The Renton and Seattle Southside Chambers of Commerce addressed some real and sometimes uncomfortable truths about the booming Seattle metro area economy on Friday, and reached out to King County community members for ideas to help address economic inequity affecting so many people locally.
“As our local economy continues to soar and be the envy of many, too many of us are left out of the ride in prosperity,” Andrea Reay, president and CEO of the Seattle Southside Chamber, said in opening the first Pacific Northwest Economic Equity Summit, which attracted 225 attendees to the Hyatt Regency Lake Washington in Renton.
“Gentrification has forced small businesses out of locations they’ve held for years and families are priced out of communities they’ve called home for generations,” Reay said. “Many public agencies and private companies include equity initiatives as a goal or standard, but are we taking decisive enough action to encourage and promote meaningful change?”
Keynote speaker Bookda Gheisar — hired by the Port of Seattle last year as its first senior director of equity, diversity, and inclusion — talked of the need to normalize equity through systems change, breaking down barriers, and cultural transformation to open doors and include all voices in decisions.
“Communities have to be at the table with us,” said Gheisar, who previously was policy adviser for the county’s Office of Equity and Social Justice. That doesn’t mean mailing a letter in English to households and wondering why no one responds, nor talking to three members of the community, one organization, or the same 15 people over and over again, she said. “It means that you expand your mind about what is community… Are we reflective of the communities that live in south King County?”
Another speaker was King County Councilmember Dave Upthegrove, who represents the lowest income council district. “We are literally the poster child nationally for what they call the suburbanization of poverty,” he said. “We’re seeing gentrification in Seattle leading to displacement, not just in homes, but in small businesses, particularly immigrant and refugee businesses here in south King County, and so my passion as an elected official really has become racial equity and economic opportunity.”
He added later, “Racial inequality and income inequality are interrelated, and you can’t address one without addressing the other.”
Upthegrove called for ending institutional racism and what he termed a broken political system, influenced by money that contributes to public policies that worsen economic inequality.
“To be concerned about economic inequality does not make you a radical. You don’t have to embrace socialist policies,” he said. “And striving for a future where we return to having a strong middle class and where are you have opportunities that exist for people to climb the economic ladder is literally the definition of the American dream. This is motherhood and apple pie stuff.”
Reay echoed this sentiment, adding, “If we really want to be the change-makers that we need, especially in south King County… and if we want to really raise the tide, we need to invite more people to be part of the conversation.”
The conference attempted to fulfill this need by including a competition for community members to share ideas to address economic inequity. The chambers asked nine groups of community presenters to offer their ideas to an audience that included government and business officials who could help advance initiatives. The presenters — with missions that included addressing education and housing assistance, food insecurity, predatory lending, financial literacy, and using sports sites to introduce employers to potential employees – presented their ideas to a panel of judges who, along with the audience, picked one deemed to have the “Best Economic Solution.”
The winner: Student Connection, presented by Joshua Wolters, 18, a senior at Skyline High School in Sammamish, and Vishnu Kartha of Sammamish, 18, a sophomore at the University of Washington. They cofounded the program with Nikhil Ghangurde, a Skyline senior, and Sophie Wolters, a Skyline sophomore and Joshua’s sister. The program was Sophie’s original idea, Joshua said.
The program recruits high school student volunteers to tutor less fortunate students for free.
Joshua Wolters and Kartha cited statistics they said showed household income is the key correlating factor in a student’s success in Washington, “but income should not determine outcome,” Wolters said.
The program founders easily recruited more than 20 Skyline students for weekly tutoring of K through 12 students in a low-income community in King County. Tutors encourage students to do their homework, help them when they get behind, “and, most importantly, they become consistent, positive role models in these students’ life,” Wolters said.
After seeing Student Connection’s impact on that community over the last year, the founders hope to expand it statewide through local chapters that would connect with afterschool programs near them. Wolters and Kartha estimated they needed about $3,000 to incorporate as a nonprofit, create a professional website and logo, and develop chapter handbooks. They hope to get sponsorship for advertising and credibility, and seek access to school districts for chapter leadership and tutor consulting.
In an interview after the conference, Reay said the chambers have pledged time, capital, resources, and capacity to help Student Connection develop a business plan and grow its impact by next year’s summit. The program will get full access to office space, connections, meetings, workshops, mentorship, and other chamber resources through its network of businesses and partners. She likened the assistance to a business incubator model.
“We’re going to incubate this idea for Josh and Vishnu and really help them get it off the ground,” Reay said.
With the Renton and Seattle Southside chambers’ support, “we hope to level the academic playing field for all students across Washington,” Kartha said.