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Last Thursday, the 15 DukeEngagers and our site coordinators had dinner with Duke alum and Seattle City Council member Mike O’Brien. Long before the meeting, many of us have been intrigued by this controversial councilman and were super excited to ask him questions. Known for his recent proposal for the head tax of $500 per employee on large business like Amazon to build more housing for homeless people, he was called as the most divisive man by some articles and sneered at by white mid-class neighbors. While on the other hand, his efforts to solve homelessness and inequity won him a good reputation among other communities.


As we arrived at the alum’s house after a short bus ride, we were greeted generously with amazingly-cooked food. As we were wrapping up with the meal, Mike arrived. He is a middle-aged man, dressed in a leisure shirt and shorts. As our conversations began, he told us his parents-in-law who were visiting and his father who had passed away several months before. He didn’t strike me as a typical politician, and his focus on family was surprising to me.


He then went on to tell us about his life path. Born and raised in Seattle at a time when Microsoft has barely started, and Amazon non-existent, Mike had a different impression of Seattle as we have nowadays. But he has always loved the city. After graduating from Duke with an economics degree, he worked as an outdoor guide in Seattle and met his wife. With the economics degree, he found himself a job as the chief financial officer at the local law firm of Stokes Lawrence to feed the family. But after 10 years of balancing checkbooks for lawyers, he got tired of it. He figured his real passion was in protecting the environment, and therefore, got involved in the Sierra Club as a volunteer.


It was really interesting that he hated politics at first. But through the involvement with the Sierra Club, he realized the power of policies on social change, especially environmental justice. Later on, he ran for city council and got elected. In his seven years on the city council, he has been a champion for environmental justice policies, like banning plastic bags, preventing Shell Oil from establishing an Arctic drilling fleet in Seattle. As well as many social justice causes, all serving the purpose of solving homelessness in Seattle, like creating stable living options for people living in vehicles and without shelter, etc.


What struck me most was how Mike, as a white man coming from a white middle-class family background, really understood the problem of homelessness. And despite a lot of opposition to his policies, he has been working hard for their well-being. I guess the answer lies in something he mentioned, change a perspective and don’t take anything for granted. He said he had never thought that bed, bathroom, water, or a phone number as inaccessible throughout his life until he met and talked to homeless people who couldn’t get a job because he was unable to fill address and phone number columns in the job application form.


Sometimes we are trapped in our own bubble of culture or community. We aren’t aware of the hardness brought to some people simply because of their race, gender, family background or economic status. While life leaves limited options for them, more tragically sometimes, every single choice will only lead to worse well-being.


In our DukeEngage program, we have come across similar topics in our reflection sessions. For example, some disabled people rely on straws to have a drink. But they were ignored in the recent policy of banning plastic straws in restaurants. Another example is the minority groups whose investment in property can never be profitable because of “white flight”. These communities are left in the vicious cycle that leads to less well-being simply because of their race. Mike’s remarks brought all of these together in my mind and left me thinking. It seems that there is still a long way to work towards equity.