Roi-Martin Brown jokingly calls himself “the last Black man in Seattle.” He was orphaned as an infant and adopted by a Black family in the late ’50s. He feels lucky that he now owns his childhood home in the Central District, and he works with Washington CAN to ensure that older and younger generations of Black people can retain their culture and community.
How did you get involved in advocacy?
My mother worked at the VA on Beacon Hill as a nurse in the ’60s. My father would sometimes take me where she worked, and I was always amazed at these guys I call “the walking ghosts” because they looked dead on their feet. They were so high on painkillers and things that they walked in slow motion. This was at the beginning of what we now refer to as “the Vietnam Conflict.” I didn’t know much, but I knew there was something off about these guys. Early on I knew a lot more about the war because my mom was a nurse. That’s my early advocacy for peace and anti-war stuff. I started as a 5- or 6-year-old going to the VA and seeing what happened to these people.
I [also] worked for 15 years in Seattle Public Schools as a family support caseworker. We were mediators — advocates for families and children. We worked around housing, homelessness, food access and health care. I was glad I was able to help connect people with [services and resources]. I tried to help families that were like the kids I grew up with.
When did you become a member of Washington CAN?
For a long time I wasn’t active because I was getting clean. I stopped drinking about eight years ago and that allowed me to settle down. I was lucky that I could do that. Once I cleaned up my head and my soul, I decided to get into the political/activist realm however I could. I definitely wanted to work with an organization that deals with stuff legislatively so that laws would be passed to help poor folks, older Black folks trying to hold on to whatever sense of community they had. I looked at Washington CAN and went to a few meetings. I decided to start working with them close to three years ago. Washington CAN prides itself on having 44,000 members in Washington state. Those who are active are working on things in the housing and homelessness sector as well as health care for average folks and making sure that Seattle remains a livable place for folks like us. People will give lip service to taking care of us, especially around the time of elections, but when it’s time to actually do something, we’re pretty much on our own. People are being separated further and further from what democracy actually is. There’s more money for the gilded class and less for people like us. Laws do not change who people are, even here.
How do you believe homelessness in Seattle could be solved?
I’m not that smart, but ever since I got involved with the Housing for All Coalition in the last four months, the things I’ve noticed when we go to City Hall are no different than the things we talked about during the civil rights movement. You’ve got a whole lot of heartfelt folks who know about a number of things talking about helping folks that are poor and dispossessed, but are not including them in the conversation. That’s especially true for city [council], where they will go to the organizations that help homeless people but they really don’t want homeless people in the room when they’re making decisions. Seattle is slow on a lot of levels, and as much as we like to think we’re a world-class city, world-class cities don’t have homeless camps two blocks away from City Hall.
I do feel like organizations like Housing for All, Washington CAN and ACLU can work [together] using our strengths and networks to make a difference in the homelessness situation in this city. It may be quicker than elected officials want, but we have to start talking to our neighbors, [whom] we usually don’t talk to about people living on the street.
What do you want RC readers to know?
I’ve been following Real Change for close to 20 years now, and it’s one of the truest, fairest voices that people have in print in this city. What I hope people remember, not about me but about people like me, is that we’re still fighting and we’ll always have to fight.
Read about more Rampant Radicals highlighted by our Advocacy Department. Check out the full Feb. 21 - Feb. 27 issue.