Over the past decade, Seattle has faced a number of issues, including economic inequality, gun violence, police brutality, homelessness and gentrification. In all of this, Black, Brown and Indigenous community members have been disproportionately affected. In response to these crises, community members came together to organize protests and grassroots campaigns to change harmful government policies.
One of the most prominent voices in these movements for justice has been Sean Goode, the executive director (ED) of CHOOSE 180. During his tenure, the organization has partnered with local governments like the city of Seattle and King County to prevent more than 2,500 young people from being involved with the criminal legal system. It also spearheaded work to disrupt the school-to-prison pipeline and provide youth with programming opportunities.
Recently, Goode announced that he would be stepping down as ED after six years on the job. In an interview with Real Change, he shared his reflections on the work, advice for new activists, thoughts about the state of Seattle and plans for the future. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Real Change: Could you reflect on your time working with CHOOSE 180 and what that has been like?
Sean Goode: When I first took over stewardship of the cause back in January 2017, at that moment I was the only full-time staff. We were supporting a couple hundred young people a year — in no small part because of some great volunteers that we had — and the work that had been done prior to me getting there and the relationship with the King County Prosecuting Attorney’s Office. I would be lying to you right now if I were to say I absolutely imagined that we would grow the way we grew over the six years, and that we would be serving — gosh, I think last year, we served close to 700 youth and young adults. Our team has grown, and the programs have grown. I didn’t imagine any of that.
What I did imagine was that we could build a team of people who would feel comfortable showing up as their whole selves, and be fully committed to serving young people and seeing them as possibilities and not problems. And that if we could focus on who we are in the work, that what we would do with that, and what the ultimate outcome would be, would take care of itself. But I did believe that we could build a team of people who were focused on who they were, and who they were for young people and who they were for community and have that be more important than what we actually did. It’s been cool to watch that work.
You know, we started building it in that way, and I feel like the people who are serving with the cause today are similarly aligned. They care deeply for the cause, but they pour out of who they are. It’s not so much a job that they do, but it’s a reflection of their being.
So much has happened since 2017: Trump, COVID-19, the Black Lives Matter protests. Are there any highlights from working in the criminal legal system trying to support young folks who are involved or ensure that they’re less involved in the criminal legal system?
There’s several moments or things that stand out for me. Soon after I took over leadership of the organization, we began to figure out how to partner with the [Seattle] City Attorney’s Office to support 18- to 24-year olds, so that way they’d be eligible for diversion practices before going to the court system as well. And when we launched that back in late 2017, early 2018, that was one-of-a-kind in the way that it functioned in the nation, here happening in Seattle. I was really proud of how that collaborative effort came together and the heart that that was born out of.
I also think about when and how we launched our first school-based diversion alternative. So instead of suspensions and expulsions, young people get access to programming. And to be able to do that in Highline School District — which is the district that I grew up in — and to provide young people opportunities that weren’t available for me when I was having challenges to staying engaged in school, and to wrap our cause around that district and figure out a way forward together, was something that I look back on that I’m grateful for.
And then I’ll say that Restorative Community Pathways and the collaborative work between Creative Justice, Collective Justice, Freedom Project and CHOOSE 180, and how the people who were leading that effort were able to co-create an alternative to the criminal legal system that other young adults in our community were able to take the framework for and build it up and have it exist in the way that it does today.
The last thing I’ll say is this: This last fall, we had a chance to take almost 30 of our team members on a journey through the South, where they got a chance to reflect on the harms that are in the past of many of the people who steward our cause and our ancestors past and how those historical harms manifest today in the work that we’re doing and why we had the liberty to do the work, because of the many sacrifices of those that preceded us.
Those are four things, over the course of the six years, that I look back on and I’m really honored by what we were able to do together. I gotta emphasize: Like, I have not been a perfect leader, I was simply the right leader at the right time to steward the cause. And I have been so fortunate to have people around our organization who have lifted up the many things that we’ve gotten started and helped create a way for them to be sustainable.
Why is it so important to focus on transformation and achieving justice through transformation and restoration versus the carceral system or punishment?
For me, it all starts with grace and the transformative power of grace. There’s something we say within the organization, that grace, selectively applied, is favoritism. Which means that you have to extend the same grace to the people that it’s convenient to as you do to the people who it’s inconvenient to extend that grace to. Otherwise we end up playing favorites, which is what the criminal legal system so often does.
And the challenge with that is that then it’s not only our families and our young people that are extended that grace, but also the prosecutors, law enforcement, judicial officials, electeds — people who are often standing in juxtaposition of where we are — yet we still find a way through because of grace. I believe that grace is transformative, not only in the lives of our young people but the systems that we engage with. That’s why transformation is so pivotal. It’s because we have too often relied on instant, instant gratification. And we see what happens when that shows up.
People make quick choices, quick decisions, and they go back to doing what it is they did before. After the murder of George Floyd there were many electeds in our community that said they wanted to divest from law enforcement. Some of them even use the nomenclature of the moment of “defund.” And then several months later, they walked back all those proclamations because it wasn’t a transformative moment they had.
They were responding to the pressure and wanted to provide instant gratification. And that snapback is vicious, because here we are today, right? So when we’re working with young people, and when we’re working with community, when we’re working with electeds and prosecutors and all the like, we have to lead with grace because that’s the only way we can get to a heart place, and that’s where all change happens here.
Grace invites people on a journey to heal, whereas guilt only creates a mechanism, at best, for people to see where they caused harm. But acknowledging where you've caused harm, and not engaging in a journey to heal, does no good for the people who were impacted or the person who was accused of causing the harm itself. So that’s why grace is important. That’s why transformative justice is important.
Because we have to engage people on a journey towards healing. And healing is what’s going to bring us to a more just world, a just world that’s being the healing for prosecutors, healing for police officers, healing for electeds, healing for young people and families. Our community needs to be whole if we’re going to operate out of a lens that sees each other as fully human.
For community members, whether it's young folks or others who are inspired to try to make change, what would be your advice for them on where to start? Or just in general, advice for activists and organizers?
I would encourage you to start within. I can always tell when something’s wrong within me, when everything outside of me is wrong. I don’t know if you’ve ever had days like this, but when everything outside of me is going wrong, it’s usually because there's something inside of me that’s off, because everything can’t be bad. But when it feels that way, it’s because something’s happening in here.
I’d encourage everybody who’s engaging in this work to be actively participating in your own healing journey, because the more we recognize how failed we are, even at our best, the easier it is for us to have empathy towards others who are then failing when we need them to be succeeding at the most key and important moments. There’s been many moments on this journey where I’ve seen my own personal failure reflected in the failure of others, and because I’ve been actively engaged in my own healing journey, it was that much easier for me to humanize them and in humanizing them walk out with grace.
So that’s the first thing I'd say is: If you’re going to do this work, you should really be also engaged in your own healing journey, have your own healing practices, whatever that might mean to you spiritually or otherwise, like [it’s] super important.
I’d also really encourage folks to remember that there’s no new thought, that every idea is an idea that’s been held before. Now, whether or not it’s an idea that was held that turned into something else, it doesn't mean that it hasn’t been held. And so when we bring ideas into space, it’s important that we do that in a way that honors the fact that it’s not original, but it is inspired. And so your inspiration can take it really a long way, but once it’s inspired and brought out into the world, it requires a collective to be able to lift that thing up and move it forward.
And so, in addition to the healing journey, I tell people that there is no greater power than the collective us, and that no great idea, by itself, moves without the movement of many and that it requires an investment of many in order for great ideas to move forward. So, be locked in the healing, and know that the power that you have is really the power of the collective us that’s pushing you forward.
The other thing I’d say that’s really important to me is that, for folks who have a platform, that platform you have is something that’s been given to you by the community you represent. So it doesn’t belong to you. So when you have that thing, respect the people who gave that to you, because they gave it to you because they trust you to do right by them with it.
I was curious what your thoughts are now in terms of looking at Seattle and the Seattle area and the state of our many communities in the city? What are your thoughts of the current situation and what maybe needs to be done in the future?
I think if you look at the upcoming elections, there’s going to be a lot of opportunity for both the city and the county. I think at this moment, there’s something like nine open seats between the city of Seattle City Council and the King County Council. And it may be more, depending on what’s happening today, right? What a cool opportunity for our region, to put people into positions to make decisions that honor the collective us. So that’s exciting to me. I think that if we do right by that, and if the voting population of Seattle, and greater King County, vote as though they were responsible for the people who are most impacted by their decision, we’ll end up in a really great place.
After the murder of George Floyd, the pendulum swung dramatically to the left, and there were a lot of people who were moderate conservatives who began to make proclamations that were really progressive in ways that were impressive, in the moment. After that dramatic swing to the left, and the next election cycle, there was a fair bit of a swing back to the right. We had an election that brought people into office that the voting majority in our region felt were safe. And so a lot of folks from white dominant culture made choices that they felt like were the safe choices to protect their best interest.
I’m hoping that in this next election cycle we can land somewhere that’s more center, where people can understand how their best interests intersect with the best interests of those who are most marginalized in our community, and how we can make a collective decision that lifts up those who are farthest away from justice, and by doing so benefit to all of us as a collective. Those are the hopes that I have, particularly as I’m looking at this new slate of city council members and King County Council members, that can likely begin to fill these roles.
We recently elected a new prosecutor who — by virtue of having prosecution, it still speaks to a practice of penalizing people for behavior that doesn’t actually lead to behavior change — and I believe the prosecutor we elected is one who I’ve worked with closely over these past six years, and believe that she has a lens towards doing things different in a way that honors those who have been most impacted. Albeit still a prosecutor, but a prosecutor who’s willing to move in the direction that community is calling her to, in an effort to get to what we believe is true public safety, which is a safe community that's not kept safe because of policing or prosecution, but because the material conditions are met of the people who are living in the community.
I think that Adrian Diaz as police chief, in addition to the newly appointed sheriff, give opportunities for different decisions to be made. Although I will say that, I think the practice of policing is a much bigger ship to turn and one that I don’t see as quick moving as prosecution can be. Whereas, I would love to imagine a city and a county in the very near future, that’s not operating in a way that’s perpetuating harm because of policing practices, that’s not a change that I see on the horizon, but one that I still dream of and a world that I would love to live in, where again, public safety isn’t defined by how many police officers we have in the street but defined by how well we resource the community so people don’t have the needs that press them into making decisions that cause harm.
Do you have any plans in the future, either professionally or otherwise, that you want to share?
I’m taking three months off to be on sabbatical. Shout out to the BIPOC ED Coalition, who is being incredibly intentional in making sure that leaders throughout this region who have been in these spaces have the resources necessary to be able to take some time away, to rest, recharge and come back stronger for the community that we care for. And yes, I’m taking three months off, I’m going to travel, I’m going to read, I’m not going to do work. I’m going to invest in myself, spend time with my family. And then in June, I’ll start a new adventure. There’ll be more to come in that later, but I can tell you that whatever I do next professionally is going to continually honor the people who have given me this gift of serving in this way, and make sure that it’s for the benefit of all.
Read more of the Feb. 8-14, 2023 issue.