Harris-Talley Brings Activist Heart, South End Perspective to City Hall

October 18th – 26th is the Emerald’s Rainmaker Membership Drive. We still need 400 new recurring donors to make our goal by Thursday! Will you join us? 


by Sharayah Lane

As the shivery, grey, and rainy days return to Seattle, most people dart from place to place, head down with that look of confusion, wondering why they are still putting up with this weather after so many years. Walking into the makeshift City Council office of newly appointed Position 8 councilwoman, and Rainier Valley resident, Kirsten Harris-Talley was like a burst of sunshine on a gloomy day. In the midst of the chaos of the Seattle City Council office corridor, Harris-Talley’s calmness and sincere welcome puts a visitor at ease and reminds them that her space at City Hall is their space too.

Kirsten Harris-Talley’s presence feels like an ending relief to the scandal-ridden roller coaster of events in recent months. Ex-Mayor Ed Murray’s resignation led to his office being filled by Councilmember Tim Burgess, who had already announced that he would not seek re-election. With elections underway for Burgess’ Position 8 seat, the Council was tasked with finding someone to fill it for the duration of his term and, most importantly, to vote on the 2018-19 budget.

Through the efforts of the activist group Transparent Seattle, the city agreed to pick their temporary replacement from a pool of applicants rather than by appointment. Kirsten Harris-Talley stood out from the 17 other applicants and was selected over the perceived favorite, former councilmember Nick Licata. Her wealth of experience, work in the community, and vision for Seattle earned her 5 of the 9 council votes and south Seattle’s own will be lending her voice to one of the most important decisions our city faces in deciding on next year’s budget.   

Kirsten Harris-Talley grew up in a rural Missouri town with a population of 300. She is the eldest of 4 children and dealt with the struggles of being multi-racial in a rural area in the Midwest. After her parents divorced, she moved to Chicago on a scholarship to attend the School of the Art Institute of Chicago and experienced the vibrancy and diversity of city life for the first time. Being a self-proclaimed overachiever, she says she took on more than she could handle those first years and, while on a break from school, she and her roommate, a gay man, decided to set off in search of “a more gay-friendly city”. They landed in Seattle.

Harris-Talley spent much of her time those early years in the 90s on Capitol Hill, even working at the Buffalo Exchange consignment store that was located off Broadway, which is where she met her future husband. The couple married and began the search for their first home in 2004. “It was still rough back then, trying to buy a house. And we weren’t looking to buy something to flip, we were looking to buy something to live in,” she said. While taking classes at the Garfield Community Center she met a young mother that she would regularly give rides home. They routinely drove through Columbia City and Harris-Talley concluded it was “one of the most beautiful areas in the whole city”.

Kirsten Harris-Talley [Photo: Sharayah Lane]
The Harris-Talley’s real estate agent had been born and raised in Rainier Valley and shared her love of the South End with the pair. “The second she took us to Rainier Valley we knew we didn’t want to live anywhere else,” Councilmember Harris-Talley said, “it was really important to us to be in a place with a diversity of faith, a diversity of languages, diversity of life experiences and diversity of country of origin. We feel extremely blessed to have found our home there.” And that is where the couple has resided ever since.

After settling into their new community, Harris-Talley began work with the local non-profit Cardea as a receptionist. She worked her way around the organization, including doing tobacco cessation work and providing consulting for local service organizations. After 11 years with the program she left with “a broad sense of what it meant to work within community.” She then transitioned into Progress Alliance of Washington as Program Manager, helping match donors and grants with community programs geared toward civic engagement.  

In her free time Harris-Talley has participated in local activism, recently citing police reform and reproductive rights as her top two priorities. “Those are movements that are being led by young people of color, many who are gender non-conforming or queer. To be someone who is older, who is led by those folks, has been so inspiring,” she said.

Identifying as an abolitionist, she joined the Block the Bunker campaign and the No New Youth Jail movement. “My work over the years has really deepened my understanding of what it means to be an abolitionist,” she said, “we still have active forms of slavery in our incarceration system so abolitionists still have work to do, and that’s really been my orientation in what it means to work with Block the Bunker and No New Youth Jail.” Harris-Tally is also a founding member of Surge Reproductive Justice Collaborative, a local people of color and allies led non-profit working for racial equity and reproductive justice.

Wasting no time as a councilmember, she and Councilmember Mike O’Brien currently are co-sponsoring the Housing, Outreach, Mass-Entry Shelter (H.O.M.E.S) initiative seeking to impose a “head-tax”, a 4.8-cents charge on businesses for every hour worked by employees in corporations making over $5 million in gross receipts.  “It is our large employers who have benefited most from Seattle’s economic boom,” Harris-Talley said in a statement.

“As a result, big business is best positioned to help relieve some of the pressure created by rapid economic growth.” The tax is projected to raise $24 million per year and would be allocated to programs such as increased RV (Recreational Vehicle) zones, outreach efforts to houseless individuals and families, and rental assistance programs.

As our city government comes to the conclusion of this year’s scandal, neck-in-neck elections, and retirements, it is refreshing to see Kirsten Harris-Talley walk boldly into the time-limited role she has been given, representing the South End, and the rest of the city with purpose and passion.

Correction: An earlier version of this article stated that the H.O.M.Es proposal would apply to businesses making more than $5 million in profit. It would actually apply to businesses’s gross receipts. 

Sharayah LaneSharayah 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 courtesy of Seattle City Council


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