The Precariat Class: We Are All Fast-Food Workers Now

Over the past five years, Seattle has seen a tremendous expansion of worker protections, driven largely by the organizing of low wage workers themselves. According to Annelise Orleck, a labor historian at Dartmouth College, this is just one part of what has become a worldwide movement, and the defining labor struggle of the 21st century.

 In her new book We Are All Fast Food Workers Now, she argues that this movement can only be understood, and can only flourish, when placed in a truly international context. Annelise will be discussing her book at an upcoming Town Hall event on Monday, April 23, but in the meantime we arranged a conversation between her and Town Hall correspondent Alex Gallo-Brown. Alex is a writer and former labor organizer in Seattle who currently works on the outreach team of the Fair Work Center where he helps train and advocate for workers rights.

 They spoke about the new class of workers called “the precariat” and the place for joy in the labor movement.

Get tickets for Annelise’s talk on 4/23 here.

Alex Gallo-Brown: First of all, thank you for writing this book. I thought it was really compelling and important. One of the most striking things about the book was that so much of the stories are told by the workers themselves. You really focused on the workers and their voices from Tampa, Florida to the Philippines, to Cambodia, Bangladesh. Why was it important for you to let the workers speak for themselves?

Annelise Orleck: Well, that’s something that’s been a hallmark of my career really from my first book, Common Sense and a Little Fire, which talked about garment union organizers in the early part of the 20th century. It really was important to me to get as much material as I could in workers’ voices and poor people’s voices. My third book, Storming Caesar’s Palace, is about a group of welfare mom activists in Las Vegas who opened this incredibly effective anti-poverty organization in their own community. And there too, I really tried not to speak through them, but to let them speak for themselves. So this was more challenging in a sense, obviously because it’s global and because there are so many voices, but I felt like the hope, the resistance, the resilience, the creativity, the humor, the enjoyment of protests, all of that would come through so much better in their words than if I tried to narrate it from a distance.

AGB: Absolutely. And I think that really does come through, the global aspect, especially. You open with this powerful vignette about McDonald’s workers who’ve come to a conference in Brazil and they lift their sleeves up and they all have the same identical fire burn scars on their arms, but they’re from different places. One’s from Tampa, one’s from Tokyo, and one’s from Manila. When we’re talking about economic justice, why is it so important to focus on the global or to emphasize the global?

AO: In the last 30, 40 years, the economy has become global and we have the rise of these transnational corporations. There are probably about two dozen of which have more power than most national governments, most countries. And so it’s really important to talk about the global because we have a global trade regime through the World Trade Organization and their courts, and we have a global economy and therefore workers have recognized that they need to organize globally. So that conference that you talked about in Brazil in the summer of 2015 brought together fast food workers from around the world, because Brazilian fast food workers convinced the human rights committee of the Brazilian Federal Senate that McDonald’s, which was the second largest employer in Brazil and also the second largest private employer in the world, was driving down wages and eroding safety regulations and overtime laws around the world, not just in Brazil.

And so the Brazil Senate invited workers from around the world to testify about their conditions and also what they saw as the effect of McDonald’s on their larger economies. So I think being global is really key. And in the age of social media and cell phones, they can do that. A garment worker organizer Kalpona Akter who’s a leader from Bangladesh but who’s traveled around the world trying to explain to people—to make people see—the killing conditions under which clothing is made today, said, “workers may not have water in their homes, but they have phones.” Almost everybody’s got a phone these days and that enables them to communicate with workers in other countries.

AGB: You use this term “precariat” to describe the new class of post-industrial worker. Listeners may be familiar with that term. What does that mean in the context of neoliberalism and this global trade regime?

AO: Obviously it’s a play on Marx’s proletariat and this notion of a vanguard of workers, which he saw as industrial workers by and large. The precariat are the people who are rising up today and they are workers who have been denied the status of employees, have been reduced to contract workers or freelance workers, or in this country we call it “gig workers”, right? The gig economy. We passed a lot of these labor laws in the United States, in many countries around the world, that guarantee that you don’t have to work longer than a certain number of hours, that you have overtime protections, overtime pay and safety protections. That precariat doesn’t have that because they’re not employees. They’re precarious workers are contract workers. And the thought was that not only could you pay them less, but not give them benefits. They don’t have benefits, they don’t have retirement, pensions, they have no job security, they have little mobility within the company in addition to very, very low wages. So the idea was that they wouldn’t rise up because they’d be afraid. But again and again, what people who have worked in the precariat said to me is “what do I have to lose?” Right? There are so many of these jobs out there. Unemployment is no longer the issue. We have almost full employment in this country, for example, right now, but people need two or three jobs to put a roof over their heads.

AGB: And we see this in Seattle in particular, we’ve had a lot of these new labor laws passed over the last five years that have been really great in a lot of ways. We have a $15 minimum wage. We have paid sick and safe time, wage theft, ban the box, secure scheduling—and yet the gig economy and this move towards the independent contractor as well as rising costs, rising housing prices in the city have made it almost uninhabitable for low-wage workers. I’m wondering what you think the movement for economic justice in a place like Seattle looks like.

AO: I think in many ways Seattle lead the way, being the first to pass the $15 wage, paid sick and safe days, all the things that you just outlined demonstrate the extent to which the low-wage workers organizing, union organizing, and coalition politics in Seattle have yielded some real victories in terms of laws. But as fast food workers in the Philippines just told me they just won a big victory where they lobbied for and got the Federal Department of Labor to say that thousands of fast food workers have to be regularized. They have to be called employees, they have to be protected by labor laws. But they said “now we have to enforce those laws.” And that’s always been the case: going back to the New Deal, when you started to get minimum wage and maximum hours laws federally, workers had to enforce them.

And so I think that’s part of what has to happen in Seattle. The passing of the laws is just the first part. It’s not just economic justice laws, right? You can think back to Brown v. Board or some of the big civil rights victories. The civil rights movement came afterwards to enforce those decisions. So I think once the laws are passed that’s step one, and then the movement needs to go on. But I think increasing union membership in Seattle will really be crucial. I think that going back to campaigning for some kind of rent control, public housing, some kinds of protections so that the city can remain economically diverse will be really crucial. And again, these are all rights that people fought for a hundred years ago, and 70 years ago. And that’s part of the story of this book: how we’ve gone back a century in terms of the rights of poor people in workers and how we need to campaign for those rights again.

AGB: Another striking aspect of the book for me was this idea of joy, that organizing can be a pleasurable and joyful experience. You write that “resistance is contagious, rebellion feels good.” And you quote sociologist who talks about the Eros effect. In some ways this contradicts maybe our popular notion of organizing as being tedious or difficult, especially for folks who are working 40 hours a week or more in places like Walmart. Can you talk more about the pleasures of organizing and reclaiming power?

AO: I think it’s both. Obviously it is tedious, it’s difficult and it’s risky. People have lost their lives in this struggle and many people have lost their jobs as a result of their organizing. But there is a feeling when people get together. The sociologist I quote talks about how something changes in your mind. You won’t let people speak to you in the same way they once did. One of the consciousness-raising groups that I write about in this book was of grape pickers in the Western Cape in South Africa. They belong to this union called Sikhula Sonke—We Rise Together and We Grow Together—and this woman talked about how she started looking people in the eye, that she started standing up to her full height when she would speak to people, whether it was employers or politicians or male union leaders who didn’t take her seriously, and that was an important example for her children.

And then I think when you interview people about their protests, they’re fun, right? You’ve got the Philippine fast food workers who are largely young and they’re doing singing, dancing, flash mobs for protests. It’s fun, right? They sing to Katy Perry’s “Firework.” They started a strike in 2014 that pulled fast food workers out all across Manila with this snaking dance line singing “Let It Go” from Disney’s Frozen. And their signature song is Aretha Franklin’s 1967 mega hit “Respect” and they call themselves the R-E-S-P-E-C-T Fast Food Workers Alliance. So I think in all of those ways the pleasure of organizing is really palpable. And I go back to an earlier book of mine on the antipoverty welfare rights activists. The leader of that movement in Las Vegas, Ruby Duncan, said: “You know, all our lives people have been demanding things of us. It felt so good to finally be the ones doing the demanding.” I think that’s part of the pleasure of rebellion.

AGB: At the end of the day, I think this is a really hopeful book. The typical narrative of the labor movement is that it’s in decline. Union membership is going down, wealth disparity is growing and we have this Janus decision that is being heard by the Supreme Court which may devastate public sector unions. Trump is president. Why should we feel optimistic?

AO: Because I think there’s a lot of great stuff going on and there are a lot of important changes. And I think people need hope to keep going. I just spoke to a union conference on women in the trades in Milwaukee and that’s what folks were saying, that it really helped to have some hope. It really helps to see these young people around the world who are standing up not just to Donald Trump, but the murderous dictators like Duterte in the Philippines, and really dangerous dictators like Hun Sen in Cambodia. So I think we need hope and I think there’s a lot to be optimistic about. For example, the fact that in four years, American low-wage workers won sixty-one and a half billion dollars in increased income and raises for themselves. Some of that was through local laws like Seattle’s, some of it was through private corporations being convinced to raise wages. Some of that was through the big victories in New York and California when the state legislated the $15 wage. I think those were victories and we need to celebrate them and we need to celebrate the fact that workers gave them to themselves. The fact that this transcends party lines. In the same night Donald Trump was elected, five red states voted an increase in the minimum wage. So I think all of those things are our victories and I think workers’ sense of power and pleasure also matter. Laphonza Butler who heads the largest union local in the country right now—the health and hospital workers in California—said people were feeling literally strangled before this movement and the psychological benefits far outstrip the economic.

AGB: Great. Thank you so much. We’re really excited that you’re coming to Seattle and thank you for sitting down and talking to me.

AO: Thank you and I appreciate the work you’re doing, so thanks so much.

 Annelise Orleck will appear on Monday, April 23 at the Summit Event Space on Capitol Hill in conversation with The Stranger’s Heidi Groover. Her book We Are All Fast Food Workers Now: The Global Uprising Against Poverty Wages is out now from Beacon Press.

Get tickets for Annelise’s talk on 4/23 here.

The Space Barons — A Privately-Financed Commercial Space Age

In 2017, Silicon Valley entrepreneur Elon Musk’s company SpaceX successfully landed a reusable rocket booster. Later this year, Virgin Galactic—the spacefaring spinoff of Richard Branson’s Virgin Airlines—intends to take tourists into suborbital flight. And here in the Pacific Northwest, Amazon founder Jeff Bezos’s true passion is his commercial space company Blue Origin. According to journalist Christian Davenport, a staff-writer at the Washington Post, this flurry of activity marks the beginning of a new era of space exploration and a brand new space race: not between nations but between private companies and the eccentric billionaires driving them.

Davenport tells this story in his new book The Space Barons: Elon Musk, Jeff Bezos, and the Quest to Colonize the Cosmos. He’ll be speaking about the book at a Town Hall event at Seattle’s Museum of Flight on Wednesday, April 25th. But in the meantime, Town Hall’s Alexander Eby spoke with Christian Davenport about this new frontier and whether he’ll be in line for a ticket to the stars.

Get tickets for The Space Barons and the Quest to Colonize the Cosmos on April 25.

AE: Who are the Space Barons?

             CD: In the book I focus on Elon Musk, Jeff Bezos, Richard Branson and Paul Allen. I think what makes them interesting is that all of them obviously have enormous wealth and come from a Silicon Valley background or ethos and saw space as a dynamic new frontier that was ripe for disruption and innovation. Their approaches are different, their personalities are different, but what unites them is that they made their fortunes elsewhere focusing on very different industries. Elon Musk has worked at PayPal and Tesla, Jeff Bezos founded Amazon, Paul Allen co-founded Microsoft with Bill Gates and Richard Branson has a myriad of companies. They all have experience in business and entrepreneurship and going up against big industries like Amazon taking on Barnes and Noble and the book industry, and Elon Musk with Tesla taking on virtually all of Detroit. But I think Space presents to them perhaps the biggest challenge of all. It’s the most difficult and I think the reason why they chose it is that it’s something they’re really, truly passionate about.

These guys coming at these different projects from the perspective of entrepreneurs… it’s right there in the title ‘The Quest to Colonize the Cosmos’. This is ultimately public-facing. The goal is to put people into space.

             That’s right. Particularly with SpaceX and Blue Origin and Virgin Galactic that’s their main goal. There’s only something like 550-560 people who have ever been to space. In a lot of cases they grew up watching the Apollo era and seeing people in space. Elon said a year ago: it’s 2018 we should have a base on the moon by now. That’s clearly a goal of Blue Origin’s right now. They clearly are focused on human space flight and getting people into space.

When Jeff is asked about this—“aren’t these tourism trips up to space just trivial, like going on a rollercoaster ride?”—he has two responses. One is that it’s really good practice. You’re not going to get good at something you do a half dozen or a dozen times a year. To really get good at space you have to launch repeatedly, to do it over and over again which is what they hope to do with these suborbital spaceflights. Then: when you get up there you have a few minutes of weightlessness, you unbuckle your seatbelt and float around the cabin of the spacecraft, you’re able to look at the windows and see the curvature of the Earth: the globe without any lines delineating countries, the thin veneer of the atmosphere. People talk about that being a transformative effect. If these companies are able to get more people out into space and have that experience, where it comes to the point that you know someone whose gone to space or know someone who knows someone and that begins to spread, that could have a transformative effect on our society.

Is it the sort of thing you expect will happen in our lifetimes?

             I think the first suborbital flights might be as soon as this year, might be next year. Virgin Galactic is gunning for this year, although they had a setback in 2014 with a fatal crash that killed a co-pilot. Obviously it’s very dangerous and a huge challenge but they’re getting close. I think Blue Origin is getting close as well. SpaceX has been hired by NASA to fly astronauts to the International Space Station. It now currently flies cargo and supplies and experiments to the International Space Station and its next step is to fly humans there.

Is it a trip you would take if you could?

             When I met with Jeff Bezos and Richard Branson, ahead of the meeting I went to the NASA archives and pulled the journalist-in-space application. A lot of people forget that NASA had a journalist-in-space program that was cancelled after the space shuttle challenger blew up. People remember the teacher who was onboard that flight because there was a teacher-in-space program. They also had planned to do a journalist-in-space program. So I submitted my application to Jeff and to Richard. I haven’t heard back yet, though I don’t think I want to be on the first flights. I’ll let them fly a few times and get the kinks out and then I’d consider it.

What’s your first planet destination?

             As Jeff Bezos likes to say, there’s nothing quite like Earth! I think I’d be earthbound and watch others do that and explore (I’ve got young kids and a family). But I do think there are people who would want to go. We’ve got a permanent presence in space now on the International Space Station. The goal of NASA now under the Trump administration and the goal of SpaceX and Boeing and Lockheed Martin and Blue Origin and some of these other companies is to work with NASA to create a permanent presence deeper into space: on the moon or in the vicinity of the moon. We went to the moon in the 60s and early 70s and left flags and footprints and came back, but the goal is to establish a longer term presence there that could then be used as a stepping stone to get deeper into space and to Mars.

It sounds a lot like Science Fiction!

It does. When we’re thinking about mining asteroids, or Jeff’s goal of millions of people living and working in space, that’s the big distant goal that’s hundreds of years out. But the first step to get there is to make access to space much more affordable, economical and reliable by building a transportation network to the stars. Just like the railroads opening up the west. Right now it’s just too hard to get to space. It’s too expensive. They want to lower that cost, make it much more affordable and much more accessible

Then help other people establish a further foothold into space once they’ve got that foot through the door?

             That’s the idea, that they create the stepping stone and that other people follow in their footsteps and other industries emerge. We’re already starting to see that. What we’re talking about is the launch providers—the guys who just lift stuff off the surface of the Earth and get it into space. But once you’re in space there’s all kinds of things you can do. We’ve seen companies like Bigelow Aerospace that’s for years has been building habitats that expand—I don’t think they like the analogy but it’s a little like a balloon. They’re made of a very durable kevlar-like material and filled up with air and pressurized and become habitats, become space-stations and that’s another commercial company.

There’s a company called Made In Space that’s using 3D printers to manufacture in space. You’ve got the small satellite revolution: companies like Planet that are already putting up many small satellites to monitor the health of the earth. Then there are all the things that once you get up to space and it does get more accessible that you don’t know will happen. You can’t always tell what opportunities that will open up.

It boggles the mind to think that this is something we might see.

             I try to lay that out in the book. Whatever happens, let’s not forget that space is hard. There are setbacks and delays and not all of these dreams are fulfilled in a timely manner. But I do think that this is a time that we’ll look back on 30-40 years from now as a historic moment. We had the cold war space race that begin with the Mercury Program, then Gemini then Apollo which got us to the moon. Then there was the space shuttle program and the International Space Station. And this is a new era in its own right: a privately financed commercial space age that frankly could not have been possible if it weren’t for visionary entrepreneurs who had a lot of money that they were willing to invest into this.

Christian Davenport will be speaking at the Museum of Flight on Wednesday, April 25th at 7:30pm as part of Town Hall’s Science series. He is the author of The Space Barons: Elon Musk, Jeff Bezos, and the Quest to Colonize the Cosmos out now from Public Affairs books.

Impossible Monuments to a 100 Year Migration Crisis

Mary Ann Peters is an artist whose combined studio work, installations, public art projects and arts activism have made noted contributions to the Northwest and nationally for over 30 years. Most recently her work has focused on the overlap of contemporary events with splintered histories of the Middle East.

She will speak about her artwork at our upcoming event on Thursday, April 5th with Gary Faigin, who serves as Artistic Director at the Gage Academy of Art. In the meantime, Town Hall’s Jonathan Shipley spoke with her about migration, impossible monuments, and making the ugly beautiful.

Make sure to get tickets for her event on Thursday, April 5th.

JS: When you say your artwork is being informed by the migration crisis, what do you mean by that?

MAP: What I have been doing is researching migration patterns that happened at the turn of the 20th century out of what is what is now current day Lebanon and at that time, was Syria. And I’m looking at the pattern and the footprint of that movement through Europe into the Americas and making artwork about it. I’m comparing that historical record to contemporary events that are happening now and looking at how people are moving now.

I would argue, and I will say this, that there isn’t a migration crisis, there’s a humanitarian crisis and I’ve had enough experiences now being in Europe and also in Lebanon to be able to back that up a little bit.

That’s really what the crux, what the focus has been with my work.

You’re looking at the past 100 years or so, then, of that movement?

Yes. I’m comparing the footprint and the experiences 100 years apart.

What has been the most striking to you doing that comparison?

I’m not a researcher, really, I’m just a pretty good snoop, I guess. What I look for is under-noticed incidents that can, in some way, trigger an image I can make, or an installation I can make that would make people think about what would happen there.

Let me give you two historical differences. Syrian President Bashar Hafez al-Assad’s father, Hafez al-Assad – this isn’t a hundred years separation but it’s the lineage – attacked the city of Hama in 1982 and I found this by following the history of Hama. Assad’s father besieged the town of Hama for 27 days in order to quell an uprising by the Muslim Brotherhood against the government. He closed the borders and he closed the media and nobody really knew the extent of it until years later.

story board 2
watercolor, gouache on clayboard

The reason I was following Hama is, for one, it’s a really beautiful city. It’s kind of the basis of farming country and it has this river that runs through it. It has an incredible aqueduct system with big water wheels in the river. In reading about that, I stumbled onto a ritual that happens. People go to the river in a ceremony. I think it happens once a year and they pour red dye into the river next to the water wheels and it churns up the water and turns it red. It’s like giving life blood back to the river and commemorating, at the same time, the people that died. That’s the way I’ve read the story.  So, I made a painting called Painting the River Red as a consequence of reading about that.

In regards to your process – you read something like the red river – what inspires you to make a painting versus an installation versus a sculpture?

Which way can I best convey the narrative that I’m trying to suggest?

I have been doing a series, that I will be showing several pieces of during the event, called ‘impossible monuments.’ Those are based on contemporary information. Reading about Aleppo. Reading about the White Helmets. Reading about this incredibly beautiful historical site, one of the oldest continuously inhabited cities in the world and it’s being destroyed. That story got me.

But when you fly on an airplane and you look down it just looks like a beautiful pattern in this ground. You don’t necessarily see the destruction. That piece that I did about Aleppo that I named Ghosting, was about how people hold onto the memories of spaces that then, in turn, informs their holding onto their cultures.

I want to talk about the migration crisis, at the event, as a point of reference for the resilience of cultures that are in forced movement. I want to talk about footprints of cultures in various places that take a stronghold. They don’t move. They just get incorporated into the cultures that they have found themselves in.

You translate information and turn it into art. 

I am an interpreter. I am not duplicating something that happened. I am interpreting something that happened. I am pulling up into the consciousness and into the visual framework for people things that they would not access, not see, not realize, and give it a physical form for them to take away with them to think about.

The very first ‘impossible monument’ that I made was I bronzed a set of pita breads. The reason I did it was because one of the big contributors to what’s happened in Syria in the beginning was drought. I don’t think people understood that. I don’t think they know that there was an uprising; that there was a protest by the farmers for the government to help them because there was a drought and their crops were failing. Most of those crops were tied to wheat, and wheat is what bread is made of and then there was a bread shortage. In the full range of people moving from rural settings to urban settings or moving onto refugee camps, this staple, this thing – it has so many layers of meaning, bread – was in jeopardy. It wasn’t a given that you could get a loaf of bread.

impossible monument
5 unique bronzes
scales variable, 6″-10″

Your artwork seems to be shifting. Previously, it seemed to be of natural disasters, apocalyptic. Now, it’s more focused on a more personal and human element.

I think you’re right. The difference is there’s more of a sensitivity now about the source. The pieces that alluded to disasters are true. They were there but they were much more abstracted.

I went to Lebanon and Syria in 2010, just prior to the Arab Spring. When the Arab Spring happened and then collapsed it just became clear to me that I had nothing to lose by upping the ante on how I was talking about these issues. I thought I had a moral obligation. My family has alignments there. A lot of people of Arab descent were being maligned on a daily basis. The terrorists of the hour. If I can do something with this I really should.

I had no idea I would be doing this work at this point in my life. I have nothing to lose.

If you feel like it’s your moral obligation to make this artwork, what do you hope someone takes away from it then?

I would hope they wouldn’t take for granted these scenarios. The world is in a calamitous state right now, or it, at least, seems that way, since we’re reminded of it all the time. I think it’s really hard for people to process all this stuff and one way to go is not to think about it at all. But you can’t see what’s good in the world unless you take into account how things have gone haywire.

I purposely make things that are quite beautiful. I understand it as a device that I use.

story board 1
oil, ink on clayboard 36″x48″

You mean making the ugly beautiful?

Yes. I really think there’s a place for beauty in these seemingly unbeautiful things and calling attention to them. It’s kind of a seductive way to get at that but that’s what I want. I don’t want people to think they’ve seen this. I want them to walk away with an afterimage. 

Afterimage. What does that mean to you?

An afterimage implies that you still remember but the event is over. In terms of me as an artist, it’s a way, under my hand, of resurfacing things that happened. It’s not the thing; it’s the reference to the thing.

There’s no telling what we’re interested in until we’re interested in it, but do you see yourself continuing doing this politicized artwork in the foreseeable future? 

I think of it as political but mostly cultural. For me it’s as much about elevating cultural records as it is about the politics of that. They’re different but, sometimes, the politics can’t be avoided. 

I’m looking a lot right now at the architecture of war. There actually is a way to be trained to make structures that accommodate war.  That’s everything from refugee camps, whose schematics can be quite beautiful, to calculated tactics like the Israeli government dictating that new settlements have red roofs so that when their Air Force goes out on maneuvers they know what not to bomb. There is software that examines incidents and recreates the sites to better understand factors beyond relying on eyewitnesses.

I have no idea where I’m going with this inquiry, but something will surface that I hope will be informing.

Peters will be joined onstage by realist painter Gary Faigin, who serves as the Artistic Director at the Gage Academy of Art. Sit in with Peters and Faigin as they discuss the shift in Peters’ work, and how through research, intuition, and gut feeling, her pieces come together.

Get tickets for the event on Thursday, April 5th.

The High Cost of Living With Conviction


Town Hall presents Living With Conviction—Sentenced to Debt for Life in Washington State on Tuesday, March 27th.

Keshena is $50,000 in debt; she’s filed for bankruptcy. Her husband and step-father are serving time in prison, leaving her to care for her two young boys. She has served time herself, and has found it immensely difficult to raise a family and readjust to everyday life on top of paying Washington’s Legal Financial Obligations (LFOs). Michael is a disabled veteran. He served a five-year sentence in prison and was ordered to pay $11,000 in LFOs. Despite the $75 a month he’s paid for the last five years, he now owes $17,000 due to interest. Sue suffered from poverty and abuse in her early life, and soon found herself the victim of domestic violence and drug addiction. She served 15 months in prison over a decade ago, and is still paying off legal fees to the state of Washington—most of which are accrued interest.

Deborah Espinosa knows Keshena, Michael, Sue, and many others in our state saddled by crippling debt due to fines, fees, and victim restitution costs. Espinosa’s research on debtors’ prisons in Africa (and in the US) has made her eager to humanize these legal issues—eager to put a face to the problem. That’s why Espinosa founded the visual storytelling project “Living With Conviction”, composed of her photos of individuals suffering from the seemingly inescapable financial burden of Washington’s legal system. “It’s a visual storytelling project about how the State of Washington sentences people to not just prison, but to a lifetime of debt.”

Sabrina: “$39,000 in fines doesn’t affect somebody who doesn’t care. It doesn’t affect a junkie in a basement shooting up. . . . But for somebody like me, doing everything they are supposed to be doing, . . . People should care. They could arrest me. I live in fear of it. But I just don’t have the money.” * Sabrina and her husband have six children and one baby girl on the way. As a child and into her teens, she was emotionally, physically, and sexually abused. She started using methamphetamines at 17 to to connect with her mother. * This project, “Living with Conviction: Sentenced to Debt for Life in Washington State” is on the impacts of court-imposed legal financial obligations (LFOs) on formerly incarcerated individuals and their families in Washington State. LFOs accrue interest at an interest rate of 12%. Failure to make one payment can result in arrest. * Right now, the State Legislature is considering House Bill 1783 to reform LFOs. * “It’s an act of love and an act of faith to allow yourself to feel the pain of another.” * ~ Isabel Wilkerson * #Livingwithconviction #Massincarceration #LFODebtforLife #VisualizeJustice #cjreform

A post shared by Deborah Espinosa (@sameskyphoto) on

“My intent with this project is to amplify the voices of formerly incarcerated individuals who are struggling to survive, and thereby bring an end to the imposition of such costs on the poor and marginalized.” She believes the purpose of law is to serve communities and level the playing field, creating a more just society. And according to her, Washington’s LFO policies do the opposite. She sees the LFO policy as designed to fund the criminal justice system on the backs of the poor and racial minorities, perpetuating cycles of incarceration and poverty. On her website, Espinosa decries this cycle as fundamentally unjust and asserts that Washington’s LFO system “represents institutional discrimination and structural racism at their finest.”

“Living With Conviction” is Espinosa’s way of introducing us to the people in Washington who are suffering from LFOs—showing us their faces and enshrining moments from their lives in photography. “It is about formerly incarcerated individuals as they struggle to re-enter their communities following prison, burdened with substantial debt, as well as obstacles to finding housing and jobs.” Espinosa’s work has appeared in The Chronicle of Philanthropy, Foreign Affairs, O Magazine, and the Harvard International Review, among other publications. Her work is currently in a 10-year exhibit at the Canadian Museum of Human Rights.

“Visual storytelling makes us all realize that we are talking about real people,” says Espinosa. She uses the hashtag #VisualizeJustice to catalog her work, and to illustrate the inequality issues of LFOs not as abstract legal concepts but in terms of the people they affect. “As an attorney, an officer of the court, I feel a sense of responsibility to correct legal and structural wrongs.”

“A goal of mine is for people to open their hearts to this population.” This population includes Keshena, Michael, Sue, and all those Deborah Espinosa has photographed—and all those still faceless in the state’s criminal justice system.

“Whether we are incarcerated or not, we still are living marginalized lives. . . . You are taking away access to the American dream. Everybody should be entitled to that – to be able to work hard and see the benefits of their hard work. And not to be penalized for things that maybe happened years ago. Things that happened as a result of a disease. Addiction, alcoholism, or mental health.” ~ Carmen . . . This project, “Living with Conviction: Sentenced to Debt for Life in Washington State” is on the impacts of court-imposed legal financial obligations (LFOs) on formerly incarcerated individuals and their families in Washington State. LFOs accrue interest at an interest rate of 12% from the day of sentencing. Failure to make one payment can result in arrest. . . . Right now, the State Legislature is considering House Bill 1783 to reform LFOs. . . . @acluwa @marshallproj #Livingwithconviction #Massincarceration #LFODebtforLife #cjreform #documentaryphotography #VisualizeJustice

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Deborah Espinosa will be joining Peter DiCampo—Town Hall’s Inside/Out Neighborhood Resident for the U District and Ravenna—to discuss Living With Conviction and the power of documentary photography as a tool to oppose poverty and inequity. Join us on March 27 at University Lutheran Church and explore Espinosa’s photographic struggle against injustice.

Beyond Escobar: Murder and Denial in Colombia

For decades, the people of Colombia have been brutalized by a violent civil war fueled by drug money and billions of dollars in military aid from the United States. It’s the bloodiest and most intractable conflict in the Western Hemisphere but it remains poorly understood and seldom discussed in the U.S.

 For insight into the plight of Colombia, Town Hall is proud to present Maria McFarland Sánchez Moreno, author of ‘There Are No Dead Here: A Story of Murder and Denial in Colombia’. Maria worked for over a decade at Human Rights Watch chronicling stories of violence and corruption in Columbia. Her new book reveals what she learned there, but also tells the story of courageous individuals who resisted paramilitary violence and provide some hope for justice and peace in that country. 

 She will be speaking about the book at a Town Hall event on Tuesday, March 27th but in the meantime I spoke with Maria about Colombia, the United States’ role there, and the intersectional consequences of the war on drugs throughout the world.

Get tickets for Maria’s upcoming event on 3/27.

EW: Thanks so much for talking to me. We’re very excited to be presenting you.

MMSM: I’m super excited about it! It will be wonderful to be in Seattle and to get to present the book there.

For many Americans the main thing they know about the Drug War and the conflict in Colombia is the story of Pablo Escobar. But your book actually begins after his death in the mid 90s, which far from ending the violence actually catapulted the country into a new phase of extreme conflict. So can you share a little bit about the context in which your story begins?

Yeah. So a lot of people think that Colombia is about Pablo Escobar and that after he died things somehow got better, but that’s not true. After Pablo Escobar was killed, other groups immediately stepped into his shoes and in particular people who were involved in getting him killed—a group called the Pepes, people persecuted by Escobar, who were former associates of his—immediately took the reins of the drug business. They were closely connected and in many cases they were the leaders of a paramilitary groups in Colombia, which claimed to be fighting left-wing guerrillas, claimed to be protecting people from abuses by the guerrillas, but in fact served as death squads for powerful interests and drug trafficking and became a huge factor in their violence. And so as they expanded throughout the 90s, they committed horrific massacres: killings of trade unionists, of community leaders, indigenous leaders, people who got in their way, and tried to spread terror in communities that were on territory that they wanted to control.

They would claim, for example, that a particular community was working with the guerrillas and use that as an excuse to go in and pull everybody out of their homes, commit a massacre, kill several people in front of their families, torture them, rape the women, in some cases a kill people in very gruesome ways, and in that way, force the rest of the community to flee in terror. So you had, even as the violence was happening, you had also this massive force displacement crisis where hundreds of thousands, eventually millions of people were fleeing the communities that they lived in—mainly rural communities— and moving into slums on the fringes of major cities.

The internal displacement crisis in Colombia prior to the Syrian civil war was one of the largest refugee crises in the world.

People don’t know that about Colombia. It’s also something that’s happened over many years and so people didn’t see it.

The conflict in Colombia can be so grim and the accounts of the violence can be so chilling that I was happy to see that you structured your book around profiles of activists who were able to mount effective resistance, some of whom paid with their lives. Can you tell us the story of one of these characters and why you approached the book this way?

When I was covering Colombia for Human Rights Watch, I got to know so many people in the country who had, despite all the pressures against them, all the pressures to either work with criminal organizations or armed groups or at least look the other way from their abuses, these people had insisted on standing up to those pressures and instead pressing for what they thought was right for justice, for truth, for basic human rights. And these are often very ordinary people who just could not go with the flow even though it would’ve been much easier and safer for them to do so. And those stories were never told in the United States. Most of the stories that come out of Colombia in the U.S. are either about Pablo Escobar or maybe you hear a little bit about the FARC’s kidnappings or you hear about DEA agents as the heroes.

When the real heroes I got to know were very different. So I started working on the book, focusing on this one character named Iván Velásquez, who I got to know when I was covering Colombia for Human Rights Watch. And he was an assistant justice on the Colombian Supreme Court, which has jurisdiction to investigate congress. He, one day was sitting in his office and received a complaint. It was very simple. It said: the paramilitary leaders who are negotiating now with the government on the terms of a supposed peace deal have claimed that they have friends in 35% of Congress. Please investigate this. This is very disturbing. And Iván Velásquez, who had had a history of investigating paramilitary crimes and other positions in the past, could have set that aside. He knew how dangerous it would have been to really go after the paramilitaries or their allies in Congress.

But he decided to take a look and there wasn’t much to go on. He started looking at old case files that were lying around in the court that might point in the right direction. And he started finding that there were a whole bunch of old case files that included evidence that was relevant and slowly he started finding witnesses and he built a series of cases against members of Congress eventually leading to what became known as the parapolitics scandal, where about a third of the Colombian congress ended up in prison for working with the paramilitaries, conspiring with them to commit electoral fraud, and in one case, murder.

Another party in this conflict is the United States. What was Plan Colombia, when did it start and what were its goals?

Well, the United States has been in involved with Colombia for decades. The war on drugs officially started in the 1980s and the US started increasing its aid to Colombia around then in the late 90s after a peace negotiation with the FARC guerrillas failed the US started Plan Colombia, which was a massive influx of mostly military aid into the country, meant to supposedly help with counter-narcotics but also provide greater security in the country, more order. And unfortunately because of that, because the vast majority of that money was going to the military, in practice the US was supporting a party in the conflict that was working with paramilitaries who themselves were among the country’s biggest drug traffickers. So in terms of fighting the war on drugs that didn’t really make any sense,

What has the Trump Administration’s policy been towards Colombia?

Well, it’s interesting, the Trump administration has been very critical of the Colombian government. The government a few years ago suspended areal fumigation of cocoa crops. In part that was because the WHO itself has said that glyphosate, which was being used to fumigate the cocoa crops, could produce cancer. And so they made this decision, they stopped it, the US didn’t like that. And then it appears that the Trump administration doesn’t like the peace deal with the FARC and cocoa production has gone up in recent years due to a variety of factors. And so Trump is approaching this long-time ally by threatening them and saying that he might remove them from the list of countries that cooperates with us on narcotics. So it’s a very aggressive, hostile approach at a time when Colombia is maybe starting to shift policy.

This isn’t that surprising because Trump, when it comes to the war on drugs, has been completely over the top. I mean, he and Jeff Sessions not only wanting to go back to the most aggressive harshest way of talking about the war on drugs, but they want to go even further and so you have Trump recently calling for the death penalty for people who sell drugs.

Echoing Duterte, the president of the Philippines.

Praising Duterte! And so it’s not surprising he’s using the war on drugs domestically as a way to get his base riled up. You know, the war on drugs within the United States has always targeted primarily people of color and he is using it clearly as an excuse to go after immigrants in particular. And against people who he’s stigmatizing as undesirable—people who sell drugs, people who use drugs. It’s easy to demonize and then get people angry and then say “let’s kill them,” even if that does absolutely nothing to solve any problems.

For more about the human rights crisis in the Philippines, check out Town Hall’s April 6th event PANALIPDAN! DEFEND!

And that’s a nice segue into the last thing I wanted to ask you about, because a lot of the research into this book was done in your previous role at Human Rights Watch, doing watchdog work in Colombia, but you recently moved to a new position as the executive director of the Drug Policy Alliance. A lot of people in the Pacific Northwest are very proud of our region’s forward-thinking policies on drugs and marijuana decriminalization and later legalization.

And LEAD and supervised consumption sites!

What do you see as the relationship between organizing to resist the Drug War domestically and your previous work and the subject of this book which touches on the impacts of the Drug War internationally?

For me, the War on Drugs is a root cause of many of the social justice problems that I’ve tried to tackle throughout my career. So in Colombia I saw how the War on Drugs meant that this created this huge illicit market in drugs that fueled organized crime, that gave them this enormous power and ability to corrupt authorities and undermine democracy and kill people in enormous numbers. Later on I worked more internationally and I saw very similar patterns in Afghanistan and Mexico again: the drug trade fueled by prohibition in turn leading to massive violence and corruption. But then later on I worked on the US as co-director of the US program at Human Rights Watch and I worked on criminal justice issues here and immigration and national security issues. And again, I saw how the War on Drugs was this major factor fueling the mass criminalization of people in the United States.

In other words millions of people getting arrested in most cases for nothing more than consuming drugs. So possessing drugs for personal use. Overwhelmingly these arrests are affecting people of color. Even though black and brown people use drugs at the same rate as whites, they are arrested for using those drugs three times as often as white people. So many people are deported because of low-level drug offenses. For simple marijuana possession, many, many immigrants end up deported. Even green card holders who would otherwise be allowed to stay. The War on Drugs has even been used as an excuse to justify mass surveillance both in the US and abroad. So to me this is a critical issue that we need to address that we can also tackle so many other social justice problems that I care about.

Well, thank you so much for doing this work and for writing this book.

Thank you so much. I’ll say one, one more little thing. I think the book in addition to getting people to think about the war on drugs, I hope it inspires people because we’re talking about characters in this book who are ordinary people yet made tremendous change possible in their country, even under the most dire of circumstances. And if that was possible for them in Colombia, it’s certainly possible for people who are fighting for change in this country.

 Maria McFarland Sánchez-Moreno will be speaking at Phinney Neighborhood Center on Tuesday, March 27 presented by Town Hall Seattle.

Kory Stamper Would Like a Word

Kory Stamper is a lexicographer who worked for nearly two decades at Merriam-Webster dictionary, a world she reveals in the new book, Word by Word: The Secret Life of Dictionaries. She will be speaking about the book at her upcoming Town Hall event on Sunday, March 25th. In the meantime, Town Hall’s Jonathan Shipley spoke with her about her love of language, the lexical merits of emojis, and the wonderfully weird word that is ‘gardyloo.’

Get tickets for Kory’s upcoming event on 3/25.


You’re a lexicographer. For the common person, what is that?
A lexicographer is a writer and editor of dictionaries.

Have you always had an interest in words and writing and reading?
I always loved reading but really in high school I started loving individual words—the way that individual words sounded, or what they meant, or how they could be deployed.

Anytime I told people what I did for a living I was bombarded with questions and assumptions about what the job was and lots of assumptions about what English was that just aren’t true.

I started blogging about language and then decided to write this book as a behind-the-scenes of how dictionaries are made but also to give people some kind of entry point into what English actually is. As a dictionary writer, you often hear from people who think English is dying and they complain that English is falling by the way side, and kids these days and so forth.

Texting and emojis…
Exactly. Soon we’re all going to devolve into gestures and grunts. But the reality is that all of things actually enrich English. English is such a resilient and wild and beautiful language. I wanted to write the book as a love letter to this oft-maligned language that is actually really inventive and beautiful.

What do you hope readers gain from reading your book, then?
The recognition that language is dynamic and dictionaries are dynamic. That neither of those things are, or should be, static. Language changes at a really quick pace and that’s good and right, so dictionaries should also change and that is also right.

I suppose people are often surprised that dictionaries don’t just sit at the library, the giant tome opened up. I’m assuming a lot of people believe that’s still the case. It’s just a thing that existed and it is never edited, reworked, redone. It’s just like the Bible.
The analogy of the Bible is a really good one because it’s not that it doesn’t move or change but for some people the dictionary has this elevated status. It is the arbiter of good English. It tells you exactly where the language is. That’s just not the case. Dictionaries just record the language which is terrifying when people realize what that means. The language is pretty wild. You can’t really stuff it into a box very easily.

Do you get complaints when people think there’s a word that isn’t elevated enough to be placed in the dictionary?
They’ll always find something that they don’t think deserve to be in the language. just this week announced that they’re trying something new. They’re going to enter some emoji into their dictionary. From a lexical and linguistic standpoint, emoji are used as lexical items. So that makes sense. The response to that has been like is blowing up the English language. Because people are responding with ‘Those aren’t words.’ ‘That’s not real communication.’ ‘Only kids use those.’ People find just amazing things to complain about whenever a dictionary does anything.

So, personally what is your least favorite word?
In a professional capacity I have no least favorite word.

Off the record.
Lexicographers are people, too. We all have our own likes and dislikes. I cannot stand the word impactful. I understand that is an irrational dislike. I’m completely aware of how irrational that is. I’ve had to revise the entry for impactful, so I’m very aware of how current it is. It’s just a word I don’t like.

What are some of your favorite words?
One word I love because it makes me laugh that there is a word for this and that there’s enough use of it for it to merit entry into the dictionary is the word gardyloo. Its definition is something like “used as a warning cry in Edinburgh when it was customary to throw slop out the upper story window” I love that there’s a word for that.

The specificity!
Yeah! Only in Edinburgh. Only during this time when it was customary. I love that. Etymologists, people who study word histories, think that gardyloo actually comes from French. Which tells you something about not just the time this was used but also that there was a time when Scotland was under French rule. But it’s a ridiculous word! But I love that it’s ridiculous. I love that it has a place in the language.

For more from Kory Stamper come see her on Sunday, March 25th at 6:00pm at Seattle University, presented by Town Hall Seattle. Thanks for listening.

In-Residence Kicks Off!

Every year, Town Hall selects exceptional local artists and scholars for paid residencies where they engage with Town Hall programs and collaborate with our programming team to develop original events for the community.
In a typical season, we hand our residents the literal keys to Town Hall. Because our building is closed for renovations this year, we’re especially grateful to The Cloud Room for offering our Residents keys to their beautiful co-working space on Capitol Hill as we all turn Inside/Out together.  We’re asking this season’s Residents to revel in their curiosity—to engage in their host community, in Town Hall’s programming, in their art and thinking—and to funnel their findings into experiences that we can share together.
Thanks to a generous grant from the Seattle Department of Neighborhoods, each of our four Inside/Out communities has their own Neighborhood Resident. Within each of their neighborhoods, our Residents will be co-curating a series of hyper-local Town Hall events in close collaboration with their Neighborhood Steering Committee. Our Resident events will take place March through June 2018, and all of the programs will be free to the public to attend.
Our remarkably competitive search was guided by our goal of supporting innovators who may not often see themselves reflected in the arts community, such as people of color and LGBTQ folks.
We’re thrilled to announce feature their first events, happening this month!

Shin Yu Pai, Phinney/Greenwood Resident

Peter Levitt with Shin Yu Pai: Sacred in the Everyday (3/22)

Zen teacher Peter Levitt is known for the warmth, humor, clarity, and depth of his teachings—as well as his many books of prose and poetry. He takes the stage with poet and Resident Shin Yu Pai for a complex and intimate discussion on the intricacies of human relationships and the notion of coming home to ourselves—to who and what we naturally and truly are. Peter shares readings from his most recent poetry, exploring our connection to the natural world and singing the sacred in the everyday.

Erik Molano, Capitol Hill/Central District Resident

Evolving Masculinity: A #MeToo Era Conversation and Workshop (3/23)

Explore revolutions in the culture of masculinity in the #MeToo era—rejecting patterns of dominance, violence, and power and building a clear understanding and respect of boundaries and consent. First, hear from Jordan Giarratano, founder of feminist martial arts dojo Fighting Chance Seattle, who discusses strategies to evolve a masculinity that is empowering, balanced, and founded in integrity. Then relationship coach and facilitator Galen Erickson leads groups of audience members through interactive sharing sessions on the effects of gendered expectations on our personal lives and collective social understanding of what it means to be a man.

Peter DiCampo, U District/Ravenna Resident

Living With Conviction: Sentenced to Debt for Life in WA (3/27)

The purpose of law is to serve our communities by level the playing field and creating a more just society. Documentary photographer Deborah Espinosa believes that the only way to know if a law is serving us is to listen to those most impacted. Living with Conviction: Sentenced to Debt for Life in Washington State is a multi-media and civic engagement project about how the State of Washington sentences people not just to prison, but to a lifetime of debt.

Failure to make monthly payments for “legal financial obligations” that are due in the wake of prison time can result in arrest, and the loss of housing, jobs, and children. Espinosa and a panel of individuals featured in Living in Conviction join us to share their stories of trying to survive and thrive under court-imposed costs, fees, fines, and victim restitution.

Jordan Alam, Columbia & Hillman City Resident

Neve Mazique, Nic Masangkay, and Jordan Alam: How the Body Holds Its Stories (3/31)

How do our bodies retain memory of the events we experience? How can we connect with the emotions and life-altering changes recorded within our physical selves? Local artists Neve Mazique and Nic Masangkay take the stage with Inside/Out Neighborhood Resident Jordan Alam to share original works of prose, movement, and music expressing how personal experiences are held within the body. They present their narratives of life-altering and intensely physical moments—from birth to violence—exploring how these events have impacted these artists physically, and how their bodies still carry changes that impact every encounter with the world. Then on April 2, learn to use your own body’s experiences as creative inspiration in a workshop with Jordan, Neve, and Nic: Telling the Stories of the Body (4/2).

The Impact of Culture Gaps in our Schools

We’re excited to welcome dynamic and diverse education leaders for one of the most anticipated diversity and education events of our season!

First, TED-Ed Innovative Educators and #EducationSoWhite panelists Kristin Leong and Marcos Silva lead Classrooms in Color (3/14), an interactive workshop about identity and our schools drawing from their own experiences in Washington and Texas public school districts. Leong and Silva share the surprising commonalities between these classroom environments and invite us to explore actionable strategies for equitable restorative justice practices in education—as well as lending us a behind-the-scenes look into how they brought their groundbreaking TED-Ed Innovation Projects to life.

Then the #EducationSoWhite (3/15) panel brings together dedicated and diverse experts from all fields of education and activism to tackle a pervasive issue: 90% of teachers in Washington State are white, even though almost half of our students are kids of color.  We’ll hear perspectives from teachers and students alike, as well as TED-Ed Innovative Educators and founders of student/teacher activist groups and youth anti-racism coalitions. These panelists will share their own experiences and explore strategies for recruiting and retaining teachers of color, as well as ways to foster inclusion (not just tolerance) for LGBTQ/QPOC teachers and students. They’ll lead the discussion of potential ways we can change educational institutions and systems for the better to make them more welcoming to teachers and students from LGBTQ and POC communities.

Join these diverse speakers for an education-insider examination of the impact of culture gaps in our schools separating students and teachers.

Explore Your Brain, Expand Your Mind

There’s no question that Town Hall programming appeals to a thoughtful audience and encourages critical and divergent ways of thinking. But rarely do we produce two events so close together that so fully encompass Town Hall’s penchant for cerebral topics!

Theoretical Physicist Leonard Mlodinow (3/20) joins us with an exploration of “elastic” thinking, a cognitive style which he asserts arose in our ancient ancestors hundreds of thousands of years ago and is still at work today. Mlodinow cites the rapid expansion of technology and shifting landscapes of data that confront us with new challenges daily—drawing on breakthroughs in neuroscience and psychology that indicate all the ways in which the human brain is uniquely engineered to adapt to new situations. He reframes our human capacity for comprehension as a gestalt confluence of imagination, idea generation, pattern recognition, mental fluency, divergent thinking, and more—and shares secrets for building models of elastic thinking in our own lives, and the ways we can apply these techniques to succeed both personally and professionally.

Then Michael Gazzaniga (4/3), director of the SAGE Center for the Study of the Mind at the University of California, is joined by KUOW host Bill Radke for an in-depth examination of consciousness and grey matter. They approach the timeless puzzle (one which challenged the ancient Greeks) of how the “stuff” of our brains—the atoms, molecules, chemicals, and cells—interact to create the vivid and various worlds inside our heads. Gazzaniga and Radke present scientific revelations about consciousness and dispute the centuries-old idea that the brain can be reduced to a machine, sharing new research that suggests the brain is actually a confederation of independent modules working together.

Enter the discussion on consciousness, comprehension, and the brain vs. the mind with these two illuminating events exploring the nature—and the stuff—of our thoughts.

Jazz on the Mountaintop—Summit in Seattle

On March 2, four jazz powerhouses gather for the Summit in Seattle—a first-ever performance together in this configuration, with no rehearsal or setlist! They come together, warm up, and then dive into an evening of collective improvisation, collaboration, and musical risk-taking. The event is the brainchild of Global Rhythms 2017-18 Co-Curator Daniel Atkinson, and represents a form of jazz he seldom sees represented in today’s musical landscape. Atkinson sat down for an interview with Town Hall’s copywriter, Alexander Eby, to discuss his vision.

AE: The Summit in Seattle is a pretty unusual event. What makes it so unique?

DA: The fact that it’s unusual is precisely why I put this event together. I envisioned the Summit as a way to get back to the true roots of jazz. The format goes back 100 years—a group of musicians at the top of their game with no setlist, listening to each other’s language and finding their own way to speak and respond to one another. It’s an arrangement that harkens back to the ritualistic traditions that define jazz as an art form.

AE: Can you tell me more about that?

DA: At its core, jazz is about musical risk-taking. Success is defined not by playing what’s written, but by taking those risks—by almost failing and then not. An artist becomes a conduit for the culture rather than a destination. They push themselves and their instrumental skills by understanding their relationship to the other artists. That’s why there’s no setlist. Jazz lives in the moment. Mistakes become opportunities to work out potentially new ideas. I want to give these guys a chance to express themselves and navigate that process together and ultimately have fun!

AE: Why put on a performance like this in Seattle?

DA: People in the Seattle jazz community want to promote equity. The Summit is my way of doing exactly that. I wanted to give these four master musicians of color a chance to collaborate with no restrictions and celebrate an art form with roots in West African and Afro-American music traditions.

AE: Is that what makes this concert a great fit for the Global Rhythms series?

DA: Exactly. The musical forms that define jazz, like syncopation and the blues scale, were introduced and popularized by Black artists in the early 1900’s. The context of jazz has changed over time to become more convenient for conspicuous consumption, but jazz began as a space for Black musical expression. It’s a style that (for a very short time) created spaces where a Black performer could be respected for the merit of their musical skill, not judged for their skin color.

AE: Could you give me an example of one of these spaces?

DA: Jam sessions are a prime example. In 1930’s New York, the jam session was an environment that tested a musician’s mettle. A Black musician could demonstrate his/her prowess, and if a White musician couldn’t answer the call, they would have to sit down and make way for someone who possibly could. Value was placed on the merit of musicianship—and bred a learning process. If you couldn’t match or surpass another musician’s skill one night, you went to the woodshed and came back when you felt ready to try again.

AE: And with four masters onstage at the Summit, improvising and adapting to one another is the name of the game.

DA: That’s right. There are two MacArthur Fellows in this group; they’re at the top of their game.

AE: These musicians come from a variety of backgrounds: jazz, hip-hop, R&B, soul. Do you think they’ll have trouble adapting to each other’s styles?

DA: You know, a lot of people have forgotten that those genres actually take their roots from the same place. Back in the early Jim Crow era, what we know as jazz was called “race music.” Eventually it was changed to “rhythm and blues” to make the music easier for White audiences to conspicuously consume, and finally became known as “rock and roll” when White artists took it over completely.

Jazz, gospel, blues, R&B, and hip-hop, are genres that retained certain elements of that progenitor—of “race music”—which were not transposed to rock and roll. The syncopation, the improvisation, the focus on self-expression and adapting to your fellow musicians instead of cutting and pasting ideas together in the spirit of improvisation to an audience that remains benevolently ignorant. This style has gone through so many identity changes that it’s no longer a Black art form, but ultimately the masters playing at the Summit do share a musical lineage—which begins first as a recognition of where it comes from and its uniquely Afro-American, cultural cache. That’s why it’s so important to me that Black musicians be given a space to express their mastery in an art form that is, at its roots, Black.

AE: Do you have any thoughts to prepare audiences for this show?

DA: This performance will be what it will be. Improvisation, risk—this is jazz at its core. As an audience member, you’re witnessing a space for four masters to collaborate and negotiate their process together in real time. It’s probably one of the only times you’re going to see anything like this—it’s an arrangement that just doesn’t happen very often anymore, as much as I wish it did. But I couldn’t bring the mountain down, so to speak, so I put together the Summit to bring the audience to the mountaintop.

Join us March 2 for this exciting collaboration!

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