by Sharayah Lane
“Nothing about us, without us, is for us.”
When Sheley Secrest was 21-years old she impatiently awaited the big decision from her first-choice school, Spelman College in Atlanta, Georgia.
After months of waiting she finally received a no. The reason for that no: she was pregnant. She and her husband planned to move the family so she could attend Spelman, but the prestigious, historically Black, all-women’s college had a strict policy against accepting pregnant women. Secrest was devastated by the news, but before she could give up on herself her community rallied with support.
“Community stood in the gap. They said, ‘we’re gonna make sure you don’t fall through the cracks.’ Community was the daycare, and making sure that I had food in the refrigerator. They understood ‘it’s more than just you obtaining a fancy title or position.’ Community knew that ‘it’s from ego to we-go.’”
Becoming a lawyer, activist, advocate, and future front-running Seattle City Council candidate would not have come to mind in imagining what might become of Sheley Secrest when she was a young mother of two, but she had no doubt, even at 21, that a life of service as an attorney was exactly what she was going to do. It was only made possible, she said, because of her community, a community she has dedicated her life and career to serving.
After completing her undergraduate degree at Evergreen State College, Secrest continued to Seattle University School of Law. Straight out of law school she began working for the U.S District Court of Western Washington, focusing on civil rights cases. The following year she began became a public defender at the Racial Disparity Project, concentrating on issues of police relations in the Central District and Rainier Beach. Two years later she formed a private law firm investigating labor law violations and racial discrimination. Her work, she says, has always been, and will continue to be, for the community that made her who she is.
“It’s one thing studying law from a book then seeing where it should be applied and where it falls short. Being able to study law and what it should be, then going home to what it is, that was difficult for me to reconcile mentally,” she said.
Today Secrest is running for Seattle City Council’s At-Large Position 8, one of two Council seats that represent the entire city. She believes that it is becoming increasingly important to have a voice for Seattle’s Black community at the City’s decision-making table.
Seattle City Council hasn’t included a Black woman for 22 years. Secrest says she is running intentionally for a citywide position in hopes of using her experience and relationships with Seattle’s Black community to advocate for all marginalized groups facing similar challenges.
“We call it ‘power from the roots up.’ Issues that have historically impacted just the black community have now grown to impact all communities,” she said, “What I would envision is: how would we take success stories of individual marganilized communities and apply them across Seattle? Yes I’m an expert in the black community, but I’m running intentionally for a citywide position because all of Seattle needs police reform, all of Seattle needs to stop displacement of businesses and houses, all of Seattle needs to deal with income inequality.”
Solutions to these problems, she says, can be found in Black history, rich with tactics and strategies of movements that worked. Secrest believes that we can draw from Black-led movements to address the many challenges we are facing as a city today. This belief underlies her life’s work and she hopes to bring it to the table of citywide discussions on Seattle City Council.
Secrest grew up in split parental custody: half of her childhood in Puyallup, the other half in Seattle’s Central District (CD). She has spent much of her adult work life in the CD, currently as head of economic development of the NAACP and previously as policy analyst for the Urban League of Metropolitan Seattle.
“So many leaders in Seattle knew that gentrification was happening. They were articulating that it was happening, yet nobody did anything to prevent low income people from being pushed out of the city,” she said, “It’s been frustrating to hear leaders address issues needed for change but do nothing to stop it.”
Voting for this year’s primary closes on August 1st. There are eight other candidates running for City Council Position 8 on an array of platforms. Secrest’s hope is to remain close to her mission from the start, bringing voices from the ground in the community to a citywide platform.
“I am deliberately going into office to bring those resources home. Throughout all sectors, if you are doing work, the City should be a partner in making sure that we are all lifted up.”
Asked about her personal life, Secrest gushes about raising her children, clearly her pride and joy. Her oldest son, age 23, is in the U.S. Air Force. Her second son, 21, attends Shoreline Community College, and her “baby girl,” 15, is in high school with hopes of becoming a dancer. Secrest takes pride in being a modern workingwoman and being the best example for her kids of community and civic engagement.
“As a mom you can have that work/life balance, especially when your children see how passionate you are with what you are doing and why you’re doing it,” said Secrest, “but getting their support and having them by your side makes everything else not that hard.”
Sharayah Lane is an active seeker of good stories and social justice in Seattle. She is a new mama who loves spending time with her son Ian and watching him discover the world. She enjoys long naps, good books, and enjoying the beauty of the PNW.
Featured image by Alex Garland