In Announcing Mayoral Run, Colleen Echohawk Promises “People-First Approach” to Seattle Politics

by Marcus Harrison Green

For too long, Colleen Echohawk says that Seattle politics has lacked a “people-first approach.”

With a vow to bring one to City Hall, Echohawk officially announced her mayoral run on Monday morning.

As the executive director of the nonprofit Chief Seattle Club, Echohawk has been a longtime advocate for Seattle’s unhoused population, particularly for Native American and Alaska Native communities. Her work recently secured funding for 80 units of affordable housing in Pioneer Square for chronically homeless residents, and a clinic operated by the Seattle Indian Health Board.

An enrolled member of the Kithehaki Band of the Pawnee Nation, Echohawk’s civic footprint has widened throughout the city in recent years.

She’s worked on police accountability as a member of the Seattle Police Commision, countywide homelessness and getting a more accurate count of Native homelessness on the All Home King County Coordinating Board, and economic revitalization of Seattle’s downtown on the board of the Downtown Seattle Association.

Having contributed to the city on multiple fronts, Echohawk sees relationship building across communities, whether business or grassroots activists, as foundational to Seattle’s future success, which she defines as a world class city that works for “all of its residents.” 

The Emerald spoke with Echohawk about her candidacy and how’d she govern as mayor. 

(This interview has been edited for length and clarity) 

Why are you running for mayor and why do you think you’re the right person for the job at this time? 

I’m running for mayor because I love the city. I love this community. I love the people of the city. And I believe that this should be a city that works for everyone. The reality is that the status quo is failing our city. You know, some folks are experiencing the best of our city. And then other folks are experiencing the worst of our city. It’s time for transformational, bold change that focuses on the people of our community and focuses on being people first. I definitely feel a calling  on my life to do that. I come from a long legacy of community and family members who have served the community.

My Irish-Canadian grandma was the first woman president of the businessman’s association in her town. I saw her being quite the female leader in the middle of this little town. And then my grandpa was the first mayor of his town. I’ve seen what it means to serve the community at a leadership level and I feel like I’m ready for it. I’m also a small business owner, and I’m the executive director of a nonprofit that focuses on housing development and human services. We need someone in the mayor’s office who has these kinds of experiences and has a strong vision for where we could be as a city.

We have a once in a generation chance to change our approach in the city and it’s going to require some new perspective that’s outside of City Hall. I really want to come at it as, let’s put our people first. That has to be a priority in everything we do. 

COVID continues having an impact. And we’re going to have to make a lot of hard decisions as we navigate through these really unprecedented and hard times. And for every hard decision, I’m going to manage it with that people-first approach. And that may mean some disagreement at times. 

How do you define a people-first approach? 

Being people first means that we are no longer car first, no longer big business first, no longer status quo first. It’s asking can we become a city where we value our essential workers and a place where they can thrive? Can we become a place where babies have equitable access to preschool, and where every person has a home? That’s when we’re a healthier and more prosperous city for everyone. 

If Mayor Jenny Durkan had chosen to run for reelection, would you be running for  mayor?

Yes. I just felt like it was time for a fresh face and for new things to happen in city government. 

Seattle politics can sometimes feel fairly balkanized, with multiple interests that don’t always align. How do you think your experience can bring some of those factions together to advance our city forward?

That’s something that’s really important to me. I value relationships. I have built relationships throughout the city with elected officials, with business, with grassroots folks within our community. 

I try to put my own assumptions aside when building relationships. I don’t want to assume who a person might be or who they might represent.

I’ve been on the ground doing the work for decades in our Seattle community, bringing together divergent viewpoints. I’ve had to work through City Hall to push forward action on Native homelessness and say, “Hey, this is a problem, and I’m going to bring you into this conversation. I’m going to bring you into the story to help you understand why we have to address this, now. And if we’re going to have an equity lens, then we should focus on solving Native homelessness.”

I’ve been able to bring together community groups to talk about the common goals that we have around public safety. Those types of meetings are really meaningful to me. Those are things I’m really proud of.

Especially because I think that in this city we can be very divided. But we can also do some good work together because I think at the heart of it, we’re a very passionate community too. That’s why it can feel like there’s division and hostility. But I think it’s because we have people who really care about the issues and want to see us move forward. And so I’m hoping to be a really great bridge builder, and someone who can bring people together so we can move forward. We have people that need us to move forward. We can’t step back. So, I’m looking forward to having that opportunity to bring people together, if I’m elected.

Speaking of bridge building, it’s well documented that our current City Council and mayor have had their differences. How do you see yourself cultivating a functional working relationship with  the City Council? 

I think it goes back to relationships. I want to build a relationship with the City Council. And in fact, I do have good relationships with council members, in my current job. I think that there are some pretty brilliant people on the council.

I think that part of the reason we have had  some, some troubles in our city is because there hasn’t been a strong relationship between the mayor and City Council. So I’m hoping to bridge that divide, and find common areas that we can work on together and start making progress on. I’m an aggressive optimist, yet, I’m a realist at the same time. And I know that work is going to take a little bit of time. At the same time, I’m going to be pushing hard to get those relationships solid so we can get some stuff done.

Seattle’s been hemorrhaging many of its BIPOC communities as they’ve faced displacement over the course of decades. How would you go about protecting neighborhoods such as the Central District, Chinatown-International District, Beacon Hill, Rainier Beach, etc from being ravaged by gentrification? 

This is something that really gives me pain in my heart. It’s so awful that we’ve gotten to this place where the cost of living in our city has pushed many in our Black community out, as well as other Communities of Color — including Indigenous people who make up less than 1% of our city’s population. And this is a city that’s named after a Coast Salish chief. 

For this work, I would really want to lean into cultural humility and, and work with the communities who’ve been impacted. I’d want to listen to them and find out what they think the solutions are. I’ve worked with a lot of people in the Black community over the past few years with Byrd Barr Place, the Urban League [of Metropolitan Seattle], and Africatown. As mayor, I would be listening to them and following their leadership and direction. They are the experts, they know what we need, and we need to support them in those efforts.

We need to really reorient around people, and around the community, to find community-based policies that might work to bring people back. We need to be incubating small businesses. We need to acknowledge and reckon with historical redlining practices that continue to impact Communities of Color. We also need to think about what it’s like for people to spend the majority of their income on housing. That’s not great for our city. People want to be able to live where they can have a great home and support their local community. So, we have a lot of work to do here. It’s something that would definitely be a priority for my administration. 

What would you do to address income inequality in our city? How do you find a balancing act between policy that minimizes the chasm between our city’s haves and have nots, and is cognizant of the business community?

I want people to have jobs. Our communities need those jobs. I think it comes back to having relationships and being good at being able to show up in multiple worlds. We know the needs in the community. And we have to be able to represent that in a way that  I don’t know if other mayors have had the ability to do. We then go and talk with our business community and help them hear the stories and help them understand what is going on in the community. We know that we’re probably not going to get to 100% agreement, but in my experience, making unilateral decisions, without giving an opportunity for input, almost never works.

So, I hope that we can bring business to sit at the table to help create the plan. They may not feel great about it, but can we help them understand? I think so. And, you know, throughout the summer when we were dealing with the horror of the George Floyd murder I saw a lot of our business people posting social media about how Black lives matter. They were so appalled at the harm that was going on in the community. And I think that we’re in a time of transformational change, where we have leaders [in the business community] who I hope will rise to the occasion, and will say, “You know what, these inequities are wrong.”

It’s wrong that the people who are serving our drinks at fancy restaurants are going to have to get on a bus tonight and go 45 minutes to be able to afford to sleep in a house. I think that we’re in a new period. And so I’m going to be working hard to help business understand some of these things. I think that there’s opportunity ahead and I want to help them understand that it’s more than a responsibility. It’s a path towards equity that will help shape the city to be a global city that rises to the top around race and equity and affordability and public transportation that works. Let’s make this city glorious! 

How much of an impact do you think you could have on attracting more investment into South Seattle? 

The first thing that comes to mind for me is that I remember that the city made big promises to South Seattle residents in the past. As a Native person, I have a really strong problem when government makes promises to communities, especially Communities of Color, and they don’t keep it.

I think that we would have to think about how we invest. I want to hear from the community about what their direction and their leadership is, and what they’ve been thinking. I also think that we have to look at the investment that the city has made in community assets like light rail stations, and make sure that we’re seeing an equitable response. And I’m not saying equal, I’m saying equitable purposely, to invest in assets around South Seattle. I want to see promises kept, and part of that issue is changing how city funds are spent.

We need to truly partner with People of Color-led businesses, and not just check a box. The same goes for contractors, right. We know that Seattle has somewhere around  $1.1 billion in current capital projects, but that money isn’t getting into the hands of BIPOC-led businesses. 

I want to see that happen and for us to invest in projects that really reflect the community. We can’t just wish for that to happen, we actually have to put forward some strong effort to make it happen. We also need to fund capacity-building for South End-based businesses, like in Rainier Beach. 

I know it can be very hard sometimes to participate in this work. As a nonprofit executive director of a Native organization, I’m often asked to participate in work groups. But I also need to get paychecks out, and get someone to answer the phones, and that kind of thing. So, for an example, capacity building for a Rainier Beach business owner would mean they could participate in the work that leads to taking part in mentorship and apprenticeship programs. There’s some really amazing apprenticeship programs that should be investing in youth, and then also investing in youth becoming like young entrepreneurs and investing in their ideas and then in their brilliance.

We need to change our RFP (Request for Proposal) processes so that it’s explicitly calling out equity and social justice requirements. There are some efforts underway that show a lot of promise that I would lean into. The Equitable Development Initiative has already done some really great things, but just needs more money.

There are a lot of promising efforts but there’s a lot of room for leadership and innovation from the community. I think innovation is a keyword, and that’s the other thing that I think that I’ll bring to this office, having been a nonprofit leader for so long. I’m scrappy about things. I think we’re gonna need that.

Speaking of scrappy, recent data shows that it takes an income of nearly $80,000 to scrape by in our city. How would you create more affordable housing in our city?

This city can’t become a city that’s only for the rich.

We need more housing, and not just affordable housing, but deeply affordable housing. I have hands-on experience doing that. [Chief Seattle Club] has created 80 units of housing that are being built right now. We’re about 40% done with that. We have another 125 units to be built out.

So, I know that building housing is expensive and hard, but we have to do it. We need to look at our zoning approaches and really question whether we should continue some practices, when we need to rezone and allow for more affordable housing. And it has to be affordable housing that’s hopefully located within 15 minutes within where people work, go to the grocery store, and the post office.

We’re a prosperous city. We’ve got to figure out a plan, and get it done.

Despite the many efforts of our city, our unhoused population is not declining and may in fact be increasing. So do you think the city has been taking the right approach to combat our stubborn homelessness crisis? And how do we adequately address this crisis? 

I grew up in a family where my dad would regularly bring home hitchhikers he picked up on the road. He would bring them into our house because they were homeless and they had nowhere to go. 

They were experiencing a lot of really hard things. But my dad and my mom would say, if you see someone who’s hurting, or you see someone who is struggling, then you need to do something.

I have felt that in the work I do with the Chief Seattle Club. This is a very personal crisis for me. My own sister experienced homelessness, sleeping on a couch. She was doubling up in someone’s home because she didn’t have a place to live.

We have a real problem in the city, and it’s one that I have been working on for quite quite a long time. There’s a lot of effort  that has been going into addressing homelessness. The vast majority of it is really, really good, with really good people doing the work. But the reality is, especially with COVID, that more and more people are falling into homelessness because we are such an expensive place to live. 

People can’t find housing, and, so they’re falling into homelessness and with COVID, we have a real problem ahead of us. If we are not intentional, we will see a lot of people fall into homelessness. 

Now this is the vision I have for our homeless community: We have to find ways to bring them inside, to stop the pipeline of people falling into homelessness, which means building housing, and then also finding ways to support them through mental health approaches.

We also need culturally sensitive approaches because we know that many in our homeless population are People of Color. We are  vastly overrepresented in our homeless population. So we need cultural programs that are led by People of Color so that we can make a real difference in this work. 

I love our homeless community. They are some brilliant people. One thing I often think about is that at any given time, there are probably 5,000 to 7,000 people who are sleeping outside.  And because they’re sitting outside, they’re afraid for their safety, they’re depressed. They may be battling addiction. They may have physical issues that are hurting them because it’s very hard to be sleeping outside at night. You’re also always on guard, so many times you’re also sleep deprived.

But imagine bringing them into stability and housing. I had one guy that I worked with for a long time. First, we got him a job with us at the Chief Seattle Club, and then we got him into housing. And I said to him, one day, “Hey, what are you doing with your time now that you’re not having to stand in line at a shelter?” And he said, “I’m doing a lot of reading.” I was like, “That’s great!”

He went on to tell me that he was reading about neuropsychology and how the brain works. 

And I always remember that story because I keep thinking about these 5,000 to 7,000 people who are just struggling every day. I wonder what kind of answers they have for our city problems that are not being addressed because the people impacted by homelessness don’t have time to sleep. 

That is the vision I have.These people are precious humans. They’re sacred. And we’ve got to figure out ways to bring them inside. With my work at the Chief Seattle Club, I have a proven record of doing that. Our programs have some of the best rapid rehousing rates in the county. That’s the answer. We’ve got to build more housing. 

I want to turn to our city’s budget. Taking into account the impact that our current pandemic has had on it, what do you think of our city’s spending priorities? 

It’s important to remember that budgets are value statements. I don’t know if it’s about whether we’re spending the money in the right places, or it’s too big or too small, but it’s really about whether it meets the needs of the people of this community. Again, with that people-first approach, there’s a number of difficult decisions before our next mayor around how we spend our city resources. 

There’s going to be a lot that’s going to change between now and then, because we have a lot of federal money that will hopefully be coming in. We need to think about the rainy day fund, which I am in support of re-establishing. We could face another rainy day.

But at the same time, we have a lot of needs in the community. You know, we don’t know what’s going to happen with vaccinations. We don’t know about the COVID variant. Like there’s just so many unknowns right now. 

Again, a people-first budget means that our financial resources are spent on the real needs of the people in the community, the small businesses, and so many who have experienced so much trouble this past year due to the impacts of climate change and gentrification. We’re very fortunate to be a prosperous city and we have a lot of economic opportunity ahead of us. If I was mayor, we would have to think about how we share that prosperity with our community. 

Our transportation system includes bus riders, pedestrians, car drivers, bicyclists, freight drivers, and scooter riders. How do we balance all those needs equitably?

First, I want to say that my vision for our city is for a Puget sound that’s full of orcas. And if it’s full of orcas, that means that our salmon are thriving, and our water is good, and that means that our children are healthier. So that means that we are going to have to really embrace, even more than we already do, public transit. We can’t be the kind of community where we’re one person in one car heading downtown. So, to answer your question fully, I want to focus on public transit. I want to increase it, andI want to make it more equitable, for our community to ride in and ride on.

After the police-killing of George Floyd, Seattle, like many cities, saw a movement to divest from policing and reallocate funding into social services and BIPOC communities. Knowing that there are people in our city who support that approach, some who don’t, and some who want to take it further, how do you go about balancing public safety with police accountability? 

And how do we address the mistrust of SPD by many in communities of color? It was recently reported that there were five Seattle Police Department officers who participated in a “Stop the Steal”rally in Capitol Hill on Jan. 6. The unfounded “steal” being referenced was primarily directed at areas where People of Color voted.

I think we have to remember that policing, as we know it in this country, has its origins in slave patrols. And so it has its own systemic issues that are based in systemic racism. And we’ve seen it hurt people. And at the same time, there are times when we need someone to respond to a violent situation. I have personally seen very negative things that have happened at SPD. And then I also have seen SPD officers be incredibly compassionate and supportive of the people that I work with when they are experiencing a mental health crisis.

We have to realize that everyone who lives in our city wants it to be safe. And public safety is at the forefront of my mind. We need a Seattle Police Department that protects and cares for the people in our city. So, there are a few changes that I would want to make changes in right away. I know this is already happening, but there would be no more sweeps of homeless camps by police officers. Yes, we need outreach and support, and we can take care of the garbage, but the sweeps are not effective. I want to be effective in our work. We also need to move some of the jobs like traffic control and mental health crisis support out of SPD and into the community.

We have to realize it’s going to take time. We’re not going to be able to wave a wand and make all this happen. It takes time, but it also takes vision and it also takes innovation and it takes strategic leadership, and transformational leadership. 

I also had this vision of creating a “People Force.” This is not a new idea. It comes from my friend Ben Franz-Knight.

The force would be community members that we pay, who love the homeless community, who understand them, who can direct them to services, and then who can also help clean up the garbage. Our homeless community doesn’t like the garbage either. That’s not good for anyone. 

Being relationship focused, I want to work with and hear from neighborhood groups to identify the areas of public safety that we need to address. I’m a neighborhood person. I know all of my neighbors and I want to hear from them about what they’re interested in public safety. And again, have that people-first approach. 

The bottom line for me is that we need a Seattle Police Department who protects and cares for the people of our city. We need to be hearing from business. We need to be hearing from the neighborhoods, and creating new ways to understand public safety and our community. It’s really exciting. It’s something I’m, I’m kind of really interested in working with City Council, and getting on board together. Let’s, let’s figure out a shared vision and let’s get it done. 

How would you go about determining the right level of staffing for SPD?

Staffing is something that needs, again, to be done in collaboration. I don’t think that the mayor should be the only one making that decision. It would need to be done in collaboration with neighborhood groups, and finding what levels of support they need. It would mean working with City Council, and working with the chief of police and understanding what they’re seeing out there. It also means looking at the data. I want to see what the data says and make sure that we have a police department that works. I think if we take some of these other jobs out of their hands, then we’re going to see some relief and that they’re gonna be able to respond in a more efficient way. 

I want to ask about COVID since we are still in the middle of a pandemic. While we can hope that it would all be behind us by the time a new Seattle mayor is sworn in, it’d be irresponsible to assume anything. What do you think of our city’s response to the pandemic? How would you handle it? 

Well, again, it goes back to the people-first approach. I would want to be prioritizing those folks who are the most vulnerable and the most at risk. I’d want to be protecting our elders and giving them priority around vaccines. 

I want to be thinking about the consequences of this pandemic on our business community, particularly our small business community, and finding ways to support them through this next transition.

This is a very confusing and rough time. I hope that as we get to the other side of it, we find a lot of room to return stronger.I want to see a rejuvenated downtown. I want to see people in all the restaurants. I want to see all of us experience the goodness of this city. That’s going to be a challenge because there’s some people who haven’t been experiencing the goodness of the city. 

The folks who have been suffering prior to the pandemic are going to suffer at greater rates after the pandemic, if we are not intentional about working, and collaborating, and partnering with our BIPOC community who have really suffered big time in this pandemic. 

Both Mayor Durkan and our City Council previously unveiled initiatives steering investments to BIPOC communities. Would you also introduce a similar initiative upon taking office? 

I think, but it would have to be done in collaboration with the community, though. I don’t ever want anyone to feel left out. That’s just a value I have. And yet, you know, you can only do so much with so many people in it. But it does go back to hearing from a community.

And I’m talking about people from all over the city, both BIPOC and non-BIPOC folks. I think there’s a lot of wisdom in our elders and I want to hear from them and I want to ask for their wisdom. The use of technology does make things easier. I think I would like to see more transparency from committees that are going to be investing a lot of money.

I look at [King County’s] Best Starts for Kids, there’s groups out there that have been modeling about how to, how to actually do it. So, I would be looking again at those models. I’d want to figure out how we can get everyone on a Zoom call and make it as transparent as possible? I don’t know, that might be too much, but I want to be thinking about innovation and hearing from community groups about how they would like to see those processes happen.

Seattle is of course named after a member of the Native community, but we’ve never had anyone from the Native community lead it as mayor since it was first incorporated as a city in 1865. Would it mean to be the first, and also the first Woman of Color to become mayor?

It’s beyond huge. I have this experience where I’ve been going to D.C. to do some lobbying in some form or another for the past 10 summers. I remember going into the Capitol building and meeting with our congressional delegates.

I can remember vividly the day I went and saw (U.S. Rep.) Sharice Davids, who’s a Native woman out of Kansas. When I saw her name on the door, it was like I got goosebumps. At that moment, I thought about all of the white men who had visited the Capitol for hundreds of years, and went and saw their friends. Their friends who knew their experiences and their life.

Then I thought of my friend Sharice, and how she knows my experience and she knows where I come from, and she’s experienced similar things. And then I thought about this opportunity in the mayor’s office, and this city where I’ve been working in homelessness, which is one of our biggest issues.

I’ve been working in the Community Police Commission for the past three or four years. I’ve been working on economic and equitable recovery since July. And I thought about my own daughter and her experience, and my own son. I want them to have a brave mom who’s willing to put herself out there, and is willing to say if I have these experiences, and if I can serve the community in this way, and if I can be a servant leader in the mayor’s office, then that’s what I want to do. That’s what I should do, because I think that my kids deserve it.

And other Native kids deserve it. And young Girls of Color deserve to see representation in the mayor’s office. And yes, identity politics is a thing, but I fully recognize that I would be a servant to everyone who is in this city. 

That’s the way I see this position, by the way, I believe in servant leadership, I believe in hearing from the community and finding ways to, to lift up and amplify their voices. I am not greater than anyone else, but I am your sister, your relative, who happens to sit on the seventh floor in the mayor’s office. 

One final question for you. Let’s assume you are elected. What would you want people to say after your first term is over?

I want people to say that I really did what I said I would do. That I put people first and that I took care of those folks who are experiencing incredible vulnerability through this pandemic. And that I built housing. Yes, it takes a long time to build housing. I know that for sure, but I would love to see many more units of housing up and running. I would like to see us figuring out ways to  support those small businesses that have been really hurting during this pandemic. I would like to see an incubation of small businesses. This is a generational opportunity.

Let’s do something that’s visionary and bold and transformational, so that we can be a city that people around the world look at and say, “Wow, that’s the place I want to live.”

You know, I think that, we’re going to have to figure out how to have a good relationship between the mayor’s office and big business and have them feel included, and like they have a part to play in lifting up some of our most vulnerable people in our community. I think that if I did that in the first four years, I would be really happy.

I just want this to be a cool city where everyone can enjoy it. Let’s celebrate, let’s live, let’s dance. Let’s have joy. Let’s really relish this life we’ve been given in this city and in this city that is named after a chief. 

I could keep going, I guess, but  I want this to be a community that thrives for everyone and that’s what I’m hoping to do.

Marcus Harrison Green is the founder and publisher of the Emerald and a contributing columnist to The Seattle Times. 

Photo by Ulysses Curry

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