by Amanda Ong
For Cherryl Jackson-Williams, becoming involved in community advocacy was second nature. “We call my mother and father the Malcolm X and Martin Luther King combo,” Cherryl said in an interview with the South Seattle Emerald. “My mother is very flower-child … my dad, is like ‘Burn it down if we can’t make it work.’”
So it could not be more fitting that this year on Nov. 2, King County Councilmember Girmay Zahilay awarded Cherryl the Martin Luther King Medal of Distinguished Service.
Cherryl was born into a military family with Southern roots, but grew up in West Seattle. Her parents’ sense of community shaped her upbringing. They often acted as informal foster parents to the children of families struggling with addiction and encouraged her to be unapologetic in her Blackness. Her father instilled in her the importance of legacy work, to build the infrastructure needed for the community, and make sure to pass the baton.
“I think one of the other things that they impressed upon me is that the links that we have as community members, that if one of those links is broken, and one of our community members is vulnerable, all of us are vulnerable,” Cherryl said. “So it’s really important for me to put work forward to ensure that I’m supporting that community member and building up capacity. And it’s been like that since day one.”
Cherryl has since been a tireless community advocate, and a champion for the betterment of the Skyway-West Hill neighborhood. Day to day, she works as the family and community engagement coordinator with the Renton School District, organizing between families, community organizations, and government entities to give local elementary schools and children the support they need to thrive. Beyond that, she is also a 2021 King County Redistricting Commissioner and is constantly working to support the Skyway community.
Cherryl has been a part of countless community projects — she worked to establish the first tiny house village outside of the City of Seattle in King County to provide housing for unhoused people in Skyway. She has helped manage a donation of U.S. Bank buildings to establish the first Skyway Resource Center. She’s part of the Skyway Coalition, which recently received funds to expand public transportation and improve public safety. And she works on resource drives along with the Renton Innovation Zone Partnership to make sure people of Skyway have the housing and education resources they need to survive.
The award recognizes individuals whose work has answered the question asked by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. “What are you doing for others?” And on the 60th anniversary of Dr. King’s visit to Seattle, the award represents much more.
“Sixty years after Dr. King’s visit to Seattle, communities like Skyway still haven’t seen justice,” Councilmember Zahilay said in an interview with the Emerald. “But honoring somebody who is fighting for that long-awaited justice is an important way to validate the work that we’re all committed to. Somebody that embodies the virtues of Dr. King, somebody who is committed to social justice, somebody who is committed to public service and making their community better.”
Councilmember Zahilay grew up in South Seattle and Skyway himself, and has worked closely with Cherryl. He remarked that South Seattle and Skyway have always been full of diverse, hardworking, and wonderful community members. But at the same time, the community faces many economic hardships that make it difficult for people to stay in their homes and stay in their neighborhoods — residents are constantly under the threat of displacement and gentrification.
“I don’t see it as me winning the award. I see it as Skyway winning the award,” Cherryl said. “The narrative around Skyway is that it’s not only a desert, devoid of of financial resources, but almost void of real community. And that couldn’t be further from the truth of who we are. I’m standing on the shoulders of so many people that fought so hard for Skyway.”
Several community elders and community folks have deeply influenced Cherryl’s body of work. Without them, Cherryl says she would not be here. In particular she recognized Claude Burfect, vice president of the Seattle King County NAACP, for his advice, support, and experience in civil rights work and community mobilization.
Cherryl says it was people in the community who called her into organizing in Skyway to begin with. Though she has lived in Skyway for a decade, she thought of Skyway simply as her neighborhood for a long time, rather than as her community and focused most of her efforts on South Park via a previous job with the City of Seattle’s recreational programming. Then Cherryl ran into a family she worked with at a Skyway grocery store. They were surprised to see her there.
“They were like, ‘All of the programming that you’re doing for our community, and you live in Skyway? You need to be doing that here,’” Cherryl said. “I never thought about it in that way. And I told them that the next time an opportunity comes available, that would put me in a position to be able to support Skyway the way I was for South Park, I’m going to go after that opportunity.”
According to Councilmember Zahilay, Skyway is home to the highest proportion of African Americans in the state of Washington. The population is 70% People of Color, and has an area median income that’s lower than neighboring Seattle, and neighboring Renton. “I think as a county that’s named after Dr. Martin Luther King, we have a special obligation to walk the walk of our stated principles,” Councilmember Zahilay said. “And if our stated principles are equity, racial justice, making sure that King County is a welcoming place for everyone where anyone, regardless of their race can thrive, our greatest opportunity to walk our stated principles’ existence is in Skyway.”
Cherryl walks the walk. “I am Skyway. Skyway is me. There is not a separation,” Cherryl said. “This work makes you become so intimate with Skyway and who Skyway is, you can’t not love Skyway after finding all its beauty from the diversity of its cultures and races, the grit that this community has to not have access to so many things that so many other communities have. And still we thrive. And still we move forward. And still we have a story to tell, and we keep on telling it.”
Editor’s Note: A previous version of this article mistakenly attributed a quote to Girmay Zahilay.
Amanda Ong (she/her) is a Chinese American writer from California. She is currently a master’s candidate at the University of Washington Museology program and graduated from Columbia University in 2020 with degrees in creative writing and ethnicity and race studies.
📸 Featured Image: Cherryl Jackson-Williams (Photo courtesy of Cherryl Jackson-Williams)
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