Rampant Radicals: Olivia Smith

This article appeared first in the April 25th 2018 issue of Real Change

Olivia Smith, photo by Jon Williams
Olivia Smith, photo by Jon Williams

Seattle-born Olivia Smith only recently entered the organizing scene, but she has done a lot in the last few years. While in college, she joined the Black Lives Matter movement, which forced her to confront her biracial identity and the functions of systemic racism. She is a former organizer for the Transit Riders Union and now works closely with Youth Undoing Institutional Racism.

Can you describe the work you’ve been doing with No New Youth Jail movement?
We’re protesting the building of a new King County youth jail. There was a tax levy passed on the ballot to fund the new facility in 2012, but it was called “Youth and Justice Family Center.” A lot of the wording was misleading, and there was no mention of incarceration in the ballot measure. In fall 2017, the Court of Appeals ruled that the county has been using illegal property taxes to fund it. By the time this lawsuit finishes going through the courts, the building could potentially be already completed. King County could be $180 million short of finishing the contracts, which means that money would have to come from the general fund and cut all sorts of human services, transportation and housing. And they’re selling off extra land on that plot to developers who donate to Dow Constantine’s campaign. He’s really the main target because he’s the one person who has the power to stop it right now. We’re calling for a people’s moratorium, for them to stop building right now until there’s time for the lawsuits to play out and community input on what we should be investing our money into, like anti-racist alternatives to incarceration. We know this is an extension of mass incarceration and the jailing of Black and Brown people. This is a prison abolitionist movement that also aims to build people power.

What connections do you see between No New Youth Jail and displacement and homelessness struggles?
There’s all sorts of resources being put in the wrong places. I keep saying the foundation for the new [youth jail] building looks like a beautiful affordable housing project. They could just turn it into that whenever they want. And the jail is being built in the historically Black neighborhood in Seattle — the Central District — which is already being gentrified. The land they’re selling off is going to private developers. And kids who go to prison are less likely to graduate from college and more likely to return to prison later in life so it’s continuing the cycle of pushing people out to the margins and into the shadows.

What is the best way to sustain a movement and make change for people most impacted?
This campaign has been going on for more than six years, since before the ballot initiative in 2012, and it’s mostly been led by Youth Undoing Institutional Racism […] which is affiliated with the People’s Institute Northwest. The two Black men who created People’s Institute noticed that three things were missing from the trainings they went to: strong knowledge of history, sharing of culture, and talk about undoing racism. I believe those principles are really necessary to sustain a movement. Culture … being able to see people for who they are and their full humanity. History because all of this is a pattern and we need to see it in order to stop it. And undoing racism … I’ve heard that racism is the single biggest barrier to keeping movements sustainable. It’s true. So that’s a No. 1 thing. I will say that since No New Youth Jail has been rebooted, it hasn’t been predominantly Black or POC, and that’s kind of intentional … Black organizers are gassed out and have been doing this work for the last six years. They have built all these connections and need [White] people to carry on this torch, especially the direct action and the physically and emotionally stressful pieces.

Do you think that Seattle is a place where we can have sustainable movements right now, based on your experiences?
I want to believe that sustainable movements can happen everywhere. But what I’ve seen in the last few weeks with No New Youth Jail has been very exciting, very beautiful connections being made. Art has been a big center in this, which is very important. People have gotten together to make banners and signs, and we’ve made space for performances like music and poetry. That’s a big piece to keeping it sustainable. But a lot needs to change. A lot more people need to get involved and we need to get people on the same page about our history … about how these systems work together to keep the status quo in place. People want to believe that everything is a single issue, but we have to realize that it’s all connected before any change can happen.