Q: Let’s start with your current position. Can you describe your role?
I am the Director of Purchasing and Contracting Services for the city of Seattle. I direct the policies, acquisitions and contracts for construction, products, and consulting work. With almost $1 billion spent through these contracts, it has a tremendous impact on economic justice. With the support of our elected leadership over many years, we built our contract policies and programs with race and social equity as part of the central mission.
Q: How did you arrive at this role?
Although I came to this role as a natural progression in my tenure as a public official, my passion for this work came from the underpinnings of the opportunity to carry out my values and sense of responsibility. The distribution of money has reflected the distribution of opportunity, power and privilege throughout America’s history. What we see today in our institutions and systems, was born from a legacy dating hundreds of years. Mid-century, Seattle had passionate activists, from Black Panthers, CORE and SNCC to business owners and students, speaking about the role of government to lift up jobs and opportunity. This specifically included how the City of Seattle ensured equity in construction work and in contract spend. I see this work as the continuation of their legacy. I started working in affirmative action 35 years ago, during the throes of this activism, and over these years recognized that public dollars had the power to influence economic justice.
Q: What inspired you to do racial equity work?
When I was a little girl in north Seattle, which was very white and suburban, and I intuitively had outrage over racial oppressions. At school and in our neighborhoods, I easily saw that African Americans and other people of color were isolated. My dear mother taught me to welcome and respect these families, and talked about their strength and courage. At the University of Washington, I was also deeply aware of racial inequities and injustices. This guided me into making specific and conscious career choices that would allow me to influence and touch these issues.
Q: Tell me about some of your major accomplishments in this role.
I have had the joy of working with executive and elected leadership on making change. Seattle is a city that has been willing to do remarkable things dedicated to race and social justice. The elected leaders and public executives of Seattle have moved with energy and passion towards dismantling systematic oppressions. Some have worked with great effect and dedication; all have supported and not obstructed this core value. The City has recognized white privilege, the barriers and oppressions of all people of color, women, and LGBTQ communities.
The greatest joy has been working with those leaders who have and support high risk tolerance and who will actively engage and not just delegate on these issues. They have allowed our accomplishments.
Our women and minority business program has had great effect. We have gone from 3% utilization up to our current levels of 15% and even 20% for women and minority owned businesses, in the space of my tenure with the City from 2004. It has changed the feel of city government. Now when I walk around the city building, I can see minority contractors sitting at tables, strategizing and getting contracts.
The second, and probably most satisfying accomplishment, is our Priority Hire initiative. Since our first work began in 2010 under Mayor McGinn, this initiative has made a transformative difference in city’s construction workforce. The program has encouraged, supported, and prioritized getting people of color and women into labor unions and onto labor union jobs for our City-funded construction projects. I deeply respect the Building Trades Council here in Washington state, who really made it possible to impact the workforce. There have big changes in numbers, nearly doubling the people of color and tripling the share of women in just a few years. We are not the first city to do this, San Francisco and Los Angeles have led the way, and it has been very satisfying to learn from them and create our pathway.
Q: What have been most challenging aspects of pursuing this work?
The most important challenge is having a culture of risk tolerance in our executives, whether elected or executive. We need them to actively support the work and protect us when risks are on the table, not avoid the risk. Change doesn’t come without high risk. Window dressing is not helpful and is both disappointing and defeating. Leaders have to have our back. I am out there challenging things, and they need to know my name and stand up and say, “I support her,” or else I can’t have the credibility to make change.
There’s a quote from the Dalai Lama, “if you think you are too small to make a difference, try sleeping with a mosquito.” And sometimes, we are nothing more than a mosquito. We are constantly advocating for change, and even good change is painful and disruptive. City employees and contractors are deeply dedicated to doing their work and doing it well; they just want to do their job, business as usual, without having to hear from folks like me saying we’ve got to change the way we’re doing business.
Q: What have been the most rewarding aspects of this work to you personally?
Every time we see a win or success metric, it just feels good, a reminder of why we do this work. Since my work in city government is so close to the ground, I am able to see more than just numbers on paper, to see the lives that get changed. There are moments when I am able to look across the table and talk to that business owner or worker who would not be sitting there if it weren’t for our shared efforts.
Q: Taking a step back, what do you think is the greatest opportunity for local government to accelerate progress in our work to advance racial equity?
We have to figure out education and jobs. For people of color, for African Americans, unemployment is 2 to 3 times more likely, even in the best economy. This is especially true if you’re young and black. It seems like the problems in this country are solved when there are a bunch of white folks who want to solve the issue. When the distressed points are in our black communities, they
As for education, we need to ensure that every young person has a sense of opportunity, and it is our responsibility to help them get there. How do we provide an education process that’s meaningful, whether college or an apprenticeship? This is a problem we can as a country solve. It is not inevitable that our poor communities and children have disheartening prospects. I imagine it in terms of our most prominent superstars. If it was that family, that child, suffering, we as a country would have the problem solved. Thinking about it in that framework, we can solve it, when we muster the will and determination to do so.
Q: What do you think is holding us back?
Fear, trust, and power – the big one is power. People, institutions, systems don’t want to give up the power they’ve enjoyed for centuries. Reasonably so. Now we are trying to change and upend what has been safe, secure and dependable. There’s a lot of fear in change, and that drives decisions in both day to day determinations as well as larger policies and systems.
Q: What do you think we can accomplish in the next decade?
I’m very hopeful because we are in the midst of an important rethinking in our country. We are seeing people employ those tactics and strategies that were so effective in the civil rights days. They really do cause our institutions to recognize that change is required. In the next decade, I think we could make substantial steps forward in jobs, employment, and policing. We will see a greater equalization of race, gender, and ethnicity play out. The presidential election has brought forth a dynamic that is forcing a rethinking, challenging the thinking and what our culture and society will be about but I like to think our progress towards racial equity will ultimately prevail.