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ParentMap's 2016 Superheroes!

Our annual issue of champions for Washington families

Published on: March 28, 2016

Who gets to be called a hero? Every year at ParentMap, we sit around the table with a stack of recommendations from readers, child advocates, community leaders and previous Superheroes and talk about just that. We always have many more heroes than we can honor in a given year. As we interview our picks and take their photos (a daylong photo shoot where the do-gooder energy radiates), we hear about how they were inspired to make a difference. Inevitably, trends emerge.

Many of our 2016 Superheroes talk about being supported to succeed by their parents, a reminder of how important it is for kids to have adult mentors who champion them. And this year’s heroes are master champions, leaning in so that a new generation of youths can be empowered to follow and achieve their dreams, by learning to lead, getting their ideas and inventions funded for development, writing their stories and more.

Read on to be inspired by these heroes for Washington kids and families. Thank you, Superheroes!

Meet our 2016 Superheroes

  • The midwives: Tara Mudaliar and Jodilyn Owen
  • The educator: Nathan Gibbs-Bowling
  • The water bearer: Marla Smith-Nilson
  • The higher-learning hero: Ana Mari Cauce
  • The safety advocate: Fred Rivara
  • The parent activists: Soup for Teachers
  • The arts visionary: Holly Arsenault
  • The gender equity champion: Liz Vivian
  • The jazz teachers: Clarence Acox Jr. and Jacob Zimmerman
  • The parent agitators: Washington’s Paramount Duty
  • The green game-changers: Liesl Clark and Rebecca Rockefeller
  • The tribal leader: Cecile Hansen
  • The gear-changer: Deb Salls
The Rainier Valley Community Clinic | Photo credit: Will Austin

The midwives: Tara Mudaliar and Jodilyn Owen

Founders, Rainier Valley Community Clinic

Jodilyn Owen attended her first birth thinking it would be a good chance to boss around her older brother, the expectant father.

“It wound up being a great moment to help him connect with his family in a new and different way,” says Owen. “I became enamored with the work of bringing families together through the birth process.”

Inspired, the Seattle native became a doula, then a midwife and, more recently, a cofounder of the Rainier Valley Community Clinic, a hybrid free/insurance-based perinatal clinic in the heart of southeast Seattle.

There, Owen and cofounder Tara Mudaliar formed a dynamic duo changing how local families function.

Mudaliar was Owen’s midwifery student when they first met. They worked together for a year before cofounding the South Seattle Women’s Health Foundation in 2013. The organization, which sponosored the Rainer Valley Community Clinic, fosters collaboration between midwives, physicians, hospitals and patients with the goal of increasing and easing health care access for all families.

“It’s our response to the inequities [Mudaliar] had experienced as a student seeking a degree in health care and the disparities in outcomes we were seeing for local families,” explains Owen.

On most days, you’ll find Mudaliar at Rainier Valley, where she serves as clinical director. She's usually the first to arrive and the last to leave. “There are 59 languages in our ZIP code alone, so we’ll never be culturally competent enough to serve every single family here,” Mudaliar says. “We’re doing our very best to do what we can, and we still have a long way to go.”

Few could handle the myriad challenges presented by such a diverse group of patients, but Owen says her longtime colleague rises to the occasion without fail.

There are 59 languages in our ZIP code alone.

“[Mudaliar] is peace and grace personified,” says Owen. “She took our vision to create a safe learning space for student midwives of color and a safe environment for providers of color to practice and serve communities of diverse backgrounds, and worked tirelessly to ensure that dream became a reality.”

Today, Mudaliar is in charge of the clinic’s daily happenings, while Owen, who recently moved to Memphis, Tennessee, for her husband’s work, has “taken on the role of board leadership.”

Despite the physical distance between them, the two women remain dedicated to the work of improving health care for people of all cultures.

“Outcomes are better when patients don’t have to explain the social determinants of their health,” says Owen, “better when they are heard in their first language; better when we value innovation, reverence and collaboration more than treating symptoms and moving people out the door; better when we say to them, ‘You are the expert on your body and your baby. We are here at your service and will provide the care that is right for your family.’”

What is your humblest moment?

Jodilyn Owen: We work a lot with women who are having vaginal births after C-sections (VBAC). After they birth their babies, there is this very quiet, surreal moment where they’re gathering themselves and their babies and they understand what they just did. There’s a unique quality to the VBAC experience; these mothers’ hearts are in my heart. I feel so incredibly humbled in that space of profound fruition.

Tara Mudaliar: It’s the helplessness I feel when a family doesn’t get the dream that they wanted and we could have prevented it. Thank goodness I haven’t had to deal with a lot of babies dying at births, but those moments happen when you see a mom and a baby crash so fast. If these moms were getting the prenatal care they need, we could have [prevented the outcome].

If you were to receive an airplane ticket to anywhere tomorrow, where would you go, and why?

JO: Straight to the South Pacific to Vanuatu, which is where I was in 2011. I’d head right to the sweat and grit of the maternity ward there.

TM: To see my husband; he’s in Qatar working for a few months.

What book saved you or changed your life?

JO: I tend to read three or four books at a time, which allows me to bring diverse ideas together to create something new. I just finished I May Be Wrong but I Doubt It by Charles Barkley, The Hiding Place by Corrie ten Boom, and Half the Sky: Turning Oppression to Opportunity for Women Worldwide by Nicholas D. Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn. They are all about having a vision of a just world — about doing a thing that needs doing because it’s the right thing to do. Social justice in health care is the driving force behind our work, and I take note from people who are making change in systems that appear stagnant.

Out of reading these books, I created Girls + Science, a program for girls in grades 9–12 in the greater Seattle area that increases their exposure to careers in public health and science through the vehicle of community health education.

TM: Birth Models That Work. A midwife and a doctor researched birthing throughout the world and wrote about birth models that actually worked. There’s a model in Mexico that we would love to model after, and we’ve [used techniques] from Japan and the Netherlands, too.

What’s your guilty indulgence?

JO: It’s a little cuckoo. It’s very cold in the mornings [in Memphis], so I sit in the car for an extra three minutes and leave the seat warmer on and get really warm before I go out in the cold.

TM: The “naked lady spa” [Olympus Spa in Alderwood Village]. It’s where a lot of birth workers go!  

— Nancy Schatz Alton

Photo credit: Will Austin

The educator: Nathan Gibbs-Bowling

2016 Washington State Teacher of the Year and finalist for National Teacher of the Year, Tacoma Schools

In his own words, Nathan Gibbs-Bowling has had a “hell of a year.” Last September, the Tacoma social studies teacher hosted Chinese President Xi Jinping for a visit in his classroom. And this month, when he visits Washington, D.C., as the 2016 Washington State Teacher of the Year he will meet President Barack Obama.

But in some ways, Gibbs-Bowling, who dreamed of being a politician before he became an educator, feels conflicted about his accomplishments. On his blog, he writes how teacher absenteeism harms students. “Every day I’m visiting Washington, D.C., or speaking at a conference, that’s a day I’m not in my classroom with my students,” he says.

These aren’t the idle musings of an overworked teacher. Gibbs-Bowling’s blog drew national attention in January when he wrote about the issue of segregated and underfunded schools in a post titled “The Conversation I’m Tired of Not Having.” Republished in outlets such as The Huffington Post, The Seattle Times and The Washington Post, the piece elicited a huge reaction. Gibbs-Bowling says that experiences like this inform his teaching. “I don’t talk about civil liberties in the abstract,” he says. “I talk about civil liberties and how they affect students.”

A native and current resident of Tacoma’s Hilltop neighborhood, Gibbs-Bowling has taught many of the children of his former peers. He is enthusiastic about confronting the problems of poverty and crime that affect his neighborhood, describing efforts made by the staff at Lincoln High School to support students, such as taking up a collection for a light bill or paying for a student to take the SAT. “I love this city and believe in this community,” he says.

In regard to his success, Gibbs-Bowling credits his coworkers at Lincoln. “If I wasn’t working with a staff of the caliber I’m working with, I wouldn’t be able to achieve what I’m achieving,” he says.

According to Lincoln’s principal, Patrick Erwin, Gibbs-Bowling is “simply the best teacher in a school full of amazing teachers.” He adds, “What has made Nate a better teacher year after year is his interest in collaborating with others, learning from others and sharing his practice. He gets better by making others better.”

You don’t become a change agent by accumulating knowledge; you do it by accumulating
relationships and skills.

Gibbs-Bowling’s path to teaching took some sharp turns. As a 7-year-old, he envisioned himself as the future Senate majority leader. Then, in college, he planned to become a policy analyst. It wasn’t until two weeks before the deadline that he decided to apply for a graduate teaching program instead. “When I meet my old teachers and they find out I’m a teacher, they’re always amused and shocked,” he says.

Gibbs-Bowling cites the “aha moments” — the moments “when a student who has been struggling with a concept suddenly gets it” — as his favorite parts of teaching. As for what he wants his students to learn, he stresses qualities such as curiosity, persistence and critical thinking. “I want my students to be change agents,” he says. “You don’t become a change agent by accumulating knowledge; you do it by accumulating relationships and skills.”

If you were to go into space alone, what three items couldn't you leave behind?

A copy of The Great Gatsby, because it’s one of the great works of fiction of human history; my Vitamix, because I would get sick of dehydrated space food and would want an occasional smoothie or margarita; and my record collection.

What has been your most humbling moment?

I coasted through high school and when I went to college the first time, I didn’t take it seriously and ended up back at home.

What's your favorite guilty indulgence?

A Costco-size brick of Beecher’s aged cheddar cheese.

If you could receive an airplane ticket to go anywhere tomorrow, where would it be, and why?

I’ve been a fan of the Liverpool football team for over 15 years. So I would go see them play at Anfield [Stadium] and I would sing the Liverpool anthem, a beautiful song called “You’ll Never Walk Alone.”

What book saved you or changed your life?

Letters to a Young Contrarian by Christopher Hitchens. It’s about questioning assumptions and being unafraid to speak one’s mind, particularly in moments of injustice.

— Ashly Moore Sheldon

Photo credit: Will Austin

The water bearer: Marla Smith-Nilson

Founder and executive director, Water1st

Ask Marla Smith-Nilson what led her to found Water1st International, and she’ll tell you about her childhood in southern Arizona. She’ll tell you about summer vacations in Mexico, seeing little girls her age carrying water home to their families. “It seemed so unfair that I could have won the birth lottery a few hours north and have a completely different life,” Smith-Nilson says.

In impoverished countries, carrying clean water is difficult and time-consuming, keeping children — often girls ― from going to school and adults from earning income for their families. Lack of readily available water also means a lack of sanitation, which spreads disease, pushing families further into debt when paying for medical treatment.

How does Water1st enter this equation? The organization, which has projects in four countries ― Bangladesh, Honduras, Ethiopia and India ― pipes water to homes. “[We provide] a convenient, clean water supply, toilets and hygiene education to emphasize important activities such as handwashing,” Smith-Nilson says. In 10 years, her organization has raised more than $13 million and implemented projects benefiting 138,000 people.

Water1st projects, based in Seattle, serve homes, schools, health clinics and community centers, which all receive piped water and toilets. Community members receive extensive training and women play a critical role in the governance and maintenance of the water systems.

For Smith-Nilson, the work is extremely rewarding. “Gratitude is paid forward and outward like a ripple and connects us all through affection and sympathy and dependence on each other,” she says.

Gratitude is paid forward and outward like a ripple.

If you were to go into space alone, what three items couldn't you leave behind?

My first instinct is to answer this in terms of survival, and maybe that alone tells you a little about my personality, but instead I’m going to assume that my basic survival needs are met (oxygen, water, food) and be light-hearted: first, my smartphone, so I could take photos and have downloaded music (specifically Journey’s “Don’t Stop Believing”); second, coffee (my second-favorite beverage next to water); and third, photos of my family.

What is your humblest moment?

I’ve had many . . . here is one: In January 2006, we traveled for the first time to the community of Bishikiltu, Ethiopia. Water scarcity had plagued the community for generations. The nearest water source was a river, about a two-hour walk [away]. Most households made several trips each day to collect all the water they needed. Children and adults were frequently ill; there was simply not enough water to bathe.

At the time of our visit [we learned that] Water1st could not afford to fund [the project]. In 2007, we made a second visit to Bishikiltu. I felt it was important for them to hear directly from us that we hadn’t forgotten about them; I knew it was inevitable that their hopes had been raised. When I stood up in front of them and explained that theirs was simply an expensive project, and we would try again to raise the money that was needed, their responses were gracious and humbling and made me thankful that I was honest with them.

Bishikiltu didn’t have to wait much longer. Water1st was able to fund the project the following year.

What is your guilty indulgence?

Cheez-Its.

Airplane ticket to anywhere tomorrow — where, and why?

A round-the-world ticket. I’ve been to many countries, and that just makes me want to see more. I love traveling and experiencing new things.

What book saved you or changed your life?

When I was an undergrad at the University of Arizona, I read a book called Don’t Be Afraid, Gringo. It is the true story of Elvia Alvarado, a courageous and brilliant Honduran woman who becomes an activist in helping other poor Honduran farmers recover their lands. Her message of self-reliance spoke loudly to me.

— Nicole Persun

Photo credit: Will Austin

The higher-learning hero: Ana Mari Cauce 

33rd president of the University of Washington

“When Ana Mari Cauce was selected to be the 33rd president of University of Washington, the university hit a home run,” says Cauce’s friend Yaffa Maritz, founder of the Community of Mindful Parenting. “As the first woman president, Cauce embodies all of the qualities that make the UW a world-class university: a strong commitment to excellent education, a ‘sky is the limit’ foundational principle that doesn’t let barriers limit her perspective and strong ethics. [She’s] compassionate, and an advocate for diversity and social responsibility.”

Cauce gives deep meaning to the historic ethos of making the American dream come true. Her father was Cuba’s ministry of education in 1959, when she was 3 years old, and her family fled Cuba for Miami during the revolution. In the U.S., he became a janitor.

“I had no idea how their lives had changed coming to America. I grew up in a Leave It to Beaver childhood with a Cuban rumba background,” Cauce says. “We’d have picnics with fried chicken and rice and beans. It was a regular life, yet we lived in city that was being transformed by immigration.”

Cauce says she didn’t realize how poor she was growing up until she applied for college and qualified for financial aid.

“The older I get, the more I realize how difficult this must have been for my parents. My dad would say, ‘Education is the only thing that no one can take from you.’ He’s right.”

Cauce says the fact that her father was such an educated person added richness to his life and to their family. “It had everything to do with how he and my mother raised us and their expectations for us.” 

Cauce elaborates on this ethic. “My spouse and I recently went to a financial planner. Hypothetically, if I had to leave the university, I know I could get a job at the local McDonald’s. In two months, I would be assistant manager. I know things would work out because I saw my parents do this. My parents had far more before the revolution than I am ever going to have, and it was gone in an instant.”

Cauce hopes her legacy will be clearly interwoven with her faculty and students. “My biggest contributions will not be things I do myself, but rather what I facilitate in others.

“My legacy does not have to have my name on it. My modest prediction is that 10 years from now, the UW will have been involved in finding the cure to cancer. Ways in which I’ve led this university, made decisions about money and get a donor involved will have been a part of that.”

My dad would say, ‘Education is the only thing that no one can take from you.’ He’s right.

The UW boasts a world-class reputation and quality of education, and renowned research. Cauce’s boundless energy and devotion to diversity are positioned to influence the university’s outcomes.

“Diversity is absolutely a key to excellence in education in a whole lot of different ways. Research is fairly clear; when you bring people with diverse backgrounds together, you arrive at smarter answers. We know that innovation gets sparked by this diversity, and it’s why we focus on enhancing our interdisciplinary efforts,” she says.

“Innovation emerges in our great cities, many of which are port towns that create complex crossroads of different people. We’re a public institution, and greater access is important and should reflect the diversity of our community. But also, it is the smart thing to do if we want to educate people who are going to be leaders in the world.” 

If you were to go into space alone, what three items couldn't you leave behind?

My cell phone — hope there are cell towers in space! —marker and paper for taking notes and doodling, Kindle loaded with books to read.

What was your humblest moment?

So many to choose from. Getting this job as UW president was extremely humbling. Having a room full of faculty and students that I so much admire celebrating with and for me really drove home the immense responsibility I have as a steward of their and the public’s trust.

Name a guilty indulgence.

Starlight mints.

If you received an airplane ticket to anywhere tomorrow, where would you choose to go and why?

Hartford or Miami. I have family in both places that I miss a lot and haven't seen recently enough, especially the great-nieces and nephews. They grow and change so fast, and I hate missing it. And there's nothing like children to put the rest of your life into perspective.

What book saved you or changed your life?

I wouldn’t call it my favorite book, but probably the most eye-opening, and hence transformative, was The Golden Notebook. It was the book that woke me up to a feminist perspective and critical examination of gender.

— Alayne Sulkin 

Photo credit: Will Austin

The safety advocate: Fred Rivara 

Seattle Children’s Hospital Guild endowed chair in pediatric research; professor and vice chair of the Department of Pediatrics at the University of Washington

We’ve all heard the adage that an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. Dr. Fred Rivara’s work in injury prevention and public education exemplifies this principle. He serves as the Seattle Children’s Hospital Guild endowed chair in pediatric research and as professor and vice chair of the Department of Pediatrics at the University of Washington. He is also a physician at Seattle Children’s and Harborview Medical Center, and was the first director of the Harborview Injury Prevention & Research Center, which he led for 13 years. He also serves as editor-in-chief of JAMA Pediatrics, the oldest pediatric journal in the world.

“The world is a safer place thanks to Dr. Fred Rivara,” says his Seattle Children’s colleague Elizabeth Bennett. “From bike helmets to sports concussions to gun violence and more, Dr. Rivara has conducted research resulting in fewer serious injuries and deaths. When your doctor talks to you and your family about safety, chances are they have learned from and been influenced by Dr. Rivara. He is a world leader in injury prevention.”

“It’s really arisen from taking care of kids … seeing a number of children that were pretty badly injured and realizing that there are limits to what medical care can do,” Rivara says when asked about his career path.

His contributions to injury prevention research haven’t been without opposition. In 1993, he and his colleagues published research funded by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention that found a significant correlation between gun ownership and the risk of suicide and homicide.

“We didn’t do any lobbying, we simply did research … The NRA was able to reach members of Congress to have a ban on federal funding of gun research put into place.”

Rivara points to the measurable impacts of other injury research when asked to speculate on the ramifications of the funding ban, which was enacted in 1996.

“Deaths from motor vehicles have declined dramatically over the last 50 years, about 80 percent per mile driven, and if you look at why … it’s the fact that cars are registered, research has been done … regulation has occurred. In fact, since 2008, in the state of Washington, there are fewer motor vehicle deaths than gun deaths. Those same factors have not been at play for guns.”

Despite this setback, he doesn’t have to look far for hope. In 2013, Seattle became the first city in the nation to allocate funds for gun violence prevention, work conducted by Rivara and his colleagues though the Harborview Injury Prevention & Research Center.

Rivara acknowledges the challenge parents face trying to keep their children safe.

The world is a safer place thanks to Dr. Fred Rivara.

“It’s a combo of giving your kids enough leeway to develop their skills and experience, but at the same time, trying to create an environment where, if they do what kids all do … that they are not going to get seriously hurt.” He advises always using proper safety equipment, such as bike and ski helmets.

“Make sure kids are buckled up correctly, from infant to adolescent, and make sure whoever is driving the car is not using a cell phone at the same time,” Rivara says.

And this: “Make sure guns are safely locked and stored whenever guns and children or teens are together in the same household.”

If you were to go into space alone, what three items couldn’t you leave behind?

The Kindle, so I can read, and a cell phone, so I can call my family.

What was your humblest moment?

The birth of my children.

Guilty indulgence?

Reading mystery novels.

If you were given an airplane ticket to anywhere tomorrow, where would you go and why?

Probably China, because I think it is a fascinating country, it is rapidly changing and I’d like to see it before it changes too rapidly.

— Rory Graves

Photo credit: Will Austin

The parent activists: Soup for Teachers

Soup for Teachers Group

Last fall, as Seattle Public Schools (SPS) teachers negotiated their contracts with the district, and educators, parents and kids all prepared for the strike that was to come, something magical began to stir amid the anxiety.

Like many efforts today, it started on Facebook. Several parents launched a page in order to organize deliveries of coffee and snacks to teachers on the picket lines.

The Soup for Teachers group, which eventually bloomed to 3,100 members, proved essential in helping connect families that wanted to assist at their own schools and on other campuses. Striking teachers around the city were greeted every morning with hot coffee, tables of fruit, water and pastries; lunches arrived in the form of pizza deliveries, homemade casseroles, kid-baked cookies by the container and — of course ― soup. Parents were kept abreast of needs and organized support.

“There’s six of us in the photo, but there are thousands of members in the schools, running around, doing this work,” says Liza Rankin, Soup for Teachers board president and mom to a current SPS student and a future one.

If striking teachers at one school were being heckled on the sidewalk, more parents — made aware of the situation quickly via the Facebook group ― dispatched themselves to the school to honk car horns in support or walk the picket line.

“During the strike, we made contact with every single one of the 98 schools in the district to find out if their educators were being supported or not, and finally got in touch with the final school, Seattle World, on the last day of the strike,” Rankin says. “We coordinated a delivery of lunch and flowers for them to enjoy on the workday between the end of the strike and school.”

The early efforts, which played out over a weeklong school strike, not only energized the exhausted educators, but also galvanized parents, who themselves had been frustrated about a range of issues within the schools and now had a place to organize for the long game.

“The strike showed us, ‘Oh, I’m not the only one who felt this way.’ We got used to things in the district, and change seemed overwhelming, but when you see a couple thousand people, it suddenly seems more manageable,” Rankin says.

We want to build a collaborative relationship with the district, but we are also holding them accountable.

The strike “was a tipping point,” says district mom and board head of special projects Kathryn Russell Selk, a mom to two students, who was involved in Soup for Teachers from day one. “Parents have been very, very frustrated for years. It seems like it has always been a fight and always been a zero-sum game ― maybe you get what you need, but the person next to you doesn’t. Each group has been trying to advocate for their kids, but the strike brought everyone together. Some kids aren’t being served. Some educators aren’t supported. This all goes back to the unconstitutional funding. Finally, it just coalesced around the realization that we all need to work together.”

Rankin says the Soup for Teachers leadership team, whose members didn’t know each other before the strike and who hail from all around Seattle, has recently formalized roles and set goals for the coming year. Resource sharing, problem solving and cross-district advocacy are focuses for Soup for Teachers (soupforteachers.org) moving forward.

If you were to go into space tomorrow, what three items would you take with you?

Liza Rankin: I would never go into space; that’s a terrifying nightmare. I’ve said before that if we had to evacuate Earth, I would just miss everybody so much that I wouldn’t go. Well, if my kids were getting on an evacuation transport, I would have to go, but I would not be happy about it.

What book saved or changed your life?

Kathryn Russell Selk: This is hard because I grew up in a bookstore. My mom bought a bookstore when I was in fifth grade. So after school and every weekend, we were at the bookstore. And I worked in bookstores or libraries until I was through law school. A book I think is going to change people’s lives, that everyone should read, is Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates. 

— Natalie Singer-Velush

Photo credit: Will Austin

The arts visionary: Holly Arsenault

Executive director, TeenTix

Holly Arsenault wasn’t much older than a teen herself in 2005, just 26, when she joined a fledgling organization called TeenTix as program manager. Founded under the auspices of Seattle Center, TeenTix was based on one big idea: Make it easy for teens to engage with the arts, and they will come. Any local teen could sign up for a free TeenTix pass, which they could use — until the day they turned 20 — to obtain $5 rush tickets to partner theaters and museums (initially a handful of Seattle Center organizations).

Arsenault — who had recently finished an internship at Seattle Repertory Theatre — was intrigued by the opportunity to expand the organization’s reach. At the time Arsenault joined TeenTix, only 23 passes a month were being used.  

So Arsenault got busy — experimenting, reshaping and involving teens at every step of the way. Under her leadership (she became executive director and is still the organization’s only full-time employee), its model evolved from 15-minute rush tickets to day-of-sale tickets. Partnerships grew to its current star-studded list of 63 arts organizations, from the symphony to the ballet, museums and all the top theaters. And programs blossomed that allowed teens to deepen their engagement: criticism workshops, a teen press corps and a multiyear arts leadership program called The New Guard.

Ultimately, Arsenault says, it’s not about “putting butts in seat; it’s about offering young people the tools for playing an active role in shaping the arts community.”

Simply by the numbers, TeenTix is impressive. To date, it has provided 75,000 passes to teens, and TeenTix members purchase about 1,200 $5 tickets each month. In 2014, it won the Mayor’s Arts Award. In 2015, it became an independent nonprofit. But for Arsenault, the stats pale in comparison to individual stories of lives changed and new paths taken.

Take Karissa Lam, a Shoreline teen who signed up for TeenTix when she turned 13 and eventually applied to be part of The New Guard. “My family doesn't have a lot of money, so before I found TeenTix, seeing art seemed impossible,” Lam said. “Now, it's a huge part of my life.”

The important thing about indulgences is that you pay attention to them; otherwise, you’re just wasting them.

Arsenault sees another example of TeenTix’s impact every day: Ashraf Hasham signed up for the program as a “Ballard High kid who, by his own description, would never have attended an art event,” says Arsenault. Now he is deputy director of TeenTix and an emerging arts leader. “That’s a real person whose life is different than it would have been,” says Arsenault.

After all those achievements, it’d be understandable if Arsenault, also a mom to a 4-year-old boy and a playwright in her “spare” time, wanted a break. But TeenTix has just started its most ambitious initiative yet, a massive research study to better understand the barriers to teen engagement with the arts, called Teens Count.

TeenTix will use the study’s findings to inform its programs as well as “bring the information to our partners, so they can build programs that better serve these populations,” says Arsenault.

If you were to go into space alone, what three items couldn't you leave behind?

My husband, my son and my coffee. But then I wouldn’t be alone, I guess. OK, OK. So, something to read, something to write with and coffee.

What was your humblest moment?

When we were first starting the transition from being a community program to a nonprofit, I had a meeting with a potential funder that I was not prepared for and I thought I was. It was a great reminder that hubris is dangerous and that if you’re asking for someone’s time, it’s disrespectful not to prepare.

What’s your guilty indulgence?

I don’t feel guilty about my indulgences. The important thing about indulgences is that you pay attention to them; otherwise, you’re just wasting them. But ... I’ve been watching a lot of The Great British Bake Off, the nicest reality show in the world.

Airplane ticket to anywhere tomorrow — where, and why?

If the plane ticket included a theater ticket to see Hamilton in New York, that’s what I’d choose.

What book saved you or changed your life?

Two books quite literally saved my life. I have anxiety disorder [and] I had a year in my life when I was about 27 that was extremely challenging. I read two books that year: Peace Is Every Step by Thich Nhat Hanh and When Things Fall Apart by Pema Chödrön. The simplest way I can say it is that they helped me be able to be fully in the moments where I was okay, which ultimately showed me a path out.

— Elisa Murray

Photo credit: Will Austin

The gender equity champion: Liz Vivian 

Executive director, Women’s Funding Alliance

Last year, the Women’s Funding Alliance released the report “The Status of Women in Washington,” which held some upsetting yet unsurprising statistics:

Full-time, year-round working women’s median earnings are $41,300, compared to men’s at $53,000. In 2013, women in Washington earned 77.9 cents (and 76 cents in King County) on the dollar compared with their male counterparts ― a slightly larger gender wage gap than nationwide. The gap is even wider when comparing the earnings of women of color to white men. Women earn less than men at every educational level, and at most levels of education, they earn less than men with lower qualifications.

At the current rate of progress, the gender wage gap in Washington state is projected to close in the year 2071. That means a girl in kindergarten this year might finally earn the same amount as her male counterparts just before she retires.  

And while Washington ranks fifth in the nation for the number of seats in the state Legislature held by women (32.7 percent of the seats), if progress continues at the current rate, women will only achieve parity in the state Legislature in the year 2038.

Without a doubt, these statistics show what prevents girls and women from reaching their full potential.

Imbalances such as the gender gap, as well even less-acknowledged inequities, such as gaps between groups of women, are the types of issues the Women’s Funding Alliance and its executive director, Liz Vivian, focus on unwaveringly. Through research, grants, community partnerships and initiatives, the organization advances the economic and leadership opportunities for girls and women in Washington state.

“We’re not talking enough about the gaps among women. The gender wage gap is larger between women who have children and women who don’t than between women and men — this is the huge motherhood penalty. There’s a huge gap between women who have a high school diploma and those don’t ― a class gap. And there’s a huge gap along racial and ethnic lines,” Vivian says.

To have an impact on these gaps, Vivian says, is “to ensure that we create the systems and opportunities for low-income women to have living-wage jobs.” Through a five-year initiative called 100% Talent, the alliance is working with the Seattle Metropolitan Chamber of Commerce to push forward best practices, and seeks to sign 500 King County companies up for a gender-equity pledge.

It is really critical that we increase the voice of women and girls in politics. When women are elected, government is more transparent, collaborative and inclusive.

During her time at the alliance, Vivian has helped expand the mission beyond grant making to a full-spectrum program of initiatives.

“Her understanding of the importance of women and girls has really made a difference in us broadening our impact,” says Sam Whiting, the alliance’s board secretary, who has known Vivian for many years. “Her passion is so inspiring.”

In this presidential election year, Vivian says, the opportunity to focus on women’s role in politics is heightened, too.

Through a pilot project, the alliance is working with the Center for American Women and Politics at Rutgers University to create one-day programs to give university women access to the training and inspiration they need to become engaged in politics and actions in the public sector. They have launched the program at Washington State University.

“It is really critical that we increase the voice of women and girls in politics. When women are elected, government is more transparent, collaborative and inclusive. So we need to support women running for office,” Vivian says. “Also, I want us to think about how we use words to talk about women who are running. Take the word ‘ambition.’ When it’s used to describe a male candidate, it’s positive. When it’s a woman, she’s too ambitious. God forbid a woman should be more ambitious.”

What’s your guilty indulgence?

Sitting down and reading a book instead of doing chores. Not just at the end of the day in bed, but actually letting it be OK to sit down and read a novel for an hour.

If you received an airplane ticket to anywhere tomorrow, where would you choose to go, and why?

My dream trip is to circumnavigate the Mediterranean, so I guess I would start in Spain, end in Morocco.

If you were to go into space alone, what three items couldn’t you leave behind?

My people ― immediate family; my pets; supplies for baking cookies.

What was your humblest moment?

In 2005, deciding to close Seattle Youth Involvement Network, where I was executive director. Through a good strategic planning process, the board and I said maybe the work is done, maybe it’s not, but it felt like the right good thing to do. It was a decision made with so much humility and feeling like this was really the right decision at the right time.

Here's how you can get involved in this election season to support getting more women involved in politics and elected into office... 

Do more: 

1. During the upcoming election season, ask your questions about gender to candidates and the media. Find out what male and female candidates think about issues like the wage gap and paid parental leave. Call out bias and sexism in the media, using resources like Name It. Change It. and The Representation Project.

2. Leverage the power of your vote with a gender lens! Think about how your vote will impact the women and girls in your life.

3. Encourage young women to be politically ambitious, educate them (and young men!) about gender and the political process, and participate in creating environments that build the interest and self-confidence of young women.

4. Volunteer to support women in elected office, connect young women with women in leadership and be a mentor.

5. Examine “A Citizen’s Guide to Effective Legislative Participation” on the Washington State Legislature’s website.

6. Give to the Women’s Funding Alliance — be our partner in advancing leadership for women and girls in Washington!

Learn more:

1. Learn more about the work of the Center for American Women and Politics, its Presidential Gender Watch project, and why having more women in elected and appointed office matters. Be sure to read its 2013 special report “A National Call to Action: Teaching Young People About Women’s Public Leadership and Promoting Public Leadership for Girls.”

2. Check out Therese Huston’s article “Are Women Better Decision Makers?” and keep your eyes open for her soon-to-be-released book on women and decision making.

3. Read our research report “The Status of Women in Washington” to familiarize yourself with the statistics on women in elected office in Washington.

4. Take time to learn about the International Knowledge Network of Women in Politics and its goal to advance women in politics worldwide.

— Natalie Singer-Velush

Photo credit: Will Austin

The jazz teachers: Clarence Acox Jr. and Jacob Zimmerman

Directors of Jazz Ensembles I, II & III at Garfield High School

Clarence Acox Jr. laughs when he’s referred to as a legend. Yet Acox rebuilt Garfield High School’s music program over the last 44 years until the phrases “Garfield High School” and “excellence in high school jazz” were stuck together forevermore. He’s also an in-demand drummer who cofounded the Seattle Repertory Jazz Orchestra.

Very much a legend, Acox directs Garfield’s Jazz Ensemble I & II, which have won dozens of awards and make appearances at national and international venues. Despite the public accolades, Acox says, the deepest satisfaction is working with and inspiring students. “When a kid has been trying to learn a difficult concept and all of the sudden a light comes on in the kid’s head, I call that the golden moment,” he says.

Alto saxophonist and composer Jacob Zimmerman, Acox’s colleague, directs Garfield’s Jazz Ensemble III, a role enhanced by the fact that he graduated from Garfield in 2004.

“I went to a middle school in Sammamish and came from a musical family. [Arriving at Garfield] was a rude awakening, realizing how much better the students were. It was wonderful to be inspired,” Zimmerman says. “It enhances my investment and passion for doing a really good job and helping all of these students because I was right in their situation.”

Zimmerman leads The Jacob Zimmerman Quintet, composes for his large chamber ensemble project Lawson and the collective modern jazz trio Anteater and is an ensemble coach for Seattle JazzED, an after-school program that never turns a student away due to a lack of funds.  

Zimmerman invites his Garfield students to monthly jazz sessions at The Royal Room in Columbia City, hoping to inspire them to teach themselves as much as they can about the music. “It’s not just your ability to play, it’s your knowledge of the repertoire and how much music you have internalized,” he says.

The principal picked me up at the airport and told me I was never going to leave, and so far he’s right.

Acox aims to instill the same lessons in his students. “Jazz is a very highly developed art form,” says the veteran teacher. “It’s like what people say about how to get to Carnegie Hall: practice, practice, practice. To learn how to play jazz: practice, practice steady.”

Acox, who arrived in Seattle in 1971, has seen the student body and the city change since he began teaching.

“Garfield was a struggling inner-city school, and the principal thought it would be smart to start a band program. I was at Southern University, and he saw our marching band play at the Super Bowl. He called and asked, ‘Do you have anybody that [could] come in?’ and the band director said, ‘I have just the person.’ That’s me,” Acox says. “The principal picked me up at the airport and told me I was never going to leave, and so far he’s right.”

If you were to go into space alone, what three items couldn’t you leave behind?

Jacob Zimmerman: I’d probably bring a battery-powered turntable and I’d have to bring some Charlie Parker. I’d bring my saxophone and my clarinet … my saxophone first.

Clarence Acox Jr.: Mine are all records: Earth, Wind & Fire: Greatest Hits, Sinatra at the Sands accompanied by Count Basie and his orchestra, and Duke Ellington at Newport.

What has been your humblest moment?

JZ: As a teacher working for Seattle JazzEd, we have this challenge of trying to get every single kid involved and inspired, making progress with music. For some kids, no matter what their desire is, they have numerous obstacles that get in their way. It’s a problem without a clear solution. When I start to think about this great challenge, it’s very humbling.

CA: One time, Quincy Jones surprised us and [joined us onstage] at the Monterey Jazz Festival. He’s conducted a few times since then, but that was the first time, and it was a special occasion.

If you were given an airplane ticket to anywhere tomorrow, where would you go, and why?

JZ: New Orleans. I’ve never been, which is silly. I know some musicians there, and it’s a great place to be a musician, as a far as I can tell.

CA: I would go to Brazil, but you know what, they would have to have that disease [Zika virus] squared away. But, I would love to go to Brazil, because I love the music.

What’s your guilty indulgence?

JZ: My guilty indulgence is the endless YouTube black hole. I end up watching Jimmy Fallon usually. Often [what I watch] never ends up being very good, but that’s the YouTube black hole.

CA: I love red beans and rice just like Louis Armstrong. And I love salmon — my nickname is Salmon Davis Jr. Give me salmon, some garlic potatoes and a glass of red wine, and I am set.

What book saved you or changed your life?

JZ: There’s a book online called A Jazz Life by guitarist John Klopotowski. It’s about the legendary jazz saxophonist Warne Marsh, an unsung figure. It’s a personal memoir of Klopotowski’s time studying with Marsh. It changed my life completely. I was living in the Bay Area and I found out that John lives in Oakland. I was able to get in touch with him and start playing music with him.

CA: The writings of Martin Luther King Jr., including Letter from Birmingham City Jail. I came up during the time of the civil rights movement long before there was a Martin Luther King holiday, so that was very special to me. Yes I Can by Sammy Davis Jr. because of the details of all the struggles he went through trying to become a success, the racism he went through in the military, how he just persevered and became the world’s greatest entertainer despite all of his struggle. It was good reading.

— Nancy Schatz Alton 

Photo credit: Will Austin

The parent agitators: Washington’s Paramount Duty

Grassroots parent organization Washington’s Paramount Duty

One thing about parents: When they get fed up, they are a force to be reckoned with.

The simmering frustration of parents and other education advocates came to a head this fall, when it became obvious that the Washington State Legislature, despite being ordered to fully fund public education as part of the state Supreme Court’s McCleary decision and being fined a $100,000-a-day penalty, was not making progress. Everywhere around Washington, classrooms are bursting at the seams, school facilities are crumbling, nurses and librarians are funded on a part-time basis or not at all and teachers and families are paying for basic supplies.

A grassroots activist group, committed to pushing the state to fund education and to uniting parents throughout Washington into action, quickly formed on Facebook. The group was named Washington’s Paramount Duty, a goading nod to the wording in the state constitution that identifies education as the central mandate of our government.

Paramount Duty advocates — most of them ordinary parents from many districts ― say they know the problem is complex, and they want to partner with state leaders to find real solutions instead of delaying hard discussions for another day, session or year.

“The starvation of the system for so long has created a broken and unsustainable system,” says Eden Mack, Seattle mom and Paramount Duty’s board president. “For 40 years, Washington’s public schools funding has been undermined by cutbacks and Band-Aid solutions, and that creates a fundamentally inequitable system. Kids are not getting the basic education they deserve. At the same time, we have the most unfair tax system in the country, so kids and families are feeling it from both sides.”

Paramount Duty currently has 4,200 members in its Facebook group; the group also has a website.

Among its recent actions: More than 50 children and parents rallied and testified at the statewide Senate Education Committee listening tour last fall; families met with willing legislators in Olympia during the recent session; members have written letters to lobby legislators to act. A video of a third-grader’s testimony to the Senate Education Committee telling them to “do their homework” garnered more than 2,000 views on Facebook. The group also has begun fundraising.

“It's important to realize that not every problem in the world is going to be solved by closing the education funding gap. But in my mind, it is the single largest action we can take to make a difference now for the future of Washington’s children,” Mack says.

The state is under a mandate to lower class sizes and expand full-day kindergarten. But on March 10, the Legislature adjourned its 60-day session without a deal on a 2016 supplemental budget, and lawmakers say they plan to address the education funding issues next year.

Until then, advocates say, parents have work to do.

It is the paramount duty of the state to make ample provision for the education of all children residing within its borders, without distinction or preference on account of race, color, caste or sex.

“Our key project right now is really to reach across the state and connect with other parents who feel the same way, to join our collective voices,” says Summer Stinson, the board’s secretary. “We know from the Senate listening tour back in the fall that the effects of the lack of education funding are felt across the state, but they are felt differently by different communities. In some places, it’s the teacher shortage; in other communities, it’s a capacity shortage and portables; some communities cannot pass a bond or levy.”

While teamwork is the ultimate goal, these parents do not, however, want to dilute the ire.

“It’s fundamentally shocking that even now the legislators have not provided a plan for funding. They’ve provided a plan for a plan. But not the funding. You can get bipartisan support on so many things, transportation, for example, but so far not on funding the paramount duty of the state,” Mack says.

This summer, the group will begin an ambassador program and reach out to communities across Washington. “We need to gather more opinions, both from geographic communities and from all the voices from within communities. Not all voices take to Facebook,” Stinson says. 

The conversations, the group knows, won’t be easy. “When you get into the nitty-gritty, you uncover the fact that you do not want to cut social services. We are facing a homeless crisis, tuition has gone up. We can’t close the gap by cutting existing social services. We need new revenue, and it needs to be sustainable and fair. People like to talk about language immersion and STEM and aviation programs and international baccalaureates, and that’s really fun. But all of that depends on funding, and that money talk is a harder conversation to have.”

If you were to go into space alone, what three items could you not leave behind?

Summer Stinson: My family; I’m addicted to music — show tunes, pop, classical, I love it all ― so a music player; and a journal.

Eden Mack: My daughter’s stuffed penguin, Cheeky; a picture of my family; and my glasses, so I could see.  

What is your guilty indulgence?

EM: Anything chocolate and caramel.

If you were given an airplane ticket to anywhere tomorrow, where would you go, and why?

SS: Right before I went to law school, I went to northern Italy to Lake Maggiore. I just loved it; it felt so rural. We hiked all around. I got in great shape. I’d want to go back there.

What book saved you or changed your life?

SS: It sounds cliché, but To Kill a Mockingbird. As a girl growing up in the ’80s, women were starting to do things, but it still felt, in my small town, that women still had these prescribed roles: the cheerleader, the pep squad. To see Scout question her environment and take all this in with her own eyes was so powerful — and now I am a lawyer. It truly showed me that the choices you make as an individual every day matter.

EM: A book that had a big impact on me is The Little Engine That Could. You might be little, but you can be resilient. Stick with it and believe you can ― that is so important. I think I can, I think I can.

— Natalie Singer-Velush

 
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Photo credit: Will Austin. Buy Nothing cofounder Liesl Clark with Buy Nothing regional and local admins from the greater Seattle area
Photo credit: Will Austin. Buy Nothing cofounder Liesl Clark with Buy Nothing regional and local admins from the greater Seattle area

The green game-changers: The Buy Nothing Project

Once upon a time, two Bainbridge Island mothers set up a project to increase community and reduce waste in their neighborhood. Called “Bainbridge Barter,” the project involved neighbors gathering on Saturdays to share extra garden produce and homemade foods. The bartering project was successful. But by virtue of being rooted in just one community, it was limited.

Hmmm, the two women mused. What if we could extend this idea to all the stuff in our homes, and to many other communities?

Many people would have stopped there, but these two women were no ordinary community builders. Rebecca Rockefeller, who is now executive director of a small island nonprofit, had experience building social media communities. Liesl Clark, a mountain climber, producer and director known for her films about the Himalayas, had witnessed firsthand the gift economy model in remote villages of Nepal. (In a true gift economy, all goods are freely given, with no expectation of rewards.)

“We wanted to try to replicate that [gift economy] model, using social media to bring us all together,” says Clark. “The hope was that this sharing would lower our waste impact, too.”  

In July 2013, Clark and Rockefeller started a single Buy Nothing Facebook group for Bainbridge Island. They called it Buy Nothing, to underline the bedrock foundation of the project: You could ask and offer, but never trade, sell or buy.

The true wealth of the gift economy isn’t stuff. It’s the human connection we make.

To say that Buy Nothing hit on an idea whose time had come would be an understatement. Growth was immediate and explosive. Within a month, a cascade of other Buy Nothing groups, first in Washington and California, began forming. Today, less than three years later, Buy Nothing boasts more than 290,000 members in 1,300 groups in 19 countries (including every state in the U.S.). In keeping with the Buy Nothing philosophy, a dedicated corps of more than 1,700 volunteers manages the local sharing Facebook groups.

If you’re a member of a local Buy Nothing group, you’re familiar with the diverse parade of posts on the daily feed. Many are onetime requests and offers; some bloom into remarkable examples of community support. Clark cites the 2014 landslide in Oso, which prompted hundreds of Buy Nothing groups to mobilize to bring food and supplies to the affected families. Rockefeller recalls a North Seattle man who asked for flowers for his wife in hospice care. “The last part of her life, she was surrounded by flowers.”

These kinds of human stories are at the heart of the Buy Nothing Project. “The true wealth of the gift economy isn’t the stuff. It’s the human connection we make,” says Clark.

If you were to go into space alone, what three items couldn’t you leave behind?

Liesl Clark (all questions answered by Clark): [If it was] a one-way trip, I’d bring seeds and try to plant food there, just like in The Martian. A camera and laptop would be my other two items, so I could write and photograph daily life.

What was your humblest moment?

My most humble moment in the context of the Buy Nothing Project has been an everyday occurrence: the realization that we’ve created an interwoven connection of collaborative human efforts in a social experiment that has become a worldwide movement toward change.

What’s your guilty indulgence?

Taking time out of everyday life to have grand adventures with my family. We love to climb mountains, go where no humans have set foot for thousands of years. So, to that end, we work hard during the year to then get the permissions and National Science Foundation funding necessary to get to a place we love the most: the high Himalaya, where my husband and I (along with our two children) lead a team of archaeologists exploring cliffside caves in remote Nepal, uncovering 2,000- to 3,000-year-old human remains whose DNA is telling us much about what pushed the earliest people to settle the last place on Earth.

Much of what we’re learning on our expeditions has informed me about gift economies and how humans lived and thrived long before money and barter were a part of the equation. I call it a guilty indulgence because we often have to take our kids out of school to do this, and I leave an amazing team of Buy Nothing Project volunteers to take on the lion’s share of the management of the project. They’re the true superheroes who deserve recognition.

If you could have an airplane ticket to anywhere tomorrow, where would you choose to go, and why?

So long as I wouldn’t have to leave tomorrow, I’d want to have that ticket take me to Kathmandu and defer the departure until this summer, to help offset our travel costs for what I’ve described above.

What book saved you or changed your life?

So many books have changed my thinking and have enlightened my worldview. Of late, Charles Eisenstein’s Sacred Economics has resonated well with our own attempts at creating true gift economies.

— Elisa Murray

Photo credit: Will Austin

The tribal leader: Cecile Hansen

Honorable chair of the Duwamish Tribe

The great-great-grandniece of Chief Sealth, Cecile Hansen has been the elected chair of the Duwamish Tribe since 1975. For much of that time, she’s been fighting to have her tribe, which includes the first people of Seattle, Bellevue and much of King County, formally recognized by the U.S. government.

Ever since, Hansen, who serves as current president of Duwamish Tribal Services, has worked to regain her tribe’s federal status. It is an uphill battle, with Hansen finding more success in creating a home for her tribe. The Duwamish Longhouse and Cultural Center opened in West Seattle in 2009. The longhouse holds special significance for the Duwamish, says Hansen.

“History reflects our people lived in longhouses,” she says. “The settlers [of Seattle] burned down all of our houses so we’d go away.”

Attempts to establish a modern headquarters have also been challanging. When she first attempted to get an office for the Duwamish Tribal Services, Hansen says, she met with discrimination. “I was discouraged,” she says. “I went home, cried and had a cup of tea.” Then she opened the newspaper. “It said there was an office for rent for $100 in Burien,” she says. “I called and said, ‘Do you like natives or not?’”

The answer, thankfully, was yes. Duwamish Tribal Services rented that location for 12 years.

When the tribe began looking for a long-term home for a longhouse and cultural center, Hansen met with two failed attempts to find suitable property for the project. Then, longtime friend and tribal supporter George Wade called.

“He not only found us a piece of property, he put the first $10,000 down,” says Hansen. “Then we were off to the races.” Since its opening seven years ago, the Longhouse and Cultural Center has quickly established itself as a hub for the tribe.

History reflects our people lived in longhouses. The settlers [of Seattle] burned down all of our houses so we’d go away.

As for the Duwamish’s future, Hansen isn’t holding out hope that the tribe will be federally recognized before President Barack Obama leaves office. “I’m not going to bet my dollar on it,” says Hansen, who has written the Obama administration three letters since the president has been in office; none of the letters have been answered. “If the city of Seattle and its people really cared, there would be an outcry to how they’re treating this tribe,” she adds. “The one thing I tell kids when they come to visit the longhouse, I tell them to remember Duwamish means ‘people of the inside.’ I tell students to remember this, but they forget.”

Hansen sees so much of the Seattle she knows and loves changing — and not always for the better. “It’s certainly being developed, isn’t it?” she says. “We’re really moving as a big city, but we have to remember we have homeless people, so there’s something wrong. You can’t fight the ones who have big money.”

If you could receive an airplane ticket to anywhere tomorrow, where would you go, and why?

Italy, because I’m [part] Italian. My cousin lives in Perugia, and this city is focused on our tribe. I went to Milan with my daughter, and that was quite an adventure.

If you were to go into space alone, what three items couldn’t you leave behind?

I’d bring my rosary, a pair of shoes and a change of clothes.

What is your guilty indulgence?

I just try to drink tea and pray. It’s really a battle for me to be invited downtown. I remember when I was in high school, going downtown with girlfriends, getting on the bus and walking along First Avenue to Pike Place Market and that was a lot of fun.

What book saved you or changed your life?

I’m an avid reader of philosophy and the Bible. There’s [an author] who writes those fluffy books that are mysteries and about relationships. [The No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency series?] Yes, that’s it! I was a reader when I was just a child. I love reading. Right now, I think I’m reading two or three things.

— Nancy Schatz Alton

Photo credit: Will Austin

The gear-changer: Deb Salls 

Executive director, Bike Works

A bicycle is a simple, useful and fun contraption. To Deb Salls, executive director of Bike Works, and her staff, it is much more. It is both a vehicle and “a vehicle for change,” says Salls. At Bike Works, the bike is a way to get around and a way to get ahead.

This double-duty role of the bicycle lies at the center of Bike Works’ mission. The 20-year-old nonprofit organization in South Seattle aims to “build sustainable communities by educating youth and promoting bicycling,” says Salls.

In one of Bike Works’ youth programs, Earn-A-Bike, young participants log service hours learning to fix up bikes.  

“Young people come here and learn how to fix a bike, and the first bikes they fix up are not for themselves. They’re for other people in the community,” Salls says. When they’ve put in enough time, they earn a bike for themselves.

While earning the bike and having independent transportation are the outward goals, “there are things going on behind the scenes,” explains Salls.

“A lot of what we do … it seems like it’s all about the bike. But in many ways, it’s not about the bike at all.”

In the Bike Works model, the bike serves as the catalyst for a range of goals. Bike-based programs foster community, empower youths, encourage problem solving, develop leaders, build job skills, even open a window into the wider field of engineering.

After a long career in youth development with the YMCA in other cities, Salls moved to Seattle to lead Bike Works and has been at the helm for five years. She sees her role as shepherding the organization through developing and following a strategic vision, along with ensuring the resources and the right staff to run the organization’s programs.

In addition to the Earn-A-Bike program, Bike Works’ youth programs include Bike-o-Rama and UGottaGetABike, both of which put bikes refurbished by Bike Works youths into the hands of low-income kids in need of a working bike.

I am in a band, Hotel Stella, that is extremely fun and a great release from day-to-day life … it is empowering to make noise.

The R.I.D.E.S. Club gets groups of teens on their bikes and riding around to explore the city. The club, the name of which stands for “ride, investigate, discover the environment and society,” offers sliding, pay-what-you-can fees for its programs.

Salls especially likes Bike Works’ summer touring programs. Along with group leaders, tweens and teens go on self-supported, overnight bike tours. Salls describes how kids return from their trips feeling empowered, and relates a story of one participant who described riding up a big hill as a metaphor for life and feeling like reaching the top meant that she could accomplish anything.

For community members looking to help Bike Works, Salls encourages families to dig out those old bikes collecting dust in the garage and donate them to Bike Works. Bikes can be dropped off at the Bike Works shop and other locations, including select transfer stations. These bikes will go on to have second and third lives as training tools and then into the hands of the next rider. She also notes that Bike Works is a full-service bike shop, selling, servicing and repairing all types of bikes.

If you were to go into space alone, what three items could you not leave behind?

Guitar, pen and paper, and a bicycle.

What has been your humblest moment in life?

Working with youth … they always teach you something. I am forever reminded of how much wisdom and strength of character there is at any age.

What's your guilty indulgence?

I am in a band, Hotel Stella, that is extremely fun and a great release from day-to-day life. It is the one time I don’t think about anything and just focus on the song we are playing. It is a way to stretch my mind and use other strengths. It is a great creative outlet, a great way to work as a team and just plain fun and empowering to make noise.

If I could offer you a free plane ticket to anywhere tomorrow, where would you choose to go, and why?

Iceland. I was just there for a week, and it wasn’t long enough. I would like to go back and explore more. A fascinating place.

What book saved you or changed your life?

I recently read What Do You Do With an Idea? by Kobi Yamada. It is a children’s book that is meant for any age. We all have great ideas. Whether we are young or old, our ideas are something we need to foster and bring to the world because these ideas can be a great gift. Bike Works was an idea born from some of our founders who were young environmentalists who wanted to make a difference in the community. I am so glad that they let their idea out into the world and it is still a great, shiny idea that has come to fruition over the past 20 years.

— Nancy Chaney

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