by Kelsey Hamlin
Shukri Olow, a first-time candidate deemed a community leader among many in Kent, seeks to unseat incumbent Dave Upthegrove who has served on the King County Council representing District 5 since 2014. She would be the only Black woman on the Council if elected.
Olow is a doctoral candidate in education at Seattle University — one of many indicators of her values. She also volunteers her time on several boards, like Kent Youth & Family Services, the Kent YMCA, and One America Votes. She has worked to undo institutional harms throughout her career, from her faith’s community duties to Seattle Public Schools. So it came as no surprise that both her interview and campaign website honed in on “collective liberation.”
“What that looks like for me is us providing an opportunity for those historically and presently marginalized to feel empowered, shift the systems themselves, and come up with the policies and solutions for the solutions they face to create an environment where everyone is better off,” Olow said. “I believe it’s possible.”
In Kent, that would mean adequate shelter and access to resources such as education and childcare. Ultimately, Olow circles back to community and youth.
“Our theme is ‘You Belong Here,’” she said. “A lot of the feelings I had experienced growing up, in hindsight, are ones many young people in our community struggle with. They don’t feel seen, loved on, cared for — especially Youth of Color in this community. I often felt I wasn’t appreciated or understood, often because of my identity, and also not having people who reflected my cultural and racial, or even religious, identity.”
Olow comes from Somalia, where her father passed away months before a civil war. Her single mother then took Olow and her two siblings to a Kenyan refugee camp where they stayed for six years before coming to America. When they arrived, Olow was 10 years old without prior education. Unlike many candidates across the state, Olow grew up in public housing.
“My mother inspires me,” Olow said. “Somehow she was able to get us out of that conflict. She didn’t know how to navigate but she found people who could help, and she got us to a position where we are better off.”
Olow is driven by her faith and her experiences. The gaps she felt growing up, and still sees youth missing today, she wants to fill, so much so that a youth team directly informs the directions of her campaign.
Hikma Sherka, 23, leads the majority-BIPOC team which ranges in age from 13 to 24 years old. The 30-person team is an accountability body that doubles as voter mobilization.
Sherka had only seen Olow in different community spaces before engaging her about a youth team.
“One thing that truly drew me to her was how much she wanted community to fully drive this campaign,” Sherka said. “It wasn’t ‘I want to run because I want the seat at the table.’ I genuinely don’t see that. Her entire campaign is making space for community: having those convos to ask what people care about, what they want to see, and that’s what’s been keeping me close and wanting to support.”
Sherka is a Black Muslim woman raised in Ethiopia who called District 5 home for her first couple of years in the United States.
“To see someone who physically looks like me running for an important role makes me feel a lot,” Sherka said. “It brings belonging that I don’t feel a lot in the political space, even though I work in it. To see other young people be heard and prioritized and centered makes me rethink the way politics could be done, where we’re not catering to one person or the system but we’re catering to the needs of community. It feels very radical. I don’t know how else to explain that. It just feels different.”
King County Council seats do have a lot of sway. The Council itself makes decisions that directly inform what systems and services are and are not in place when people need them. Councilmembers just passed a $12.9 billion two-year budget in November 2020. They can propose and pass taxes, generate revenue for things like housing, and control transportation like buses every couple years.
“With a lot of the work that I do outside of the campaign, I can see young people and families getting support they need to thrive and be happy comes from the County,” Sherka said. “Politics are not necessarily a career path we see or conversations we have with our families, so what does it look like to engage young people in decision-making around the things that impact them?”
Well, it might look like 19-year-old Elijah Buenarte in SeaTac.
“When I first talked to Shukri, I was inspired by several things. I found out she’s challenging [sitting Councilmember Dave] Upthegrove — I’ve never paid attention to local or national politics because of other factors, like not having cable and being an immigrant, so it’s hard to figure out what’s going on around you on top of other things,” Buenarte said. “Right away, I resonated with her background as an immigrant and someone who’s lived in public housing. My family counts as low-income, so the struggles and experiences Shukri has, I identify with. A person of color challenging a white Democrat who’s been in position for several years inspired me and motivated me to join the campaign — and not just join but fully immerse myself in it.”
The youth team is just getting started. While they’ve had preliminary policy discussions around things like education and safety Olow’s campaign, their main focus right now is next week’s campaign launch. The kids and young adults are busy bodies, often juggling a myriad of other activities or circumstances, so they’re remaining flexible and dividing tasks. As for Buenarte, he’s honed in on friend-to-friend, social media, and field organizing.
“It’s really cool that she’s using our thoughts and actually listening to us,” Buenarte said. “I believe Shukri can do this because of how well she’s listening to the youth team and the community members around her.”
As of April 5, Olow sits third in highest contributions across every King County candidate race at $115,865.
“I believe in radical candor,” Olow said. “There are definity institutional barriers with a D[emocrat]-on-D[emocrat] race. There’s people who appreciate the people they know, and that ‘good’ is good enough. But there’s people tired of the status quo, folks not shifting these systems and wanting to see a leader with lived and professional experience and a passion to lead in a different way. That shows up in our organizing, community, and fundraising efforts. I’m a first-time candidate who doesn’t come from wealth or institutional power but from a community that understands this is a time for change.”
Even before Upthegrove ran for King County Council, he was a state representative from 2002 to 2013. Many see Upthegrove as a reliable vote and leader for environmental efforts. As a representative, he was chair of the Environment Committee and a member of the Local Government and Transportation Committee. While at County Council, he’s routinely voted in favor of proposals to reduce emissions.
Both Upthegrove and Olow put importance on climate mitigation. Olow’s online platform lifts up four pillars: “legal justice reform; human services priorities; resilient businesses, climate, and laborers; [and] housing priorities.” She emphasized a need for expanding vouchers programs like Section 8, which provides rent assistance for low-income people. Olow also mentioned affordable housing, gentrification, displacement, education, and childcare.
“I was stateless and displaced for six years of my life,” Olow said, “so that has a different ring to it than someone who hasn’t experienced being unsheltered.”
While she’s thought about running for a couple of years, Olow never really thought she’d be a candidate. Normally, she’s worked behind the scenes to get Women of Color into politics.
“This is corny but it sort of started in my heartspace,” Olow said. “People representing this demographically diverse district sit in their positions for quite some time and go unchallenged, and many issues we care about aren’t addressed. When we see issues in quality education, affordable housing, access to childcare, better accountability with criminal legal systems, a disproportionate number of them touch People of Color. At some point, I got tired of waiting for elected officials to do something about it and realized that I am somebody, and our community is the change we’re looking for.”
While campaigns and positions may be short term, Olow hopes to use her campaign as a pipeline.
“I want young people and folks who understand the nuances to take our positions in the future,” she said, “so there isn’t one person in one community leading the fight to justice and liberation. Change doesn’t come from one person.”
Kelsey Hamlin is a Seattle-based journalist involved in local politics.
📸 Featured image courtesy of Shukri Olow for King County Council, District 5 campaign.
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