I had the opportunity to attend a meeting with hundreds of other City of Seattle employees in which one of the many goals was coming up with ways to get the community involved in the decision-making process for city projects. Anyone who has been to Seattle knows that it’s a beehive of activity. Something is always under construction. Roads are being repaved. New transit opportunities are being launched. And all of these things, while being created, have an impact on the neighborhoods in which they’re located.
Sadly, the impact on minority neighborhoods is often more severe. When you cut off traffic flow to mom and pop businesses it can kill them, whereas a Starbucks chain can most likely weather the storm. And there could be cultural and language barrier impacts that you aren’t even aware of. In the past, the predominantly white male administrators of this city did not take these matters into account.
This reminded me of a cartoon I saw many years ago (which I desperately wish I could find on line so I could post it at work, but no luck so far): It shows a bridge submerged in a river, with only the spires sticking up, and on the bank there’s a guy in a suit, jumping up and down in frustration, and a construction guy is saying to him, “If you want one of those over-water thingies, you got to specify.”
Seattle Mayor Ed Murray spoke at the meeting I attended, and he had a lot to say on the subject. Fortunately, he was humble. He admitted that mistakes have been made, and he took responsibility for them. One of the more notorious city mistakes was the treatment of hookah lounges.
There are 11 such lounges in the city, and some people feel they are hubs of violence. People have been shot dead in front of hookah lounges. Surrounding businesses have been impacted. People started approaching the mayor and begging him to do something. So he came up with a plan to shut them all down. Read more about that here.
To say this caused a ruckus is putting it mildly. Many members of the East African and Middle Eastern communities protested loudly. These establishments are meeting places for them, and places to celebrate their cultural identity. And in truth, they can’t be held responsible for criminal acts that take place outside their walls. That’s a law enforcement issue. That’s a gang violence issue. Having some white men in suits barge in, thinking they have all the answers, without even discussing it with those people who would be most impacted by their decisions was offensive to say the least. The mayor had to back down on that one.
Now Seattle is one of the first cities in the country to employ RETs, or Racial Equity Toolkits. And it’s the only city in the country that requires that such a toolkit be used at least 4 times a year in every city department. This toolkit is a series of steps that get the community stakeholders involved in the planning process for city projects. It requires that planners view their projects through a racial equity lens. How will our actions impact this particular community? What can we do to reduce or prevent negative impacts? What important things might we be overlooking?
I left this meeting feeling rather proud of my new city. We may not always get things right, but by God we try. That a very important start, and it counts for a lot.