Lyle Quasim talks about “the long game.”
Over coffee at the Hob Nob, Quasim’s preferred meeting place, the subject of conversation is the Tacoma-Pierce County Black Collective and the impact it had on November’s election. Specifically, we’re talking about the success of young black candidates like Keith Blocker, Andrea Cobb, T’wina Franklin and Jessie Baines.
All are younger than 40, and in one way or another, each has a connection to the Black Collective, a four-decade-old informal volunteer leadership organization that meets every Saturday, 52 weeks a year, at the Colored Women’s Club on Yakima Avenue in Tacoma.
Quasim — a one-time member of Tacoma’s Black Panther party, the first African American to head the state Department of Social and Health Services, and the retired president of Bates Technical College — serves as co-chair of the group.
He knows how the collective, over the past 40 years, helped lay important groundwork for what we saw on Election Day 2015.
He tells me each struggle and accomplishment — and each candidate successfully elected to office — has helped further the collective’s cause over the years, acting as stepping stones.
You build on these kinds of activities.
Lyle Quasim, co-chair of the Tacoma-Pierce County Black Collective
“Black people need to see what a campaign is like. They need to understand about raising money, understand about putting a network together. And, we need to inspire other black folks,” the 72-year-old Quasim tells me.
“That’s what we’re doing. … You build on these kinds of activities.”
Things have certainly changed since members of Tacoma’s black community, under the name The Concerned Black Citizens, first started meeting after work Fridays in the direct aftermath of the Mother’s Day Disturbance of 1969, when a confrontation between police and Hilltop residents after the arrest of a black woman led to the shooting of a policeman.
As the city’s first black mayor, Harold Moss, tells me, “When it was our turn to get out there (and run for office), we were still at a stage where black people — coloreds, Negroes — weren’t expected to be about nothing. … Our issue was trying to get on the other side of that dais, so you could write legislation so you could influence what happened to black people.”
Today, the list of influential community members who show up Saturdays for Collective meetings is as long as it is impressive. Among others, it includes Moss; Thomas Dixon, the former executive director of the Tacoma Urban League; Jim Walton, Tacoma’s first black city manager; and Dolores Silas, a former City Council member and the first black woman to work as a school administrator for the Tacoma School District.
More recently, Tacoma Mayor Marilyn Strickland and at-large City Councilwoman Victoria Woodards have, at least in part, emerged from the Black Collective. University Place City Councilman Kent Keel and recent council candidate Frank Boykin, along with University Place School Board member Ethelda Burke and Pierce County Charter Review Commission member Janis Clark, also have ties.
In 2015, however, we saw was the emergence of a new, younger generation of black leaders.
When it was our turn to get out there (and run for office), we were still at a stage where black people — coloreds, Negroes — weren’t expected to be about nothing.
Former Tacoma Mayor Harold Moss
And it’s here that the Black Collective’s continued relevance and impact are evident.
Blocker, a Hilltop resident who will be ceremonially sworn in on Tuesday, becomes the first black man to be elected to his first term on the Tacoma City Council in more than 40 years..
Cobb, a program manager for Tacoma Housing Authority with a résumé that includes time working as a policy analyst for the state Superintendent of Public Instruction, is the second black woman to ever be elected to the Tacoma School Board.
Franklin, a mother of four, the founder of the small business Ladies First, and a Region 10 Parent Teacher Student Association board member, secured a seat on the University Place School Board after running unopposed.
And then there’s Baines, a Tacoma kid who unseated longtime incumbent Larry Dahl to earn a spot on the Metro Parks board thanks to a vision for reinvigorating the city’s park system and specifically reaching children of color in underserved areas of the East Side and South Tacoma.
The success story of each, in many ways, represents a success story for the Black Collective.
“We had a particularly strong field of candidates this year, but they figured this stuff out from somewhere,” Quasim says. “Go back to Marilyn’s desire to run for the City Council, Victoria’s decision to run at-large. … Young black kids say, ‘Hey, look at this! There’s somebody running who looks like me.’ ”
“(At the Black Collective), people have a reason to believe. So you start to believe in the whole process,” he continues.
“That, to me, is the big deal.”
Out of habit, or more likely respect for Moss’ 86 years on this Earth, Keith Blocker always refers to former Tacoma mayor as simply “Mr. Moss.”
On a rainy Tuesday morning, Blocker, who has harbored political aspirations dating back to his days growing up in Philadelphia — where he was sometimes homeless and “washing up in a McDonald’s bathroom” — recalls his first Black Collective meeting.
That very first Saturday, I was sitting with the first black mayor of the city of Tacoma. I was like, ‘Yes. This is it, right here, right now. … This is where I need to be.’
Tacoma City Councilman Keith Blocker
“That very first Saturday, I was sitting with the first black mayor of the city of Tacoma. I was like, ‘Yes. This is it, right here, right now,’ ” Blocker tells me. “I thought, ‘This is where I need to be.’”
The Collective, which regularly sees in excess of 50 people on any given Saturday morning, is many things to many people. For Blocker, it has been an avenue for mentorship and an entry point into Tacoma politics. For others, it’s a beloved community of civically engaged peers where conversations range from shoreline protection to potholes.
The Collective is also clear on what it is not. While the political endorsements it doles out each elections season are highly sought after, the collective isn’t just about getting candidates elected. Nor does the group represent the singular, unified view of Tacoma’s black community, as members are quick to point out. (This has become increasingly clear with the emergence of groups like the Tacoma Action Collective, whose protests and activism, most recently, helped spark an important community dialogue around the lack of black artists in the Tacoma Art Museum’s “Art AIDS America” exhibit.)
“You can go to the collective and you can sit in the room with someone who’s unemployed, someone who might be a janitor at a school, and also in that very same room is someone who managed this entire city,” Councilwoman Woodards says. “But in that room, none of that matters. Everyone is respected at the same level.
“At the end of the day, it’s family.”
While black candidates like Blocker, Cobb, Franklin and Baines were able to earn the collective’s support and official endorsement, each recalls the experience as far from a given.
Handouts, based solely on race, are not how the collective operates, according to Quasim and other members. White candidates — such as John Hines, Conor McCarthy and Catherine Ushka, an incumbent school board member challenged by black candidate Will Jenkins Sr. — were all endorsed by the collective last year. And the respect the collective has earned over the decades means that each year political hopefuls from far and wide — including governors, congressmen and senators — come seeking the group’s backing. Most are white.
The beauty of the Black Collective is that it demonstrates the diversity within the African American community. We are not a monolith.
Tacoma Mayor Marilyn Strickland
“Why do candidates seek our endorsement? Because we don’t have friends and we don’t have enemies,” Mayor Strickland tells me. “We have interests centered around the desire to help African Americans succeed.”
Quasim says earning the collective’s endorsement comes down to grasping the issues, understanding who you’re talking to — the African American community — and being clear on issues related to equity and inclusion.
“People have this arrogance of, ‘You’re black, I’m black, so we need to be on the same page.’ … But it’s just not a place where you show up and they just support you because you’re black,” Franklin says. “They don’t jump on the bandwagon with every candidate. … I feel like it needs to be earned, and you need to bring your best self.”
That’s not to say everyone who participated in the Black Collective’s endorsements was pleased with the outcome. Jenkins, for one, who was endorsed by the Tacoma Ministerial Alliance and individually by community leaders with ties to the collective, says, “I don’t think it’s a fair or thorough process at all.”
In endorsing Ushka, he feels as if the Black Collective “played it safe,” because the group thought an incumbent had a better chance of winning.
“If you have valuable candidates, such as myself, who are active in the community, and the Black Collective is about uplifting positive African American candidates, why would you not endorse them?” he wonders. Jenkins also says not having the collective’s endorsement led black voters to unfairly question his candidacy.
“It sends a negative message throughout the community, whether you believe it or not,” he says. “I felt like I was being betrayed by the people who are supposed to be really supporting me in the community.”
Dahl, meanwhile, who twice earned an endorsement from the Black Collective in previous races for the Metro Parks board only to lose it last year to Baines, says the process was similar to others he went through, whether it was for the Tacoma firefighters union endorsement or various labor groups. He says all groups have their criteria, and, “If you fit those criteria, you’re golden. And if not ... .”
Dahl says he felt like the collective’s endorsement process was fair and transparent.
“They gave us an opportunity to fill out their questionnaire, an opportunity to schedule an interview, and an opportunity to express ourselves to them. They asked their questions. From that standpoint, it was fair,” Dahl says.
Baines says he certainly didn’t feel like a shoo-in.
“When I went for my endorsement meeting, it was not easy,” Baines adds. “It wasn’t like, ‘This young black guy is automatically going to get the endorsement.’”
Bigger than politics, or the collective’s endorsements, is the job of fostering the next generation of leaders. That work is something Jim Walton describes as intentional for a group that boasts many members in their 70s and 80s.
“It is a way to pay things forward,” Walton tells me. “I think the collective has always been in that frame of mind. … I think our future is much more promising than our history has been glorious. To see the young people who are emerging as public servants, that gives me great hope, for the community, the African American community, and the collective.”
I think our future is much more promising than our history has been glorious.
Original Black Collective member Jim Walton
Placing an emphasis on bringing young leaders along became more deliberate, according to Moss and Blocker, roughly seven years ago when the collective, for the first time in its history, developed four committees: education, economics, social justice and political strategies. The move was part of an effort to formalize the collective’s decision-making process, and it included a goal of having each committee co-chaired by someone from the younger generation.
Blocker, thanks to his interest in politics, was chosen as co-chair of the collective’s political strategies committee along with Moss, the very leader he was so excited to be in the same room with during his first Black Collective meeting. Blocker eventually stepped down from his post when he decided to run for office.
“Mr. Moss took me under his wing,” Blocker says, weeks before being sworn in to serve.
“Essentially, he opened the gate for me.”
The long game, in action.