by M. Anthony Davis
The city of Kent has the largest population of Black residents in King County. Many Black residents in Kent moved there after being pushed out of Seattle due to gentrification and rising housing costs. This year, Dawn Bennett, a Black woman who has lived in Kent for the last 23 years, is running for mayor.
Bennett has a long career in community advocacy and activism. She has worked for the Seattle Parks department for over 25 years and has also worked for Seattle Public Schools and multiple nonprofits, one of which she founded, that focus on advocating for youth in communities throughout Washington.
The Emerald had the opportunity to speak with Bennett about her plans for the city of Kent and how she plans to use her expertise to support the city and the 15,000 Black residents who live there.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
South Seattle Emerald: Kent has one of the highest populations of Black residents in Washington. Does that have any significance for you deciding to run, and what does it mean to you potentially being mayor?
Dawn Bennett: So as everyone who has met me or has seen my work or has been part of my work knows, I left Mercer Island, Washington. That was the one of the whitest cities when I was going to high school and in college in Bellevue. I heard about some of the struggles that we were facing when it came to Black folks. And I quit doing what I was doing over there, you know, trying to make it over there in Bellevue and Mercer Island. And I dove into my own community. I did all my work when it came to working to better our situation as Black people. So when it comes to Kent, I’m happy that we have the largest percentage of Black people here. But I’ve done a lot of work with Black people all over Washington State — and advocacy and education advocacy. And yes, it’s going to be very powerful to do it as mayor in a [multi-racial] city, but it’s about the “all” when you’re mayor. That was not part of my decision-making when I left Mercer Island to come to do the work for Black folks in Washington State. That was for Black people. Right now, it’s about the whole city of Kent.
SSE: Ok. I like that answer. You’re already speaking political!
DB: It’s real, though. It’s absolutely real. When I did my work for 25 years, folks were calling our young men gang members. First of all, people don’t know that that’s a racial slur. My mother got me highly educated so that I could help. So my job was to get in front of some of these [youth] who were struggling because they didn’t have opportunity — get in front of them and veer them in a different way to show them where the opportunities were. Yes, it’s harder for us as African Americans, but I did it. My mom did it. My grandmother did it. My forefathers and so on, we did it. So keep on doing it. And don’t let people call you gang members. Stop doing it, and know that that’s not a good term. It’s not making you cool.
So my work was going to some of these young men who were fighting amongst themselves, to give them a different education about the history of us, about the history of them being kings, and that’s why I left what I was doing [in Mercer Island] to plunge into this great work. Now I’ve learned so much that it’s time for me to do it bigger. With everybody.
SSE: You have done a lot of work that is rooted in community. Can you speak specifically about what that work is and where you did it?
DB: Oh, absolutely. First, I have to say that I’m steeped in education. What I saw on the streets, working with our young men and our young ladies, is education failed them. They got pushed out, kicked out, and put in special education. I heard all of it. So I became an education advocate.
I also became a drug and alcohol advocate. If our young men know how to sell these drugs, how can we make this better for them? How do they not become a victim to drugs and alcohol? So most of my work was in education. I am the vice president of Washington’s Paramount Duty, where we fight to get funding for education. I was working for African American Leadership Forum as a community organizer. And I became a community organizer because Obama was a community organizer. And I was still working for the City (Parks and Recreation).
So, as I’m working for the City, I’m like, “Okay, I know in my heart that I’m brilliant — how do I make this bigger?” I knew that Obama was a community organizer, so I became a community organizer. Liz Word, at the time, was the executive director for African American Leadership Forum. And Liz gave me an opportunity to just help her with African American Leadership Forum. Some money came through for a few cities, including Tacoma and Portland, to do some work when it came to African Americans. So, I decided to just go help her. I wanted to be the community organizer because I’m already speaking to the community. I did that for some years. I also wanted to work with white people when it comes to our work. So I also added myself to Washington Paramount Duty, so I could see both sides of education. And in the middle of that are all the other cultures. So, I worked on education a lot. When you work on education, you end up working on all the other vices that we pick up that victimize us.
SSE: How will your past work in education play a part in what you plan to do as mayor of Kent?
DB: As the mayor of Kent, I’m not over education. But as the mayor of Kent, the City can partner with education. We can have policies put together so that we’re operating together as a whole. Yes, we know that Black and Brown young people are getting kicked out of Kent schools at an alarming rate.
What I can do as mayor is start some conversations. My goal when I become mayor is to have conversations with the city. The people of the city. Go out and about and talk to folks, six feet apart, of course, because of COVID. But have conversations not only about education but about economics. Education is the young people. What about our seniors? Our senior citizens — as African Americans, our elders are the most important to us. That’s the same way I’ll be as mayor. Our seniors would be the most important. What stories can they tell? What can they tell me that’s been going on here? I’ve been in Kent for about 23 years, and what was going on before that? I saw some of the farms, and we lost some of the farms. I need to know what happened there. I need my seniors to tell me what that was all about.
So as the mayor, I will have conversations with our citizens on a higher level, to communicate with them and show them that professionalism is the way we’re going to operate. And to have professionalism, you have to have knowledge of the people that you’re going to serve. It’s all about service.
SSE: You have been in Kent for 23 years. How has Kent changed in that time, and how would like to see Kent change moving forward?
DB: Before I got here in Kent, I was on Mercer Island. So that tells you my mom wanted me to be around [to see] how white people become excellent. She was one of those Black people who were like, “white is right, do what they do, and you’ll be fine.” But, she’s also steeped in telling us our history about how we got here. So I was in Mercer Island to learn about commerce — to learn about how commerce makes people successful. My mom had a business, so I learned how to run a business. I already know about business, which is why I’m an executive director of a business and I’m a co-founder of another business. Because I was taught that.
We left Mercer Island because my mom saw that we were not happy. I went to college in Bellevue, and then we went to Georgetown because I needed some culture. We were in culture shock, and she was not going to put us through that anymore. We had done well. Then my mom ended up living in an apartment. And so I said, “No, I can’t have my mother live in an apartment. She’s done so much for us. She spent so much money on us. She spent so much money on my education. I have to give that back.” So we ended up, 23 years ago, buying our home in Kent, my mother and I together. And I let her choose where she wanted to be. At the time, Kent had a lot of white folks here. She loves living among white folks. I don’t think she looked at any data or news. I think she just saw what she saw.
So, I lived out here and learned that it was very comfortable. The people are very friendly. The city deserves professionalism. The city deserves a person that knows how to speak to everybody. My whole company, my whole self, my whole history is all about my mother knowing how to talk to everybody. Just respect everybody and then serve everybody. Martin Luther King marched alongside white people. She kept reminding me of that. So that’s why we’re here. In the past 23 years, I did a lot of work in Seattle, but I came back home here in Kent and I did some work because there’s a big fat jail here. Right, right. The biggest house in Kent is a prison. So I decided to go in to try to do some stuff there. I’ve done some prison work here in Kent that no one knows about. I did a lot of work here in Kent, with some of our families in Kent, when it comes to incarceration and the prison system, because I saw that big fat prison in Kent — in my home.
SSE: You have mentioned so many different jobs that you have worked in so many communities. Where do you find the time?
DB: I don’t have any kids. So I decided if I don’t have any kids, I better do something for the whole. And all this work with Black folks is not just for Black folks — it’s for the whole. Stop calling our kids gang members, and stop saying that they fail because if they fail, that means we all fail. This is for the whole.
I was working with Seattle Public Schools, trying to show them that our kids can learn, and as I did that, I started working with other cultures. They were constantly calling me and asking me to come advocate for their babies, saying, “Can you come to my school? They say they can’t understand what I’m saying.” The ELL [English Language Learners] issue is real. So I would come and advocate on behalf of other cultures for the Seattle Public School district because I was the liaison for African American families and I represented them well.
So when other people from other cultures were walking up to me asking me, “Can you tell me about how special education is really supposed to work?” and I was just helping so many other cultures that I decided to keep an African American-specific business, but I partnered up with a caucasian lady, and we started Multicultural Education Rights Alliance, which means we do education advocacy in a multicultural way. And we still do it. We are about to do some contracting with Washington Education Association. We did a contract once, and they’re asking us to come back because we did a great job advocating for Black folks and other cultures. I started it with a white woman because she said that she tells white audiences it would behoove them to work together with us because we’re in this all together.
That’s why I’m running for mayor. I’ve already done it all together. So I have the experience of doing things all together. When I worked for Seattle Public Schools, I also worked for the juvenile [detention center] because I’ve had a million jobs. I worked for Seattle Parks and Recreation for 25 years. On the side, I did all this side work that was on behalf of our growth for everybody. So I worked in the [detention center] being a teacher … I saw white kids in there. A lot of them. So, when you’re doing this advocacy on behalf of young people, it helps the “all” when you do it with the Black folks, because white kids are watching the Black kids.
That’s the thing that folks are not talking about. Our kids are the leaders in arts and dancing and dressing. Everyone wants to be like them. You have to have a narrative of positivity to get everybody to be positive. When they started this narrative about our kids being in gangs, and I was working on the streets of Seattle, I was running into kids wanting to be gang members — [kids] of every culture. And I’m from Youngstown, Ohio. When we ran away from that stuff, I didn’t see any other culture but ours and the Italians killing each other. So it was a lesson for me seeing Asian gangs, Filipino, Samoan — it was like a cultural dance. These are not gang members. If you take the guns away, we’re doing some sort of dance. The young people want some sort of power, but they don’t know how to get it. They don’t know that education is the mighty equalizer. Someone has to tell them.
SSE: If you had to tell someone why they should vote for you, what would you tell them?
DB: You vote for me because I’ve done the work already. I’ve already led. I’ve already advocated. I know about education. I know about incarceration. I know that the City of Kent needs some revenue. I know it takes money to serve some of the folks that are struggling the most in Kent. When it comes to those who are struggling the most, for 20 years I’ve been the person to go get funding, go find funding, go dig for funding. And I didn’t need a lot of people to talk about it. I didn’t have to be on the news or anything. I just did it. I would do the same for Kent. What kind of federal funds are there for Kent? We speak over 100 languages here. There are federal funds for that. I would attach myself to some federal funds so big and bad as soon as I would step in and have revenues drifting to everyone in Kent. That’s why I should be the mayor of Kent.
M. Anthony Davis (Mike Davis) is a local journalist covering arts, culture, and sports.
Featured image courtesy of Dawn Bennett
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