On the last Sunday in May, after a historic march against racism and police brutality had ended with looting and arrests, hundreds of people converged on downtown with gloves, brooms, and an impulse to clear away graffiti and broken glass. Some of them wore signs with social commentary, such as “Racism caused this mess.” And people brought along their kids to help out. Photographer Joshua Trujillo took pictures of one family delivering food for the volunteers.
“Instead of smelling like tear gas, on Sunday downtown Seattle smelled like paint remover and cleaning chemicals,” Trujillo wrote on his Facebook post about the scene.
After a night of alarming images on our TV screens, it was a glorious thing to see proof that in this community, good things are happening.
Seattle has serious problems. Many of its residents live subjected to systemic racism that robs them of opportunities, damages their health, and threatens their very lives. A housing shortage and high cost of living means that people who make even middling incomes often struggle to get by. And COVID-19 and the economic downturn make life harder.
Seattle has strengths
But our city has strengths, too:
We volunteer. The Corporation for National and Community Service consistently ranks Seattle in the top 10 among cities for volunteering.
Kids grow up here with volunteering as part of life. Many an elementary schooler can tell you about clearing weeds, planting trees or watching their parents help build a playground. There’s also a high school graduation requirement: 60 hours of volunteer work.
We are conscientious recyclers. We divert more than 60 percent of what we throw away to recycling or composting. Our kids are surprised when they find there are places people don’t sort all their waste after a fast-food meal. Our lawns turn brown each summer while we save water. Whenever someone makes a list of America’s greenest cities, Seattle is on it.
Another list we’re proud to always be on: America’s most LGBTQ+-friendly cities.
We respect safety regulations. After the Seahawks won the Super Bowl in 2014, the one fan celebration video that became famous was of a crowd of revelers in Ballard waiting patiently for the light to change before crossing the street. Many a city has been thrown into rioting by a historic sports victory, but Seattle didn’t even jaywalk.
This may be why we did a good job of containing the coronavirus pandemic when it emerged among us. It was the first outbreak discovered in the U.S., but thanks to people staying home and taking precautions, nowhere near the worst. We listened to local health experts, put on face masks, gave each other space, and we likely saved thousands of lives.
We want to make a better world. We throw huge political demonstrations, even when our population is being stalked by a deadly virus. Day after day, at the beginning of June, thousands of people filed down arterial streets, crowds of masked faces as far as you could see. On June 12, a weekday, an estimated 60,000 marched silently in the rain. Following behind on many marches: crews of volunteers bearing pickers and trash bags, removing litter.
Seattle can get things done
This past decade, Seattle passed a series of generous education levies, and took steps to give all kids here equal access to education.
The Seattle Preschool Program, which provides early childhood education on a sliding fee scale, reached 1,700 children this past year, and it plans to expand. The city also funds the Seattle Promise program, which gives public school graduates two free years of college at Seattle Central, North Seattle, and South Seattle colleges. Starting next school year, this program will include graduates of every Seattle public school.
In 2019, Washington passed the Workforce Education Investment Act, making public colleges vastly more affordable for those with medium or low incomes. For the neediest students, tuition is free. These are tangible changes that will change lives for thousands of Seattle kids and families.
We clearly have a lot more work to do to demolish systemic racism, build a place where all Seattle kids truly have equality of opportunity, and where no family fears homelessness or hunger. But if one thing is clear from 2020 so far, it’s that people in Seattle are capable of pulling together to make the city better.
For one thing, Seattle is home to some astounding people. Just look at who showed up downtown that Sunday morning in late May.