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Wednesday, May 26th, 2021

Colleen Echohawk talks with NPI about her trailblazing candidacy for Mayor of Seattle

2021 Seat­tle may­oral can­di­date Colleen Echohawk is the imme­di­ate past Exec­u­tive Direc­tor of the Chief Seat­tle Club, a non­prof­it focused on serv­ing Seattle’s Native Amer­i­can home­less pop­u­la­tion. Although she has nev­er served in elect­ed office, her exten­sive advo­ca­cy has made her one of the most well-con­nec­t­ed peo­ple in the city, as well as one of its most effec­tive polit­i­cal operatives.

A mem­ber of the Kithe­ha­ki Band of the Pawnee Nation, Echohawk would be Seattle’s first ever Native Amer­i­can may­or. Echohawk joined me for an inter­view (via Zoom) on May 18th. This tran­script has been light­ly edit­ed for clarity.

RUAIRI VAUGHAN, EVERGREEN STATE ELECTORAL ANALYST (NPI): Let’s start with the basics. Why did you decide to run for mayor?

COLLEEN ECHOHAWK: I decid­ed to run for may­or because I’m real­ly frus­trat­ed about what’s going on. You know, I have been work­ing on [tack­ling] home­less­ness along­side my friends and com­mu­ni­ty who are expe­ri­enc­ing home­less­ness, and have had a lot of suc­cess, and know that this is a prob­lem that we can actu­al­ly fix. It is not an unsolv­able problem.

Bear in mind, we’re in the city that got the whole world to drink cof­fee, fly huge jet air­planes, we’re an incred­i­bly inno­v­a­tive city and coun­try, and yet for some rea­son, we have not had the lead­er­ship to actu­al­ly solve this crisis.

That is the biggest fac­tor in why I’m jump­ing into this.

I also grew up in a fam­i­ly where, if there’s a prob­lem, and you have the skills and the ener­gy to actu­al­ly jump in there and work, you should.

I grew up learn­ing that you serve your community.

So I have been work­ing as a leader in the home­less­ness field for the past sev­en years, plus I’ve been on the police com­mis­sion for four years, and I have been work­ing on equi­table recov­ery for the past nine months.

I just felt like, every day, I was get­ting: “Will you con­sid­er run­ning for may­or, will you con­sid­er run­ning for May­or?” That can’t be the rea­son, right, just because [oth­er] peo­ple think it would be a good idea! How­ev­er, after a lot of reflec­tion and thought, I thought that this is the time for me to step up and to help lead us for­ward. I believe it’s time, and I’m ready to go!

RV: This is your first time run­ning for polit­i­cal office, and you’re run­ning against two city coun­cil pres­i­dents, a three-term state rep­re­sen­ta­tive, and a lot of oth­er peo­ple. What are you bring­ing to the table that oth­er, more polit­i­cal­ly expe­ri­enced can­di­dates can’t bring?

CE: I think I bring a fresh per­spec­tive. I am the only out­sider, tru­ly, in this race. I’ve nev­er worked in city hall, I’ve nev­er been a part of the system.

When I talk to peo­ple around this city, peo­ple are frus­trat­ed with our cur­rent lead­er­ship and are look­ing for some­one who can actu­al­ly make change.

My entire career has been about mak­ing change and doing the hard thing.

Noth­ing about the work I’ve done in the past sev­en years – suc­cess­ful­ly help­ing and sup­port­ing peo­ple through home­less­ness, build­ing afford­able hous­ing – none of that has been easy! I think that there need to be proven change-mak­ers in the office. I have sat on the oth­er side of the pol­i­cy mak­ing tables. I’ve been the one who’s had to try to imple­ment the policies.

We’ve advo­cat­ed and tried to influ­ence the poli­cies being made, but we were not the pol­i­cymak­ers. I am ready to be on the oth­er side of it. I have absolute­ly under­stood and expe­ri­enced what it’s like to be a woman of col­or who is try­ing to say: “If we are real­ly going to say we are a pro­gres­sive and equi­table city, then these poli­cies that are com­ing out are not going to work for our communities.”

So, hav­ing that per­spec­tive is the right place for us as we move into an incred­i­bly inter­est­ing time in our coun­try, in our world, in our city.

We have the oppor­tu­ni­ty now to make a real­ly gen­er­a­tional change and shift, and I think I’m the right per­son for that.

I am def­i­nite­ly dif­fer­ent from all the rest of the folks. We’re doing pan­els of every­one there, and I haven’t been a politi­cian. I’m going to try to now… I’m going to try to rep­re­sent my com­mu­ni­ty, to rep­re­sent it in a good way, in a way that lifts us all up, and that’s what I’ll bring to the office.

RV: Of course, you can’t do it all on your own as may­or — you’ve got to make rela­tion­ship build­ing with the City Coun­cil a high pri­or­i­ty. How would you do that, giv­en the cur­rent poor state of the relationship?

CE: This is the num­ber one ques­tion peo­ple ask me. We’ve done almost twen­ty town halls now, and this is the ques­tion that gets asked every sin­gle time.

I answer it the same way every time, and that is that I’ve been blessed in my career and my life to be a real­ly good part­ner and bridge builder. That’s why I have been in many places. I’ve been an advo­cate for our Native com­mu­ni­ty, with our Nation­al Coali­tion to End Urban Indige­nous Home­less­ness. I’ve worked with the Nation­al Alliance on End­ing Home­less­ness. I’ve worked with the Trump White House on home­less­ness through the inter-agency coun­cil on homelessness.

And then I’ve worked with the Down­town Seat­tle Asso­ci­a­tion. I don’t fit in in that place, yet I’ve been able to build the rela­tion­ships there, to bring togeth­er a dif­fer­ent view­point. You can ask any­one who goes to those meet­ings. I will often have to raise my hands to say, “No, no, no, have you thought about this?”

But I do it in a way that brings and invites peo­ple into the sto­ry of jus­tice and equi­ty for our city. I want peo­ple to know that they belong in this sto­ry, that they have a right to share their per­spec­tives and ideas, and togeth­er, we can move our city for­ward. That’s what I’d do with the Coun­cil as well and I have a real­ly good track record of doing that.

I’ve worked with the coor­di­nat­ing board that was then moved to the Region­al Home­less­ness Author­i­ty, and it was my job as co-chair to find ways for us to agree. We’re talk­ing about my friend Nan­cy Backus [the May­or of Auburn], the May­or of Seat­tle, the May­or of Belle­vue, and Shore­line, and oth­er elect­ed offi­cials, to find a way for us to actu­al­ly get to agreement.

I was giv­en some very nice acco­lades after that process.

I have expe­ri­ence doing that, bring­ing togeth­er dif­fer­ent view­points from dif­fer­ent places and hon­est­ly, I just think that’s a gift the Cre­ator, or the Uni­verse, or what­ev­er you want to say, has giv­en to me… to sup­port and lift up and part­ner with every­one in our com­mu­ni­ty, no mat­ter where you’re com­ing from.

I’ll bring that same exact atti­tude to my friends on the City Council.

Colleen Echohawk in front of the Seattle skyline

2021 Seat­tle may­oral can­di­date Colleen Echohawk (Pho­to cour­tesy of the campaign)

RV: That leads into my next ques­tion. You’re not just going to need to work with the City Coun­cil. There’s a lot of oth­er rela­tion­ships that are less under­stood. How do you see your role man­ag­ing the City of Seattle’s rela­tion­ship with the Port of Seat­tle and King County? 

CE: This is absolute­ly impor­tant, espe­cial­ly the coun­ty when it comes to home­less­ness. We know that this human­i­tar­i­an cri­sis we are fac­ing on the streets of Seat­tle is a region­al cri­sis, so I absolute­ly will work in part­ner­ship and col­lab­o­ra­tion with King Coun­ty, with King Coun­ty gov­ern­ment, and with the Port of Seattle.

I think the Port of Seat­tle is so inter­est­ing right now. We saw in very recent news that the Coast Guard want to expand their pres­ence on the water­front and the Port. We know that the Port is going to be more and more impor­tant as Seat­tle is looked at as a gate­way to the Arc­tic. There’s tremen­dous poten­tial there.

It has to be with the lens of equi­ty and racial justice.

There’s going to be job oppor­tu­ni­ties and all sorts of ways for our city to pros­per, and I want to make sure that this city is a city that makes sure every­one can pros­per in it – not just the very rich and pow­er­ful, but also those folks who have been left behind in our com­mu­ni­ty. Those rela­tion­ships with the port of Seat­tle, with King Coun­ty, will be ones that I will want to strengthen.

I want the gen­er­al pub­lic to know that, yes, I’ve been lead­ing a non­prof­it for years now, how­ev­er, I have very good rela­tion­ships with peo­ple at the Port, with the com­mis­sion­ers. I know all of the King Coun­ty Coun­cilmem­bers, I know Exec­u­tive Con­stan­tine. I know Joe Nguyen [who is chal­leng­ing Con­stan­tine for Exec­u­tive this year], so those are not new rela­tion­ships to me. I will be build­ing on these rela­tion­ships with the Port and with the County.

RV: Mov­ing from rela­tion­ships to action: as may­or, what would you do about the home­less­ness cri­sis that isn’t already being done?

CE: There is so much that has not been done! The imme­di­ate thing is that we have to treat this like the emer­gency that it is.

So, the first year and a half will be real­ly filled with an emer­gency home­less­ness pro­gram. That means every one of those four to five thou­sand peo­ple who slept on the streets out­side last night, we find an appro­pri­ate place for them that works for the spe­cif­ic needs that they have.

Hav­ing worked in our home­less com­mu­ni­ty for many years now, one thing I can tell you assured­ly is that not one sin­gle per­son out there wants to be in that sit­u­a­tion. We have to find the right solu­tion for them.

It will take indi­vid­ual case man­age­ment, it’ll take ded­i­ca­tion, it’ll take focus, and it’ll take mon­ey, but we can absolute­ly do it.

So the first year will have a pret­ty pri­ma­ry focus on get­ting that done.

I say pri­ma­ry because we also have to be focused on build­ing the afford­able hous­ing that’s out there. I’ve been a builder of hous­ing for the past four-ish years, and I can tell you that there are ways for us to move things for­ward in a much quick­er way. Again, I have rela­tion­ships with the Office of Hous­ing. I know those folks, I know what the mech­a­nisms are that need to be changed so we can get the hous­ing built much more quick­ly than it’s being built right now.

We’ve got to do both, but I believe that those folks who are expe­ri­enc­ing home­less­ness out­side on our streets right now, in our parks and along­side our free­ways, every­where they’re out­side, that is com­plete­ly because of a lack of polit­i­cal will. This is why I’m jump­ing into this race.

We have to do bet­ter. Those folks deserve for us to do better.

Our larg­er com­mu­ni­ty needs it as well. We have fam­i­lies and peo­ple who live in real­ly dense areas who need those parks, they need to have space to be outside.

But right now, all we’re doing is an insane thing of mov­ing peo­ple from one park to anoth­er — I have seen that with my own eyes! It is not effec­tive. It is a waste of tax­pay­er dol­lars, and most impor­tant­ly, human beings are suf­fer­ing: babies, chil­dren, elders. We can­not allow this to hap­pen and in an Echohawk admin­is­tra­tion, that will be a pri­ma­ry issue that we will solve.

RV: The issue isn’t mono­lith­ic, so how would you engage with dis­­trict-lev­­el efforts to help the unhoused. I’ve asked about how you’ve worked at the region­al and coun­ty lev­el, but how do you plan to work with more local initiatives?

CE: I’m not exact­ly sure if that dif­fers from what I was say­ing earlier.

Of course, the dis­tricts are going to be a big part of solv­ing the issue; work­ing with the coun­cil mem­bers, work­ing with the neighborhoods.

There is chron­ic home­less­ness in every dis­trict of this city, and we will absolute­ly have to be work­ing very hard to fig­ure out how we do it. I can go into more detail, we will have a detailed out­reach plan that talks about the dif­fer­ent areas of the city that we think are more impor­tant to get to and deal with.

We also have the issue of the dol­lars; right now we are promis­ing, I think, $125 mil­lion to the region­al home­less author­i­ty, and that’s going to be a prob­lem. We do need to sup­port the region­al approach, but we also have to deal imme­di­ate­ly with the cri­sis here in our city, so that’s going to be a care­ful negotiation.

Again, I’ve worked very close­ly in the past with our new CEO of the Region­al Home­less­ness Author­i­ty Marc Dones and look for­ward to work­ing with them again. They are a bril­liant per­son and I think that togeth­er we can do some pret­ty amaz­ing things.

RV: In your career, you’ve had the oppor­tu­ni­ty to engage with the top lev­els of city law enforce­ment. What is your vision for the future of polic­ing in Seattle?

CE: There’s three major things that I’ll share.

One, we have to hire a new chief of police, and this chief of police has to be tru­ly account­able to the com­mu­ni­ty and account­able to ensur­ing that there is polic­ing that is going to be, well, account­able up and down the line.

I keep say­ing account­able because we absolute­ly need it.

Our chief of police is going to have to be bold about discipline.

We can­not be afraid of arbi­tra­tion boards; what I will be hir­ing a chief of police on is that if an arbi­tra­tion board comes back and says, “You know what, sor­ry, this per­son is still going to be work­ing for Seat­tle Police Depart­ment,” that per­son will nev­er be on the streets of Seat­tle and inter­act­ing with our public.

We will have zero tol­er­ance for bad cops. I can tell you that I know some per­son­al­ly who have over­priced our home­less com­mu­ni­ty, have shown incred­i­ble bias, have used exces­sive force, and they are out on the streets right now. That will not be tol­er­at­ed in an Echohawk admin­is­tra­tion. So those are two things.

The third thing is the con­tract. We have a con­tract with the Seat­tle Police Offi­cers Guild [SPOG] that is not work­ing for our community.

We have an oppor­tu­ni­ty to nego­ti­ate that.

I want to be very clear with every­one about the past police con­tract. I stood with the com­mu­ni­ty police com­mis­sion and did not vote for that con­tract. In fact, I went to the Mayor’s Office along with some of my col­leagues on the com­mu­ni­ty police com­mis­sion and begged them not to take on that contract.

Mean­while, some of my com­peti­tors in this race actu­al­ly did vote yes on that con­tract. I think that real­ly sets me apart from oth­er folks in this race.

I will tell you that part of what has to hap­pen right now is coura­geous lead­er­ship and – we men­tioned this ear­li­er – I’m not a politician.

I did not antic­i­pate this [cam­paign]. I nev­er had visions of being the may­or of Seat­tle, I’m step­ping for­ward right now because our city needs it, our com­mu­ni­ty needs it, our home­less com­mu­ni­ty needs it.

So I don’t have any ties to the polit­i­cal world that would hold me back from being a fierce advo­cate for our com­mu­ni­ty around police reform.

So that is some­thing that is going to be a hall­mark of our administration.

We know there is so much oppor­tu­ni­ty for us right now to change the sys­tem; I believe that Seat­tle should be a leader right now in police reform around the coun­try, and I look for­ward to hav­ing the oppor­tu­ni­ty to help lead us forward.

RV: We’ve talked a lot about the imme­di­ate prob­lems fac­ing Seat­tle – obvi­ous­ly, there’s a lot! Zoom­ing out a bit: Seat­tle has been a hub for so many indus­tries… cof­fee, aero­space, fish­ing, and of course, tech. What’s the next boom indus­try that you envi­sion for the city’s economy?

CE: My vision for the city’s econ­o­my is that we gave a more equi­table pros­per­i­ty in our region. The Seat­tle Times had an arti­cle – I think it was a year and a half ago – and I think there was like one CEO that was a woman out of the major cor­po­ra­tions in Wash­ing­ton State. Unac­cept­able, in my view.

I also think this is an oppor­tu­ni­ty now for our Black, Indige­nous, and peo­ple of col­or com­mu­ni­ties to real­ly think about small busi­ness. Small busi­ness­es in neigh­bor­hoods are super inter­est­ing to me because I own a small busi­ness. I come from a small busi­ness back­ground, I grew up in a small busi­ness family.

I think that real­ly giv­ing fierce atten­tion to our small busi­ness own­ers in this region and in our city, find­ing them as many oppor­tu­ni­ties as we can to be suc­cess­ful – I would like us to look back ten years from now and say: “Wow, small busi­ness in Seat­tle is the dri­ver of our economy.”

I also feel like this is an oppor­tu­ni­ty to invite our larg­er big busi­ness­es into the sto­ry of equi­ty and jus­tice that we are build­ing together.

When you are a big com­pa­ny and you put a ban­ner on your web­site that says Black Lives Mat­ter, then you have to be held account­able to that!

That means that, if you believe Black Lives Mat­ter, then you believe Black peo­ple deserve beau­ti­ful and abun­dant hous­ing in our city.

If you believe Black Lives Mat­ter, then you believe that we have to make huge changes around and then imple­ment our cli­mate pol­i­cy, that we’ve been say­ing we’re going to imple­ment for years and years now.

It was 2009 when Greg Nick­els [May­or of Seat­tle, 2002–2010] said we are going to be reduc­ing our car­bon emis­sions in the city, and every sin­gle year [since], they have got­ten worse. I believe there is an abun­dance of cli­mate pol­i­cy change out there, but there hadn’t been the lead­er­ship that there has to be at the top lev­el to make it hap­pen. My whole career has been about mak­ing change, and that’s what I want to bring to the office.

Back to our big busi­ness­es: I think that this city should be the leader in tru­ly under­stand­ing what it means to live out the prin­ci­ples of Black lib­er­a­tion, of Native lib­er­a­tion, and part­ner with every­one so we can tru­ly see those kids who are in the South End right now, those Black kids, who have high rates of asth­ma because of all of the indus­tri­al by prod­ucts that are impact­ing their lungs.

That is not okay in our city, and we [want to] work with every­thing that we have in us to change that. For those Native par­ents right now who are suf­fer­ing because of infant mor­tal­i­ty rates that are off the charts, that we change those mech­a­nisms so that every sin­gle baby, every sin­gle child in the city can succeed.

I think we have a big­ger sto­ry that we can be writ­ing right now, that we can be the city that we say we are – a tru­ly pro­gres­sive city. I look for­ward to being there for it, and I believe I’m the right leader for this moment, and I want to serve this city. I tru­ly come from a back­ground of pub­lic ser­vice; my ego is not con­nect­ed to this, but my love for my com­mu­ni­ty is what’s dri­ving this.

RV: Thank you so much for speak­ing with us!

Vot­ing in the August 2021 Top Two elec­tion will begin in a lit­tle less than two months, with bal­lots due back by 8 PM on August 3rd, 2021. The top two vote get­ting can­di­dates will advance to the Novem­ber gen­er­al election. 

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  1. […] In a crowd­ed may­oral race, Colleen Echohawk brings valu­able expe­ri­ence, new ideas, and an uncom­mon back­ground. For more on her plans for the future of Seat­tle, read my inter­view with her here. […]

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