Seattle residents with almost any level of civic engagement have likely seen Nikkita Oliver — and perhaps heard her speak.
The community organizer, lawyer, artist and educator made herself a visible presence on issues of racial, social and economic justice, be it the fight against the Children and Family Justice Center, aka the youth jail, or the push to divest from companies that support the Dakota Access Pipeline. Oliver teaches in schools, speaks at City Council meetings, triumphs at poetry slams and performed on national television.
But is the person who spent more than a decade pushing on the system from the outside ready and able to work effectively from within?
Oliver and the Seattle Peoples Party she represents think so.
Oliver is the daughter of a cash-poor, interracial couple from Indianapolis. She received an undergraduate degree in sociology, a master’s in education and juris doctor degree while working full-time. She sees the world through a critical lens, a gaze she uses on herself, she says, to check her privileges and biases.
At 31, her résumé is long, but the list of accomplishments hints at the character who made it possible: an indefatigable discipline, curious mind, open ears and sense of responsibility to her community.
“I think what’s most transformative about it is that I’ve overcome a lot of barriers to develop the skills that would make me a great mayor,” Oliver said.
Why did you move to Seattle?
I moved here for the rain. For real. … I remember one time in between sessions [at a Seattle Pacific University event], I went for a walk with my Walkman — yes, a tape-player — with a tape I had made off the radio, so I was still making mixed tapes, and I went for a walk and I walked in the rain thinking how much I really enjoyed that. It comes back to the environment again. Seattle is so green, Seattle is so beautiful, and I had never seen a city this beautiful. In my mind, cities were always places full of concrete and structures.
So, I ended up going to Seattle Pacific University and moving 2,007 miles away from everything I grew up knowing.
That must have been intense.
It was, but it was an important shift. It really helped expose me to a bigger picture of the world.
I kind of lived in a family where we only knew so far, and so moving to Seattle was me really pushing the bounds of what I had been taught was possible. But that’s kind of how I lived my life, so it was a good thing.
You wrote once that you were homeless while you were studying at SPU.
There was a quarter where I didn’t have housing. Even though I was working full-time at that time, I didn’t make enough to afford an apartment on my own, so finding roommates was just a challenge in general. And plus, working full-time and going to school full-time — when are you going to look for housing? So, I slept in my car, slept in friends’ houses, slept in the student’s government office. I showered at the gym, and this was about 10 weeks. But believe it or not, I also spent a lot of time in the library, which meant my friends spent a lot of time in the library, and they can all tell you that was the best quarter of grades for everybody.
How does that influence the way you look at social issues now?
I try to approach things as humanistically as possible, understanding that especially situations like being houseless or homeless create instability and a certain amount of trauma.
I think the one thing I realized during that time frame is that people didn’t trust my knowledge of what I knew I needed.
So, I think that time really taught me to trust others’ instincts about their own needs and not just trust them, but when they ask me to do something in response to those needs — even if I think we should do something different — I need to give that a try first.
It’s really informed my process of how I work alongside people and not on behalf of people.
I’ve heard some of that echoed in what you say about consensus-building, and how you want to bring that into the context of the Mayor’s Office.
Consensus-building is a really incredible tool. It’s not always time efficient, but I do think it is effective. And I think what our city needs is a real, effective vision for how — with multiple communities and multiple constituencies with different interests — we actually vision for the next 50 years of Seattle in a way that builds a consensus we can all buy into.
There are a lot of processes that go down in Seattle bureaucratically that often do not invite in the brilliance of our community. It’s also not just about consensus-building, but it is about our electeds admitting they don’t have the answer to everything, and to be honest, that’s OK. I would be far more comfortable with an elected that said, “I actually don’t have all the solutions, but I do believe the answer and the solution exists between our various brilliant communities.”
I know as an attorney, when I work for other attorneys building an argument for a case, we’ll moot that, we’ll moot court that argument. And sometimes, new ideas come up from someone else and I didn’t even expect it, but it ends up being the most important legal hook in the case.
I saw a quote in the Seattle Globalist that said, “Law school made me realize I don’t actually want to be a lawyer.” Can you give me some context on that?
I was working with youth at Seattle Urban Academy, which is an incredible alternative school. …
We have quite a few youth who were also court-involved. And I would go to court with them sometimes, and I would realize that they had no idea what was going on, their parents sometimes had no idea what was going on, and I could sit in an entire hearing and I wouldn’t know what was going on. So I was talking to a friend about how disturbing that was and how our community needed to access legal knowledge, how we had to redistribute legal education, and the friend looked at me and in some very direct words said, “Then well you need to go to law school.”
I’m sitting in the fifth or sixth week of my property [law] class and we’re getting ready to talk about the discovery doctrine, which is a doctrine that says it’s OK that we took the land because the first peoples who were here before us were not using it well, is essentially what it says. … And I was sitting there thinking, “Wow, our entire legal system is based upon a doctrine that dehumanized and delegitimized a whole group of people so the land could be taken,” and I realized I didn’t want to be a lawyer, or at least not a traditional lawyer.
What they teach you in law school is that there are processes to create change and while they may be incremental, they’re the most effective. Now I don’t agree with that, but I do now have those skills. I also have organizing skills, activism skills, system-transformation skills. So for me I look at my law license as another tool in my toolkit to make me that much more effective as an advocate and as a public servant, and it does transform the way that I think about law and policy and how we develop it.
Law school seems to change thought processes, because it’s such a specific way of thinking.
It is a very specific way of thinking. And I think that was one thing I was nervous about going to law school and what people in my community were nervous about. While there were those that were like, “We need you to go to law school,” there were also those who were like, “Mmm, you’re about to be a lawyer I’m not quite sure I trust you.”
And so I do feel that understanding that thought process has been invaluable to me to build cross-constituency and also being able to work with other lawyers and electeds. I understand how they’re developing their arguments and their thoughts. I get the formula for that. I also understand how community works and how grassroots community works and how the most vulnerable and marginalized in our community feel about the law and lawyers. As a result, I think that allows me to speak across groups and help me develop these sort of consensus-driven ideas that allows us to move things forward. And move things forward in ways that are not just simply incremental, but are actually transformative.
Do you see possible parallels between your experience in law school and going into an environment such as the Mayor’s Office, which has institutionalized racism and classism?
I think the skill I learned is the same. How do you listen first? How do you ask questions first? It’s very easy for us to make assumptions about people and implicit bias is a very real thing for all of us, and so law school taught me to ask questions first and not make assumptions. I think that’s an incredibly important skill for anyone working as an elected, but certainly important for the Mayor’s Office, which is our executive body. And we need that body to be able to look at all the different groups of people in our city and act as unbiased as possible, and that only happens by asking questions and confronting our biases.
Our city sits at a very important crossroad where we are existentially deciding who has the right to be in this city, and to have that conversation well and to make sure that those who have been here for years have the right to stay alongside those who are coming in with much higher incomes, we need to be able to effectively have these conversations, cross constituency and actually build consensus. Not compromise, consensus.
And that’s hard, but it depends on how well you’ve developed your listening ears.
You’ve worked outside of the system, pushing against it for a long time. What will it be like to transition into the system and working in that context? And why did you want to do so?
I made the decision after the first executive order came down [Real Change note: This is the executive order from the Trump administration banning entry to the U.S. from seven Muslim-majority countries]. My role as an organizer and activist in this city has certainly been one that pushed and pressed electeds to have to do things differently, and I do think that is an important and essential role to movement-building. I also believe in the diversity of tactics, though. We need people at different levels and different places to make sure we move forward on the sort of reform and transformation that we absolutely need to happen. I have those skills. I have the legal knowledge, I’ve worked on ordinances, I’ve worked alongside electeds and I understand how that process works.
I think the other side of it is who do those communities trust? And they said, “We trust you.” Part of the reason I’ve avoided becoming a public servant in that capacity as an elected because too many times have we seen in history where our great grassroots organizers who have spoken so much truth to power and really had the skill to galvanize community and also galvanize electeds, we’ve seen them become elected and become far less effective. But we’re living in a drastically different context now under this current federal administration. What I heard from them was, we really feel like we need electeds who are willing to draw hard lines in the sand. We believe you have the integrity for it, we more than believe you have the skillset and the managerial skills to do it and we want to get behind you.
That was the thing. I told them I wouldn’t do it, I’m not going to do it as some individual personality. I’m not going to do it based on my own ego. I will do it if, as a community, we develop a party structure and we develop ways of holding me accountable as an elected. We have too many unaccountable electeds, and we create some nonnegotiables that we all agree to. And they were like, deal.
That sounds like the genesis of the Peoples Party.
In an interview with The Seattle Times’ Overcast podcast, you used the word “populist,” saying you wanted to get a populist person elected. That is an interesting term these days, and I’m curious how you define populism and what you see in it.
When we think about a populist campaign for us, we are thinking about someone who is really backed by individuals.
How do we ensure that the interests of people, humans and also our Earth ... are what come to the forefront? I think that’s what happens in a populist campaign that does not take corporate donations and is really led by the interests of the people.
I think that makes it a populist campaign, and certainly the word populist can mean a lot of things to a lot of people, but that’s the way we’re looking at it having a movement backed by actual individuals.
Certain things like the budget or Pathways Home (Seattle’s plan to combat homelessness) are set for the time being. Where do you see yourself making an impact when you hit the ground? What do your first 100 days look like?
I do think early on, responding to the state of emergency around homelessness and housing affordability can begin. … We’ve been meeting with advocates and impacted peoples, and one of the things we’ve been told is that we want to see the city leverage its properties to make sure that there is enough shelter space as soon as possible because currently a lot of facilities are full and now services are bottlenecked. I think the first thing will be respond to what we’ve been told in the process of building our platform around what are the solutions and how do we make those solutions begin to happen.
Seattle is very much in the spotlight right now, both for negative reasons like our homelessness crisis and as a center of “the resistance.” What would it be like to be the leader of Seattle in that context?
I think it’s important for it to be hyperlocal-focused in the sense that the issues we respond to we know what the impact is on the ground here. I wouldn’t want people in this city to think I’m more concerned about resisting the national issues than I am about our actual local issues, so I think we have to see where they’re connected at the local level and who in our city is most impacted by those.
You’ve mentioned the ways in which you identify and pieces of your identity, such as being a person of color, a woman and queer. What would it mean to have a mayor that has all of those pieces? It would be a first.
It would be a first. I grapple with this because I never want to say it’s great to have a role simply because of their political identity. I think what’s most transformative about it is that I’ve overcome a lot of barriers to develop the skills that would make me a great mayor. Many of those barriers come out of the result of the political identity that I have. What it says is I have resiliency and I have discipline and commitment, and I think what that means is that I would be disciplined, committed and resilient in my work as a mayor.
I think it’s transforming for a lot of people what it means to have a candidate that comes from your community when you have never had the opportunity to interact with a candidate in general. That’s powerful to me. We’re changing narratives. Your political identity shouldn’t matter. Unfortunately, it does … but you can be an inclusive leader and show a lot of strength and resiliency and not in spite of your identity but because all the things that you have learned living in your body and your skin for so long can make you a dynamic, charismatic leader.
Ashley Archibald is a Staff Reporter covering local government, policy and equity. Have a story idea? She can be can reached at ashleya (at) realchangenews (dot) org. Twitter @AshleyA_RC
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