The fireworks were flying Tuesday afternoon at Seattle City Hall. But amid the protest chants, council waffling and constant din of an especially loud gong, progress was happening. It just wasn’t where people were looking.
I happened to be at City Hall on the same day that the City Council reversed its position on the so-called head tax, but I wasn’t there to take in the political drama unfolding just outside the Bertha Knight Landes Room.
I was listening to K. Wyking Garrett, the passionate and eloquent community leader — and third generation Seattleite — who is president of the Africatown Community Land Trust.
Garrett had convened community, business and government leaders from organizations such as Code Fellows, Microsoft, First Place, Social Venture Partners, HTC, Key Tech Labs, HERE Seattle, The Seattle Office and Economic Development and other groups to talk about solutions, not hold signs or toss salvos.
It was a powerful message of unity and hope on a day when it seemed as if the city was angry, polarized and about to rip itself apart.
I chose the right meeting to attend. I just wish more Seattleites — newcomers and old timers alike — were there to see it. It’s absolutely what this city needs — business people, government leaders, non-profit organizations connecting and working together to solve problems.
Meanwhile, the fight over the head tax raged upstairs and next door in the City Hall lobby.
Only one time during the two-hour meeting did Garrett — who is working to redevelop Fire Station 6 into an Innovation Hub in Seattle’s historic Central District neighborhood — address the chaos echoing outside the walls.
Calling it the “issue of the day,” Garrett said that the “economy is growing, the economy is booming, but not everyone is participating.”
“As the rents are going up, people are being displaced,” said Garrett, matter-of-factly pointing out that Seattle’s Central District population of African Americans has fallen from 70 percent in the 1970s to less than 20 percent today. At the same time, Garrett said “some of the most brilliant people on the planet” are moving to Seattle to solve complex problems “like how do we build condos on the moon.”
To address that displacement, Garrett said he’s taking a page from the tech startup playbook. “Through that process, we were able to come up with some solutions, and innovative partnerships to build affordable housing that is focused on mitigating this displacement, not only people and residents from the community, but also small businesses, and also culture,” he said.
One of those projects is the Liberty Bank Building, a unique mixed-use building under construction at 24th and Union. Another is the Hack the Central District hackathon.
And the list goes on, and on.
“You see all of these different things, and it is like a hackathon over here, there’s affordable housing over here, there is youth programming over here, there is business development over here, but what is consistent is an underlying principle of innovation, which at its core is just problem solving,” said Garrett. “The question is, where is that center of problem solving?”
It’s a good question to ask on a day that the Seattle City Council struggled with its own ability to solve problems, approving a head tax on employers less than a month ago, and then retreating from the position.
One of the most powerful parts of the day occurred when Garrett and his team encouraged participants to paste sticky notes on a giant piece of paper, showing various efforts in the community to get at some of the problems the community faces related to housing, education and health care.
Looking at the various sticky notes plastered on the paper, one could feel a measure of hope. There’s a ton of smart, innovative and creative work happening in Seattle, and there are people like Garrett who are rolling up their sleeves to make it happen.
One key take-away from the sticky notes is that the various ideas just need to be glued together more firmly. And people like Garrett who are leading through action, not just words,
People need to connect. They need to talk. They need to start solving problems by working together.