by Chetanya Robinson
Girmay Zahilay, the King County Council’s newest member, chose to be sworn into office on Sunday evening at Franklin High School, a place close to his heart. It was a place where Zahilay, born in Sudan to Ethiopian refugees and raised in the South End, found himself and found community.
In November, Zahilay achieved a decisive victory for the County’s District 2 seat over Larry Gosset, a civil rights leader who held the position for a quarter century. Zahilay will now represent a district that spans from Laurelhurst and the University of Washington through Capitol Hill, the Central District, Beacon Hill, the Rainier Valley, Seward Park and Skyway.
The large hall at Franklin High School filled with some 150 people for Sunday’s swearing-in. Families, students and elders danced and were fed by a buffet of homemade Ethiopian food. The hall was also chosen because Zahilay wanted to center the voices of youth.
“They have so much to say, so much value to bring,” Zahilay said.
Before the ceremony, seven Franklin students were invited to speak as panelists about issues important to them, including the need to welcome immigrants, systemic racism in the educational system that singles out Black students for punishment, and paying for it.
They also Repeatedly brought up gentrification of the South End, a concern Zahilay stated he’d prioritize as a new Councilmember.
“Gentrification is an issue that we grew up on,” said Aliya Adan, a Franklin student on the panel, who witnessed her peers of color moving further south and Ethiopian and Somali businesses being displaced from the community due to unaffordability. “This makes us feel like we don’t have a voice.” Unable to vote, young people can only talk to politicians like Zahilay and hope they listen, she said.
Franklin students Wengel Belgu and Linda Phan, also on the panel, were inspired by Zahilay’s upbringing in South Seattle. “I’m also low-income growing up in the projects like 5 minutes away from here — we see politicians that do represent us, but then they’re usually tokenized by society in general and the political spectrum overall,” said Phan. “Seeing his work and how he’s actually from here, and went through the same system as us, that makes us really want to be here.”
As people mingled and ate before the evening’s proceedings, Zahilay’s sisters and aunts posed for pictures with him and whooped in jubilation. “I’m happy, I’m proud for him,” said Zahilay’s aunt Alganesh Hagos. She remembered the struggles of Zahilay’s mother who raised three kids as a single parent.
Growing up, Zahilay lived in Rainier Vista and Holly Park public housing, and also spent a few years in Skyway. Educated in Central District and South Seattle public schools, Zahilay said his South End upbringing had a powerful impact on his life.
Raised by a single mother earning minimum wage gave him an appreciation for how difficult life can be for people with low-incomes struggling to stay in Seattle.
“The policies that exist here are not designed for them to thrive here,” Zahilay said in an interview after the swearing-in ceremony. “They’re designed for a small portion of the city, the elite, the wealthy, to get more wealthy, whereas working class, poor people, communities of color especially in the South End continue to struggle.”
Zahilay was the first in his family to attend high school or college, graduating from Franklin before matriculating to Stanford and law school at the University of Pennsylvania, during which he also interned at the Obama White House. After graduating, Zahilay founded Rising Leaders, a nonprofit that helps disadvantaged middle school students with mentorship and leadership training.
His priorities as councilmember include building more affordable housing by making surplus County land available to community organizations. In particular, he wants to see land around the Columbia City light rail station developed to build transitional housing for youth with nowhere else to go.
Zahilay also wants to eliminate youth detention. During remarks at the swearing-in, he proposed providing more jobs to youth to help curb gang violence. Another goal is expanding public transportation, with routes traveling east to west, particularly in Skyway, and making fares free or as close to it as possible.
Recently meeting with his predecessor Gosset, Zahilay says they discussed a range of issues he wants to work on, including protecting renters, just-cause evictions, preventing home-owners from losing their homes, public transport, and investing more in Skyway.
The young councilmember wants to continue Gosset’s work in these areas, as well as follow Gosset’s commitment to civil rights and social justice. “I think we have similar values, and I’m excited to continue the legacy of a man that we should all honor and respect,” Zahilay said.
Pastor Tony Brooks, who spoke at the swearing-in, said he himself was practically raised by Gosset. Brooks has also known Zahilay since he was five years old, remembering him as inquisitive and studious. He hopes Zahilay will continue where Gosset left off. “Today it’s an honor and a privilege to be here celebrating him. I believe he will do a great job,” Brooks said.
“I always taught him that you can do anything,” Brooks said. “Now look at him.”
Riall Johnson, a progressive political consultant attending the swearing-in, said Zahilay’s victory shows that “young people of color need to stop listening to people telling them to ‘wait your turn.’”
Even if had he lost, Zahilay’s campaign showed that a new generation of leaders isn’t waiting to have its voice heard, Johnson said.
“I hope other young people of color in the region, around the state, around the country, see this and take it as inspiration to go and run and kick down the door and challenge the whole system,” Johnson said.
County Council races are important, but usually fly under the radar, Johnson said, and he hopes Zahilay’s campaign brings attention to others.
Zahilay was sworn in by U.S. District Court Judge Richard Jones, the brother of Quincy Jones. As Zahilay invited the High School students to say the oath with him, the crowd pressed forward, phones held high.
Afterward, people rushed forward to hug him and take selfies, but Zahilay took a few minutes to speak, praising today’s students for rallying to create change out of necessity against gentrification and racial violence, while adults neglected their end of the bargain.
Zahilay thanked his mother, and the people attending the ceremony, for the opportunity to serve the community he grew up in.
“I feel so overwhelmed with gratitude,” Zahilay said after the swearing-in, especially for the youth who shared their perspectives. “I feel excited to get to work, and excited about our potential to make big, bold changes.”
Zahilay was bombarded by people waiting to hug him or take a photo, as Ethiopian music played on the speakers, and people danced. When he had a minute to spare, he joined in with them.