Our city council made history last Tuesday by passing a resolution that changed everything about how we approach homelessness in our city. It’s about time.
Fifteen years or so ago I became a volunteer at the Bread and Roses Advocacy Center (BRAC) at the corner of State and Washington. I started out as a volunteer for The Voice of Olympia, a monthly street newspaper that covered issues related to poverty and homelessness, and featured local artists and writers from the street community with the goal of giving them, as the title suggests, a voice. I sold ads (I tried more like) and helped out with some editing and layout. The Editor in Chief was Meta Hogan, who you may have heard of as the creator of Olympia Power & Light along with Matthew Green, who I’ll talk about in a minute.
Six months earlier I’d taken a fall from a ladder at a job site. I’d been working for a small painting and construction company. L&I determined that I not work, and do physical therapy for a year. Six months into it I was bored out of my mind. A friend handed me a copy of The Voice, I saw that they needed help, I had VAST journalism and editing experience from my three years on the high school paper [/sarcasm] – so I called that day to get scheduled. Within a week I was basically volunteering all day every day. After six months of that, they invited me to join them as a member of the staff collective.
Until I joined them, Bread & Roses had three staff members: Selena Kilmoyer, Meta Hogan, and Phil Owen. They’ve all gone on to blaze trails and do inspiring stuff you’ve probably heard about if you’ve lived in Olympia for a while.
Selena was our leader. We never talked about it in those terms; hierarchy wasn’t really our thing, but there was no denying that she was – to three kids in their mid-20s trying to make sense of human suffering and the blind eye that society turns to it. She was our rock, our advisor, and our guide in all matters spiritual, practical, and comical.
Meta was the one who pushed us the most. She carried (still has it I think) a benevolent chip on her shoulder and she never let us acquiesce to the injustices of the world, always pushing us to say, firmly and resolutely, “Fuck this shit.”
Phil was more the more practical one, the voice of reason. In an academic sense, he was probably philosophically the most radical – our brother of the perpetual Trotsky love-fest – but he also kept us from spinning our wheels too much. He was always planning and setting the course.
How do we turn our radical notions of love into policies and programs that grantors will fund and cities will pass into law? That was the question always burning below the surface. Above the surface, we were fighting every day to keep people alive, and to be a source of love, to invite people in not as clients of our social service agency but as guests in our space and our lives. To show them that blessed community can be forged anywhere and that we can make it (together) if we try.
Over the years people were added to the mix and with that came changing dynamics, “company politics,” drama, shifting goals and values, organizational structures, all the things that can happen when people start peopling. It’s possible that if we had just kept it the four us and never tried to grow or add people to the mix (or maybe they should have kept it just three), we might still be at it all these years later, but I don’t think we’d be better for it. We wouldn’t have taken the risks and accomplished the things we did if we’d stayed in the cocoon of Bread & Roses. I loved my time there. I love who it made me. I wouldn’t change a thing. To Phil, Meta, and Selena – thank you. You helped me wake up to the world and my place in it, and helped me find self-worth.
The first city council member, and really the first politician, that I ever found personally relatable was Matthew Green. Matthew was closest to my age of the council members and always spoke frankly with a keenly honed sense of what’s right. He stuck to his guns despite often being out to sea on a city council that tended more conservative than he. After his time on council, he managed campaigns, focused on getting good people elected to council who would fight the good fight. I started volunteering on campaigns about 10 years ago and I watched Matthew intently as he led them. How he prepped candidates to run, how he worked with volunteers, crafted strategy and messaging. If I even sometimes show a glimmer of talent at campaign work, then it’s because of Matthew. He also taught me, by example, that you can be principled in the business of politics and still be effective, and that we can use the strategies, tools, and especially data (Matthew is a data wizard) of conventional politics in benevolent ways.
Where’s this shaggy dog story going?
Last Tuesday our city council unanimously passed a resolution on homelessness that calls for direct action to address the suffering of people on the streets and to enact policies and practices rooted in love. Period. Full stop.
In the Bread & Roses days, and for years after, we fought against anti-homeless ordinances and defunding of programs. And we lost. Every time. From the Sit/Lie to Anti-Camping Ordinances to the well-orchestrated campaign to stop The People’s House, we’ve always had a city council and administration dominated by folks who don’t want to spend resources on helping people but would rather push them out or make their very existence a crime. We might have had in Matthew, and in later years Jim Cooper, one voice on the council, maybe two on some issues, but never enough to turn the tide.
Today we have a city council that is doing the good work out of love and saying without fear that while we don’t know yet exactly how we’re going to do it, we’re deciding to do it. Matthew Green started us down the path that got us here by being that voice in the dark and then showing others how to be that voice by helping compassionate people get elected. Councilmembers Jessica Bateman and Clark Gilman dared us to believe that we can actually have the kind of city council that can get the job done without leaving anybody behind. We came into this past year needing just one more seat to have a firm majority. We took two. Lisa Parshley and Renata Rollins completed the council we dreamed of all those years ago, and now we’re reaping the rewards.
I’m taking some time this week to reflect and celebrate and be grateful.
Thanks for reading.
PS – A special shout out to Meg Martin, Mindy Chambers, Theresa Slusher, Rosalinda Noriega, and Malika Lamont – the warriors who fought when others wouldn’t. I think we’re actually doing the damn thing now. Ain’t it cool?!