Colleen Echohawk Focuses on Housing the Homeless in Seattle Mayoral Run

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Colleen Echohawk with a colorful mural in the background showing an indigenous with a handprint over her lips.
Colleen Echohawk announced her run on January 25th. (Photo credit: Ulysses Curry / Echohawk campaign)

Colleen Echohawk thought long and hard about running for mayor. 

The executive director of the Chief Seattle Club — a services organization in Pioneer Square that supports the disproportionately large population of Native people experiencing homelessness — spoke to elders in her community before deciding to take the plunge. One was her uncle.

“And he is just encouraging me about what I should do,” Echohawk said, describing the scene. “And he’s like, ‘Colleen, remember that in our language that ‘leader’ really translates into ‘the servant,’ the servant of the community.”

“And he really charged me with that,” she said.

Echohawk believes she is ready to take on the mantle. The Chief Seattle Club has 65 staff and a $17 million budget. It leverages nearly $100 million more to build housing, including a new modular housing project in Lake City. Housing production and management are skills for the Mayor’s Office, Echohawk said.

Also, a bit of a DIY attitude.

“I have been the kind of leader at the Chief Seattle Club where I scrubbed the toilet and I’ve written the checks and I’ve signed the checks and I’ve gone out there asking for the dollars,” she said. “I’ll bring that same kind of lens to the Mayor’s Office.”

Echohawk envisions a mayoral administration that would be transformational for the city and the office. She wants to see the city take bold action on homelessness and climate change, issues that are close to her heart. She also wants to change the culture of the Mayor’s Office to one that is more open and centered on listening to Seattleites, even while acknowledging she may make decisions some don’t like. Check out her website here.

The Urbanist is also hosting Echohawk on Wednesday March 24th for a bonus monthly meetup. RSVP here for the Zoom link.

The following interview has been edited for length and clarity. 

The Urbanist: Why do you want to run for mayor?

Colleen Echohawk: As a nonprofit executive that has really grown my agency over the past seven years, you learn how to see the problem, look at what the resources are there and find ways to solve that problem. You create new programs. You create new housing. You move, and you get the work done. And I feel like this is that once in a generation opportunity to hit the reset button, rebuild our transportation infrastructure, housing, police department, our neighborhoods, and our economy so that we are truly based in equity for everyone.

I believe that there is now an emergency on our hands around the homelessness community and serving them adequately and solving this crisis. I can’t continue to sit by and watch the city slip further and further away from equity and justice, since in the last six years the homeless emergency was declared, and our homeless emergency’s gotten even greater.

The Department of Justice placed our police department under that federal consent decree and, as you saw with the summer, things were really, really terrible. Our climate crisis continues to worsen. So, it is time to stop the infighting. It’s time to stop the excuses and time to get to work and get the work done. We need change. We need change. We need generational change, new generational leadership in the Mayor’s Office.

And so, that’s why I’m running. 

The Urbanist: What is it about the powers of the Mayor’s Office and the various departments under the control of the Mayor’s Office that you want to use? What opportunities are there to have the change that you want to see?

Echohawk: The number one thing is homelessness.

I have been grinding away at the Chief Seattle Club, and we’ve had a lot of success, but it’s limited in the big picture of things.

And I have felt so frustrated. I’ve had good ideas. Some of our members of the Chief Seattle Club had good ideas, our staff had good ideas. I talked to people in the community, and we are not heard. And the bureaucracy continues to grow and grow and grow. And we are not a part of that bureaucracy. And so I have felt for years now this feeling of frustration that I can only have limited success in solving for homelessness at the Chief Seattle Club level.

And there was a moment when I was considering, you know, should I do this, should I not do this? And I was in a meeting at the city, and they were suggesting we do something, honestly, that would have just been so harmful to the homeless community and would have set us back. And I thought, there’s just no way. If I can be on the other side of the desk where I am listening to community, where I’ve had the experience, I have the success rate of getting this work done, then I should step up and serve the community in this way.

So, I think that the Mayor’s Office has a ton more power, a ton more responsibility, which I am ready to take on. And I’m the right kind of person to lead us forward. 

And frankly, we can’t have more of the same. We cannot. Our city is hurting, community is hurting, and more of the same will ensure that we won’t have the outcomes that we deserve. We need to have equity. We need to have shared prosperity. We need to be a city that lives out our progressive values. And that’s what I want to do in the Mayor’s Office.

The Urbanist: When you say there’s an emphasis on homelessness, what are some policies or directions that you’d like to go in that haven’t so far been explored by the city? Or where would you like to see more resources go if there are things that they’ve been doing that maybe you’d like to see more of?

Echohawk: The number one thing is truly treating this like an emergency. The moment I know that I’m elected, the next day the transition team starts working on treating this like an emergency. That means using every kind of mechanism that we can to help support our neighbors out there who are living in parks, living in greenbelts, those folks who are unsheltered to find the right path for them to get into a shelter.

Some of our partners at REACH, they say, “Listen. What we have to do in order to move people out of encampments is to offer them something better.” So, we need to find what that “something better” is.

I’m imagining more tiny homes because it is an emergency. I think tiny homes are appropriate in an emergency. It could be more shelter; it could be more hotel rooms. It could be a lot of different things that we already know that work. And then I would also be asking the larger community, what else do you think will work? I want to work with neighborhoods. I want to work with the [Business Improvement Associations]. I want to work with all of us so that we can find solutions that are going to make the change.

And the reason that that’s important to me, and you probably remember this, is that there was a lot of years when we knew that Native people experience homelessness, but we did not have Native people at the policy making table, even though we were vastly, disproportionately represented in the homeless community. I think that there are solutions out there in the community that haven’t been heard. And I want to see that happen. And I want to treat this like the emergency it is.

I am in the middle of a project in Lake City that is modular-style housing. I’m talking to community members right now where other places that are flat that we can put up modular housing that can support our homeless community and just other ways of really thinking about this with a lens of these are human beings and we have a humanitarian crisis on our hands in one of the most prosperous, prosperous cities in the country. 

That, to me, is not OK. Another example of community-led work is JustCare. I would not leave one penny on the table anywhere; I would be implementing programs like JustCare […] around the city so that we are doing the programs that really work, programs that are taking care of our folks who’ve been suffering and chronic homelessness for a really long time. That is not good for them to be in the parks. It’s not good for us that they’re in the parks. It’s not good for anyone. And we need to find ways to get them into that right kind of stability and that right kind of housing.

So those are just some of the things that come off the top of my head. We know that with good leadership and with decisive leadership, things can happen. The other thing I’ll say about homelessness is that there’s been a ton of fighting about things that has been a lot of toxicity there. We have got to find ways to come together.

I think people want there to be action taken. Right? Everyone’s frustrated. I’m frustrated. We want to take action. So, let’s take some action and get it done.

The Urbanist: There is this initiative effort [first reported by PubliCola] that’s getting underway to “effectively reinstate the city’s Navigation Team.” Have you seen that reporting, and what are your thoughts about this initiative?

Echohawk: I have seen the reporting, and I have talked to a few people about it. What I do like about it — I’ll say what I like about it first — is I like that someone is doing something. I appreciate that people are out there saying, you know what, this has gone on far too long. I want to do something. We should be doing something. 

I do have some concerns. I don’t believe we should criminalize the fact that sometimes people have nowhere to go except for into a park.

I don’t believe that’s good for our society. I don’t think it’s good for that person who’s experiencing homelessness. So that worries me. I was not a fan, and I’m still not a fan, of the Navigation Teams. I don’t think that having a police officer as part of outreach into our homeless community is effective. It triggers trauma. It causes a lot of angst and pain for that person. And I think we can do better.

I’ve also seen time and time again a sweep happens and an hour later I see them that they’ve just moved over to another corner. Or … they may remove an encampment from the International District and then they go to Ballard. They don’t work. Let’s be effective.

I also feel stressed that, as far as I can tell, there hasn’t been a connection with the Lived Experience Coalition. We know that best practices that the lived experience folks need to be leading the effort. So that worries me. I don’t know if the BIPOC community has been a part of that leadership. I have not been a part of leading that effort. And I hope that there are people of color, Black, Indigenous folks, who are going to be a part of leading that discussion, because if they don’t, then again, we’re going to be in a place of ineffectiveness.

And we and I want to be effective, get the job done.

The Urbanist: What do you see as potential methods for the mayor of Seattle to push forward affordable housing creation or to create more housing in general in a way that doesn’t increase displacement or gentrification?

Echohawk: We have to realize that this cannot just be a city where people who are rich can enjoy. Through the pandemic, I was working down with the Chief Seattle Club and I was working with staff who are getting paid $18, $19, $20 an hour. And they were busing down to Pioneer Square in the middle of a pandemic from Mill Creek and from Lynnwood and from Renton. To me, that is painful, and we should not be that kind of city.

I think that we have to be very, very clear and very, very proactive — more so than we’re doing right now — to ensure that that doesn’t happen. So, that means we are going to have to think about rezoning. We’re going to have to think about where we can create density in the city without increasing gentrification and displacement of folks who are vulnerable. And we have to truly think about equity. We recognize that there has been redlining and gentrification that has really harmed so many of our community.

One thing that I’m interested in and I have worked a little bit on is that preference policy. I want to see Black people living and thriving in the Central District. Let’s find ways to say, hey, if your family used to live here, via the preference policy then you should be able to come back. You should have preference in affordable housing that is being built in that area. So, I think we have to be thinking about other affirmative marketing for affordable housing that’s being built.

I look forward to supporting agencies that haven’t been thought that have been thought of as housing providers in the past. Right back to Chief Seattle Club, when I first started talking about it and thinking about it, you know, I literally was laughed at. I literally had someone laugh at me and say, “That’s just this idea. Like, what are you thinking? You’re too small, you don’t have enough resources.” That is not acceptable.

I believe in the community. I know that building housing is not rocket science. We can do it. And we have resources in the community that we need to be using and believing in. So, I look forward to supporting the Office of Housing to be lifting up people of color-led organizations and other groups that might have been left out of the conversation. 

The Urbanist: And when you talk about changing zoning, I’m assuming that you’re talking about single- family zoning and lot sizes and that sort of thing.

Echohawk: Exactly.

The Urbanist: That’s obviously a very fraught issue for a lot of homeowners in the city and not one that we’ve seen a lot of success on. How do you approach that conversation in a way that you think will be more productive?

Echohawk: That is something that I really want to change at City Hall. I really want to hear from neighborhoods. I want to help them understand this issue. I think — not think, I know we live in a really progressive city. I drove through Ballard the other day there’s people throughout Ballard that have Black Lives Matter signs posted in their house. I believe if you truly believe that Black Lives Matter, then you’re going to believe that they deserve housing in the city.

And that means that we’re going to have to change some of these single-family zoning laws that we have. It is too important. There’s a lot of ways that we can be doing this. I want to be listening to some of our city planners, some of our urban community. We’re going to be working on what this looks like. 

And I think as we get to your point of how am I going to be convincing neighborhoods about this? I think it starts with what our values are in our city. Our values are that we believe in people. Our values are that we are a progressive city, and we believe that every single person deserves secure housing, that housing is a human right. If we believe that, then we’re going to have to change a little bit.

We’re going to flex a little bit and become good neighbors to each other. I hope to inspire people. I hope to give them enough information so that they feel comfortable. I hope to be communicating with folks so that they can get behind this idea, because we have many competing challenges ahead of us. We have the climate crisis, and of course, housing affordability is on the top. And we have transportation issues. And the reality is, is that we want this to be a city that is not only for rich people.

That is not where we want to go as a city. We want this to be a city that is truly diverse, and that means economically diverse. 

The Urbanist: Some communities of color have not bounced back from the 2008/2009 disaster. What can the city of Seattle do to make sure that we don’t see that again in a post-pandemic Seattle?

Echohawk: One of the things that continues to reverberate in me deeply is that in order to solve some of these problems that are ahead of us, we need to have leadership from folks who’ve experienced it. If we continue to have leadership that has continued to do the same thing time after time after time, then we’re going to have the same kind of results. 

There are several moments when I realize this is the right thing to do. And part of that was just thinking about that is the health equity issues in our community. And these are health equity issues I have been talking about for a long, long time. And then as the data came out around Covid, we saw more and more data that said, wow, people of color are much more likely to be hospitalized from Covid and then, oh, people of color are much more likely to die.

In my community, we’re talking about language speakers. We’re talking about cultural barriers. We’re talking about traditions that might potentially die with this person. And so when we think about not repeating the past, we have to have that new generation of leadership, you’ll hear me say all over again, because that is what’s going to make the difference. Someone who has that lens of equity, someone who has experienced and walked with those most vulnerable people so that we truly understand the crisis and what we’ll do.

I’ll be working with community. I’ll be wanting to hear from my sister, who is a tremendous resource on Covid response and health equity. I’ll be listening to the neighborhoods and communities who have been impacted most significantly. And I will have the eye for that because that’s who my people are. They’re the folks that I know and understand and want to be there for.

I’ve been doing town halls all over the place. And I’m saying that in quotes because it’s been on Zoom. But tonight, we’re in Central District, Judkins Park, to hear from community. And of course, I’m sharing my vision, but I’m also saying, hey, what do you think? What are you hearing? What is important to you? And that’s going to be a hallmark of an Echohawk administration is truly listening to community, hearing their ideas and helping them, helping community implement them.

The Urbanist: And correct me if I’m wrong, you would be the first Native person to serve as mayor?

Echohawk: I would be the first Native woman.

The Urbanist: What does that mean to you and to the city literally named after a Native person?

Echohawk: Well, it means a lot, honestly. When I decided to do it, I knew that it would be a big deal for the Native community and it would be a big deal for my own daughter, who is an incredible leader already at the age of 11 and, I believe, will probably have a really big career in leadership. I want her to just know that it’s normal for her Native mom to be in the Mayor’s Office. I want her to think that that is the way the world should be. And I think that translates to other Native kids, other children of color. They should know that this is a place for them. 

We have these volunteer meetups every two weeks now, and in the first one we had, someone said to me, “We know that change takes time at a city level, but what would it look like to you, what would success look like in two to three years?” 

And the thing that really fell out of my mouth was — because I don’t have time to really think about it, but I really love the answer — is that if we could tear down some of the gatekeeping. If we can say to our larger community, “You belong in the Mayor’s Office, you should be able to come and hang out in the Mayor’s Office with me. And let’s talk stories. Let’s be in community together. Let’s solve some of these crises that are out there. Let this be a warm and hospitable place for community.” That is what City Hall should look like. And that’s what a mayor should be doing. I think I would be bringing that lens to an institution that hasn’t had that yet. And we should. I mean, this is a Native city. The other thing is that I look forward to seeing Native people from this area, the Coast Salish communities, much more involved in city politics.

Colleen Echohawk where a blue blanket with red design.
“I am an enrolled member of the Kithehaki Band of the Pawnee Nation and a member of the Upper Athabascan people of Mentasta Lake,” Echohawk said on her website. “As an Indigenous person, the spirit of service has deep roots in my family.” (Credit: Echohawk campaign)

I would love to see them in City Hall a lot more than we see them right now. And so that they know that we truly honor and respect their sovereignty and their brilliant ideas about the resources that we all enjoy, like water and air and all the land that we get to be on, you know. The importance of it is cool and much, much bigger than I am.

The Urbanist: There’s an environmental justice issue in the city of Seattle based on where you live in the city. What are your thoughts on environmental justice and how do you want to approach that as mayor?

Echohawk: The way that I answer that question is that I think that the city of Seattle, when you’re at City Hall and you’re looking out at Puget Sound, you should see a Puget Sound that is full of orcas, abundant of orcas.

And if you see that, then you see that we have abundance of salmon. And if we have abundance of salmon, then we have an abundance of clean water, and we have clean air for that child who is living in the South End who has high, high rates of asthma because of the emissions, because of the tremendous injustice of having dirtier air in the South End. And so, there’s so many possibilities there. I think that in the Mayor’s Office, we need to have someone who’s focused on the Green New Deal and creating a green economy. It’d be great if we have it in its own department as well.

But I want to have someone in my office who’s really focused on what the intersections look like. What does it mean for the Department of Transportation and what does it mean in the Office of Civil Rights? And how do we make sure that we’re there considering this resource we’ve been given, which is the Coast Salish communities’ resource. So we just have a lot of opportunity ahead of us to be a city that truly reflects climate justice, that clearly, that truly understands what it means to recognize that we can make a change. 

Because we all know this. We have to — not just the city, Seattle, but our whole country, the global community — we have to swerve. We have to avoid the climate disaster that’s heading to us. 

The Urbanist: One of the big priorities is going to be the Seattle Police Department (SPD), and the negotiations over contracts are something that the next mayor is going to have to contend with. What are your views on that, and how do you deal with the different kind of leadership when it comes to the Seattle Police Officers Guild (SPOG) and the SPD? 

Echohawk: I started working and understanding the issues of police accountability in the city after the shooting and murder of John T. Williams. And that still reverberates through the Native community today. It reverberates through the Chief Seattle Club members because they walked alongside John. They knew him. They know of him. And as an organization that supports the homeless community, we have had a lot of incredibly negative interactions with the SPD.

So, I’ve been on the Community Police Commission (CPC) for the past four years, I was a co-chair of the chief of police search that found Chief [Carmen] Best and met with other chiefs of other cities. And the reality is that we have to do better. Our reform work that has happened right now is not enough. And part of that is absolutely connected… Not part, it is totally connected to SPOG. I think that what I would bring to this relationship is I would want to be talking with them. I would want to be listening to them. But I also will be holding them accountable.

What has happened over the very recent January 6th insurrection when six of our officers were there and are now being protected by [Guild President Mike] Solan and by the Guild — I’m cringing. But that is not Seattle. That is not the kind of community that we are.

We have to be carefully negotiating this next contract. As a member of the CPC, I was really, really adamant that we find ways to protect bargaining rights — because we can do this, we can protect bargaining rights — and we can have CPC be a part of that bargaining table as a technical advisor. And that’s exactly what has happened now. But that took a lot of years, which is something I absolutely support.

We need to be separating the pay and benefits of police officers from the need to reform that’s ahead of us. 

To answer your question in a nice little nutshell, is that I absolutely believe we have to have more equity around the contract with SPD. We need to protect our bargaining rights, but also understand that they are a community that has a lot of power. They have guns. It’s a different kind of union than an education union, for instance. So, we need to understand that and dig into that a little bit and come to some good understanding. And most of all, in everything that I do, I want to be listening. I want to listen to the members of the guild. I want to be listening to the chief of police. I want to be listening to the community. And then, after we listen, we have to hold each other accountable.

We have to find ways to ensure that when officers are covering up their badge numbers, even when they’ve been ordered not to, or when they are breaking the law around tear gassing peaceful protesters, that they are truly held accountable. And that means the guild as well. It’s not just let’s hold the police officers accountable. It also means the guild. There’s a lot there ahead of us. I look forward to being an active participant in the bargaining process as much as I possibly could as mayor and signing a contract that really works for that for our city.

I think that our police department should be those guardians and not the warriors. They should be protecting the community. They should be lifting up our community and be held accountable to true reform.

The Urbanist: And finally, is there anything else that you want Seattle voters to know about you? 

We didn’t totally get to hit on this earlier, but I just want people to know that — especially for The Urbanist — I really believe in and supporting our transportation system and making it even better. If I was elected mayor, I would be focused on mobility justice. We would build a transportation system that works for everyone. Our transportation system often leaves out low-income folks, people of color, people with disabilities.

And that is not right, not cool. We can do better. So, I look forward to, again, giving a much stronger plan and platform around that at the Urbanist event. That’s going to be happening next Wednesday on March 24. I remember that day because it’s my daughter’s birthday, so I’m going to be doing it from the car. But, but this is important because transportation has severely impacted our climate.

We know that 60% of carbon emissions in our area come from cars. So we have to get people into our public transportation systems. We have some things that are great and some things that need some improvement. I’m super lucky to be close to the E Line. And the E Line was something that really changed my life because now I don’t even have to think about what time the bus is going to get there.

I can just walk down and know it’s going to be there, about every six minutes. That was life changing for me. And we need to have that kind of system all over our city. I’m super excited about the light rail coming to Northgate because we live in the north and it’s just really exciting. I’m so excited for my kids and I and my husband. We visited Japan in 2018 and we never took a car one single time.

We were on the train, we were on the bus, we were on the streetcar, and my kids, we talk about it all the time. We rode bikes! We can do better. Other cities have done it. I want Seattle to be that kind of city that it’s like so great for public transportation and is truly has mobility justice for all. So much more to come on that and really excited to talk with folks.

Watch the video of our March 24th talk with Colleen Echohawk:

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Ashley Archibald is a journalist who has written for Real Change News, Union Democrat and Santa Monica Daily News.

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