Women In Politics: Kirsten Harris-Talley on Her Evolution From Activist to Running for State Representative in Seattle's 37th District

"If we can build this together as community, what are we going to build?"
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We've been anxiously awaiting the right moment to share this new column. A space on The Fold dedicated to profiling, supporting and empowering BIPOC women in the political arena, and today we are honored to feature Kirsten Harris-Talley in our inaugural post.

Kirsten Harris-Talley has a 20-year history of activism, community organization and leadership in the Seattle area. She is currently running for State Representative of the 37th District (the most diverse district in the state) and one of nine Black women running for office across Washington. 

We were introduced to Harris-Talley through a community fundraising event, which on par for our current climate, was held on Zoom. Even via screen, Kirsten's passion and enthusiasm for her community is infectious. She is, to put it bluntly: brilliant on policy, straight-forward with her agenda and confident in the possibilities she sees ahead for us all. 

Our Executive Editor, Amanda Carter Gomes, spoke with Harris-Talley last week. She had just wrapped up a meeting regarding potential candidates to take over her current role as the Executive Director for NARAL Pro-Choice Washington, and was exactly 7 days out from the primary election in Seattle (which is tomorrow, August 4, for all the Washingtonians reading!). The conversation covered everything from their mutual Missouri roots to how her personal witness to "casual" activism from a young age shaped her professional evolution to why "It's not me, it's we" is the foundation of her platform. 

This interview has been condensed for publishing. 

What has been the evolution of your career from activist to running for office and how did you determine your path? How can other women create this space for themselves and do the same?

In our mailer that just went out I shared a personal story. My Art Communications Director noted that in that story it feels like every transition point in your story when you weren’t sure where to go next, that there was a Black woman there saying “I see something in you, let me help, let me mentor you into that next step.” And I think it’s really true. 

When I was born in 1979, the Lovings case on the federal level had only been around for twelve years. My mom is white from East Coast people, my father is black and from East Coast people and they were having an interracial marriage. This was just post Vietnam War, to come out of that time into the part of the country we were in, the Midwest, as a mixed race couple and raising four kids in rural Missouri, we had unfortunately a lot of opportunities to actually see folks, you know, acting how they do - and people either standing up and doing something or just letting it go by the wayside. The consistent example of the people that my family curated in our lives were the folks who were like “nah, we're not going to do that, we are going to say something and do something." And, I think that is the base of a lot of what my activism is, seeing people stand up, casually, in my everyday interactions. If we were in a store and someone said the n-word, and my mom didn’t like it and heard it, my mom was going to say something. And she was going to use her white privilege to say something, because she knew what it would look like for others. 

Then when I went to college in Chicago, I got a partial scholarship to go to school to study art. I was super excited to move to a big city, and I got to live right in downtown Chicago, and for me really a country bumpkin on every term. I feel lucky that I had that experience, to be with other artists and to gain an appreciation for art as activism. The Cabrini Green was happening in real time when I was there in the late nineties. I remember seeing what it looked like while the government was forcibly removing folks from their homes. There were nightly interactions with police, it was that level of confrontation. And when you're eighteen and think you’re invincible, when people are like “Do you want to go down there and do something?”, you are like “Of course, let’s just go do it!”. I am glad I had friends and people to show me a path for starting to get active in activism. I say I’m not from here, because I’m not. I was not born and raised in Seattle, but my activism in many ways is rooted and recognizing and calling it that, was here.

How did Seattle shape your path to activism? 

I moved here in my early twenties. I came here because every young person I talked to was telling me that this is a young place where queer people could be queer, grunge music was happening, people could just be themselves. The economy was booming, and you could go there, be a young person and be ok. And that’s exactly what I did. I moved here with $250, I prepaid my rent for several months, and now that’s impossible. When I moved here the accelerated gentrification of the Central District, it was just (snaps fingers) deepening. I remember literally going to a party at an art house in the Central District and I was looking at the address and I was confused. And a white friend I had just met, and at this time I had only been here a couple months, said “Oh, you don’t want to go there. That’s a really dangerous part of town.” While I was sure it was well meaning, I was like “Hmm, I just moved here from Chicago, I think I’ll be fine.” And I went, and I was literally like “What are you talking about dangerous?”. The Central District looked like, for me in rural Missouri what the houses looked like. These big houses with big porches, people were sitting outside, it was summertime. So, the contrast of that perspective, it didn’t take me long to figure out that “Oh, there are more Black people here than I have seen in my entire two months here in Seattle.” Luckily I started asking questions. And people said, oh yeah, that’s because of redlining, oh yeah that’s because of this…

I had an unusual education career. I took a break after art school; I got to take Quintard Taylor’s course here about the history coming out of the University of Washington; I got to sit down with aunties who had been part of the Gang of Four work. Really the lens in which I understand how activism can happen and the success of that is really about the way activism has been built here. I have friends all the time asking “How is this happening in Seattle right now? Why are Seattle and Portland ground zero for the visibility on this?”. And I keep telling them, I know there are more Black people in Atlanta, Louisiana, but something about the collective collaboration and the way activism is built here, we’ve been doing the work here for a decade - that’s why. Everyone is in the right place and the right time simultaneously, to have those circumstances, we can all stand up together and be like “We’re going to do it this way now.”

This is because people expect Washington state, specifically Seattle, to be incredibly progressive, yes? 

This is the narrative of Washington state at large. Relative to the rest of the country, and this is why I don’t like comparisons of relativity, I don’t think they’re good, particularly when you think of equity and justice. We “look” like the most progressive state in the country, until you add any lens around gender or race ethnicity. The second you add any of that analysis to anything, we’re dead last in everything. We have the most regressive tax code in the entire country. We have the most regressive gun laws in the entire country. We have some of the worst outcomes for education, especially when you look at achievement gap and disproportionate suspension Black, Brown, Indigenous folks being fast tracked into incarceration, we’re at 47 out of 50.

That’s why I think activism has a viability, it has a clarity and vision that’s way bigger than the realities of what our policy is now; which is why you need to dream bigger, and you can’t get there without the dream. No one thought a democracy could work when the entire globe was lead by kings. It took activism and revolution to make that a reality, but if first took a vision of decades. That's what is exciting about this moment. I think Black Lives Matter and what it is to dismantle incarceration and policing systems and the vision of the care we can build on the other side, it’s a much better system. It saves taxpayers money, it saves communities, but most importantly it literally saves lives. It literally keeps people's mothers and fathers and children safe, and keeps them healthy and thriving, and that should be the priority for anyone doing government anywhere. Of, for and by the people, if people isn’t center to everything you’re doing, then why are you doing it? 

You are delving into elected politics at a unique time, unlike any other time since at least we have been alive. Why is representation so important to you right now? 

It's beyond time for it to be important. There’s always been a gulf in representation. I have never had to worry in the activism space that those most impacted were centered and leading the work. And quite frankly, the most sophisticated political strategy I have learned is in those spaces, because they are actually doing the work. I say that because in the very traditional political spaces I am in, I spend a lot of my time and career in those spaces saying “What about Black, Brown, Indigenous people? What about white women? What about young people? What about folks with disabilities?” Asking questions like why are we again looking at vote shares and over-representing white, cis-gendered men over the age of 60? Which, anytime there is a poll, it’s always over sampling those voices. I think right now what we’ve been seeing is a starkness and an acuteness, and I think the Black Lives Matter movement being built over time and finally getting the attention it deserves has only made more stark and transparent where there are places of healing and amends are needed between different types of folks with different lived experiences. And a lived experience gives folks a unique perspective on solutions. It just does.

The reason I was asking the questions I was asking at those tables is because I know the people who had lived the experience of me, needed to be heard. And I was going to always make sure to ask why are they not being represented. A poll is supposed to be a representation of your community and what they think or don’t think, so you can take the action to go forward and bring them what they say they want. If you're not asking the right people, if you're not base building, the issue that thinking that only one generation is viable for voting and one generation is the viable front for activism ends up dividing the solutions of activism from becoming real policy. Particularly right now in Washington state, I am in a race where the top two candidates are Black. That’s never happened in any other race I can find in Washington state. We’re both also community members and come from activism. For the first time in Washington state history that any of us can find, nine Black women simultaneously are running for office all over Washington state. The struggle in the work is long, but the fiber of democracy is everyday folks can come together and figure out the path forward and make it happen. 

What do you say to the women who want to enter the activism or political spheres, but don't know where to start? 

I live with a lens where I have done none of this, we have done it all. That’s the biggest story of my whole life, in my activism, in my 9-5 work, it’s also helped create change. It’s always been with lots and lots and lots of other people there as well, both to hold me accountable. I am human, I make mistakes. Ask my children and my husband, I do it all the time. And for me it’s always less about whether I am going to take a risk, or fail, or make a mistake, but more of who am I accountable to? And when that happens, how do I heal and make amends from that and rebuild trust, so that has to be the lens. If your answer to all of that is I am doing this for the we of us, and that is going to hold me to go forward, in essence you have everything you need. Do you have the folks who next to you who are going to help you consider all the places where you are not seeing the clarity about what’s out there or what you’ll bring forward? 

Most traditional campaigning is really rough waters. It’s conflict based, it’s competitive based, and I did not want to build anything like that at all. When I sat with my family to answer the call, because many neighbors had to ask and before I was like “Let me think about it and I will talk with my family.” But this is often the case, especially with femmes, we have to be asked many, many, many times before we say yes. I think that is a little bit of the impostor syndrome, it’s a little bit of leaders don’t look like me, can I do this? For me and my family, it was a consideration of “Are you going to be safe?” Our friend Ijeoma was experiencing in real time and wrote very publicly about the experience she was having as a Black femme with white supremacists sending SWAT teams to her home to terrorize her family. Those are the things you have to think about. The other thing you get to think about is if we can build this together as community, what are we going to build? And that’s the part the was ultimately so compelling. 

The biggest consideration always, somebody very wise told me, if you’re gonna run, your entire family is going to run. And taking pause to reflect with my family about the evolution of the campaign and how we’re showing up. So when Black Lives Matter came to the surface and we were going to be in the streets again, sitting with my family and saying “Are you ok with me being in marches?". And talking that through, and what is that going to look like, because we’re all going to be taking to the streets and literally putting our lives in our hands because we’re doing it in the middle of a pandemic. 

If you can really hunker down in the it’s not me, it’s we, and what are we building together? I don’t think whatever path you find or how you show up in the work will be wrong. Whether it’s to be an elected official or to be an activism auntie, everyone from the folks who take care of our children while we’re marching, to those who make sure the live stream is up so that my neighbor who is wheelchair bound and can’t come to the march is able to be active in the work, to the Black women who are standing up all over Washington state saying “No, we deserve a seat at the table too. We deserve to have a Black woman represent, for this first time, this district, or be in the Senate.” We’ve never had a black woman serve in our state Senate, and we have that opportunity this year. All of that matters. All of it happening at the same time matters. Find where you can show your love through the work and do it. 

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Kirsten is proudly endorsed by the 37th LD Democrats, King County Democrats, Congresswoman Pramila Jayapal, Seattle Public School teachers and of course, The Fold. 

For more on Kirsten's platform or to get involved with her campaign, please visit her website. 

 

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