Soon after Sharon Nyree Williams started a nonprofit for Black artists in Seattle years ago, the organization was staging plays at the Langston Hughes Performing Arts Center and her work was spotlighted in a newspaper column. In a sense, things were going really well. But that wasn’t the whole story.
“I left the theater that night knowing I was in the paper — and knowing that my power was out and I was going to be sleeping in my clothes. I was going to wake up in the morning and go to my friend’s house to eat,” Williams recalled in a recent interview. “I was barely making it.”
That was a perspective she brought to Seattle’s Equitable Communities Initiative, a task force convened by Mayor Jenny Durkan last year to guide new investments in programs aimed at communities of color. For Williams, a hope was “making sure the next generation doesn’t have to be that starving artist,” she said.
Based on a promise Durkan made during last year’s racial justice protests, the investments are meant to combat long-standing disparities in areas like business, education, health and housing, with advocates taking the lead.
The task force included representatives from a range of nonprofits that serve people of color, including the Urban League of Metropolitan Seattle, the Seattle-King County NAACP, Muslim Housing Services, El Centro de la Raza, United Indians of All Tribes and the People of Color Against AIDS Network, plus representatives from unions and churches.
Each panelist brought distinct work experience and life experience to the table, said Williams, who started The Mahogany Project in 2006 and now serves as executive director of the Central District Forum for Arts and Ideas. Panelists, including many with decades of community advocacy, built personal relationships as they learned from each other, she said.
“We don’t need to tell BIPOC communities what they need,” said Councilmember Debora Juarez, an ex-officio member of the task force, referring to Black, Indigenous and people of color. “We just need to listen and deliver.”
Williams concentrated on housing, she said, knowing that artists of color in Seattle are especially vulnerable to homelessness. In that area and others, the task force has recommended strategies that build “generational wealth,” supporting community members now so their gains can be passed along.
The panel’s recommendations call for 18 kinds of investments, with $7.5 million reserved for business programs, $7.5 million for education programs, $6.2 million for health programs and $8.8 million for housing programs.
The programs slated for funding range from small-business grants to health care internships and homeownership subsidies. Now that the spending has been approved by the council, city departments will issue a stream of requests for proposals and select organizations to receive the dollars. The intention is to begin disbursing the money this year.
Durkan initially proposed $100 million for the panel’s recommendations; the council last year shifted $70 million to other investments in communities of color, including $30 million for projects that residents are supposed to vote on in 2022 via a new “participatory budgeting” system.
There was debate at City Hall last year over how to divvy up the money. That has subsided and task force member Donna Moodie, who owns Marjorie Restaurant on East Union Street, said the various efforts are working toward a common goal.
A challenge for the task force was balancing a “sense of urgency” (moving the money into communities quickly) with a sense of deliberation (knowing a rushed approach wouldn’t succeed), Moodie said. An advantage was help from city department staffers, who provided the panelists with technical know-how, explaining existing programs and constraints such as a state law that restricts affirmative action programs, she said.
Moodie brought to the task force about 25 years of experience running restaurants in Seattle. Black entrepreneurs may struggle to obtain loans and other needs because of the hoops that banks and others make them jump through while they juggle daily responsibilities, she said.
She thinks this year’s investments in small-business programs can build momentum for a more supportive environment. Moodie wants to see many more Black-owned businesses like hers thrive partly so “we don’t end up with a city full of big-box stores and cookie-cutter restaurants,” she said.
Some community members will need and should receive assistance in applying for the city’s grants and contracts, Moodie noted.
A question is to what extent the investments approved Monday will be replicated in 2022 and beyond. The task force’s recommendations are built to be sustained, but the mayor and council rehash budget priorities each year. Durkan is scheduled to propose a 2022 budget plan next month.
New ideas and adjustments will be needed over time, and that’s OK, Williams said, as long as community members and politicians keep working together and “that train stays on the track,” she said.