m working out, my time management skills are on fleek.’ I’ve been living this for a long time.”

Nikkita has, indeed, been living this for a long time. And it’s been interesting for her to see the words that she used in her everyday work in the community be turned into buzzwords for candidates who are unlikely to ever put those words into practice:

“It’s a challenge here in Seattle, because we all know the right words to use — that’s been a real challenge in candidate forums, where everyone’s using the buzzwords, but don’t provide actual practical policies or solutions, mostly because they are not in it and building relationships with the folks the buzzwords relate to.”

But there has been a bright side to these challenges, and Nikkita’s eyes brighten as she discusses what these words actually mean to her:

“These forums have actually pushed me to grow in that regard and to think ‘how can I talk about all these issues practically instead of just using the buzzwords?’….I didn’t get into this race to grow people’s theory and intellectual prowess around equity. We got into it because we want to see that become a real thing. We want to see affordable housing actually exist, we want people to be able to move back into the city, we want people to have actual incomes and livable wages that allow them to live in the city. That is really what equity comes down to.”

The child of working-class parents who herself has been pushed from apartment to apartment in search of affordable rents amid Seattle’s housing crisis, housing affordability and availability is an issue near to Nikkita’s heart. Housing affordability is something that I spend a lot of time thinking about as well. I am now fortunate to own a small home just outside of city limits, but as someone who as a child moved almost every year of her childhood due to rising rents — and whose mother still struggles to afford rent each month — I’m dismayed to see so many other poor families and families of color pushed out of the city. It’s a reality often masked by the economic prosperity that Seattle is known for.

I explain my feelings on Seattle’s “comfortable” reputation: “A lot of what I’ve noticed is that people assume that Seattle is getting wealthier and more secure because the citizens of Seattle are becoming wealthier and more secure. But that’s not necessarily the case. What I see a lot of is that they are being displaced, by people who are coming into Seattle with that security and that wealth. It becomes more and more rare that I run into people who actually grew up in Seattle. Most of them can’t afford to stay there. I live right outside the city limits, because I can’t afford it. There’s a difference. A lot of people try to act like the prosperity in Seattle is because Seattle has so much to offer Seattleites, and it doesn’t, it is a place that you can buy into. It’s a place you can invest in, but it’s not a place that invests in you.”

‘It becomes more and more rare that I run into people who actually grew up in Seattle. Most of them can’t afford to stay there.’

Nikkita pauses for a minute before replying. It’s clear that even though she has spent many years thinking of and working on these issues, she does not believe in quick answers:

“We’re at a pivotal point where we’re asking that big existential question of ‘who has the right to live in Seattle?’ but also ‘who has the right to stay in Seattle?’ I’m critiqued a lot for my stance on wanting developers to have to invest more, but you’re right — it’s not about investing in buildings when we want investors to invest more, it’s about actually investing in the people of Seattle — people who have made Seattle the attractive, beautiful, cultural place that it is. It’s becoming a museum of those things, things that folks who grew up in Seattle can come visit sometimes, but those folks can’t live there. We need some people who are willing to draw some hard lines in the sand and say, ‘This is our value. We value Seattlelites getting to stay here and live here.’
I also value this growing city. But if you are not investing in the people who are going to be living in your buildings then what are you building your buildings for?”

Beyond simple words prioritizing diversity and equity, Nikkita stresses the importance of making sure that every step of our efforts to promote diversity and equity are actually of service to the populations we are aiming to help.

“I actually want to see the inequality gap decrease because as a society we’ve actually gotten to the point where we think everybody deserves a livable wage, everybody deserves a way for their family to be economically sustained, and everybody’s contributing to that,” she adds. “That’s part of what this Comprehensive Income Tax reform is about, is that if you are wealthier, and you have more, you should contribute more to insuring that everyone in our city is healthy. If you’re a developer, and you want to be here developing, it’s your civic duty to pay impact fees to insure that our schools, and our parks, and our rec facilities and our community centers can continue to keep up with the growth that you’re contributing to. Because you have more, you should contribute more.”

But Nikkita is wary of using philanthropy in place of real structural change:

“I don’t want to end up with more of what philanthropy has done to us, where philanthropy as an industry requires that there are always cash-poor and economically disenfranchised people. The non-profit industrial complex requires that there are always cash-poor and economically disenfranchised people. It is literally built upon people who — if suddenly there were no poor folks — they wouldn’t know what to do with themselves because their entire lives have been built upon this non-profit industrial complex. So, I think that there’s an economic injustice that we’ve allowed to exist for the sake of keeping the non-profit industrial complex going, keeping certain public projects going so we’re not actually invested in ending the actual injustice.”

Nikkita is overflowing with ideas for the city. Big ideas. We talk about her ideas for responsible density in the city, for real criminal justice reform, for livable wages. Nikkita is audacious in her vision for what Seattle can be. So when I ask her what her “day one” plan is if she wins this election, I’m a little surprised by the humility of her reply:

“I want to sit down with city workers first thing. I think it’s unfair to pop into a position of leadership and assume the folks who’ve been holding it down between administrations don’t have important, brilliant information to bring to the table. I think within the first one hundred days, while there are things we can make moves on and definitely will, I actually think it’s really important that I sit down and have very important and solution-oriented conversations with the people who have been holding the city down through multiple administrations and find out first what solutions are they wanting to bring to the table. I think that’s really important not just for buy-in but for effective solution building.”

Nikkita chuckles briefly and then adds, “Yeah, I could probably tell you a hundred policies I’d just want to make happen, but it’s not going to go like that. You’re dealing with real human beings, and I think I need to have a humanistic approach to learning the city.”

Spoken like a true community organizer. A community leader.

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