In the fall sun at Hing Hay Park in Seattle’s Chinatown International District on Wednesday, about 20 leaders of a cross-racial array of civil rights, labor and faith organizations stood shoulder-to-shoulder to send the message, “We Rise Together.”
Following a possible defeat for the racially polarizing affirmative-action measure R-88, the leaders wanted to project strength in unity across ethnic communities. Speaker Monisha Harrell, the chair of Equal Rights Washington, which advocates for the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer community, said at the event, “I am my brother’s keeper. And I will fight for your prosperity as I hope you will fight for mine.”
This model of cross-racial solidarity may be one of the greatest legacies of legendary local civil-rights trailblazer King County Councilmember Larry Gossett. He is the last surviving member of the “Four Amigos” — a multiracial group of leaders composed of Gossett, Native leader Bernie Whitebear, Latinx leader Roberto Maestas and Asian American leader Uncle Bob Santos. They gave generations of organizers and activists a “blueprint,” Harrell says, of how to organize diverse communities through coalition building.
But by Wednesday afternoon, Councilmember Gossett was trailing Girmay Zahilay by nearly 14 percentage points, giving the first-time candidate a likely seat on a council overseeing the second-largest government in Washington state.
Some observers called the election a time for “new blood” and “passing the torch” to a candidate with “new energy.” The generational divide between Gossett, 74, and Zahilay, 32, mirrors conversations nationally around age and experience in politics. The contrast between the two was apparent in their election-night events — Zahilay’s a lively party at Columbia City’s Rumba Notes club, Gossett’s a much smaller, candlelit and prayerful gathering in a Central District church.
I am turning 45 tomorrow, and as someone squarely in the middle of the generational divide, I have watched with some apprehension as Gossett’s long legacy of fighting for civil rights has become a kind of dog whistle for ageism.
Both in this county election and in the presidential contest, people are conflating age with fitness and ability. Was Trump more fit to be president as a 50-year-old than as a 73-year-old? I would say no. Fitness for office involves a multitude of factors — and age is not a reliable indicator. With her marathon selfie sessions and her exhaustive policy briefs, Elizabeth Warren has shown at 70 she has more mental and physical stamina than most of us at any age.
Don’t get me wrong, by all accounts Zahilay ran a thoughtful, respectful and strategic campaign. He out-organized and out-hustled Gossett, using social media and old-fashioned shoe leather to get out his message. Zahilay was also able to capitalize on newcomers who did not know anything about local history and for whom Gossett was as much of a stranger as Zahilay. This is as much a shame on Gossett’s campaign as much as it is a shame on our failure to teach younger generations history and to foster a culture where age and experience are as valued as youth and tech-fueled love of “disruption.”
The Rev. Angela Ying, senior pastor of Bethany United Church of Christ, attended Wednesday’s unity event and Gossett’s election party. She believes we are making a mistake when experience is viewed as a liability versus an asset. She said, in the past, “we revered and looked up to our elders. We looked up to them for wisdom. We looked at them for experience. We looked up to them for passing on our heritage … And I think it’s almost like it’s flipped. Now it’s like this youth cult.”
Young people have a lot of reasons to be angry. We are leaving them with a dying planet and insurmountable debt. But we are now in an era where a generation of legitimately frustrated young people are saying “OK boomer” to dismiss older folks who don’t get where they are coming from. This is an entertaining and understandable reaction, but perhaps we would be better served instead by asking what could be learned from boomers, an incredibly diverse group of people who, based on their positionality, are also in varying degrees oppressed by the same systems young people are fighting against.
Harrell sees the Gossett race as a sign of this historical amnesia. “It’s disappointing to see how we so easily discard people who have given so much of their lives … without honoring what they’ve brought to the table and what they still bring to the table. We have this fascination with youth and with newness. It’s hard not to look at this as a referendum on how we treat our elder statesmen and women and what we think should be their seat at the table.”
I am excited for the future of my council district and am thrilled to see a new generation energized by this race and engaged in the political process. My hope is that Zahilay will take what seems to be his considerable bounty of smarts, talent and political savvy and build a team that reflects the best of the Four Amigos’ brand of cross-racial leadership, including a range of life experience. I hope he will model the kind of deep, cross-generational listening that yields stronger communities that take care of everyone.
We can’t afford to leave talent unutilized. As state Rep. My-Linh Thai put it at the unity event, the challenges we face require all our efforts. “To keep Washington amazing, to keep Washington strong, we need all hands. Together we rise.”