Often when we think about social justice leadership, the people we celebrate are the firebrands, the orators, the ones in front of the microphone.
But the engine of social change is also found behind the scenes in quieter places, where polarized perspectives are debated then shifted, a process nurtured by authentic relationships, trust and respect.
For more than 50 years, that’s where you would find lifelong Seattle social justice leader Garry Owens, who died of multiple health issues Sept. 30 at age 77.
“There were very few people in the Seattle progressive movement who did not know who Garry was,” said his longtime friend Bill Fletcher Jr., a scholar, activist and author.
Despite his influence in the community, Owens was humble.
“Garry was deeply committed to social justice. He just sweated social justice,” Fletcher said.
“There was nothing beneath him. He was not one of these prima donnas who say, ‘No, I won’t set up the chairs.’ He would do whatever it took. And you could just simply count on him.”
Owens was born in the Chinatown International District, and his roots in the diverse neighborhood informed his approach to multiracial organizing and coalition building. He attended South Seattle schools and graduated from Franklin High School, where he became involved in the Seattle chapter of the Congress of Racial Equality, or CORE. He was drafted into the Army and returned to Seattle in 1967 to attend the University of Washington. In 1968, he became an early member of the Seattle chapter of the Black Panther Party.
In 2016, Owens told The Seattle Times that of the work he did while in the Black Panther Party, he was most proud of the free breakfast program. “We didn’t just feed Black kids. We fed hungry kids,” he said.
Owens’ care for young people extended throughout his life and work. His spouse of over 30 years, Cindy Domingo — a longtime Seattle activist and organizer — said the outpouring of messages from people of all backgrounds and ages during his passing reflected that commitment.
“He committed over 50 years of his life to radical change in this world, both in the United States and internationally,” she said. “And he always saw that young people were the hope, that vision. So he spent a lot of time mentoring, encouraging and educating young people.”
Personal connections and relationship-building were at the core of how Owens lived, Domingo and others said. Owens would be the one to send texts and notes of encouragement to friends and acquaintances and check up on people.
“Those mean a lot to people in terms of that human touch and human care, and a lot of times, we as organizers don’t have the time or don’t see it as important in our organizing work,” Domingo said.
The care and interest was deeply genuine, Fletcher said. He said Owens’ relationships were not transactional and while Owens had his own strong views, he deeply listened to others and respected their perspective.
“He wouldn’t look down on people. And he wasn’t judgmental. That’s why he was able to be a good mentor,” Fletcher said.
Owens’ ability to build relationships across differences also distinguished his approach. Owens spent many years as a board member leading LELO, formerly the Labor and Employment Law Office, a labor-rights organization founded explicitly as a cross-racial organization to fight for racial and economic justice.
As Fletcher put it, “[Owens] wanted to unify, and he wanted to win. And so he was able to distinguish issues that should split us and those that should not be valuable.”
It wasn’t just racial differences but political differences that Owens bridged.
Owens’ friend, civic leader and activist Sharon Maeda, who met him in the 1970s at UW, said he would engage with others, even if they had differing views. When people would attack each other and retrench into their ideological camps, he wouldn’t. “That’s not Garry. And he would make a point of going to see people or talking to people that he knew either didn’t know what he was talking about, or didn’t share his values. But he had a way of talking to them,” she said.
The ability to connect with different people served Owens well during his decades at the city of Seattle’s Department of Neighborhoods, initially called the Office of Neighborhoods. Owens started his tenure there in 1989, and was one of the first community organizers hired to help underrepresented and less affluent parts of the city organize their own neighborhood associations.
Later, Owens became a manager with the city’s Neighborhood Matching Fund, which supported community organizations with funding for specific projects. Jim Diers, who led the Department of Neighborhoods for many years and initially hired Owens, said Owens was patient and supportive with applicants and helped people understand how to navigate an unfamiliar process.
“He was somebody who could work with people from anywhere, from any age group. Just comfortable with people and got people comfortable with him,” Diers said. “That smile, that laugh, that sense of humor. I like to call him a loving warrior for justice. Passionate about justice and made that his life’s work. But at the same time, he wasn’t one of those sour people, he’s just very loving, very caring.”
Domingo said Owens was particularly proud of the work he did with young people at the Department of Neighborhoods, especially a youth-centered project that had young people reviewing proposals from other young people. Diers said the group ultimately recommended projects like a queer youth magazine, peer mediation, an anti-violence rap video, a multicultural mural and park beautification.
Diers said ultimately, “trying to live the world you are trying to create” exemplified Owens’ philosophy. “He was trying to create a place where everybody was valued, where there’s justice, where there’s love. And he didn’t wait for that world. He acted like everybody was equal. Everybody had value, and everybody needs to be loved.”
In an oral history project recorded in 2005, Owens talked about this vision. “Maybe the true essence of our humanity is to deeply feel something and then strive for it however you can, and then take people along with you so you’re not doing it in isolation.”
Owens is survived by Domingo; his children, Jamil Owens, Malik Owens and Ann Marie Diggs; and his grandchildren, Whitney Diggs and Maddie Diggs.
A public memorial service will be held at 4 p.m. Oct. 27 at the Filipino Community Center located at 5740 Martin Luther King Jr. Way S., in Seattle.
Material from The Seattle Times archive is included in this report.