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A young trailblazer in Seattle’s labor rights scene talks activism, organizing and agitation.

Angeles Solis presenting in Rainier Beach as part of her job as community connector with Foundation for Healthy Generations . (Photo by Esmy Jimenez)
Angeles Solis presenting in Rainier Beach as part of her job as community connector with Foundation for Healthy Generations . (Photo by Esmy Jimenez)

I meet with Maria De Los Angeles Solis in her natural element — in flow with the community. It’s a Sunday, and she’s hosting a pop up art show/garage sale/agua fresca and elote bar in her Beacon Hill apartment.

Despite the rain, there’s a good turnout and she’s engaging with the room in a way that can only be described as magnetically magical. She’s listening in a way that few people can, with an open heart and an intelligent ear.

As an organizer in Seattle, her superpowers include the ability to authentically connect to people’s problems and respond to their needs. A graduate of Whitworth University in Spokane who worked with SEIU on the Fight for $15, the 23-year-old is a trailblazing her way through Seattle’s activist scene.

I sat down with her to learn how she got involved with championing worker’s rights.

How did you get involved with organizing?

My father’s been a Hanford [construction] laborer since I was in middle school, so probably 13 or 14 years old. He started coming home and telling me stories about stuff that was happening at work. My mom, who would sometimes be working night shifts, wasn’t always home. He would have me dictate the stories about abuses on the job and translate them as well. So at a really young age I was translating and writing documents of worker abuses in Hanford that my father would take to the union.

She looks down at her agua fresca, sighs and murmurs “Ooh thinking about my dad…” She trails off in thought and I see her features soften.

Intrigued by how personal this work is for Angeles, I continue our conversation.

What’s been the most challenging organizing effort you’ve led or helped with?

It was a moment that happened within the campaign, and it came out of a relationship that I had built.  So I was a pod leader organizer in Seattle, and we were organizing around Fight for $15. And one of my organizers that I was — I don’t like the word teaching — but I was skill building with her around organizing, you know.

She was an undocumented mama of four. And her husband was a hunger striker at the Tacoma Detention Center, and had been placed in solitary confinement and was getting retaliation from the center. They were cutting him off from calling his family, verbal harassment, intimidation… just all sorts of stuff. It was in November, and it was his trial, to decide whether he would be deported or not. And I went to go support my friend.

I’ll never forget the woman who was the legal representative of the court that, last minute, had replaced the state prosecutor. This lawyer is describing my friend’s husband in really terrible ways, but she sounds incredibly articulate, incredibly convincing. And I could just see her using this skill for evil. To describe this really good man, whose babies were in the front row, trying not to cry; as someone that deserved to be deported. I’ve never felt so confused about how you can demonstrate such intelligence, and yet such a lack of kindness, like basic humanity.

Angeles Solis with community health workers in Tacoma. (Photo by Esmy Jimenez)
Angeles Solis with community health workers in Tacoma. (Photo by Esmy Jimenez)

Do you think there was a difference between you and her…would you define her as an organizer as well?

I would not define her as an organizer. She was an agitator. She could agitate. But here’s the thing, I want that skill — to be able to flawlessly persuade someone to be on my side, and to use legal jargon and just the clear-cut confidence of how things are and how things should be. I want that skill, but for the other purpose, for the other objective, for the right thing, not the wrong thing. So the only thing I saw in that woman was a skill I that wanted to take from her…that she should no longer have, that she shouldn’t have a right to.

Is there a difference between an organizer and an activist?

Yes, very much so. One example, activists show up to the rallies and the protests and the marches, which we need that.  But the organizer is the person organizing those marches and those rallies, the person building those relationships, rooting the movement, doing the analysis. There’s probably a much better definition of organizing, but it’s movement building, it’s really intentional movement building.  And activists don’t participate in that sort of depth. I think they benefit, and I think we benefit, but organizers are movement builders.

This post was produced as part of the Globalist Youth Apprenticeship program. The program is funded in part by the Seattle Office of Arts & Culture and the Community Technology Fund.

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Rainier Valley Corps grant recipients at a special awards ceremony on May 14 at The Hillman City Collaboratory. Pictured from left to right: Solomon Bisrat of Eritrean Association of Greater Seattle, Sahra Farah of Somali Community Services of Seattle, Sheila Burrus of Filipino Community Center,  Ashley Sheriff of East African Community Services, James Hong of Southeast Seattle Education Coalition/Vietnamese Friendship Association (fourth from the left), Mo! Avery of Got Green?, David Sauvion of Rainier Beach Action Coalition, Ethiopia Alemneh Ethiopian Community Center and Amy Pak of Families of Color Seattle. (Photo by Elisabeth Vasquez-Hein)
Rainier Valley Corps grant recipients at a special awards ceremony on May 14 at The Hillman City Collaboratory. Pictured from left to right: Solomon Bisrat of Eritrean Association of Greater Seattle, Sahra Farah of Somali Community Services of Seattle, Sheila Burrus of Filipino Community Center, Ashley Sheriff of East African Community Services, James Hong of Southeast Seattle Education Coalition/Vietnamese Friendship Association, Mo! Avery of Got Green?, David Sauvion of Rainier Beach Action Coalition, Ethiopia Alemneh of Ethiopian Community Center and Amy Pak of Families of Color Seattle. (Photo by Elisabeth Vasquez-Hein)

Vu Le remembers when he entered the nonprofit world. He had just earned his masters in social work from Washington University in St. Louis, and a reality hit him.

“I could not find a job because I had no experience,” Le said. It’s a familiar story in Washington state, home to roughly 2.5 public charities per 1,000 people.

One option was AmeriCorps VISTA, a national service corps placing young volunteers at nonprofit groups addressing poverty. However, while it offered training, mentorship and a nonprofit network with the VISTA volunteer’s year of service, AmeriCorps’ stipend currently hovers around $11,770 a year, in calibration with the federal poverty line.

“The challenge with that is only the people who have a safety net through their parents at home and with their families can enroll in AmeriCorps VISTA,” Le said.

Meanwhile, foundations and think tanks have also recognized a disparity between nonprofit staff and the people they serve. According to a 2012 National Urban Fellows report, just 8 percent of nonprofit executive directors in the U.S. were people of color. In contrast, nonprofits served communities that are 58 percent people of color, according to an Annie E. Casey Foundation survey.

A Somali American pioneer challenges her community

Sahra Farah, Director of Somali Community Services of Seattle. (Photo by Jama Abdirahman)
Sahra Farah, Director of Somali Community Services of Seattle. (Photo by Jama Abdirahman)

In Sahra Farah’s memories, Mogadishu is a city of wonders with gorgeous beaches and beautiful people. She still doesn’t accept that the place she grew up has been destroyed by years of civil war.

She says that because of the war, a lot of young Somali Americans (like me) don’t have any idea of the way Somalia was. She hopes the city that’s closest to her heart someday gets back to being that “paradise on Earth” that she remembers.

Farah is a leader in the Somali community in the Seattle area. She moved to the United States at the age of seventeen. She counts running Somali Community Services of Seattle for twenty plus years without ever giving up as her biggest accomplishment.

A musician, cultural Somali dancer, volleyball player, and basketball player, she has a lot to offer — though she admits she still likes to sleep in every once in awhile.

The Mumelo siblings, recent immigrants from Kenya, represent what recruiters hope will be a new face of the US military. (Photo by Sarah Stuteville)

Turns out you don’t pack much for boot camp.

When I asked Belindah Mumelo if I could hang out with her while she prepared to head off for basic training this week, I imagined huge duffel bags stuffed with gear.

Instead, she showed me a backpack the size of a school bag, full of white athletic socks.

But gear doesn’t matter. The most important thing Belindah is taking with her when she boards the plane and the series of buses that will deliver her to basic training at Fort Jackson, SC, is her sister Barbrah’s advice: “Don’t eat the candy.”

“Seriously, that first day, in the mess hall, they’ll put out all kinds of cakes and candies and cookies, but it’s a trick,” warns Barbrah in a heavy Kenyan, almost British-sounding accent. “They’ll make you do push-ups if you eat them.”

Three Mumelo siblings have signed up to join the Army this year. Belindah’s twin brother, Benson, is currently in basic training in Missouri.

Bethany Roberts, founder of Bald Solidarity, shaves her head in support of women’s rights in Westlake Center on Saturday. (Photo by Sara Stogner)

She saw it all roll down on the floor of her office building with a mere stroke of a roaring electric shaver.

With her head peaking out of a draped trash bag that worked as a hair-cutting cape, Hannah Perls saw her long, brown hair all gone in less than five minutes.

Perls shaved her hair this July in support of Bald Solidarity, a Seattle nonprofit that organizes a head shaving event each year to raise money and awareness for global women’s rights issues.

Both Perls and co-worker David Templeton auctioned off their shaves with the highest sponsor getting the rights to the razor.

This year, Bald Solidarity had its annual head shaving event at Westlake Center Park in downtown Seattle on Saturday.

A band played as Bethany Roberts, founder and Executive Director of Bald Solidarity, shaved her head and bewildered shoppers and tourists gathered in the plaza to gawk.

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Students for 2011 World Affairs Council programs join up in West Seattle. (Photo courtesy World Affairs Council)
Student participants in the 2011 Youth in Action
program enjoy elusive Seattle sunshine. (Photo courtesy World Affairs Council)

Traveling abroad can mean adventure, challenging life lessons, and the chance to kindle friendships across cultural barriers.

But it’s not the only way to have an international experience this summer.

The World Affairs Council is seeking hosts families for four State Department-sponsored youth programs, bringing students from Mexico, Zambia, Iraq and elsewhere in the Middle East to Seattle in the coming months.

Hosting a foreign student at home can be just as much of a opportunity as traveling yourself. Only rather than seeing a different culture with your own eyes, you get the even rarer chance to see your own culture through someone else’s.

Buddhist monks in Phnom Penh
(Photo by Ryan Libre)

Cambodia still suffers from the horrific Khmer Rouge rule of the late Seventies. The entire population was forced into the countryside, and the educated, professionals, and minorities were targeted for execution. Thousands more died from starvation and illness. Nearly two million people, a quarter of the country’s population, died in that time.

When the Vietnamese finally drove the Khmer Rouge from power in 1979, there were only about 300 college-educated people left in the entire country.

The legacy of this dark era is a population with extraordinarily high rates of PTSD, infant mortality, poverty, landlessness, and lack of education.

In other words, a country in dire need of trained social workers; to help homeless street youth, trauma victims, and the disabled; to organize neighborhoods facing eviction, communities of garbage pickers, or garment workers; to work as policy advocates for organizations aiding Cambodia’s many vulnerable populations.

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(Photo by flickr user Horia Varlan)

Do you dream of living or working abroad, but don’t know how to get there? A panel of globally-connected communications professionals took on the topic and shared some inside advice on Monday, as part of the UW Department of Communication’s Professional Development Month.

If you didn’t make it to the event, no need to fret. Below, I’ve curated the top tweets from Victoria Sprang, the department’s Alumni Relations Manager, who live-tweeted the discussion, and added my own commentary. We covered everything from bridging cultural gaps, financial and immigration logistics, to how to land that first international job.

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Attendees of 30th Annual MLK Jr. Day march in Seattle at Garfield HS. Photo by Flickr user cactusbones

Update 1/19: An Immigrations and Customs Enforcement Agency spokeswoman has given this statement to the Globalist:

“At this time, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) is reviewing Mr. Okere’s case to determine the appropriate next steps.”

This means, she clarified, that ICE has not decided to deport Okere as of yet.

Around 1000 people gathered in Garfield High School’s gymnasium on Monday to celebrate the life and legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., before marching across Capitol Hill in the thick of the snow.

King’s clarion call for equality and justice rings as strong today as it did in 1968, around the world and here at home.

In 1991, Nigerian journalist Nwogu Okere was killed for exposing corruption in his country. While King was shot and killed as he exited a hotel room, police gunned down Okere as he stepped out of his car.

The US State Department called it an “extrajudicial killing.” His wife ran away, carrying their one-year-old son.

That child, Al Okere, is now a 21-year-old Seattle-area pre-med student. He took to the stage at Garfield during the MLK rally.

Speaking softly as he leaned over the mic, he calmly told the story of his murdered father and his deported mother.

Now Okere is facing deportation to Nigeria as well. “If they send me there, my life’s threatened,” he told the crowd. He says his mother is in hiding.

‘Drinking safe water’ from Water 1st’s Flickr

The Northwest is a hub for what has been variously called the nonprofit-industrial complex or aid-industrial complex. The multi-billion dollar Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation is just opened a huge new campus across from Seattle Center. From Federal Way, the evangelical behemoth World Vision coordinates its operations around the world. The health group PATH works in more than 65 countries and moved into an 111,000 square feet headquarters on Westlake Avenue not long ago.

Water 1st addresses poverty around the globe, much like those groups. But its character is unmistakably local and grassroots. Over 80% of donations from the Seattle community. It has only five full-time staffers who worked out of a residential home during the organization’s first two years.

Yet Water 1st just announced that in 2011 alone, they raised $1.2 million and established water systems for additional 16,225 people in communities from Honduras to Ethopia to Bangladesh. Over $500,000 of that came from a single benefit event in October.

The Globalist put five questions to Marla Smith-Nilson, a Executive Director of Water 1st, on how such a lean organization has managed to raise so much money during a recession for genuinely sustainable work.

$1.2 million is a lot of money. How have you achieved so much fundraising success?

Marla Smith-Nilson

Water 1st was started by a handful of professionals in 2005 with solid experience in the water and sanitation and fundraising fields. Our focus was simple: build an organization from the ground up with the ability to consistently implement quality water and sanitation projects that provide permanent solutions for the world’s poorest communities.

Our vision was to focus our investment on local, in-country organizations (our partners in this work) with a proven track record of implementing effective, long-lasting water and sanitation projects. Rather than jump from country to country to fund projects, we identify local, in-country non-governmental agencies who had a proven track record of implementing sustainable water projects and invest in them, fund them consistently, year after year, building them to capacity.

The Mindanao region of the Philippines has been devastated by storms. Photo by All Hands Volunteers

Tropical storms and flooding in the Philippines have killed 1,500 people and displaced hundreds of thousands more in recent weeks. The United Nations issued a desperate appeal for nearly $30 million in relief funds late last month.

Last Thursday BAYAN-NW, the Filipino Community of Seattle, and the Ihaw Ihaw Band responded to the crisis, holding a fundraiser for victims of the disaster at the Filipino Community Center in South Seattle on Martin Luther King and Juneau Street.

But the money they raised won’t go to the UN or any big-name relief group.

Instead, the funds will go to Balsa Mindanao, a coalition of local groups named after the term for “wooden raft,” who are themselves from the affected Mindanao region.

That decision – to give to a Filipino organization “anchored on community support”- is emblematic of a unique new kind of fundraiser that was more confidence-inspiring and uplifting than the average charity event.

Take it from a journalist who spent the past two years reporting in Haiti, another disaster-struck country: by donating to Filipino community groups rather than mega-NGO’s, the dollars are far more likely to reach the victims.

Many of these sprawling bureaucracies wasted their resources in misguided projects while marginalizing Haitian community groups and the aid recipients themselves, prompting protests and anti-NGO graffiti.

A well-known anonymous aid worker blogger concluded last year: “It’s time for Aid to leave Haiti.”

There was also an acknowledgement at the BAYAN fundraiser that merely donating to relief groups will not be enough. It will take long-term engagement to truly help the Philippines.

In the case of Haiti’s earthquake, over half of American households donated for relief. But with lackluster follow-up and no serious assessment of how aid really functions in the country, much of it has been wasted.

“It’s not just a matter of sending relief, which is what we’re doing now and is really important,” Katrina Pestano, who was born in Mindanao, told the crowd. “But also, we need to keep in mind the future of the people.”

Pestano visited the area last year, meeting with activists and villagers who warned that multinational mining operations had made the area more vulnerable to catastrophic flooding.

“I want to be able to go back to Mindanao and raise a child there,” she said, “and not worry about dying in our home in the middle of the night because there was no warning that a storm would wipe out or whole village.”