“I heard the gunshots behind me. I ran around the corner of the building as fast as I could and looked back. I felt like my heart was exploding from my chest.”
Silence filled the classroom as Tijani described escaping from a shooter in his neighborhood. It was 2016 and I was leading a workshop for 7th graders as part of a non-profit organization that I co-founded called Rising Leaders, Inc. Rising Leaders aims to equip underserved middle school students with professional networks, mentorship, and monthly trainings around leadership and life skills. In this particular workshop, we worked with students on their personal statements — stories they would one day submit for their college applications. We asked them to think of life experiences that shaped who they are, that they feel comfortable sharing, and to connect those experiences to their broader purposes. One by one, students in the wealthiest country in the world told stories of surviving multiple shootings, living in homeless shelters, or losing their parents and going through a traumatic foster system.
Like Tijani and our other students, I know this dynamic personally growing up in South Seattle. My parents are Ethiopian refugees who gave birth to me in Sudan and then moved to the United States when I was three. Neither of my parents had the opportunity to go to college. We lived in many of Seattle’s public housing projects, including Rainier Vista and Holly Park. When I was eight, we even lived in a homeless shelter through the Union Gospel Mission. I’ll never forget the feelings of not having a place to call our own, constantly having strangers in our personal space, and not having control over the most basic things like the types of food we were allowed to bring to our room.
It wasn’t until I graduated from Franklin High School and started college at Stanford University that I realized how many of our realities in South Seattle are inequitable and unacceptable in a modern society. It’s unacceptable to grow up with no parents in our household because our single mother had to work double shifts, 7 days a week, only to be one paycheck away from financial ruin. It’s unacceptable to know dozens of young men who have been shot and killed in our neighborhood. It’s unacceptable to have our cousins unable to get jobs as adults because they stole something years ago as teenagers. It’s unacceptable for half our family to have asthma because people of color were forced to live in dilapidated, unsanitary army units in segregated and under-resourced parts of the city. Most importantly, it’s unacceptable that many, if not most, of these realities are products of policy decisions.
I helped activists around the country participate in the political process by updating them on federal legislation and showing them how to persuade their elected officials to vote in their favor. I also met with members of Congress to report my findings on community health in Brooklyn. They all agreed that having first-hand accounts from community members is integral to making sound policy. I learned here that the most effective solutions to poverty marry the strengths of grassroots and government efforts: bold legislation that actively seeks input, leadership, and commitment from the people it is intended to impact.
My name is Girmay Zahilay and I’m running for King County Council, D2, in 2019 because I believe in the promise of all our residents from our youth to our senior citizens. I’m running for King County Council because in one of the wealthiest counties of the wealthiest nation in the world, none of our neighbors should be too poor to live. I believe the county government must take a leadership role in building affordable housing, fixing our criminal justice system, promoting environmental justice, and providing reliable access to transportation. I want to change the priorities of our political system, give our communities greater access to government, and fight for bold progressive policies. Over the coming months, I am excited to hear from you. I am excited to hear your ideas and your stories. I am excited to work with you to make our county a vibrant, welcoming place for everyone. Together, I have no doubt we can choose a future that works for us all.