How A Grassroots Activist Became Seattle’s Most Talked About Mayoral Candidate

Nikkita Oliver is entering politics, and she’s making sure her community gets a seat at the table.

April 03, 2017
How A Grassroots Activist Became Seattle’s Most Talked About Mayoral Candidate Nikkita Oliver   Zorn Taylor / Courtesy of Nikkita Oliver

Nikkita Oliver has a lot on her plate. The 31-year-old is currently balancing her ticket for Mayor of Seattle against her job as a middle and high school teacher, her pro bono legal work, and involvement in programs like Creative Justice, an arts alternative to incarceration. Her phone rings 24/7, even when she’s not campaigning. “I don’t know if I’ve grinded this hard in my entire life, back to back, every minute of the day, trying to get things done,” she says.


On Sunday, Oliver launched her campaign at Washington Hall. Under the banner of Seattle’s newly founded Peoples Party, she's an attorney, activist, and educator who’s been active in the city’s Black Lives Matter movement and the opposition to a new youth jail in King County. The Party is a community-led grassroots effort centering access and equity, and comes at a critical time in the city’s history — homelessness in Seattle has been declared a “state of emergency,” and it’s now pushing against aggressive federal provisions as a sanctuary city.

The Seattle P.I. called Oliver a “major contender” against incumbent Ed Murray, who has been a civil rights leader in Washington and is Seattle’s first openly gay mayor. Murray is regarded by many as progressive, and according to Crosscut, a press release from earlier this year cites a 60 percent approval rating. What makes Oliver appealing is the ways in which she’s connected — she has personal stakes in the where the city is headed, and makes them known. ”In a lot of ways, this is our last chance,” she says. “If we waited four more years to get progressive folks in action, none of us would live here anymore.”


The last time Seattle had a woman as mayor was 91 years ago — and if Oliver wins, she’ll be the first black woman in the city’s history to ever hold the position. Leading up to the city’s top-two primary election in August, Oliver reflected on community accountability, Seattle in the national context, and what radical politics can look like in the sphere of local government.


I first learned about you through your activism on the University of Washington campus and Seattle-wide leading up to this campaign. What are the specific experiences in your life that have influenced your approach to social justice, and now politics?

Growing up multiracial in Indianapolis, Indiana set me up to naturally have eyes to see concepts like intersectionality. My white mother grew up cash poor and her family were all farmers. My father is black from Louisiana, and his family moved to in Indianapolis during the great migration and industrialization after having been sharecroppers. They were able to closely track their descent from having been enslaved on a plantation. I grew up watching my mom and dad, even though they weren’t together, interact with the system very differently, and see how it didn’t really matter how hard my dad worked, something kept smacking him down. I would watch that and I was cognisant of it, learning how to code switch, how to be a chameleon. I learned how to move through things bigger than myself.


My father was in and out of prison and eventually became homeless. I remember him calling me when I was 16, and asking me for grocery money, and when I went and met him in this motel, the room was stacked full of cans. It was the most gut-wrenching realization. I always knew my dad to be working and always having a place to live. That moment really cemented that I was going to work against these things that allowed those injustices to happen. I was going to find ways to work in community, to ensure that people could care for each other. These systemic things get in the way and need to be changed.

When I began law school in the University of Washington, I began gaining a little bit of visibility as an activist, but I had always been organizing in one way or another before that. But that’s what law school does — I would be sitting in these classrooms realizing how many of us were missing and were never going to get access to any of this knowledge, and how much of a gatekeeper I was becoming. I felt a major responsibility in law school to be redistributing legal knowledge. If I wasn’t actively putting myself into the community, I was just going to become a cog or a wedge in the system despite any good intentions. Keeping knowledge to myself was not the reason I went to law school, so I really started actively pursuing opportunities to actively support community efforts and actively demonstrate in the street.

The last woman who was mayor in Seattle was elected 91 years ago, and given you’d be the first ever woman of color to become mayor if you won, your candidacy is quite significant. Was this candidacy sparked by a similar concept of being asked to, or being granted permission by your community?

Yes, this was not a decision that I would’ve made on my own. In law school, folks would tell me to work from the inside, and in a lot of ways I still disagree with that sentiment. But we live in a really different context than when I was in law school. We currently have an openly bigoted administration that is actively targeting people. During the election season, people tagged me on Facebook asking me to run for mayor, and I would kind of say, Thanks guys, that’s really nice, but kind of not consider it. But then elders and aunties started approaching me more seriously. They started saying, You’re able to bridge these gaps, we want you to run for mayor. When aunties and elders start saying things to you, you need to start taking it a little more seriously.

I started sitting down with whoever wanted to sit down with me to hash out this situation we live in, because it’s scary. The reality is, no one is safe. Folks can think that this administration isn’t coming for them, but in reality this administration is going to come for anyone who opposes it. Over time we began asking, What does it look like to have a sustainable economic structure that offers access and support? That actually means we may be building something different and something new.

And what were those sit-downs like?

We would hash out non-negotiables, talk out our analysis, and write these long documents about what we believed in and why, and how we wanted to pursue it. We started bringing those aunties and elders to the table. We started drafting lists of people who will be public servants beyond just being politicians — and as much as I wanted to avoid it, my name kept coming up on that list. After all those moments, and being asked by my community, it became very clear that this was something I was not going to do alone. And I think that’s what sometimes happens to those who run for office — they do it alone, and then they can’t hold on to those principles that got them there in the first place. It suddenly occurred to me what these elders are asking for — I was going to do this with a “we,” and that’s what clicked. The whole health of community in Seattle is much better and healthier when we are pulling up from the margins, and uplifting the bottom, and centering the grass roots. We want to do something transformational.

How A Grassroots Activist Became Seattle’s Most Talked About Mayoral Candidate Nikkita Oliver   Alex Garland / Courtesy of Nikkita Oliver
“In a lot of ways, this is our last chance.”

At a recent Town Hall meeting, you went toe-to-toe with Mayor Murray on Seattle’s housing crisis, which got a lot of people talking about your candidacy. What does a campaign that recenters people of color look like?

Seattle is undergoing this gentrification that is under the facade of equity, the idea that any development is good development, and that we will all benefit. For those of us who have lived here for a while, you drive to the Central District and you don’t recognize it, and you’re not sure if you’re on the right street. You drive through Rainier Beach, Columbia City, even Hillman City — you drive through these neighborhoods, and you see all these cranes, and then you see so many people who are unsheltered. Our city declared a state of emergency around homelessness, and yet you see buildings going up, but they’re not accessible or affordable. Black, brown, and cash poor folks are being rapidly pushed out, and it’s beginning to look like an economic apartheid here.

In a lot of ways, this is our last chance. If we waited four more years to get progressive folks in action, none of us would live here anymore. With a population that’s 70% white, one of the things Seattle has to grapple with is that while it pushes such a pervasive message of equity and social justice, it doesn’t center the most impacted and marginalized in the conversation, and it doesn’t address the needs and concerns of people of color and cash poor people. What hope, then, do we have for other cities, if Seattle is held as the city that leads? We have a reputation as the city that does things, and if that’s what we want to be, we have to live that out.

Seattle is built on Native land that has been essentially stolen. Chief Seattle is on our seal. The cultural capital of black folks in the Central District has been used to make this city a viable arts city, but artists cannot afford to live here. Part of why the C.D. is such a poppin’ place to live is the fact that black folks were once redlined there, and were still able to make it a viable part of the city with our ingenuity and our creativity, and now it’s become a museum that we can visit but we can’t live in. That is the equivalent of stealing.

It’s been said that black and brown folks, and cash poor folks are the canaries in the mine, that when something’s going down, we take the hardest hit, and we take it first, but the reality is there’s a whole segment of people who are also going to take the hit and think they’re safe, and once it happens, they’re shocked. There’s a cultural shift that we need to make as a city, and that’s only going to happen if folks who have organizing eyes and can connect with those communities. These communities need to sit at the table in those decision making positions. The current politicians we’re dealing with are afraid of the people, and that’s scary. To think the people running the government, that’s by the people for the people, are actually afraid to have these intense conversations with community means if we’re not talking we're not moving forward.

It’s so important to maintain that communication bridge between communities and institutions. How are you balancing campaigning against your activism and your relationships right now?

This is my biggest contention with this whole thing — campaigning takes you away from the reasons why you did this in the first place. I’m lucky because I’m working with an incredible team, who are all grassroots organizers, educators, and lawyers — folks who care about community voice, and are doing what they’re doing because they’re apart of those communities. They know if we don’t make those changes, we won’t be there. I’m working with folks with the People’s Party who are actually impacted by these issues. There are people whose family members who have been deported, for example, who are working on the campaign with me right now.

My phone rings 24/7, even when I’m not campaigning. And I count that as a blessing, because it means folks trust me. I’m still teaching classes, I’m still working with youth jail clients, I’m still writing poems, making art, and reading — it is hard, it is tiring. I don’t know if I’ve grinded this hard in my entire life, back to back, every minute of the day, trying to get things done.

I have to continue to leverage and signal boost what’s happening in the heart of the Central District. I have to keep working on issues like the youth jail, because these folks I work with in and out of the classroom, they’re concerned about it. The community is not only rallying behind the campaign, but they’re inviting me in as well. I still regularly attend rallies, actions, and community events. We have reasons to not trust in this system, but part of me showing folks I intend to be fully transparent and accountable is to be in these spaces with them. And to take the critique — because the critique will make me better. It will help me serve people better.

How A Grassroots Activist Became Seattle’s Most Talked About Mayoral Candidate