The Rise Up and Be Recognized Awards: Honoring a Handful of 2017's Local Heroes

Welcome one and all to the first semi-annual, fully manual Rise Up and Be Recognized Awards. Thank you for being here, wherever that may be.

Louis Stevens offers his endless approval.

Louis Stevens offers his endless approval.

These awards were created by me as a way to recognize a handful of Washingtonians who deserve a few extra hand-claps for the way their work and their way of life contributed to positive change in 2017.

The judging process was stringent and unscientific. I created the categories to suit my fancies, and I’ve awarded fake awards to whatever number of people I please. By the end, I’ll have failed to mention just about everyone, so if you find you've been omitted, don’t despair. The pool of nominees was limited to people I know about and managed to think of while writing this, and as a periodic shut-in, that’s not as long a list of names as you might think. For instance, I only finally discovered a few months ago that Chance the Rapper is amazing, if that gives you some idea. So, if you or someone you know has been egregiously overlooked, please get in touch with me and I’m sure I’d be happy to make up some new awards in the near future.

But for now, without further Freddy Adu, let’s get down to brass tacks:

The “Beacon of Light Who Brightened Us All” Award

Nikkita Oliver

Nikkita Oliver’s bio is not some simple, clean narrative. She’s lots of things — an attorney, an artist, a youth worker, an activist and advocate, and plenty more that I’m sure I don’t know about. In 2017, she also spent several months as a mayoral candidate, because someone needed to step up and speak the truth. As she put it in March, she ran because we need a leader "who’s going to reject the status quo and bring a new vision to the city of Seattle.”

I just about wept with joy hearing that (and basically everything else she said throughout the campaign) — and then I realized I’d met her just a month earlier. I had been invited to share some photographs and stories of my time at Standing Rock to a group of young people involved with Creative Justice, an alternatives-to-incarceration arts education program for youth. She was there, late on a weeknight, sitting with the kids and doing the real, face-to-face, time-consuming work.

Since becoming such a public figure, she has pulled no punches, catered to no one, and relentlessly, fiercely spoken the truth about racism and growing inequity in our city.

Nikkita Oliver, thank for doing what you do. Please continue doing it.


Bob Ferguson

I wrote not long ago about meeting Bob Ferguson briefly while we were both serving in the jury pool in Seattle Municipal Court. Ferguson has been our attorney general in Washington since 2013, but he really only jumped onto people's radar this past January when he blocked Don Trump’s first executive order attempting to implement a Muslim travel ban.

I remember finding out about that, finding out that Washington State's AG had taken it upon himself to be one of the first people in the world to stand up to President Trump in a meaningful, effective way. He certainly put his career on the line in doing so, but he did it anyway. He saw that what was happening was wrong, saw that he was in a position to do something, and he did it. It set the bar for meaningful resistance to Trump’s lunacy.

With the number of people who still misunderstand Washington’s small-but-growing charter school sector, I think it’s also important to point out that Ferguson has weighed in on the much-debated charter school issue as well. His office intervened on behalf of charter schools in El Centro de la Raza v. Washington, the second lawsuit fueled by the state’s teachers union in an attempt to shut down the charter schools they view as threatening, dismissing two of the core anti-charter arguments as purely political and lacking substance. Hmm.

Thank you, Bob Ferguson, for doing what you do. Please continue doing it.

The “New Leaders Carrying Heavy, Easily Misunderstood Torches” Award

Shirline Wilson, Democrats for Education Reform

If you know me at all, you know that since even before Trump I have not had much faith in or patience for corrupt American politics, so I wouldn’t generally look to an organization like DFER as potentially sharing my agenda. DFER’s choice of Shirline Wilson to take over as state director for Washington, however, demonstrated their commitment to progress and equity. In addition to being a woman of color, which is unfortunately still worth mentioning when it comes to leadership choices around here, Shirline is an advocate for public schools of all kinds, and she is embedded in the type of community her party hopes to represent. Her voice and leadership are much appreciated and much needed in Washington.

Thank you, Shirline Wilson, for doing what you do. Please continue doing it.


Patrick D’Amelio, Washington Charter School Association

Patrick D’Amelio took over as CEO of the Washington Charter School Association (commonly referred to as WA Charters) in early 2017. The organization has since shown a commitment to hiring from the community — and to building a truly diverse staff. He understood the well-organized opposition facing public charter schools in this state before he took the job, and he persists in the work because he sees so vividly the potential for charter schools to be part of the answer to educational inequity in Washington. The degree to which that happens will in many ways depend on the strength of his leadership and his voice. That’s no small amount of pressure.

Patrick D’Amelio, thank you for doing what you do. Please continue doing it.

The “A Little Love for People Who Gave Much and Got Only a Hard Time in Return” Award

Omar Vazquez and Chelsea Byers

Omar Vazquez and Chelsea Byers both ran for seats on the Seattle School Board this year. They each poured more time and energy into their campaigns than I can really imagine, and they both fell short of the votes needed to win the election.

Omar sought the seat vacated by Stephan Blanford (who should probably have his name permanently attached to this category). Omar is an attorney in Seattle, and he also spent six years as a public school teacher. He was a person of color trying to join the school board to fight racial inequity in our schools. Among the many ways he’s attacked that problem in his career are a stint with Teach For America and a current seat on the board of directors for a charter school in Seattle. Because of these truths, which are tied to needless political controversy in a state that blindly follows its teachers unions to an endless status quo, he was dogged from the beginning and needn’t have been.

Omar Vazquez, thank you for doing what you do. Please continue doing it.

Chelsea, meanwhile, took up the admirable cross of running against Betty Patu in my south-end district. Betty is constantly described as a champion for students and equity, but her voting record since joining the school board paints a different picture. Byers, on the other hand, promised to be a voice for equity and followed through without wavering.

Patu is also now the longest-tenured member of a school board that has seen its opportunity gaps along racial lines grow — along with rhetoric from leaders about closing those gaps. The south end needs new school board leadership. Chelsea gave us a glimpse of what that could look like.

Chelsea Byers, thank you for doing what you do. Please continue doing it.

The “Wow, Thank You for Telling the Truth About Inequity So Clearly and Pointedly” Award

Marcus Harrison Green, South Seattle Emerald

Marcus Harrison Green is the founder and editor-in-chief of the South Seattle Emerald, an online publication with this beautiful mission: “amplifying the voice and experience of South Seattle.” The Emerald first hit the interwebs in April 2014, and last year Green’s project really came into its own as a strident voice for social justice.

For months now, I feel like everything I see published on the Emerald makes me want to shout, “Yes! This is what I’m talking about!” Take this unapologetic look at the role and reality of white folks protesting and marching as “allies,” for example: What White Marchers Mean for Black Lives Matter. Or this window into what it really, actually means to be a person of color in our systemically white institutions: The Silence Here is Deafening — And It Kills. Or this examination of an ever-pertinent question in Seattle’s education scene: When Does Rainier Beach High School Get Its Turn?

Or this: White Americans are Still Confused About Racism — Here’s ‘The Talk’ We Need to Have.

Or this one: Addressing White Privilege: An Open Letter and Call to Action.

Or heck, even this: State’s Largest Planet Fitness Lands in Rainier Beach. It may seem unimportant — it may even be unimportant — but nobody usually talks at all about what happens in my neighborhood. Nobody would typically mention a new Planet Fitness down here. Instead, with Green and co. at the South Seattle Emerald, our voice is louder.

Marcus Green and everyone who has contributed to the South Seattle Emerald: thank you for doing what you do. Please continue doing it.


KUOW's Race and Equity Team

KUOW is a local public radio station and founding member of NPR which also produces some quality written work online. KUOW’s Race and Equity team shows the station’s commitment to reporting on these important, difficult issues, and their work in 2017 was exemplary. From giving lift to important voices like Blanford's, to digging into pressing issues around race, gender and equity, KUOW was out there last year educating a needy, white public in a very awesome way.

Just look for yourself. They touched on just about everything, including day-to-day racial realities (We asked our listeners about racial microaggressions. The responses proved the point; Color blind or color silent? The continuing problem of talking about race), gentrification ('You feel lost and alone': Capturing the personal stories of Seattle displacement), police violence ('Get back! Get back!' then shots killed Charleena Lyles), watchdogging (Seattle city departments blew off this racial equity work — why?), and education (‘I wasn’t comfortable’: Being a student of color in Garfield High's advanced classes; To understand white liberal racism, read these private emails), among many, many other stories worth reading and hearing.

To everyone involved in KUOW’s Race and Equity team, thank you for doing what you do. Please continue doing it.

The “True Local Hero Who Truly Went Unnoticed Locally” Award

Ryan Flesch, on behalf of all water protectors everywhere

I met Ryan Flesch at Sacred Stone Camp in November 2016 during the height of the #NoDAPL resistance movement at Standing Rock. A native of Tukwila, Wash., he arrived in North Dakota planning, like so many others, to stay only a matter of days. Instead, like so many others, he was overcome by what he was experiencing, changed by his involvement, and left camp vowing to return with more supplies and more time to give.

Unlike so many others, he followed through. After leaving temporarily in December, he kept in touch from home, asking about supplies to prioritize and making plans to return. When he did come back, he came back to stay.

After the mirage victory of December 2016, when the Obama administration temporarily paused the construction of the Dakota Access Pipeline, the numbers on-site at the Standing Rock camps dwindled from several thousand down to a few hundred. Those who remained faced an unforgiving North Dakota winter with little support and even less recognition — not to mention continued persecution at the hands of police and an unscrupulous private security firm.

Ryan embedded himself in the community and the cause, and he gave more than you can imagine. He was still in Standing Rock, exhausted, when I returned in late February 2017 to be present for the police eviction and evacuation of the camps. When the chips were down, he not only heard the call, he gave everything he could for as long as it was asked of him. He made himself an accomplice as opposed to just an ally, one whose dedication doesn’t abate when it becomes inconvenient. I’m proud to know him.

Ryan represents thousands of people from thousands of different places who gave up more than they could afford to be at Standing Rock for as long as they could stay. Most returned home, as Ryan did, to a place where no one knew about or understood their contributions and sacrifices — not to mention everything we all gained.

Ryan Flesch, and every water protector everywhere: thank you for doing what you do. Please continue doing it.

Side story: I learned Ryan’s last name when he put it, along with his number, into my cell phone before he left Standing Rock for the first time. For whatever reason, his last name and its literal meaning made me wonder at that moment what my own last name meant. Halvorson, I knew, meant “Son of Halvor” — not so tricky — but somehow I’d never learned what the old Norwegian name “Halvor” had meant. So, I looked it up, and while living in a village called Sacred Stone and calling myself a water protector, I learned that Halvor comes from two words: Halle, meaning flat stone, and Vor, meaning guardian. Kinda crazy.

The Oh-So-Honorable Mentions

There are so many more. Jefflin Breuer, Stephan Blanford, Nate Bowling, Leslie Cheung, Brad Puet, Erin Okuno, Lindsay Hill, Gerald Hankerson, Dave Bennett, Neal Morton, Claudia Rowe, and so many others: Thank you for doing what you do. I appreciate you. Thank you for speaking the truth. Thank you for pressing on when others of us make an excuse, or keep quiet, or stay home. Your voices and your energy are helping set a needed example, and stitching together the first threads of a new reality in the Northwest.

Now, here’s my challenge to every one of us for 2018. Every single one of the fantastic award recipients mentioned here today saw an opportunity to do something last year, and they went for it. They jumped in and took risks and refused to back down and fought for what they knew was right. They didn’t know how it would turn out, and they did it anyway.

You will have an opportunity soon to take a risk in the name of something important — for the sake of a marginalized group, a particular young person, an important cause, yourself, or any number of things. What will you wish you had done when you look back and are no longer afraid? Do that first. Please. I believe in you.

This year we disrupt the systems of oppression instead of honoring them with our endless recognition and our spinning wheels. When you find you have an opportunity to be a beacon this year, let that light shine bright. You’ll be surprised how many people will join you, or be inspired by you, or take it upon themselves to further your cause. You’re not alone.

I’ll see you out there.