Mayor Announces Membership of New Equitable Communities Task Force, Faces Criticism from Social Justice Activists

by Paul Kiefer

Today, a little more than four months since Seattle Mayor Jenny Durkan first said she would invest $100 million in services for BIPOC communities, and more than two weeks after she announced she was creating a task force to recommend how to spend the money, she announced the initial members of the task force.

The 28 members of the group, the Equitable Communities Initiative Task Force, are drawn from an array of BIPOC-led nonprofits and civic organizations around Seattle, including well know civil rights leaders such as Estela Ortega, the Director of El Centro De La Raza, and Dr. Sheila Edwards Lange, President of Seattle Central College. They will be tasked with “develop[ing] recommendations for a historic $100 million new investment in Black, Indigenous, and people of color communities to address the deep disparities caused by systemic racism and institutionalized oppression,” Durkan said in the announcement, ostensibly building on existing city investments

At present, the mayor’s proposed budget would take that $100 million from the revenues of the new Jumpstart payroll tax the City Council passed earlier this year. The council originally intended to use the Jumpstart tax revenue for COVID-19 relief for Seattle residents for the next two years, and later to fund affordable housing, projects outlined in the Equitable Development Initiative, Green New Deal investments, and support for small businesses; many of those budgetary priorities were the result of years of lobbying and activism by local BIPOC organizations.

As PubliCola reported last month, city budget director Ben Noble told reporters in September that “budget priorities for the city have changed, arguably, since that [JumpStart] plan was developed,” justifying the mayor’s affront to the council’s legislation.

Because the task force is expected to divert city dollars from JumpStart projects championed by racial and climate justice activists — and not from the Seattle Police Department — the Equitable Communities Initiative has raised alarms among some activist and nonprofit leaders in the past month.

King County Equity Now (KCEN), which is currently spearheading a community-led research process to prepare for a public-safety-focused participatory budgeting process next year, announced their opposition to the task force on September 28th; KCEN Research Director Shaun Glaze cast the group as the mayor’s attempt to sideline KCEN’s own community research project, saying, “when we say community voice, we decidedly do not mean a task force that is cherry-picked by white wealthy people who already have access to political power.”

Among the most prominent critics of the task force is Sean Goode, the director of the felony diversion and restorative justice nonprofit Choose 180. Shortly after Durkan announced the creation of the task force in September, Goode wrote an op-ed in the South Seattle Emerald explaining his decision to turn down the mayor’s invitation to join the task force; he called the promise of $100 million a “fake Rolex” that, because of its funding source, seemed “designed to divide communities of color.” Goode also commented that the task force does not equate to genuine community input, writing that a community-led budgeting process “can’t begin with chairs selected by the mayor and then eventually get to the community voice part on the back-end.”

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Goode is not the only leader to turn down an invitation to join the taskforce. According to Durkan spokesperson Kamaria Hightower, 19 leaders did not accept their invitations: half cited capacity issues, and the other half “cited their participation in or [interest in] form[ing] another process.” Durkan’s office did not offer names of the leaders who declined their invitations.

Of the 27 apparent members of the task force, 19 are Black, including representatives from the Urban League of Metropolitan Seattle, the Northwest African American Museum, two Black church organizations (First AME Church and United Black Clergy), the Seattle-King County NAACP, and the Ethiopian Community of Seattle. The task force also includes Esther Lucero, the CEO of the Seattle Indian Health Board; Estela Ortega, the Director of El Centro De La Raza; Michael Tulee of United Indians of All Tribes (the organization responsible for the Daybreak Star center in Magnolia); Mahnaz Eshetu, the Director of Refugee Women’s Alliance; and Christina Wong, the Director of Northwest Harvest, among others. City council member Debora Juarez will also serve as an ex officio member of the task force.

There are some notable absences, including Colleen Echohawk, the Chief Seattle Club Director who helped lead the search for a new police chief earlier in Durkan’s tenure, and representatives from the Somali Health Board, among others.

At least one task force member –Steven Sawyer of People of Color Against Aids Network (POCAAN) — represents an organization that currently holds a contract with the city’s Human Services Department.

The task force is expected to provide recommendations to the mayor’s office by spring 2021.

One thought on “Mayor Announces Membership of New Equitable Communities Task Force, Faces Criticism from Social Justice Activists”

  1. It sounds like a good set of people and since alot of Covid Relief is coming from the City, State, Federal Government and Charity Organizations to the tune of $100s of millions of dollars, the Jump Start Tax could move to fund those Green Inititiatives and Small Businesses sooner than originally intended because the Covid Relief has already been covered by other sources. If the Council doesn’t like the funding source – why not use the money from the Street Car to fund this. That Street Car isn’t needed – it’s a carnival/tourist attraction rather than a real transit option as it moves so slowly any commuter will want to take a bus instead to get there faster.

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