Who we are – both individually, and the fabric of our communities – has been undeniably shaped by the influential, inspirational women in our lives. While each woman’s story is unique, we all have shared triumphs and struggles that unite us.
Washington Women Who Dare is a new YWCA series celebrating our collective strength as women. As our 125th anniversary celebration continues through 2019, stay tuned for exclusive interviews with local women who are shaping our region in important ways.
Colleen Echohawk, enrolled member of the Kithehaki Band of the Pawnee Nation and a member of the Upper Athabascan people of Mentasta Lake, is the Executive Director of Chief Seattle Club--a nonprofit dedicated to physically and spiritually supporting American Indian and Alaska Native people. Colleen is also the founder of the Coalition to End Urban Native Homelessness and has served on a wide variety of boards, ranging from the Community Police Commission to the Pioneer Square Preservation Board and KUOW.
Colleen’s fearless community advocacy has earned recognition from organizations across the region--she was named one of the 50 most influential women in Seattle by Seattle Met Magazine last year. She spoke to us about the women who inspire her, how mentorship has shaped where she is today, and the important role allies can play in our communities.
YWCA: Name a woman who has inspired you in your life and share why.
Colleen Echohawk: There’s so many! My aunt Deb Echohawk has been an awesome role model in my life around resiliency. She was a traditional seed-keeper for our tribe for a long time out in Oklahoma. We had a strong tradition of agriculture prior to colonization, and since our tribe was in the Kansas/Nebraska/Iowa area, we had various rising gardens and all kinds of amazing seed-keeping that happened. There are so many amazing stories here that could take up a whole interview!
We had our own Trail of Tears and were moved to a reservation in Oklahoma--our folks took seeds from Kansas and Nebraska and tried to grow them there but they didn’t grow. My aunt went to the community and said, ‘Hey, look in your garages and through your old stuff and see if there are any seeds still available.’ Long story short, she’s been responsible for reviving some of our very ancient seeds--corn, pumpkin squash--that really connect us to who we are as Pawnee people. That has always been a part of our tradition and how we sustain our community, the way we feed and take care of each other. Because of her continued dedication and resiliency to make this happen, we’re seeing some of our traditional corn that hasn’t been grown in over 130 years. She’s a total rockstar!
YW: We all need a helping hand at some point in our lives. Share a time you overcame a barrier and who helped you.
CE: This one is really easy for me--I’m very fortunate to have had a mentor. His name is Ken LaFontaine and he worked with me, and my siblings, to know how to navigate school. I was going to Shoreline Community College and he was the Native Education professor. He saw me across campus one time--I guess he could tell I was Native-- and long story short, he helped me learn how to write and how to navigate the college system. He read all of my papers, even if it wasn’t for his class. He taught me how to be in that system and without his mentorship, I wouldn't be where I am today. When I think about the incredible barrier that higher education systems are, especially for someone like me who didn’t grow up with that expectation of going to college, it was awesome to have someone like him.
YW: What do racial/gender equity mean to you?
CE: This is a huge question. I’m going to speak for the systems that I’m a part of right now, which is the homeless advocacy and provider system.
We see very clearly in the data for people experiencing homelessness that people of color are much more likely to be homeless. If you’re Native American in this city, you’re 10x more likely to experience homelessness. Look at African American foster children--the rates are so high. If we’re really going to understand equity, we have to create specific programs and policies that address racial disparities. This can be incredibly challenging because it goes against what has always been the “norm,” but racial equity means that our policies, systems, and people have to be challenged.
Another crucial part to really achieve equity – the people who are experiencing the disparities have to be at the table. African American communities, immigrant communities, Native communities. We need policy shifts and the stripping down of systemic structures that have ensured this inequity continues. This goes for gender equity as well.
YW: What role do men (or allies more generally) play in supporting empowered women? How have the men and other allies in your life supported you?
CE: When I first started at Chief Seattle Club, the Executive Director of Pike Place Market--a white man--came to us and said, ‘We’re building housing and a new market front and realize that it’s only 20 feet away from where Angeline’s cabin was (the Great Great Granddaughter of Chief Seattle) and also I see Native folks experiencing homelessness in the park right next door to where we’re going to be building’.
We worked together to ensure there was going to be access to housing for Native people. We also ensured the new market front would have a set aside place for a new program that was started at Chief Seattle club called Native Works--vocational rehabilitation for Native folks who have been experiencing homeless and haven’t worked in years.
We’re seeing such incredible success from these programs and it’s all because there was a white guy who said ‘I don’t know what I’m doing, I want to do the right thing, and I need to talk to the community.’ They came to us, we had lots of conversations, lots of moments where we didn't agree and had to understand each other, compromise, and work together, but it was rooted in relationship and respect.
When we think about the development of this city, where there are incredible disparities, we have many people of color experiencing homelessness, poverty and poor health outcomes--and a large part of that has to do with the development of this city based on a dominant culture, which was whiteness--and is whiteness. To break through, we need allies who are actively calling out this disparity and saying ‘let’s hear from the Native community, let’s hear from the immigrant and refugee community’ and embed them into our systems so that we can address these issues.
YW:What is your hope or vision for women in Washington?
CE: My vision is about equity. Let me give you an example. About a month ago in The Seattle Times, there was a profile on the top-paid CEOs in Washington State. Out of the top ten, there was only one woman. I looked at that and thought ‘My god, even though we live in a very progressive city with wonderful people who want to do the right thing, we see that women continue to be marginalized.’ We see that reflected in pay equity, leadership roles, and who has that seat in the table. My vision for equity in 20 years is that this has changed - that five to six of the top paid CEOs in the state are women.
We have a female mayor now in Seattle for the first time in 100 years, and I’m excited to see what the impact will be in the future. I think we’ll see more women and women of color in public roles-- doing work in a different way. When I go to City Hall now, it feels completely different than it did two or three years ago. We have all these powerful Brown women and it feels great. There’s a lot of work ahead of us and I’m excited to see how it plays out.
YW125 is a year-long celebration of YWCA’s proud commitment to serving women and their families in our region for the past 125 years. By shining a spotlight on diverse local women and their stories, YWCA hopes to make 2019 “the year of Washington women” and lead the way in creating a new, bold vision for women across our state.
Feeling inspired after reading? Visit ywcaworks.org/get-involved to learn about the many ways you can join us in our mission to serve and empower women and girls across our region.