An Abolitionist in Olympia: How Kirsten Harris-Talley Became the 37th District’s New Legislator

by Mark Van Streefkerk

Representing the 37th district position 2, newly elected Kirsten Harris-Talley built her campaign and platform by organizing with her neighbors. In fact, she ran for office because members of the community asked her to. The first out, Black, queer femme to serve in the Washington State Legislature, Harris-Talley has spent the last 20 years building movements for progressive change. She was a founding board member at SURGE Reproductive Justice, executive director of NARAL Pro-Choice Washington, and former program director of Progress Alliance of Washington, as well as being involved in grassroots movements like No New Youth Jail. In 2017, she was the second Black woman ever to serve on the Seattle City Council, where she introduced the first version of JumpStart Seattle, a progressive revenue measure that passed this year to help fund COVID-19 recovery.  

Now that she’s on her way to Olympia, Harris-Talley pledges to be transparent about policies and decisions that affect people in the 37th district through a future podcast, accountability council, and other tools. Her work is informed by aunties and elders in the community, as well as youth-led activism in the South End, where she has lived with her husband and family in Hillman City since 2004. “I’m going to be organizing with my neighbors. It’s the only way we can win,” she said. “Because I think politics is an organizing game. I don’t think it’s an ideas game — it’s an organizing game.”

Harris-Talley recently chatted with South Seattle Emerald about her background, the moments that radicalized her, and the lessons she learned from Black women and youth activists. 

Growing up in a multi-racial family in Chilhowee, Missouri left an indelible imprint on Harris-Talley, the oldest of four children. The tiny town has a population of 325, and is “literally a mile square smack dab in the middle of rural Missouri,” Harris-Talley explained. “The Mason-Dixon line ran right through the middle of the state. The legacy of the Civil War is very much alive and well there — active KKK country there. Me and a handful of other Black folks were some of the only Black folks for literally a 40-mile radius.”  

Due to a combination of Jim Crow laws and later the Voting Rights Act of 1965, Harris-Talley’s grandmother couldn’t legally move freely throughout the United States or vote until she was in her 50s. Harris-Talley’s father was raised in segregated Baltimore and became the first of his family to attend college. Growing up, Harris-Talley and her family spent summers at her godmother Hazel Mae Free’s farm, where she learned about canning and how to keep chickens. Free, a child of sharecroppers, settled in Missouri after coming up from the South during the Northern Migration. Family and elders wove their stories and experiences into a “container of safety” around her when she was young, Harris-Talley said. In tiny towns like Chilhowee, she noted, it was the elders, some of whom were shaped by the Great Depression as well as Civil Rights movements, who ended up staying while younger people moved to larger towns. 

After her parents divorced, the family moved to Warrensburg, Missouri, a college town close to a military base. Harris-Talley explored art and expanded her multicultural friend group in what she calls a “little sliver of liberalism” in the middle of rural Missouri.

Originally intending to become a filmmaker, she attended The School of Arts Institute in downtown Chicago on a scholarship. Living on the edge of Humboldt Park in Chicago, a majority Puerto Rican part of town, Harris-Talley explored different neighborhoods in a segregated city. Reflecting on that time now, she noted that Seattle is also a “city of deep segregation,” but in Chicago there’s “a tinge of preservation,” especially in the South Side that’s home to multi-generational Black families. 

Taking a break after her second year, she decided to live somewhere else before returning to finish school. Around 1999 she and a roommate moved into a SeaTac apartment and Harris-Talley got a job as manager of Buffalo Exchange, back when the resale retailer used to be on Capitol Hill. She rode the bus to work every day, sometimes taking different routes to try and find BIPOC neighborhoods in the city. “I didn’t have a context to where Black people were in the city. It was one of the most jarring things about moving here from Chicago,” she remembered. 

Once she found the Central District, it instantly felt like home. “It was the first neighborhood where everyone said hello to me as I walked down the street. It felt like where I grew up in Missouri. Everyone had a porch; everyone had fenceless yards,” she said. 

As Harris-Talley immersed herself in the Central District, she became aware of organizing movements. The first one she knew of was rallying support against a landlord’s rent increase for a shared house. She also remembered finding her way to Left Bank Books on one of her first trips to Pike Place Market, noting the titles by Angela Davis and other radical thinkers. However, it was witnessing the WTO protests in November 1999 that had a profound effect on her. “It was wild to experience [this year’s] Black Lives Matter protest downtown and be on the exact same block in front of Nordstrom’s and have that experience. It’s as if everything has changed in 20 years and nothing has changed,” she reflected. 

Needless to say, Harris-Talley stayed in Seattle, finishing her B.A. at the University of Washington and learning even more lessons from community changemakers. In 2001, Harris-Talley started working for Cardea, a national consulting company that helps train and develop health and human services organizations. She worked under April Pace, learning “soft lessons that aren’t taught in textbooks” about leadership and organizing. “It was such a unique experience to be in my early 20s and start my professional career under the leadership of a woman who was proudly Black, really worked with an anti-racist lens … [Pace] was also someone, like many of the elders and Black women in my life, who would tell me the truth. I always held onto that.” 

At Cardea, Harris-Talley started building youth coalitions, organizing statewide for tobacco cessation programs and the Healthy Youth Act of 2008, recently amplified and expanded with the passing of Senate Bill 5395, which requires all public schools in the state to offer comprehensive sexual health education. 

Sometimes getting policy through can take years, a reality Harris-Talley has seen both from inside and outside City Council. In 2017, Harris-Talley won a vote to fill a 51-day interim position on Seattle City Council after Tim Burgess stepped away to become Seattle’s 71-day mayor. During that brief time Harris-Talley introduced a progressive revenue plan that the Council later reversed. This year a similar tax plan passed the City Council before it was vetoed by Mayor Durkan and then overridden by the Council in September. Working as an activist, Harris-Talley was part of the community voice that pressured the Council to “stand by that vote and hold it,” she affirmed. “That’s three years of active work. It was going to be $25 million when we introduced it in 2017, [increased] to $240 million this year. That’s progress.”

In 2016, before her stint on City Council, Harris-Talley worked with No New Youth Jail, a youth-led abolitionist movement, on a campaign to “Block the Bunker”, opposing the proposed North Seattle Police Precinct. Under community pressure from Black Lives Matter and #BlocktheBunker activists, then-mayor Ed Murray abandoned the project, marking a win for the campaign. Organizing with these activist groups, Harris-Talley grew even more aligned with the work of abolition and demilitarization. 

Most of these activist groups are youth-led, she noted, praising the work by queer and trans BIPOC youth in the South End. “I love the work of Blackout that’s been happening with Y-We, and that’s all South End love,” she added as an example. “That’s a lot of young, Black, queer femmes organizing around what self-care looks like at the intersections of our identity.”

Kirsten Harris-Talley making last-minute changes to her speech at her campaign’s election night party at The Station. (Photo: Jennifer Pace)

This year Andrew Hong, himself a young person who had previously worked on three other campaigns, approached Harris-Talley with the idea of starting a KHT Youth Team for her campaign for the State Legislature. The team of 55 young organizers, from 12 to 22 years old, even has a dedicated Instagram account. Now, after Harris-Talley’s election win, they are continuing to build an infrastructure of youth power in the 37th district.  

“These youth would blow my mind,” Harris-Talley said. “The thing I’m struck with by Gen Z, Zoomers, is that this is a generation who has access to all the information I had to learn after I unlearned what I learned in traditional education, and they’re running with it. Young organizers who really have a vision for this world that transforms what they’ve inherited? What a blessing and a gift. Happy to be their mentee anytime.”

When Harris-Talley arrives in Olympia in January, her first priorities will be stewarding juvenile justice bills and a renters rights package. As an abolitionist, she has a detailed divestment/investment approach to police and incarceration, starting with an audit of the Department of Corrections’ $2.4 billion budget. Making policy changes at the state level that will help grassroots organizations increase access to the resources they need is another way Harris-Talley is committed to accountability in the South End. 

“I often say I grew up in rural Missouri, but my activism grew up in Seattle, here in the South End,” she said. “The 37th is a deeply civically engaged activist community, so I’m really excited about organizing with neighbors here.”

Mark Van Streefkerk is a South Seattle-based journalist living in the Beacon Hill neighborhood. 

Featured image: Sherry Harris (left) congratulates Harris-Talley at her election night party. Harris served on Seattle City Council from 1992 to 1995 (she also served briefly on the Council in 2017 after Councilmember Tim Burgess stepped down). She was the first Black, out lesbian legislator in the U.S. (Photo: Jennifer Pace)

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