Note: The Emerald is collecting personal reflections on Rahwa Habte from South Seattle community members. If you’d like yours included in this article, you can submit an essay that’s between 200 and 500 words to firstname.lastname@example.org.
by Naomi Ishisaka
Rahwa was truly one of a kind. She was a person who you had to experience to truly appreciate her brilliance, humor and warmth. Her ability to create spaces and connections that transcended barriers was unlike anyone else. Whether cultivating the hip hop scene, making space for women and QTPOC artists, advocating for raising the minimum wage or immigrant rights, Rahwa was always on the side of the people and justice. While most people know her for her groundbreaking work creating Hidmo, I knew her as my best friend, and the person whose analysis, wit and integrity I turned to most. Her loss is a grievous one for us all.
Naomi Ishisaka is a South Seattle community member.
by Pedro Gomez
News of the passing of Rahwa Habte has echoed throughout the Seattle community. Those of us who knew her are mourning the loss of a good soul. Those who worked with her were witness to a true devotion to the people.
I met Rahwa in December of 2013. We were both beginning jobs working for Mayor Ed Murray. We were optimistic about the possibilities and change we could spark while there. I remember very early on making a pact that we would protect each other while at the job. Being Black and Brown people with an unapologetic love for our people is not easy to do in any institution. It’s stressful, and a lot of times it is very lonely. Having Rahwa to lean on in those days was invaluable to me.
I was just growing into my shoes, but Rahwa was an all-around community warrior. She loved the community and the community loved her back. I was still new to Seattle, so she was showing me around. It seemed that at every corner we turned there was a smile and arms ready to embrace our dear Rahwa. That type of love is earned through tireless and selfless work for the people.
To me Rahwa is a reminder that we can all do better. I was inspired by her open-book approach to life. None was more moving than her decision to share publicly her struggle with addiction. Too many times in life we are made to feel like our personal struggles are unique, when in fact those closest to us might be dealing with something similar. Rahwa, with her incredible bravery, was vulnerable and made many of us feel seen and less lonely.
In recent weeks, Rahwa and I exchanged many messages. The last few were YouTube links to some of our favorite songs. It went from Lauryn Hill to 2Pac and everything in between. It’s the little things like these that I will miss most. The last song she sent was Save Tonight by Eagle-Eye Cherry. Rahwa always knew how to mess with me.
There is, of course, no way of knowing what else 2020 will throw our way. There is no way of knowing how life will be different in the coming years. But if we can approach community the way Rahwa did, I am confident we will be better off as a people.
I will remember Rahwa today and always for her smile and passion for community.
Pedro Gomez is a South Seattle community member.
by Lola Peters
I first met Rahwa at Hidmo on a Ladies Night, the only space at the time where Black women could publicly share our poetry. I was by far the oldest person in the room, and it was invigorating to be surrounded by the melded energy, sounds, and aromas of my East African heritage and U.S. upbringing. Without introduction, these young people knew the inner me.
Rahwa and I share some wonderful friends: doers, makers, knowers. One of the most profound moments of my life was with Rahwa and Naomi Ishisaka We were in Kubota Garden and heard a woman crying, screaming. We rushed and found a young woman, sitting on the ground, yelling at a young man who had apparently just ended their relationship. She was distraught and sobbing inconsolably while berating her now-former partner. Rahwa squatted down, put her arms around the young woman and simply said, “Come here, baby. What’s wrong?” Gently, carefully, she helped her stand, held her, assured her she was safe, calmed her. While I was intellectually assessing the situation, Rahwa saw beyond the immediate into this young woman’s heart and acted immediately to soothe her pain.
We have lost such a wise and knowing spirit. She personified the steely, grounded beauty within East African culture combined with a sophisticated understanding of local and regional society and politics. To lose T’Challa and our own Shuri in one day is gutting. Now each of us must make manifest the seed they planted within us. Make new spaces with each other, love her family of origin and extended family, collaborate, face our fears and failures, and fight for liberation. Black Lives Matter.
Lola Peters is a Seattle community member
by Jason Davison
I am reeling and deeply saddened by the news of Rahwa’s passing. I don’t think either of us would say we were super-close, but I have been friends and co-workers with Rahwa since the summer of 2001. Rahwa, her friends, sisters, and I worked at Aki Kurose almost 19 years ago, tutoring youth. I loved joking and working with Rahwa the times we got to work together—such an effervescent personality, welcoming, intelligent and so much more.
The next time I spent substantive time with Rahwa was totally by accident as I had just returned to Seattle from St. Louis and was praying about doing some work in the community. In August of 2009 I was sitting at a café in the CD, Rahwa comes out of nowhere and yells “Jason! Where have you been? What are you up to?” I told her I was a school-teacher at Cleveland for a while and now had just gotten ordained as a pastor after living in St. Louis for a while. In turn, Rahwa told me that her and her sister Asmeret owned an Eritrean restaurant down the street, that hosts hip-hop shows, advocates in the community and had just received a grant to host community forums addressing issues of inequity in our rapidly gentrifying neighborhood.
The program was the Hidmo Community Empowerment Project and Rahwa and her leadership at Hidmo floored me by bringing me on to oversee the project with her and such a wonderful team of friends, whom I don’t have permission to share their names, but I love you all! I would stop by the Hidmo in the daytime to plan with the team and then be blown away by the life and love of everyone on 20th and Jackson. Coming from the Church and from the mid-west, I was a little out of my element at times, but was awed by harmonious mix of people from various backgrounds working together to create music, art, organize and empower young people. It truly was a spiritual place that was more welcoming than some churches I have been a part of. At the center of this was Rahwa with that same joy, strength and intelligence.
We talked here and there during the time she worked with Mayor’s office and afterwards, and she would check in on my famiIy though she was very busy. She even remembered to wish me a Happy Father’s Day from time to time.
I truly wish I could have spent more time with Rahwa, and she had been in my spirit the last few weeks. The last time I spoke with her in person was last year when she was going through recovery and was very open about her struggles. I admired her resilience and wished we could have connected more.
Rahwa you are sorely and desperately missed. Thank you for your friendship and love. Rest in peace Sister–it is not fair that you are gone.
Prayers to the Habte family.
Jason Davison is a Seattle community member
by Ansel Herz
I was lucky to first meet you in 2010, when you hosted me to give a presentation about Haiti at Hidmo. But I was touched by your influence well before that, as a teen, through the music of Blue Scholars and Gabriel Teodros. I didn’t know you that well, but enough to understand and feel how warm and selfless you were at your core. It was just who you really were. We should all aspire to your example; we should definitely build you a monument. You were the best of us. A world where we lose Rahwa but are stuck with Bezos and Trump and so many disgusting people isn’t a good place to be. We’ve got to change that. May you rest easy and rest in power.
Ansel Herz lives in Seattle
by Sharon Maeda
I first met Rahwa when she was a young organizer at OneAmerica — might have been called Hate Free Zone then. She was so energetic, warm, and worked cross-culturally with ease. Years later when I moved back into the neighborhood, I walked up to Hidmo — not knowing it was another Rahwa project. I found a real sense of community before I actually met my new neighbors. I became a weekly regular — one to two generations older than most of the others — and I was inspired by the next generations of creative social justice activists. Whether folx were just hanging out, planning an upcoming forum on media justice, enjoying a spoken word evening, or plotting a political action, Rahwa managed to navigate all the conversations as well as run the kitchen. No one seemed to mind if the food took a little while to arrive at their table. It was as if we were all sitting at her kitchen table.
When Rahwa took a job in the mayor’s office, we laughed about the audacity of it. She knew well that being on the inside would be a challenge but was excited about the opportunity to give access to diverse communities. She never complained as things got tense. She just kept on … excited to take on the next project. Rahwa touched so many people. She would be blown away by the outpouring of comments and support on the GoFundMe page.
Rahwa, may your soul be at peace.
Sharon Maeda is a South Seattle community member
by Carson Flora
Rahwa was a beloved friend to so many. She could navigate comfortably among many Seattle worlds — music, politics, food, art, film, the Eritrean diaspora, anywhere with people, food, and joy — and she was happy to take you along. I knew her only as an adult when she was a fully possessed woman, confident in her beliefs, intelligence, and beauty but it wouldn’t surprise me if she had this same grace and poise as a child too. Yet she was never imperious and engaged with everyone with genuine curiosity and love despite the fact that she was clearly a queen among us. She was so smart — every conversation was meaningful as she pulled references from her vast experiences, making you laugh or think or just be at ease. Her love for others was rich, deep, and strong. She fought so hard against the disease that took her, but it too was strong. The world will be much dimmer without our bright light Rahwa, and it is still too hard to imagine this world without her. I know her light will always be with us and it will guide me. May she rest in peace and power.
Carson Flora is a Seattle community member
Featured image by Naomi Ishisaka.