By Mahlon Meyer
Northwest Asian Weekly
As a wave of newly elected and appointed officials from minority communities reaches to all corners of the state, leaders of the Asian American and Pacific Islander (AAPI) and Black communities are building alliances.
Partly inspired by the election of Bruce Harrell as Seattle mayor and by a successful event last month celebrating his heritage from both communities, the leaders are organizing several events to build solidarity between the two groups.
“The fact that we have the first ever Black and Asian American mayor provides us the perfect opportunity for these two communities to work jointly as never before,” said Nate Miles, a longtime community leader and executive at Eli Lilly.
Organizers are planning a virtual celebration on Jan. 13, entitled “Unity of Voices,” for the more than 80 newly-installed AAPI and Black officials.
It will be followed in the spring by an in-person conclave during which the officials can further build relationships and roust out a set of shared issues of mutual interest they can work on.
Still, planning for the Jan. 13 celebration has already served to build ties between the two groups.
“Some of the other organizers I already know,” said Henry Yates, a consultant who works to promote minority- and women-owned businesses for prime contractors.
“Some I’ve gotten to know. But I have gotten to the point where I wouldn’t hesitate to reach out for help, and I know this attitude is mutual because I’ve already been called for help.”
This kind of relationship building is what organizers hope will come of the conferences.
Yates noted that many of the new officials were in far-flung regions, or areas where one might not typically expect minority candidates to prevail, given demographic disparities.
The mayor of Mountlake Terrace, Kyoko Matsumoto Wright, is an Asian American woman. There are three new Black city councilmembers in Olympia and Tumwater—Dontae Payne, Angela Jefferson, and Peter Agabi—not to mention AAPI councilmember Yen Huynh. And the South Snohomish fire chief, David Chan, emigrated from Hong Kong over four decades ago.
“The Asian and African American leadership has expanded to all these places,” he said.
The virtual celebration is also meant to show support for Harrell while building solidarity as minority officials and their communities seek to partner with him as he embarks on governing.
“We want him to be a mayor for all people,” said David Della, a longtime leader of the Filipino community and labor activist. “It’s a two-way street.”
Della said the event is intended to build off the celebratory energy of a large, raucous dinner last month in which more than 400 people showed up from many of the minority communities in the city to fete and honor Harrell, who danced and hectored the crowd as he was greeted with loud and repeated applause and cheers.
The dinner also represented a coming together of disparate groups to commemorate what they said was a milestone election.
Della, for instance, made sure the Filipino community was represented, filling seven tables.
The emergence of so many new officials from these communities, however, did not come about from racial politics, said Yates.
“These individuals were called to leadership,” he said. “They were not representing themselves in a racial way.”
Still, he said that their presence was also to some extent a reaction on the part of voters and administrators to the social upheavals and activism of recent times—including Black Lives Matter and anti-AAPI hate.
“There is some recognition that some of these communities are disadvantaged, that there are people who are trying to deny these communities their basic rights, and folks see this and say, ‘Isn’t it time that these communities are represented as a way to level the playing field,’” said Yates.
He said that 21-year-old Joshua Binda, who was elected to the Lynnwood City Council, identified himself as a Black Lives Matter activist.
At the same time, Clarence Moriwaki, who was elected mayor in Bainbridge Island, had created a memorial there to commemorate the incarceration of Japanese Americans during World War II.
“His family was impacted by the event,” said Yates. “Now he’ll be making policy for the community.”
The emergence of new officials from both communities is also owing to the strides made by their predecessors, said organizers.
Yates pointed out that Harrell had chosen to stand with former mayor Norm Rice on the night he celebrated his victory.
Della hopes Harrell will offer similar support to the Filipino and other minority communities as Rice did. The founding of an organization to protect the rights of Filipino workers took place in Rice’s office, he said.
“He was really supportive, he met with the leadership every quarter,” said Della. “It was the precursor to what the city is calling its race and social justice initiative.”
Looking forward, some of the issues that might come out of collaboration between the cohort of new officials includes finding ways for minority communities to benefit from the tax dollars that they pay.
“We can unify to ensure public money is spent more equitably,” said Yates.
For Miles, who has worked with Asian community leaders for years whether on election campaigns or fundraising for critical infrastructure such as the Kin On nursing home, collaboration has always proved the optimal way forward.
“They all taught me that while we may achieve some things going it alone, we are much stronger, are much smarter, and accomplish more when we work together,” he said.
The event is organized by the AAPI and Black community leaders of Seattle: Nate Miles, Regina Glenn, Elaine Ikoma Ko, Tim Otani, Janice Zahn, Henry Yates, David Della, Winona Hollins- Hauge, Kristin Ang, George Northcroft, Girmay Zahilay, Abdul Yusuf, Lem Howell, Cindy Wong-Li, and Assunta Ng.
To meet the new officials, register for the Zoom meeting: https://bit.ly/3z4524G
Meeting ID: 984 1825 8953
Mahlon can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.