Nikkita Oliver connects art, activism and education

Screenshot of Nikkita Oliver performing her poem, "For Brown Girls" at the 2014 Poetry Slam in Oakland, Calif., which she won.
Screenshot of Nikkita Oliver performing her poem, “For Brown Girls” at the 2014 National Poetry Slam semi-finals in Oakland, Calif.

“I will not ask you to do something that I am not willing to do myself.”

That’s what Nikkita Oliver, 30-year-old Seattle artist and Black Lives Matter activist, promised the middle school and high school youth she was working with. 

It was March 2013 when Oliver first competed in the Women of the World Poetry Slam (WOWPS) in Minneapolis, Minn. In October of 2012 Oliver had asked her students from  the faith-based community organization Urban Impact to read their poems on stage to compete in the Youth Speaks Seattle open slam, but then they reminded her of her own motto. She had to perform her poetry if they were going to do it.

Oliver had never done this before, but she had to stay true to her word. Little did she know that the first time she would perform her poetry on stage that day would take this lawyer and artist to win the Seattle WOWPS finals that year — a moment that jumpstarted her life as an artist-activist.

“I had no intention of winning, and then I won the finals,” she recalls. “It was crazy.”

Today, this three-time member of the Seattle Poetry Slam (SPS) is coaching the national team for the second time. She won SPS in 2014, and in December of last year, Oliver won the 2015 Artist Human Rights Leader Award from the City of Seattle for being an extraordinary voice for Black Lives Matter in Seattle.

In early February, her work took her to “The Late Night Show with Stephen Colbert,” performing “White Privilege II” with Macklemore

She’s also building another platform in Seattle for other artists who care about race and social justice, producing an open mic night called “Ring Side” at the Central District Caribbean restaurant Red Lounge Cafe every last Friday of the month.

Arriving in the Seattle area by way of Indianapolis, Ind. in 2004, Oliver remembers not always loving the city she organizes in. In fact, she experienced extreme culture shock when she began attending Seattle Pacific University (SPU) in Tacoma for undergraduate studies.

“I didn’t know [Seattle] was so white,” she remembers her first impression of the Seattle area. “Where I had grown up, I assumed that everyone at least had one black parent.”

Oliver also wasn’t accustomed to how people showed their racism in Seattle: subtly.

“In Indiana, people were racist to your face, but here, they were really nice to me but then act really racist in return. At least in Indianapolis, if people didn’t like you because of the color of your skin, it was very clear and they would say it to your face,” she says. “I called my mom after only a month, and I told her that I wanted to come home. She said ‘no’ and reminded me that I am here for school.”

Oliver decided to take her mother’s advice and stay in Seattle. While attending SPU during her junior year, she got involved with student government and was hired as the intercultural director for the SPU student body. In her new position, she launched a racial justice campaign and awareness week called “Catalyst,” where she posted signs all over campus about affirmative action, white privilege and power, to educate the student body about race privilege and oppression.

It was this passion that carried Oliver to the streets when leading hundreds of people during Black Lives Matter protests across Seattle. While attending law school from 2012 to June 2015 at the University of Washington (UW) on a Gates Public Scholarship (Oliver was just one of five applicants that year to receive a full ride scholarship to UW’s School of Law in 2011), she decided there was no way that she could sit in the classroom and watch protests happen in Ferguson and Baltimore, and allow Seattle to stay quiet.

On Nov 24, 2014, the day Officer Darren Wilson was released from indictment for the shooting of Mike Brown, Oliver and hundreds of others took to the streets to march for black lives.

It was during this state of mourning that she had a breakthrough.

“Here I am attending this academic law institution that is allowing more killing of black people,” she remembers. “The law is supposed to work, and I was realizing how it was actually working. The court system, legal system, education system, are all interwoven together through white supremacy and capitalism.”  

While working with youth in juvenile detention, Oliver found it difficult explaining the convoluted legal process to their parents. Too often, Oliver would meet youth and their parents at Urban Impact who did not understand their kids’ charges and lawyers. This is what motivated her to provide free legal advice for youth and families that are in the court system.  

Law school made me realize that I actually do not want to be a lawyer,” she said. 

With too many fees and confusing charges within the court system, Oliver wasn’t sure how to get to the root of the problem systemically, but wanted to find a way to be present for this population of youth regardless of how systems were serving them.    

So in 2006, Oliver became a chaplain at the youth detention center at King County Chaplaincy.

I would go to court with the young people and be a friendly face, especially with foster youth, sit and check in with them. I wanted to be a chaplain to provide comfort for them,” explained Oliver.   

Oliver and other fellow organizers continue to protest in the streets for black lives throughout Seattle. Tomorrow, she is speaking at a Seattle Town Hall panel on race and democracy.

“Either you accept the oppression or you rage against the machine,” Oliver said. “I chose to rage against the machine.

But as much as she rages, she sings, creates and educates.

Oliver calls herself a “performance arts geek.” Every Sunday, she grew up singing in her church choir, and when she landed in Seattle, she became heavily involved with other performing arts groups such as Ladies First, Cup of Flow, and R.E.T.R.O. Revolutionary Poets.

“I have always been a musician,” she says, “I play guitar, viola, taught myself piano, I have been shown in choirs and musicals.”

Oliver’s art is heavily inspired by the styles of artists she has worked with in Seattle: Cedrick Jones, Moe Betta, and Isaac “Ladro” Rubio.

Oliver is now working with a number of justice-centered public initiatives, programs, artists, small businesses and families. She is a writer-in-residence for Writers in the Schools at Washington Middle School, and leads after-school poetry slam workshops at Garfield High School through Arts Corps, getting them ready for the 2016 Youth Speaks Slam on April 1 at Town Hall Seattle.  

She’s also a mentor teaching artist with 4Culture’s Creative Justice program, which provides court-involved youth with arts education alternatives.

“Black, brown and queer youth need an outlet to process everything they are going through and there is not enough art in the schools,” Oliver said.

In addition to facilitating queer-friendly, art-friendly education spaces, Oliver is finishing up her master’s degree in education at the UW. Though she’s not sure whether she wants to be a teacher in the in-day school setting, she’s hoping her degree will open doors for her to address institutional racism in schools.

“Black and brown people are always learning someone else’s history in the education infrastructure,” Oliver said. “We are dehumanized by every story that is told and this creates trauma for young black and brown people.”

Oliver wants to see young people become self-sufficient and empowered.

And ultimately, “I believe in the power of education to help people become self-actualized,” said Oliver.

And history, poetry and music will continue to be the vehicles.

Catch Nikkita Oliver tomorrow night, March 22, at the 7 p.m. panel discussion, “Race, Justice, and Democracy: Where Do We Stand?” and Youth Speaks Seattle 2016 Grand Slam on Friday, April 1, starting at 6 p.m. Both events take place at Town Hall Seattle in Seattle’s First Hill neighborhood.

This story has been updated since its original publication to clarify a concluding quote from Nikkita Oliver, and correct the dates and titles of slam championships Oliver won in the first few paragraphs. 

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