As I sat in the Seattle City Council chambers on June 12, 2018, I felt my heart pounding. The Employee Hours Tax (EHT) was going down in flames before my eyes. As the final vote to repeal the measure was cast, bedlam erupted. I watched as activists from both sides clashed. They had been divided without a clear way forward. People’s frustrations had reached a critical mass.
In the aftermath of the repeal, many questions arose: How could we lose? Weren’t we doing the right thing? What was dividing us on this issue? How do we move forward? What could we have done differently? There had been a very clear spending plan, so why did so many people believe there wasn’t?
During the EHT fight, the Seattle Times Editorial Board wrote seven articles decrying the tax and poisoned public opinion, even while 66 percent of Seattleites believed that the wealthy should pay their fair share in taxes. Another shift in public opinion occurred when the KOMO special “Seattle is Dying” aired, presenting a very distorted perspective on the issue of homelessness.
Kate Brunette, Treasurer of the Transit Riders Union (TRU) recalled, “After losing the fight for the EHT, TRU reflected on how we could build a more effective and impactful campaign moving forward. Given the state of increasingly vitriolic, discriminatory, sometimes violent rhetoric in our community around homelessness, it was clear that face-to-face conversations were going to be our most effective tool to address people’s concerns and strengthen community relationships.” From this epiphany, “We Need to Talk” was born.
“We Need to Talk” creates an intentional space for reflection and conversation among community members. We invite our neighbors of all opinions, experiences and expertise to participate in a facilitated conversation about homelessness in our community with the hope that everyone leaves the conversation feeling more empowered and engaged. The program provides a team of facilitators who help guide a loosely structured discussion for small groups, typically lasting two hours. TRU is actively recruiting people who would like to host such conversations.
TRU has been working closely with Racial Equity Consultant ChrisTiana ObeySumner in order to ensure an intersectional racial justice lens is in place. Because people of color are disproportionately represented in the homeless population, conversations must center around racial justice. ObeySumner takes it a step further by saying, “We must look at all the intersections that could present barriers to housing. A disabled, Black gender queer person with mental health disorder has different barriers to housing than an able bodied latinx person, and those must be analyzed, even though it is messy and hard work.”
Playwright and contributor Ed Mast says, “Decades doing living room theater accompanied by discussions have shown me that people are hungry for real talk about real topics. Social change happens person-to-person.”
Through this process, TRU organizer Aaron Buchholz says, “I’ve learned a lot from these conversations, and I’ve seen folks leave inspired to speak out and make a difference. It’s been really surprising just how powerful a simple conversation can be.”
“We Need to Talk” was embraced by the Church of the Apostles in Fremont. Rev. Katherine GrayBuck said of the conversation, “We Need to Talk was such a gift to our community. The facilitators were both gracious and well-informed, and they really got us talking about hopes and opportunities to examine our perspectives around homelessness. Having a moderated conversation allowed everyone to share openly in a courageous space.”
Conversation participant Karen Powers, a Wedgwood resident, told us, “I felt alone in my distress when seeing homeless people on the street. Finding out that others shared my concern helped me feel that more people in my community cared than I realized.”
If you would like to host a conversation, get involved or know someone who would, send an email to weneedtotalk (at) transitriders (dot) org or visit our website.
Matthew Lang is the Lead Organizer for the Transit Riders Union, a democratic organization for poor and working people that builds power for change.
Read the full July 24 - 30 issue.
© 2019 Real Change. All rights reserved.| Real Change is a non-profit organization advocating for economic, social and racial justice. Since 1994 our award-winning weekly newspaper has provided an immediate employment opportunity for people who are homeless and low income. Learn more about Real Change and donate now to support independent, award-winning journalism.