by Chamidae Ford
On Feb. 20, Girmay Zahilay, the King County Councilmember for District 2, hosted the first installment of his new online series: Build the Bench. The monthly workshop is focused on providing a space for marginalized and underrepresented students and supporting them in eventually running for political office.
“We will show you the roadmap for getting from where you are today to pursuing a career in policy or politics,” Zahilay said.
The first discussion featured a range of guest speakers, including Cynthia Delostrinos Johnson, a Tukwila City Councilmember, as well as Michael Charles and Seferiana Day from Upper Left Strategies, a BIPOC owned consulting company based in Seattle.
While the first event was geared towards high schoolers, students of all ages were in attendance.
Linda Phan, a first-year college student at Pomona College, and Kenney Tran, a master’s student at the University of Washington, were both in the audience.
“As a person who’s aiming to work in public administration to try to get more civic engagement, especially in our voting youth, [it] is something that I really want to do more research on and kind of work in that field,” Tran told the Emerald. “Being able to be part of Build the Bench gave me a little bit of input on the minds of young voters.”
The series will feature BIPOC leaders from many different sectors in government and politics, with the goal of showcasing that regardless of who you are, there is space for you in these roles.
“A lot of students in America can grow up and they get to be like, ‘Oh, I could be anything I want to be because I have all these role models up there like me,’” Tran said. “I think for a lot of underrepresented BIPOC students, this is very much so a rarity to kind of see someone who looks like you and represents your own beliefs and has that cultural background that you do.”
Phan, who is currently an intern for Zahilay, initially attended to support him but ended up getting a lot from the series.
“I definitely think that it empowered me to want to run [for office] even more because before the event, it [was] a dream, but it doesn’t feel like an actual reality because there are so many obstacles and so many different challenges that come with running for office, especially as a marginalized person,” Phan said. “But I think that … even though some doors seem closed or some opportunities don’t seem available to me, there are people in positions of power, like Girmay, who are fighting to make sure those resources are available to students like me.”
This idea that people like Zahilay are working to help open doors for marginalized students was something Tran took away from the event as well.
“There’s definitely this barrier to entry for a lot of students who aim to get into public service. But Girmay definitely broke it down into action steps,” Tran said. “Talking about different ways you could influence the political process, even if you didn’t want to get into the elected positions yourself. So that was definitely something that was really nice.”
In his first workshop, Zahilay provided students with a clear outline of how to craft a platform to run for office on. His plan involves a four step process: story, policies, choosing which office, and running.
Zahilay provided an opportunity during the workshop for students to share their life stories, how those experiences would impact the policies they want to change or create, and what office they would like to run for. During the section dedicated to letting students share, one student was hesitant to fully express their painful experiences with having racist comments from their classmates directed at them. The interaction illuminated a difficult aspect of being a public figure: The expectation that those who run for office have to share information about one’s life experiences — both the good and the bad.
“I think that Girmay touched on a really tough issue that a lot of marginalized students face, especially when they want to enter positions of power, like accredited spaces; they have to tokenize themselves in order to like get into those elite spaces,” Phan said. “But I think in the same sense that Girmay was saying, it wasn’’t necessarily to gain recognition, but to show a community that you share their experiences.”
Zahilay also stressed that there were other ways to create change. Politics is not limited to just elected positions, and he told the youth participating that there are many ways to be involved, even if being a public official isn’’t for you.
“I think that a lot of times some people have to conform to a certain belief, but Girmay was very adamant about just staying on your true path,” Tran said. “There are going to be times where political consultant firms say this might not be a good match, but maybe you can [connect] to something else. [Even] students who may have non-traditional beliefs, still would be able to run for office and [get] engaged in that civic process.”
Tran also emphasized that Build the Bench represented an opportunity for students to get information and advice that is not readily accessible in their schools.
“I did think it was incredibly informative,” Tran said. “I think that with the lack of good civics education in high schools, this is definitely an influential event for a lot of teenage students. I think that if anything, this would be a great complimentary session for a lot of students who were graduating from high school.”
Beyond advice, Build the Bench also offers a chance for community-building and networking.
“I think that with this, there’s a sense of coalition building as well. Just knowing that there’s solidarity in the fact that there’s a lot of underrepresented and marginalized populations that want to run for office together,” Tran said. “It’s very communal in the sense of collaboration, rather than pitting us up against each other, which we see a lot in minority communities. But I think Girmay did such a great job with that. Being able to communicate with us and talk to us all about how we can all achieve our individual goals, and it definitely makes representation less of a dream and more of a reality for a lot of us.”
The Build the Bench series is dedicated to getting students from where they are to where they want to be. More than just a lecture, it’s an opportunity for young people to jumpstart their political careers.
“At the end of this, we want to have a concrete next step for you,” Zahilay said. “We want to connect you to a mentor, we want to connect you to a professional opportunity or internship. We want to have you take something away from this that may help you with the rest of your life.”
Chamidae Ford is a recent journalism graduate of the University of Washington. Born and raised in Western Washington, she has a passion for providing a voice to the communities around her. She has written for The Daily, GRAY Magazine, and Capitol Hill Seattle. Reach her on IG/Twitter: @chamidaeford.
Featured Image: Screenshot of an online interview with, left: Linda Phan, first year student at Pomona College, and right: Kenney Tran, master’s student at the University of Washington. (Photo: Chamidae Ford)
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