Debora Juarez, Blackfeet, took the oath of office as a new member of the Seattle City Council on January 4. She is the first citizen of an indigenous nation to serve on the council, which is one of the most diverse – Juarez prefers the word “inclusive”-- in the city’s history. Five of the nine council members are female. Two are of Mexican ancestry, one is of African American and Asian ancestry, one was born in India. And, now, one member is American Indian.
On inauguration day, Juarez – a former King County Superior Court judge and former executive director of the Governor’s Office of Indian Affairs – talked to ICTMN about what this new City Council means as it addresses such issues as gender equity, racial equality, income equality, affordable housing, and homelessness.
How is your election is important to all residents of Seattle?
I think “diversity” has been overused. What we’re looking at now, in the 21st century, is being inclusive, and I think that the people who represent you should look like you – not just in color, not just in gender, but in experience. And I think for me, from where I was born and raised on the Puyallup rez, coming from very humble, poverty beginnings, to where I ended up – the partner in a firm – I kind of cover the whole spectrum and I think we have a city council that really reflects all of Seattle and I’m really proud of that.
Seattle City Council member Debora Juarez, Blackfeet, and her daughters, Memphis and Raven, on inauguration day.
Where do you start as a member of the council of the 20th largest city in the United States?
I started out as a public defender. I had the honor of being made a King County Superior Court judge. I had the honor of advising and being legal counsel to two wonderful governors. And I had the opportunity to work on Wall Street to understand how and where economics and society intersect. In Indian country, we call it “nation building”; this is nation building on a neighborhood scale – it’s transportation, it’s housing, it’s economic vibrancy, but it also has to be community based, because you know that if the people don’t want it, then it just ends up an empty building.
It’s been two months since the election. Is there anything you’ve learned since then, like – “Wow, I didn’t know about that”?
Eight months ago, if you would have asked me a question, I would have just answered it. But l’ve learned sometimes people don’t want just the answer. I’ve learned you give your answer first, and then your reasoning.
I’ve learned how to get more on message and be more focused, but also to be Debora. I didn’t like people wanting me to compare myself to other council members or other leaders – tribal, women or whatever. I’m Debora Juarez, I’m the sum total of all these experiences and I’m really proud of that, and I don’t think anyone else can reflect that.
And so, I guess the hardest thing was learning how to get into the building. I used the wrong elevator twice. I almost parked in the mayor’s spot.
On which specific issues do you see a majority of council members in agreement?
From my view, obviously, the No. 1 issue is affordable housing. We’ve had this incredible boom in our economy, yet we have this wide socioeconomic disparity. No. 2 is homelessness. I love what [Councilmember] Sally Bagshaw is saying that we have to address the homeless issue first, get people home, get them safe, then work on affordable housing. We’ll be looking at the recommendations in the mayor’s [Housing Livability and Affordability Agenda] report, look at transitory housing, transitory development, making Seattle transit rich – not just having a transit station, but having transit-oriented neighborhoods where families can live and work.
On which solutions do you expect to see the most progress during your first year in office?
We hope to open a police station in the north end this year and a light rail station is being built at Northgate Mall. We’re working out the details to have an office in the district. And on [January 11], the council voted on two big issues: A street vacation for Amazon and new rules for retail marijuana stores – how many stores there will be in a certain area, what the buffers are going to look like.
Meanwhile, I’ve figured out which elevator to take and where to park my car.