by Emily Williamson
“I’m here because I need an ORCA card,” I overhead a young woman wearing a hijab say.
We struck up a conversation and she asked if I wanted to be part of something large, something bigger than myself. I found out her name is Bahsan Ahmed and she’s a Rainier Beach High School senior who came with her sister to the student-lead Town Hall.
“We can make a difference like MLK!” Bahsan said.
This attitude of youth empowerment rang throughout the night as students presented a series of statistics backed by personal stories. And although the event was competing with a Seahawk’s game, nearly 200 people attended. Over half were students, faculty and families connected to the school. Many, however, were concerned community members including District 2 City Council candidates Bruce Harrell and Tammy Morales and Seattle Public School Board Member Betty Patu. I asked social worker Mahogany Cherrelle what brought her to the event and she replied:
“I’m definitely a community member born and raised in Seattle. I actually went to Cleveland High School and Rainier Beach was like our rivalry, right? But when it comes to uniting for youth and the community, I mean, that’s what this is all about. And currently I work as a social worker in this very city, in this very neighborhood so I just want to support students and young people however possible. To me, it’s all about prevention, right? In my job we tend to get involved when there’s a crisis or there’s an emergency but these are students who are fighting for their education. So this is the front end work. This is prevention.”
Another community member in attendance, Spencer, lives in the Leschi neighborhood. He learned of the event when he saw a post on a friend’s Facebook wall. Spencer is currently in a grad program to become a marriage and family therapist and said he came because he wants to develop cultural competence to enable him to do his job well. He’s been reading about events and movements surrounding race and decided it was time to not be on the peripheral but to take part.
“I like that they’re not shying away from talking about race in the conversation,” he said.
Indeed, race was central to the message. Jerrell Davis, a community organizer, activist and leader in the summer Freedom School program said in the program’s beginning, “Tonight, we wanna make sure that we’re looking at everything with structural racism lens because institutionalized racism is real and it effects are students on an everyday basis…Equity is not the same as equality and we’re gonna be addressing that throughout the night.”
The stage was set with a cardboard replication of a Seattle public bus and signs from the students’ march last summer. A PowerPoint slide in the background read:
A Townhall-style Conversation about Transportation and Education Justice
From the back of the darkened auditorium, students made their way to the front singing “Which Side Are You On?” while carrying giant illuminated letters. They lined across the stage to form the message: “SEE ME MY LIFE MATTERS.”
Then, in Freedom School-style, several organizers shouted recognitions.
“I got a recognition y’all!”
“I said, I got a recognition!”
They recognized the audience for attending then gave specific recognition to officials and families of the students.
Recognitions were followed by an interactive “Turn & Talk” facilitated by RB student organizer Ifrah Abshir who lead several segments of the program.
“What would you do if you had $60 a month?” she asked, instructing attendees to chat with the person next to them.
People in my area were confused if she meant $60 total or an extra $60. Reconvening, Isfrah explained that $60 is the amount each student who lives within two miles of RB pays per month in bus fare to get to and from school. Ifrah asked for one person to report what they discussed in the breakout.
“I’d eat food!” a guy yelled.
Later we would hear how for some RB students, the choice between breakfast and bus fare is real. First, however, Laura Wright, a community organizer and education coordinator at RBHS, recapped the movement’s history. In 2012, the Rainier Beach Empowerment Coalition conducted surveys surrounding RB youth and transit justice. Collaboration with Transit Riders Union started last year during the See Me My Life Matters BLOC party, an event designed to localize national conversations about race and justice and to Build Leaders Of Change through community workshops and art activists. Transit Riders Union facilitated a workshop with RB students and while there learned about the two-mile walk zone and its impact on youth. Ever since they’ve been advocating and working closely with the students. In the 2013-14 school year, RB students and advisors testified multiple times before the school board about their needs for ORCA cards and were able to secure a pilot program of 50 cards for RB students. Finally, this past summer in conjunction with CDF Freedom Schools, RB youth lead a march to City Hall calling for ORCA passes.
Against the backdrop of a slide that read “Student Voices,” Laura ushered in the program’s focal point.
“Story sparks action!” Laura yelled, telling the crowd to repeat.
Before launching into personal stories, students presented us with statistics. Access to transportation provides keys to success yet many students can’t come to after-school tutoring, after-school programs or cultural events due to lack of access to transportation. Lower income families, however, spend 62% on housing and transportation. In fact, one mother posted on Facebook that she spends $150 per month on her children’s transportation to school. Other parents are forced to choose which of their children gets to attend school each day. A study from LA showed numerous benefits of providing transportation to students including:
- Increases school attendance
- Increases involvement in after school programs
- Reduces negative interaction with police
- Increases employment opportunities
- Reduces traffic congestion (especially long-term since students become comfortable with taking public transportation)
“How can you expect our kids to go to higher education if they can barely go to high school?” one of the youth facilitators asked.
Students then recounted their experiences.
A young lady spoke of how she gets harassed while walking to and from school. “I don’t understand why they can afford to get security cameras installed but can’t afford ORCA cards,” she lamented.
Miriam, a young woman who lives in the apartments above Rainier Health & Fitness where I work, has asthma so finds it difficult to walk quickly to and from school.
Another student told how he has to dig for change every morning.
“Some days I have to skip breakfast so I can have a dollar for the bus. So I spend probably about 10 minutes looking for change…but having an ORCA card would be useable because I wouldn’t have to worry about change and it would make my transportation experience more fluid as well as give me time to catch the bus.”
Once he rounds up that change, he clutches to those $3 until he’s paid for the bus home, an amount which he noted adds up to about $500 a year.
Another young woman spoke of how she doesn’t feel safe “with bullets flying by.”
Emily, a student who is part of the International Bachelorette program at Rainier Beach, told of how a homeless woman pillaged for money hidden in her backpack and left her traumatized in the dark one night. Ironically, the woman stole the money for HER own bus fair, emphasizing how desperate people can become for transportation.
Every student has a right to an education. In order to get that education, however, students need access to transportation. In the current system, students who live within two miles from school don’t receive that basic right. I am one of those students. Before I received an ORCA card as part of the pilot program, my education suffered. First of all, I was never motivated to walk three miles back and forth to get an education. I was late to school every day and I was not able to do all the after-school activities that I wanted to because I didn’t feel safe. However, a time when I didn’t have these worries was when I received an ORCA card last year through the pilot program. From that day on I saw an increase on my grades and attendance, getting home safely was no longer a fear that I felt and I was finally motivated to come to school. You see, my neighborhood is the poorest in South Seattle. There are high rates of homelessness, drug addiction and violence. Students should not have to walk through a crime zone just to receive an education… If we have a right to an education, why do we not have a right to get there safely?
After students shared their stories, a social worker from RBHS spoke of how she began her job with a needs-based assessment. The need for transportation, however, was evident within one week as she observed students skipping sixth period in order to help their families. When she suggested coming to homework club after school, she learned that students can’t because parents don’t want them walking home in dark.
After the social worker spoke, a teacher toting a baby in a front sling shared how she was used to hearing excuses. “But then there was one reoccurring explanation I kept hearing that I’d never heard before,” she said, “And it was that they couldn’t afford to come to school, they couldn’t afford the bus fare. And they didn’t have someone to drive them, or the person who had the car was already at work.” She continued by calling attention to the fact that this is not just a Seattle problem but extends to a national scope:
As teachers, we love creating interactive activities and here at Rainier Beach we are closing the achievement gap. But we can’t do that if our kids can’t get to our classes. And it doesn’t matter how amazing those classes are or if we put them online and try to do the flipped classroom. If our students are in families that they can’t afford the bus fare, they’re also in situations where they don’t have the smart phones or computers that will connect to access. So this is a problem that compacts with the achievement and with us being able to catch the students up or helping them excel to the next level.
“We want cards for every student!” a young woman from the audience yelled.
“And that’s really the heart,” the teacher agreed. “All of our students deserve to get to school.”
Last year city council agreed to give 50 cards to students, but this year the waiting list has over 70 names on it. The school has close to 600 students and at least half need cards.
Before closing, parents and community members were given the opportunity to speak. First up was the mother who had been quoted on Facebook for spending $150 per month her children’s transportation to school. I had imagined this mother was probably a recent immigrant from East Africa, trying to send seven or more of her children to school every day. So I was surprised when a hip artist sporting ankle boots and an afro stood up and said that the quote belonged to her, the mother of two children who has lived in Pioneer Square for the past thee years, moving to Seattle from Atlanta. One of her children has a physical disability but is still expected to walk 1.5 miles each way because they live .3 miles beyond the boundaries of bussing to Washington Middle School.
“I’ve been talking to the schools, public transportation, school board, headquarters for outreach to get somebody from transportation to come down; the transportation keeps telling me it’s the schools’ issue…I’m so infuriated right now I can’t think straight,” the mother said.
Katie Wilson from the Transit Riders Union noted that Seattle has about 600,000 people.
“If we had enough time, could get 600,000 signatures. No one scratches their head to think about,” Katie said.
The program ended with harambee lead by about 30 Freedom School scholars and a group photo outside with the illuminated “SEE ME MY LIFE MATTERS” art.
I spoke with Laura the following day.
“There’s no way we could’ve pulled off this event without Freedom School—it really built into students to use their voice,” she said.
This sentiment was echoed by one of the students’ teachers who attended the event:
“I want to send a shout out to all the staff and community partners who supported students to step up, organize this event, share their stories, create the artwork for it, and do outreach to the community in different ways so that last night could be such a success. I knew the Town Hall event was going to be an important event. I didn’t know it was going to be this incredible!”
Although there was much elation elicited by the success of the previous night’s event, Laura emphasized that the need is urgent.
“Last night after the event some of the students didn’t have a way to get home,” she said.
Emily Williamson is a community writer, who lives, works, plays and worships in the Rainier Valley. She’s employed by Urban Impact.
Featured Image courtesy of Matt M. McKnight