Headshot photo of Ubax Gardheere

County Council Candidate Ubax Gardheere Centers Campaign Around Lived Experience

by Chamidae Ford

Ubax Gardheere recently announced her plan to run for King County Council District 9, which includes portions of Renton and Bellevue as well as Maple Valley and Enumclaw. The single mother describes herself as a “bureactvist” who is looking to shift the King County Council to a more cooperative community. 

She currently oversees the Equitable Development Initiative (EDI) program as the equitable development division director for the City of Seattle Office of Planning and Community Development. She’s also the governance group member for Communities of Opportunity, a board member of A Regional Coalition for Housing, and a member of Fund 4 the Frontlines committee. Gardheere has also served on the advisory board of Seattle Foundation’s COVID-19 Response Fund and is a former board co-chair of Social Justice Fund NW.

Gardheere has experienced homelessness, poverty, a mental health crisis, and inaccessibility to resources throughout her life. These obstacles guide Gardheere’s platform and influence the policy she seeks to implement.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

South Seattle Emerald: You describe yourself as a “bureactivist,” can you tell me what it has been like balancing community bureaucracy and how those skills will transfer if you are elected to council? 

Ubax Gardheere: I come from community, I’m an organizer. The work that I’m leading within the City of Seattle, it was born out of an inside/outside strategy. Meaning that city folk who are equity-minded, partnering with the community. So when the City of Seattle was doing its 2035 comprehensive plan update, for the first time in the nation, they did an equity analysis to accompany the environmental impact statement. And that told us that no matter what growth strategy the City was going to go with, there’s going to be communities that are going to be impacted. And those communities are communities of color, and the outside strategy at the time was groups in the Central District, in CID, and Southeast Seattle.

And they already knew. They already were experiencing displacement, gentrification, lack of access to opportunity, and all that. Some of them were already organized at different capacities and things like that. They’re like, “Okay, great, you told us what we already knew. So let’s use your research to really advocate for what we want.” We were able to win the equitable development initiative and the investments. And then I was hired, almost five years ago, to run the program. 

So by “bureactivist” then, I mean using my skill sets as an organizer on the outside to organize on the inside. Because what we need to do is dismantle these systems of oppression and hierarchy. And what I do is — honestly, it doesn’t matter if it’s the deputy mayor, or the mayor, or a director of a major department — I sit down with them, one-on-one, to push for the things that I want. I, first of all, listen to them. What do they care about? And then from there, I, as an agent for the community and accountable to the community, push for what the community is looking for. 

And for me, that will translate into when I become King County councilwoman. That actually gives me more powers like institutional power [and a] position of power to be able to not only push my colleagues to support the things I want for my constituents but also my other leaders of these departments that are coming up with policies and systems that impact these communities. And then just continuing to be accountable for those communities. Not, to the system itself, not to my paycheck. We get paid through taxpayer money, that’s how we get our money. They elected you to be in this position that you have to unapologetically push for policies and investments in systems that are going to benefit the community. That’s how I think [bureactivist] is going to translate into it. 

And then the other piece I’m going to do is around, co-designing my policies with those communities that are most impacted by whatever that investment policy is going to look like. I’m looking at it from an artistry eye lens, just answering the quick three questions: who benefits? Who is burdened by it? And how are you going to mitigate [the impacts on] anybody? And if that comes out, in whatever policy and investment systemic thing we are trying to change.

SSE: You currently oversee the Equitable Development Initiative, what has that been like? And how has it shaped your platform? 

U.G.: EDI is almost 5 years old. Like I told you, it was born out of an inside/outside strategy, and it has shaped my policy from the perspective of — I think you probably also have noticed in my website that I’m running because of my lived experience [and] when I say my lived experience a lot of people just hear lived experience, but they don’t know what that means for me.

Lived experience means at barely age 30 being a single mother of three children and becoming homeless. And overcoming that, within eight years of that, being a homeowner. It means being a brand new mother and going through postpartum depression and then actually having a mental breakdown and being criminalized for that, instead of getting the mental health [support] that I needed. Being a 15-year-old refugee, who came here and suffering from not having enough food or a job or being able to pay bills, and going to bed hungry. 

So when I fight for the EDI, I use the EDI framework to push for the work, my nine-to-five economic job, the work I’m doing, or even for my platform. What I mean is actually looking at the intersectionality of a lot of different policies that impact communities of color, low-income communities, and working-class communities. I talked about going to bed hungry — that’s around the economic system. I talked about being homeless. That’s the housing system. I mean, we can look at the infrastructure system and how when I became homeless and ended up in Bellevue, but my support system, my mother, my community, everybody was still in South King County and being on the road every day, just back and forth to be able to access my community connection and my support system, looking at the educational system and how that has impacted low-income communities, or even seeing how being in Bellevue and what … that zip code of opportunity has been able to accomplish for my children. 

And being able to compare that with the other children who are from my communities and don’t have that access to an opportunity or don’t have a good education because of where they are living. On the other side of that, just also looking at how they have great access to education and schools. But at what expense? My oldest son is in ninth grade, he has never had one teacher who looks like him. A lot of times in those 10 years that he’s been in school, he’s been the only Black child in the class. Or one of the only Black kids. He doesn’t have access to learning about African history or even when he learns about it, it’s from this white lens. 

EDI framework has these six equity drivers that are supposed to be used and deployed together around economic mobility and displacement when you talk about it. Displacement is around residential displacement, commercial displacement, and cultural displacement, it goes through building on the local cultural assets of communities most marginalized. … This fourth equity driver is around having access to a dependable and affordable transportation system. Actually looking at our healthy environment and our safety and things like that  — that’s the fifth equity driver. And then finally, looking at zip codes of opportunity. The north of the ship canal where before when we had a lot of different inequities that showed up around redlining or racially restrictive covenants, we, as communities of color, are not allowed to live in those neighborhoods; 98% of those investments went to white home buyers in the suburbs in North Seattle. So how do we open up those opportunities for communities of color and low-income communities who need these types of opportunities to thrive? So those are how my EDI framework and my lived experience and my policy chops are related to my platform. 

SSE: On your website you talk about needing to build an economic system that is based on abundance and communal self-determination, why is this important to you and what are ways you plan to achieve that if you are elected?

U.G.: So my platform right now is divided into four different things. The first one being around economic well-being and building a regenerative and restorative economic transformation system. So this will be, first of all, a system that acknowledges the wide restoration. And two, the healing necessary to first repair relationships, create sustainability within the communities and be more regenerative instead of extractive. Because the economic system right now is more extractive than it’s regenerative. And then hopefully that leads to resilience. 

The other piece around the economic well-being and regenerative restorative system is recognizing the interrelationship between, oneself, community, and family. And then with the environment, we know as COVID hit folks and a lot of the food sovereignty issues that have been able to be solved through like farming, look at Nurturing Roots and all these other groups that came together to be the village that their communities need to thrive. So looking at the system that recognizes that interrelationship, and then also looking at the greater community and the intersectional work that is needed for collective prosperity. 

Again, we live in a capitalistic system where it’s based on individualism, [while] this building a regenerative system for me, it’s more like a collective. And how does that manifest in public policy? For me, I think it’s through supporting hyper-local and community-driven solutions. Like community enterprises, that build through community power. The Hillman City Collaboratory [and many others] it’s not a nonprofit, it’s a cooperative. It’s a way of coming up with shared wealth and cooperative and employee ownership with the ultimate outcome of supporting not only affordable economic recovery but also just overall economic wealth-building strategies.

SSE: A pillar of your campaign is housing, much like many of your competitors, how is your approach different? 

U.G.: I think three things. First of all, is looking at housing as a human right. And centering all the people that are living in King County, and District 9 specifically, and then focusing on the marginalized communities. Looking at District 9, we see that there’s a lot of people who own homes here, but they don’t have access to other things like reliable transportation. We have noticed a lot of manufactured homes. And then there’s a lot of renters here too who have been impacted by not only COVID but low access to opportunity and things like that. 

For me, I’m going to look at housing as a human right from a [Green] New Deal and collective ownership of land. Like for EDI, that is the other thing for us, is to take land out of the speculative market, community ownership, and wealth building. That’s the only way that we can build wealth in the United States is through homeownership, but it’s not accessible to a lot of communities. So looking at community land trusts, limited equity cooperatives, those are some of the ways that it’s different.

But also looking at renters, you know, we have a huge population that are renters in King County, and they’re the ones who have been hit first and impacted the most. So how are we working with renters to be able to, in the short-term, make sure that they keep their homes, but in the long-term, if what they want to do is go to the next level and become a homeowner? The 

City of Seattle, for example, if you own a big single-family home, you can build something called ADUs — accessory dwelling units. And a lot of communities, especially in King County, [include] more communities of color. They live intergenerationally. So if you want to rent those ADUs to get extra income or have your mother, or grandmother, or your auntie who later on is going to help you raise your children, leaving that home. Bringing back this kind of village, communal feeling is like how I’m thinking about housing as a human right. 

SSE: You mention on your website that climate change is one of your main issues. How would you move King County towards a more sustainable city?

U.G.: So for climate change, I’m calling that under the umbrella of holistic well-being. And, if you remember the principles of trust industrialization that I talk about on my website, I think it’s using a Green New Deal, which can help us to become a just, fair, and sustainable society. Also focusing on access to parks and open space. Where I live, there are so many parks, there’s so much open space, especially during COVID, a lot of people are inside, right? How are you able to just walk to a park close by so that you have access to it? But focusing on the access, it has to be designed by the communities that they serve and making sure that those investments and access are in conjunction with anti-displacement strategies. Because a lot of time investments in infrastructure are also a catalyst for displacement.

The other thing is also implementing increased investment for greener climate infrastructure through the development of parks and open space. My district is very interesting. It has urban, suburban, and rural areas. So how are we investing in the communities in rural areas to have access to this climate-resilient infrastructure? And farming does not only give them access to the food that they have but the ability to be able to sell it in farmer’s markets, to be able to sell to your neighbors and things like that. For me, climate justice, housing, economic mobility, at the end of the day, the outcome for all that is for people to be able to benefit and have some kind of salary and increased opportunity. And then with that, climate justice is also really important to design with community voices. Co-designing is important. Not coming to communities and just designing and investing in them without knowing exactly what this community needs.

SSE: You also mention that “environmental justice isn’t just about the physical environment; it calls for healing our sacred relationships with the land, with ourselves, and with each other.” What type of programs would you start that would achieve this goal?

U.G.: I will probably start with investing in folks who are already going back to our roots. Especially as African-descent folks who grew up on farms, right? In my first five years, I lived with my grandmother, in a village in Somalia when my mom was getting her life together. Here we just go to the fridge to get milk. [In Somalia] they use the goats outside. I remember being 4-and-a-half years old, the goat is right there, and milking it and just drinking that fresh milk. That’s just really amazing. Not only filling but just knowing the abundance of going to the garden, getting fruit, and just eating. Not going to the store to buy something and things like that. When I talk about that, that’s what I mean. 

So like shifting the culture and bringing that kind of, “it takes a village,” investing in those types of work. I mean, a lot of us live in single-family homes. For example, looking at Seattle, 75% of Seattle is zoned as single-family homes. What does it look like using your backyard to produce food? How do you invest in something like that? If that’s what you want to do? That’s the kind of thing that I want to bring back. And again, Nurturing Roots came and it was the anchor in Beacon Hill in Southeast Seattle when folks needed food. We know that Rainier Beach and that area is a food desert, but just having a lot of different food banks and investing in them. Looking at the affordable houses that we are investing in as a community, as King County, and figuring out what is on the bottom of that.

The Rainier Beach Food Innovation District, that’s something that as a community member, I was part of that conversation for a long time, that as a city funder, we have invested in, and it’s actually using the cultural assets of the community, the most diverse zip code in the nation, a lot of different foods and things like that. It has a light rail station. How do you catalyze that and use those assets to be able to produce food? 

Also when Rainier Beach has the highest unemployment rate in the city of Seattle, it’s double or triple the rest of the city. How do you, when you create all those things, make sure that there are pathways to employment for not only the youth there but the single mothers there, the families there? So I can take that kind of model and bring it to South King County too. So it’s out east and on the east side. And then specifically these rural areas. I mean, they don’t have a light rail station, but they do have the resources and the assets that they need to be able to do something like that at their own scale. 

SSE: You mention on your website that you want to create community-based alternatives to policing. How do you plan to do that? 

U.G.: Eleven years ago, when I had my second born, I had a breakdown in a very public way, and I was criminalized for that. I ended up in jail and I was prosecuted. I spent a lot of money getting lawyers and ended up having a misdemeanor. We all know that our county and our nation uses failed strategies and punitive policies. And a lot of our funding goes to spending on police, jails, and prisons. And then in that same kind of parallel, we’re cutting and slowing investments in the social safety network. And we know that this has destabilized communities and it has destroyed families. 

I know personally, families who, even within the East African community, have been impacted by the school-to-prison pipeline. So I think that first of all, convening and working with the communities impacted by criminalization and mass incarceration most and investing in direct community investments. In mental health, in schools, in the community, in the way that people access that. I think a lot of people are already starting to talk about that, but it’s focused in Seattle. So how do we make sure that we bring that to King County too? And then reduce the investments in these big systems. I wasn’t part of the No New Youth Jail movement as a community member but through the Social Justice Fund — which I used to be on their board. And then through working with the Office of Civil Rights, I know that there’s a lot of community members that are working so hard to change the system. So how do we partner with them to make sure that we are coming up with solutions that impact these communities in a positive way?

SSE: Anything else?

U.G.: I joined this race because my community, my friends, everybody, the last 10 years has been telling me, “You need to run,” and I was like, “No, I’m raising three kids by myself, but I don’t want to put them through this.” And I realized exactly when the moment to run was, and that it was this moment right now. But I’ve been going through a lot of legislative Democratic endorsements, and honestly, it’s just been so triggering the way they talk. They will say things like “We need a moderate Democrat to beat this Republican,”  or saying that this person is more electable. When they’re talking about who would they mean by moderate Democrat, it’s somebody that’s adjusted to whiteness.

I have the lived experience, I have worked and have been able to build a multiracial coalition, that’s what I’ve done in the last decade or more. Just looking at accountability, your first question was like, “How are you going to be accountable to communities most impacted?” But my other thing is, how are we accountable to each other? As candidates, as a Democratic party, to our global community. Because we are becoming a global community, and how do we rebuild trust in our institutions? Show a responsibility that demonstrates that government and institutions by extension have a duty to become accountable to everybody that needs them regardless of race or socioeconomic backgrounds.

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 courtesy of Ubax Gardheere.

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