By Becky Chan
Northwest Asian Weekly
Born, bred, and breathes Seattle, Bruce Harrell is the only Seattle City Council member who never left his hometown, not for work, not for Harvard. He stayed in town after graduating from Garfield High School to attend the University of Washington (UW) on a football scholarship. First elected to the city council in 2007, re-elected in 2011 and 2015, Harrell has been the chairman the last three years. He is the first council president of Asian descent since Liem Tuan, in the 1970s, and the only Seattle mayor of Asian descent – he served for four days. For his three decades of community service, the Northwest Asian Weekly Foundation honors him as a Top Contributor to the Asian community this year.
Harrell grew up in the Central District with his father, Clayton Harrell, Sr. who’s Black, and his Japanese American mother, the former Rose Tamaye Kobata. Clayton and Rose met as sophomores at Garfield High in 1951. He worked at Seattle City Light, she at Seattle Public Library. They were married for 50 years until Clayton’s death in 2003.
The Great Migration of African Americans out of the rural South brought Harrell’s paternal grandparents to the Pacific Northwest from New Orleans in 1944. They first lived in Bremerton, then settled in Seattle’s Central District. Harrell’s maternal grandparents came from Kumamoto, Japan in 1933, barely speaking English. They ran a flower shop on 14th and Yesler. During World War II, they were interned at Minidoka, along with their U.S.-born children, including Rose. Both sets of Harrell’s grandparents were successful despite racial inequality of the time.
A valedictorian at Garfield High, Harrell was a star linebacker and law school graduate at the UW. His family background and his professional resume enable him to straddle cultural and economic divides. It hasn’t always been as easy. Growing up biracial in the 1960s, he often felt alone. An incident in elementary school scarred him.
His sixth grade teacher, while attempting to explain racial differences, separated Harrell’s class into Asian, Black, and white. Harrell questioned the teacher about where he fit in. The teacher told him to “sit this one out.”
As a child, Harrell agonized over which box to check for race when filling out forms.
“There was not a mixed-race box then and ‘other’ seemed inappropriate,” Harrell recalled.
Perhaps that’s what pushed him in academics and athletics. He strived to excel, to be the best, to stand out. He turned down Harvard to attend the UW.
“It was not the school that guaranteed success, but the will and determination of the student,” he said. His will and determination to become a lawyer also inspired him to opt out of the NFL draft.
Being biracial, Harrell sees the world through a different colored lens.
“I have always been intentional about looking past racial differences and exploring what people have in common,” Harrell said.
Having worked through issues of self-identity, Harrell is more sensitive to people facing such issues, especially children. He believes “discussions on race are often polarizing, one dimensional, and singular, ignoring that many people are of mixed heritage. He feels blessed to have been exposed to both Asian and African American cultures.
Harrell represents District 2, which includes the Chinatown-International District (CID), and chairs the Governance, Equity, and Technology Committee. He serves as vice chair of the Human Services, Equitable Development, and Renter Rights Committee and also serves as a member of the Finance and Neighborhoods Committee.
As a new council member, Harrell introduced the Beacon Hill Broadband Pilot project, an expansion of high-fiber cable network to benefit underserved neighborhoods in the South End. He also pushed for street light conversion to brighter, longer lasting LEDs in those neighborhoods. Harrell is an advocate for the “13th Year” program, allowing high school graduates to attend South Seattle College in the first year tuition-free.
One of his earliest actions as a council member was the Race and Social Justice legislation to heighten the city’s awareness of institutional racism and social disparities.
Harrell is committed to developing legislation to restore funding to support programs for the CID and Asian Pacific Islanders. Preserving and investing in this “cultural gem” has always been a part of Harrell’s agenda.
Other contributions to the Asian community include his sponsorship of Resolution 31827 to honor the legacy of community activist Alan ‘Al’ Sugiyama, Resolution 31591 to recognize the Vietnamese Heritage and Freedom flag as the symbol for Seattle’s Vietnamese community,
and Resolution 31769 to recognize the contributions of Filipino Americans to Seattle. His office was also part of the working group to develop the CID Public Safety Action Plan.
The council recently passed legislation to allocate $300,000 in funding for public improvements to Hing Hay Park. Whether it’s his voice or another council member’s, Harrell said, “There must always be a voice of the API community on the Council.”
He hopes Seattle’s Asian community model can demonstrate how a large demographic group can support and celebrate its commonality while still recognizing that “subsets of the same community have unique, cultural components that must be preserved and protected.”
Harrell believes the city’s policies and investment strategy need to recognize that “a culturally and ethnically diverse city is an advantage, as racial makeup shifts, our desire to remain diverse should not.”
He added, “The city’s efforts in the Equitable Development Initiative are so important in projects, including the Filipino community of Seattle, Southeast Economic Opportunity Center, Little Saigon Landmark Project, Rainier Beach Innovation district, and the Multicultural Community Center. These projects protect our culture and embrace the future.”
Speaking of the future, Harrell is a “Husky optimist.” He forecast a 9-3 record and a bowl game to follow for his alma mater. Yes, Harrell breathes Seattle and sees purple through his lens.
Harrell will be honored at the Top Contributors award dinner on Dec. 7 at House of Hong Restaurant in Seattle, from 6–9 p.m.
Becky can be reached at email@example.com.