The Imagine Change Keynote Panel accentuated our Real Change 26th Anniversary Breakfast. Because of COVID-19, the Breakfast was virtual – but on the upside, it also lasted five days.
While the Real Change community was unable to meet in person, a dynamic conversation happened. The panelists — Sharon Lee (director of the Low Income Housing Institute), Nikkita Oliver (a popular and prolific community organizer, creative and attorney) and Juan Jose Bocanegra (director of All In for Washington) — and the emcee, Real Change Founding Director Tim Harris, birthed a thoughtful discussion. Here are highlights following the conversation’s trajectory. You can watch a recording of the event on YouTube.
Sharon Lee underscored how the current moratorium on evictions and COVID-19 makes clear how timely, urgent and necessary housing as a human right is at the moment.
Juan Jose Bocanegra continued this emphasis and pointed to his Imagine Change shirt and said that “a lot of what we do is imagination” when it comes to imagining a better world — a better reality for people. A sense of community, he said, is what will ultimately save us.
Nikkita Oliver said it is important to face things in order to change them and that this moment is an invitation to honestly face what needs fixing in our society.
Tasks leading up to November elections
Oliver said their personal, biggest faith lies in the power of community and mutual aid, as has been proven again and again during the COVID-19 pandemic response. They point back to their community elders, who continuously remind them “when we fight, we win.”
Lee emphasized the importance of voting and that every effort must be taken to make sure people vote, not just for the presidential election but for state representatives and other local elections as well.
Bocanegra said, “Everyone is paralyzed by elections.” Even legislation like the capital gains tax being discussed at the state level will only help raise a fraction of the cost it will take to develop affordable and fair housing infrastructure. Our best bet is to organize.
How do we hold the city accountable?
Bocanegra said we must honor our heroes — people like Kshama Sawant, who is currently battling a removal from the Seattle City Council. Bocanegra noted that the Nazis first targeted activists and “heroes” to silence any opposition.
Bocanegra, a former city worker, also explained how city departments are constantly changing and adapting to the needs of the city; in the same vein, the Seattle Police Department’s operations and priorities could easily be shifted so the department could work to protect everyone. “The city belongs to us. … It belongs to everyone,” he said.
Oliver explained how their work, and that of the larger Defund movement, is inspired by the work of abolitionist movements of the past and said that defunding the police requires striving to determine what it takes to get public safety systems to work for everyone.
Oliver also said the city’s budget is a “moral document: It shows us what we value.” Oliver emphasized how imperative it is to make sure the budget reflects the values of people and planet rather than profit and power.
Lee sees Seattle as a trendsetter, whether it be with minimum wage increases or tiny homes — models that other cities are following. “We can be the center of innovation,” Lee said, “but we have got to redirect the city budget.”
Oliver said they’d like to see more mutual aid networks. They also said that COVID-19 has proven that the internet should be a public utility. Additionally, Oliver brought light to the tricky balance of mitigating risks for people as we fight for a better world; safe injection sites, as controversial as they are, help create a space to at least mitigate harm from drugs while we search for a more permanent solution.
Oliver also encouraged continued precautions during protests — which have not led to giant COVID outbreaks, as some warned they would, because of the community care and compassion to protect one another, indicative of what the movement stands for.
Lee wants the sweeps of homeless encampments to stop. She also wants to see a plan to keep people who are camping in tents safe without fear of being kicked out. These residents should be provided a space for hygiene and toilets. Lee noted the city has the capacity to purchase hotels; this capacity has been shown recently.
Bocanegra pointed to the 1972 occupation of a building that became El Centro De La Raza on Beacon Hill. At the time, Seattle was undergoing a depression; Boeing employees were being laid off, and many Latinx community members were negatively affected. But they rallied and demanded a space for their community, which led to the formation of El Centro De La Raza. In light of Seattle’s historic legacy of organizing for the people, Bocanegra said:
“We have a system that is messed up, but we cannot afford to give up hope.”
Practicing and promoting hope
Lee brought up the Central District, which has lost so much of the city’s Black community. The neighborhood still has community leaders and others who are fighting to create affordable spaces in the neighborhood. It is possible — for example, with Africatown and the many churches offering their land — to build on this and create more opportunity for fair housing.
Oliver acknowledged how exhausting 2020 has been, but that it is also an opportunity to stand on the right side of history — a time to decide whether we really need to be investing in an exploitative system. They said, “Movements give me hope.”
Bocanegra summed much up in one short sentence: “People are ready for change.”
Kamna Shastri is a staff reporter covering narrative and investigative stories for Real Change. She has a background in community journalism. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org. Twitter: @KShastri2
Read more in the Sept. 23-29, 2020 issue.