By Mahlon Meyer
NORTHWEST ASIAN WEEKLY
Seattle Mayor Bruce Harrell asked members of the ethnic media to come for a “roundtable” on Friday, but it was not entirely clear why.
The session commenced with confusion over whether the session should be recorded.
Harrell asked that the dozen or so reporters present not record. But he said he would defer to them if they insisted.
He then took a vote, and after a handful insisted on recording, he said, “Well, I’m not going to be able to be as frank as I would have liked to. There are people out there who have an agenda that…”
And then he trailed off.
After being asked for clarification, at the end of the one-and-a-half-hour session, by Northwest Asian Weekly, Harrell finally said, “You should be celebrating that in a very white city—and Seattle is very white—a person of color was elected mayor.”
The roundtable came as marchers, in Washington, D.C., were celebrating the 60th anniversary of the March on Washington, in which Martin Luther King Jr. gave his “I Have a Dream” speech.
It also came after Harrell had received some negative press—he acknowledged having a journalist who wrote a piece he “didn’t like” to breakfast recently, but the two “ended up hugging,” he said.
Still, the purpose was at times elusive.
Harrell apparently wanted to build on existing relationships with the ethnic media and develop new ones.
“Some of you I’ve known for decades,” he said. “I’ve even been to your homes. Others of you are new to me.”
A list of questions seeking clarification about the purpose of the roundtable, and several key features unrolled during it sent to the staff person Harrell designated as his point person for ethnic media, remained unanswered as of an editorial deadline.
A work in progress
One of the chief features unrolled at the session involved an online portal aimed at low-income residents of the city.
Harrell said the portal would help make living in Seattle affordable while his administration continued “to fight the larger struggles,” such as affordable housing.
The portal, dubbed “CiviForm,” was designed with the help of Google, Harrell said.
Yet many of its key features did not translate into the multiple languages promised by Harrell’s staff.
A trial run by Northwest Asian Weekly found it promised to save a relatively small amount of money given the amount of time and effort needed to apply, for instance, for utility discounts—perhaps its greatest source of savings.
Harrell, though, was not promising huge discounts.
“We don’t want folks to have to choose between buying eggs or paying their electricity bill,” he said.
One of the features of CiviForm is an opportunity to obtain an additional average $32 per month in food stamps to buy fresh food.
The application takes about one hour, according to the portal.
Still, while the initial screening is in different languages, the introduction and layout to the different programs are only in English (later explanations are translated).
Staff members conceded during the roundtable that it was still a work in progress.
Another issue was, perhaps, due to the scope and design of the portal.
Harrell’s team suggested the portal could obviate the need to send clients to services otherwise provided by community organizations like Chinese Information and Services Center (CISC), while making it easier for social workers to keep track of their clients.
But the plethora of services provided by organizations like CISC, and others that were said to be participating in the portal, was not replicated.
Discounts for arts and entertainment, childcare, and transportation appeared on the portal.
But Northwest Asian Weekly could find nothing about housing, legal services, or medical issues—three of the key areas low-income and immigrant populations need from these agencies.
An important question
For all his joking with reporters, some of whom he apparently had known for some time—Harrell said, for instance, he had seen the face of one on an album cover—there were moments when the mayor’s attempts to reach out to the ethnic media prompted more questions.
At one point, the reporter he had referred to as being on an album cover asked a question, particularly poignant for minority communities.
The reporter asked: How could the city do a better job in helping the ethnic media access information from the fire department and the police department?
“If there’s a shooting, our community looks to us for answers,” said the journalist.
Harrell first quipped, “You’re the only one” with that problem.
But then he pivoted to his press liaison, who was sitting to the side of the table.
The liaison said, “We’re always looking to improve.”
He then referred the reporter to the police department’s blotter.
Other journalists said the police seemed to give more access to the mainstream media than ethnic media.
Harrell said, after a recent mass shooting at a Safeway on Rainier Avenue, he had gone there that night.
“I didn’t see any of you there,” he said.
At the same time, Harrell was clear that he wanted to build better relationships with the ethnic media because he is being “constantly misquoted or misunderstood.”
He wants to “be able to get accurate information out,” he said.
The city might be able to facilitate ethnic media getting involved in Comcast channel 21—the Seattle Channel—he said.
A minor kerfuffle ensued after Northwest Asian Weekly asked about a comment Harrell had made that “ethnic media was dying.”
Several reporters objected. Harrell clarified he was referring to “print” media.
One reporter said his outlet had, in fact, just started a print newspaper that “we refused to put online.”
The publisher and CEO of Medium Newspaper Group, Chris B. Bennett, said, “If people make decisions not to use us,” then we’re in trouble. “But if people make use of us to get information out, we won’t die.”
Harrell said he had read about the challenges he referred to in an article in the Economist or the New York Times.
“My need is to make sure ethnic media is alive and well,” he said. “You are in an industry that has challenges.”
Bennett raised another issue about his characterization.
Harrell said he wouldn’t say it again.
“Fighting for diversity”
Other issues came up, raised by reporters, and Harrell answered them with a nod to policies he had implemented or proposed.
Bennett asked about so-called affordable housing going up that was “not conducive” to low-income families actually living in it.
Harrell said he had passed a $250 million housing levy and this year had proposed the largest housing budget in history.
He was aware, he said, that the Black population in the city was shrinking.
In the 1970s, the Black population of the Central District was 75%. Now it is less than 15%.
While fighting the larger “battle” of housing, he is also working to preserve cultural icons in the district, such as a well-known barbershop, he said.
“I’m fighting for diversity in this city,” he said.
One of the reporters who had insisted on recording asked Harrell about after-school programs for students.
The mayor said the Parks Department had just had an additional hire that would be bolstering the Big Brothers Big Sisters Program.
A journalist from Tonga called for more activities for keeping elders involved in the lives of their children, as was done in her culture.
“That’s very profound,” said Harrell and mentioned a program to teach swimming at the YMCA.
The program is for children. It offers a workshop for parents to learn about issues like skincare for their children learning to swim.
A Native American journalist and musician asked Harrell how indigenous people could have access to festivals like Bumbershoot.
Harrell promised to put him in touch with the head of the festival.
He then told a story of how he had recently been cajoled by the emcee at a Black music festival to come on stage and give remarks.
“Love and friendship”
At the end of the session, Harrell said, “What was this?”
He paused, apparently looking for words.
“I’m blessed to be the mayor. I work seven days a week. I want to build the best relationships possible, to develop friendships,” he said.
There is a mystique that city politics is dark and mysterious, he said.
“But I was born six blocks from here,” he said.
Seeming to mumble somewhat, he added, “My North Star is love, trust, friendship, and commitment.”
Mahlon can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.