Nikkita Oliver Ran for Mayor of Seattle and Is Fighting for Marginalized Voices
“There comes a point when marching is really important, but you have to gain political leverage."
Around the world, fewer than one-quarter of lawmakers are women — an imbalance in representation that affects how laws are crafted and passed and how equality is created in societies. Global Citizen’s series, “Who Run The Gov? Girls!” chronicles the massive uptick in women running for office, regardless of political party, in the US and around the world, highlighting the candidates and the groups helping them to run, the challenges they face, advice & tips for running, and the results.
Nikkita Oliver hadn’t planned on running for mayor of Seattle.
As an educator, activist, lawyer, and artist, she felt like she was most effective working within the community and she worried that working inside government would make her lose sight of the everyday, lived struggles of the people she advocated for.
But after a while, too many fellow activists and respected elders in the community convinced her that she was the right person for the job.
So she ran.
"When we make decisions about housing or human services, or transportation, or education or police reform, we’re always going to go back to that value: our people are essential and central to the process."
The first thing she needed? A political party. None of the mainstream parties seemed to reflect her positions and values so she helped to form the Seattle People’s Party, a party rooted in community participation.
With little institutional support and no previous experience running for office, Oliver drew on her vast community organizing connections and legal background, and ran an impressive campaign, garnering third place in the Seattle primary race for mayor.
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During the campaign, she earned praise from across the US as an up-and-coming progressive. She brought attention to issues like homelessness, incarceration, institutional racism, and poverty. And she managed to bring together voices and perspectives that are largely ignored in politics.
Oliver’s campaign was part of a broader upheaval in US government. Following the election of US President Donald Trump, there has been a flood of first-time candidates running for office across local, state, and federal levels.
Oliver recently spoke with Global Citizen about her campaign, climate change, inequality, and what she hopes for the future. The interview has been condensed for clarity.
What did you learn about political organizing and institutions through this campaign?
We learned a lot about tradition. We heard very frequently from people that this is not how you do it or sometimes, even, you’re doing it wrong. And often what they were referring to is the accepted process of how politics goes down.
An example of those traditions is endorsement and the fact that endorsement purports to be tied to people’s interests and their supposed intent to help voters make better decisions but under capitalism they’re really tied to money. Moneyed interests tend to win out.
At the end of the day, the most important takeaway that I have is that as organizers from marginalized and disenfranchised communities, we actually hold a lot of brilliance.
That’s really why we were running, because we saw an incredible sense of political apathy set in communities that already face systemic barriers to voting. And that’s dangerous because when you’re already disenfranchised and then you’re giving into political apathy, you’re even less likely to have leverage in a system that disempowers you.
And so we’re working with a lot of people who remain engaged who continue to want to be a part of the political process and that’s really the most important takeaway.
New York is also viewed as a liberal city, but there are also huge inequalities. What did you learn about the inequalities of power within cities?
We saw that money plays here and not just the money that gets donated, but also that individual wealth plays an incredible role in a person’s ability to run, your ability to market yourself.
Seattle has passed a lot of progressive legislation, but because the frontline, most-impacted communities are not always involved in that process, those progressive policies do not always amount to progressive outcomes, so you know, it’s so very clear that moneyed interests, wealthy people, the waterfront, developers, have a lot of power in this city. It requires people power and people movements to really make it work to run a third party candidate.
There’s been a surge in political activity since Trump was elected. Do you think this can be attributed to Trump, or is something else responsible?
As an organizer and as someone who purposefully stayed on the outside of the system for a lot of my work, there comes a point when marching and protesting is a really important pressure point but you have to find out how you can gain political leverage.
I don’t trust a lot of politicians. The communities that I come from, they don’t trust a lot of politicians.
I ultimately chose to run because members of my communities asked me to. I was helping an auntie from my community do some policy analysis work right after the first travel ban came out and I was with her and a local politician and was able to explain to him all the ways in which our country has many gaps in protecting our immigrant and refugee community and how that affects Seattle as a sanctuary city and at the end of it he said to me you are really good at this, you’ve had a lot of privilege and opportunity, our community trusts you and we need you to be able to run for mayor of Seattle. I took that request seriously and after sitting with people that’s ultimately why I ran.
One of the core progressive values is “people over profits.” What does that look like in practice?
In terms of government, it looks like prioritizing livability and affordability within our city over the interests of developers. And I know that that’s hard to do because again we live in a capitalist society and you pay to play.
But what I think even science tells us and what sociology tells us is that when people are healthy, cities are healthier, workers are healthier, and economies are healthier, and so for us, it goes back to affordability, but also making sure people have a voice in policy and implementation. And not just for privileged people, or people who have time to go to city council meetings, or people who know how to access their representatives, or people who have money to lobby and pay for that, but everyday citizens. And not just citizens, because our undocumented residents matter, and those who live most at the margins, or those who are pushed to the bottom, they have to be centralized.
It’s not just putting people over profits, it’s also about making people apart of the process. If it doesn’t serve people, then it’s the wrong process. When we make decisions about housing or human services, or transportation, or education or police reform, we’re always going to go back to that value: our people are essential and central to the process.
Hurricane Harvey exposed all of the bad city planning that’s been done over the past several years in Houston and the lack of preparation around climate change. Do you think that this disaster will finally serve as a wake up call for cities?
I hope so. Climate change is scary. I was in Standing Rock for a week, meeting with organizers and trying to get legal support out there and it’s frightening how little concern our government actually has for the environment and for our sustainability. te change is real.
I think it’s unfortunate that we have to continue having these natural disasters that are actually spurred on by climate change to try to get people to see that this is a real thing.
Part of the work that I do in Seattle is trying to put ordinances in place that even if we can’t get people to acknowledge climate change, we can at least make sure that our city is one that has very real practical solutions around climate change but also the Earth as a whole.
At the end of the day, humans do not own the Earth, we actually belong to the Earth. So many young people get climate change from jump, and the more we can put it in our schools, the more we can have conversations about how we can live better and more ecologically with creation as a whole instead of this human feeling that we have to dominate over everything, the more we can do that with young people, the better we’ll be.
There’s often this sense of exhaustion surrounding politics. As you go forward, are you going to keep running for office?
In the next few months, my focus will be building the infrastructure of the People’s Party because what running for mayor of Seattle revealed to me was that an everyday resident running for office is damn near impossible if you don’t have a team of people who are willing to work day in and day out to make that happen.
There was a team of about 15 to 20 people who busted their asses making the infrastructure of the party throughout the campaign and then 1,100 volunteers who knocked on 22,000 doors, and they made tons of phone calls and secured lots of ballots who made this run possible and in order to do this for other candidates we’re going to have to build a substantial infrastructure.
Every progressive thing that has ever happened in Seattle that we get attention for is not because politicians woke up one day and were like, "I’m gonna do the right thing today," it’s because communities started organizing themselves, they wrote ordinances, they sat at city council meetings, they went to politician’s houses, then [politicians] decided to do the right thing.
Maybe one day I’ll run again, but to be honest it was an incredibly challenging six months and I want to figure out how to help other community members run more successfully than we just did in this race, to even reach even farther to the margins and even deeper to the bottom, to the folks who have less privilege than I do but who are probably much more brilliant, who would be even better than I was.
What advice do you have for other community organizers or advocates who want to run for office?
I would say never forget the value of integrity, transparency, accountability and really strong community relationships. And having a strong track record of doing good, supportive work in communities.
When we announced on March 8th, which was International Women’s Day, the papers said that I was the most notable challenger but they didn’t think the campaign could be viable, and what i believe they underestimated was what good organizing looks like.
Unlike many other candidates, this was not something birthed out of my ego. There was a huge team of people, there is a huge team of people, who this is about.
And this was never just about the mayor’s race. Our vision is much bigger than that. i would just advise anyone else who finds themselves in the same position, have those strong relationships, have a vision that’s bigger than yourself, and be accountable.