Wednesday, December 11, 2013

Bob Santos, Leader & Activist, Former Director Inter-Im CDA

Bob Santos sparkled with energy, charisma and depth - that very energy allowed him to accomplish real change in Seattle. Growing up in the Central Area of the 1940s with its multi-ethnic communities laid the foundation for him to become an enormously effective community leader.

Photo by Madeline Crowley©

Bob on the Central Area:

 I was born in 1934 in Seattle’s International District (the ID). My Dad was professional prizefighter and my parents lived in the ID in the early 1930s. Then, my mother passed away in 1935. My Dad couldn’t take care of my older brother and I. He was a widower and his fighting career caused him to slowly lose his eyesight due to boxing injuries. Eventually an aunt, my father’s sister, took us in. They lived in the Central Area on 14th & Spruce and later 14th & Columbia.

When my father completely lost his eyesight in 1945, I became his Seeing Eye dog, so I would come down from the Central Area to the NP Hotel in the ID to take care of him. I lived in the Central Area and went to school there. I was running back and forth between the two neighborhoods so I could take care of Dad.

In between, I hung out with kids in the Central Area, mostly at the playground at the old Maryknoll School. That was a missionary school; the sisters came in the 1920s on a mission to convert Asian Americans, Japanese nationals and Japanese-Americans to the Catholic faith. They established the church and school between 16th & 17th  Avenues. 90% of us were Japanese and the rest were kids from the neighborhood. I attended Maryknoll Elementary for kindergarten and first grade. 

Courtesy of the Maryknoll Fathers and Brothers Maryknoll US
I was in first grade in 1942, when our neighbor kids, the Japanese kids were rounded up and taken to concentration camps first to Puyallup and then Idaho. After that the school then became much more like a community center. The church still operated during the war but the school closed.  The Filipino community grew around that church. Initially, it was Japanese and then it became Filipino during the war years.

There were a couple of German families in the church too, the Doedenhoff family and the Schmidt family. We always asked those kids, ‘How come you aren’t in jail? We’re at war with Hitler.’ And no one could give us a reason.

There was no reason except we were different, the Japanese, Chinese and the Filipino. We learned about that difference during the war when our Japanese friends were taken to concentration camps. The Filipino and Chinese kids were always picked on by the white kids, or the black kids, or the Jewish kids. When I lived at 14th & Spruce sometimes I had to get two blocks north to the Immaculate Church School. There were blocks I couldn’t walk down because of these two kids; they were black kids. I still remember who they are. They’re still alive today. Back then, if I passed down their block, they’d beat me up. At that time, all Asians were lumped in with the Japanese, it didn’t matter if you were Filipino or Chinese. It made no difference to them; you were the enemy.

Because we got beat up by the black kids and the other kids then the Filipino kids and the Chinese kids started to stick together, to watch each other’s back. That made it a little safer. But even when we rode the trolleys to go downtown people on the trolleys would yell at the driver, ‘Kick those Japs off the bus!’ So we started wearing these tags that read, ‘I am Filipino’ or ‘I am Chinese.’

Did it make any difference?

It did if someone was facing you and close enough they could read it. But if you were on the other side of the street, it didn’t help, you were still yelled at. We felt, ‘We’re not the enemy, we’re not Japanese,’ but we were seen as different. Our parents didn’t come from Japan, they came from Philippines or China but to society we must be different.

When you’re a second grader, you start to understand that there’s a color thing involved. Our German neighbors, the Dodenhoff family had a pile of kids. And the Schmidt family in the apartment behind us, they weren’t sent to concentration camps. They were white. And the Japanese kids were considered yellow. We got the idea that there was something different about us. At that time, we didn’t realize it was racism or discrimination, we just knew something, somehow was different. We could hardly wait for the Japanese kids to come back because then they’d get picked on instead of us.

We were beginning to realize these differences. We knew the Japanese were sent away because their homeland was at war with the US. But we couldn’t understand why the German and the Italian kids weren’t sent away. It wasn’t until later that we understood that to be racism that extended from the administration of Roosevelt to the Supreme Court all the way down.

Despite the neighbor kids being sent away, my experience growing up was exciting. Growing up in the Central Area there were the black families, especially the Bown family. Millie Bown Russell was a leader in the civil rights movement and her sister, Patty Bown, was a jazz pianist who had to leave Seattle to become famous in New York. Wherever she played the celebrities would hang out. 

We were sponsoring dances at the Maryknoll Hall, and a kid named Quincy Jones had a band called Bumps Blackwell Orchestra that would play at our dances. Later on, he attended Seattle University. He started writing and arranging music there, that’s when he changed from being a trumpet player to a writer and arranger.

One of the first concerts I had ever been to in my life was his concert playing the old standard tunes but arranged by Quincy. It was really innovative rhythms. None of us knew that he’d become the superstar that he is but even so, we always bragged about him in the neighborhood as a trumpet player. The Black families, especially the Black Catholic families and the Filipino families, we really bonded. The Bown Family and the Maxi Family and the Kola Family all sent their kids to Immaculate. We became the neighborhood kids. The guys were sort of the hoods. We had dances. There were two older Filipino-American kids, Dorothy Ligo and her future husband Fred Cordova, they started the Filipino Youth Association (FYA) which later merged with the CYO, The Catholic Youth Association. We had our own youth group and we used to meet at the old Maryknoll School.

We held dances and had basketball teams. When the Japanese kids came back in 1945 from their concentration camps we had athletic leagues: Japanese kids, Filipino kids, Chinese kids, we formed a basketball league and played at the old Buddhist Temple on 14th & Main. During the war, of course, that was converted into a military depot for the Coast Guard. It was very sacrilegious at that time but war is war. During the old days, growing up we used to play basketball in the Buddhists’ auditorium gym. When the Coast Guard took over, we used to hang out at the Collins Playfield at 16th & Main; that was our athletic hang out. We’d go to Maryknoll for dances. 

Collins Playfield photos showing the diversity of the area :

For Club meetings I’d go to 16th & Jefferson to Maryknoll and then down through Chinatown to Manilatown because I had to bring my Dad all around.

Where was Manilatown?

Right in the center of Chinatown on Maynard and King to Weller along 5th & 6th Avenues. This was the area where all the Filipino immigrants lived in the SRO buildings. Our businesses were on those streets so we encroached upon Chinatown but still had our own individual Manilatown

Right there, when the war started my uncle Rudy and a Japanese gentleman owned a gambling hall and a casino. It was in the basement of the Freedman Apartments on Maynard Ave between King and Weller streets. The casino was in the basement. It was very large, probably the largest casino in the city of Seattle. You know, illegal stuff, payoffs and the like. The Chinatown core was famous not only for paying off cops but even the King County Attorney’s Office. Everybody was on the take until the late, late 60s and 70s. Then came in an Assistant Chief Eugene Corr, really a cool guy; he reformed the area. Uncle Rudy and Danny Woo were indicted for illegal gambling.

As a young adult, I was beginning to get involved in the civil rights movement, so they both had me testify at their trials saying that these guys were leading Asians in the Chinese and Filipino communities. So, that was pretty cool. I don’t think anybody got any jail time. It was a reality, gambling was a big deal down here.

I read that the gambling and the music meant there were big crowds of all types of people dancing and mixing while in the rest of Seattle clubs were all white.

The gambling halls were Asian and the music was African-American. That’s when Jackson Street became the jazz capital of the west coast. We had military bases nearby: Fort Lewis, Fort Lawton, the Naval Base on Pier 91, and the Naval Yard at Bremerton. So, all the African-American soldiers would all come to Seattle. All these nightclubs on Jackson started to cater to the military guys because they had a lot of money to spend. So jazz was born. I remember walking from the NP Hotel up Jackson Street to my aunt’s house. It would take me two hours to get home because wherever there was music playing I would stop and sit on the stairway to listen. I knew all the bouncers, they all knew me as the little kid down the street. I’d sit there for hours listening to the jazz. There were a couple of record shops on 12th & Jackson and whenever I could scrape up money, I’d buy the new jazz records coming out from here. I’d scrape up money to attend the Norman Grant’s Traveling Jazz concerts, it was exciting times. Especially after the Japanese came back because then our youth groups held very successful dances at the Maryknoll and then that became kind of a center of the youth movement, the jitterbug movement with the teenagers

I heard that the Filipino community loved dancing.

The Filipinos community in the mid-60s had their weekly dances at Washington Hall. My aunt and uncle lived a block north on Spruce Street. Every Saturday night my gang of friends would go to Washington Hall for the dances. They always charged the men at the door.

You have to understand that because of the restrictive immigration laws passed for Asians, there were immigration quotas. So, there were several thousand more single Filipino men than Filipino women here.  Especially so in spring and summer when Filipino men would come here before and after going to Alaska to work in the salmon fisheries and canneries. They’d come back loaded with money so the Filipino community would have dances Friday, Saturday and sometimes even Sunday night.

We grew up at Washington Hall.  Women were not charged (admission) so the guys would come because the women would be there. Our friends, the girls would go in to the dancehall, go upstairs and yell down to us to tell us what color of rib, was being used that night. You see, they’d pin a piece of ribbon to you to designate that you’d paid admission, red, white, blue, green. So, once we knew what color it was we’d run down to Bon Roberts Drugstore on Yesler and buy that color ribbon. Bonnie, the proprietor, would give us pins she knew what we were up to. And then with the ribbon we could go into the dance. Eventually, the old timers caught on to us, ‘You guys didn’t pay, so you can’t come in.’ So all the girls left with us. There was no one left with the old timers to dance with so from that point on that we were let in for free.

Those years before and after the war (WWII) being a young adult was really wonderful. The white kids, the Filipino kids, the Japanese and a few Chinese kids and the black kids, we all grew up together. The Filipino kids had a basketball team called the Cavaliers.  There were a few black kids who played with us who were our buddies. We told the officials that those kids had grandmothers who were Filipino so they could play with us. No one was going to check on that, so the black kids could play on our team. The kids could say they were part of the mix. Our group was some of the first, in my experience, at least that I can remember where there was intermarriage, Japanese and Filipino, Chinese kids and White, black and Japanese…

So, while the rest of the nation was still had miscegenation laws people here were intermarrying and were intercultural long before that was even dreamed of in the rest of the country?

That’s right. And a lot of that happened in the International District and Central Area because of the restrictive covenants about who could buy property.

The immigrants from China, Japan and the Philippines were restricted to this area, were forced to live together, forced to do business together; they kept our cultures and our languages alive. Yet, a few of the leaders from the Japanese, Filipino and Chinese community interfaced but most of the people just lived in the same area. But the kids of those immigrants, we accepted each other. That’s why Seattle became a little bit more liberal in the mix of races than did other neighborhoods in other cities. In San Francisco, Los Angeles you had separate a Chinatown, a separate Japantown, and a separate Manilatown. Here it was the same area, everyone was together. So, it was natural that the kids of immigrants growing up together for us to interface with other kids. That made Seattle become, then, a leader in that kind of (intercultural) civil rights movement.

As our kids grew up and then met the kids of these staunch white families, their grandkids are meeting and mixing and even with gay kids. So, these staunch older people are starting to realize this is what’s going to happen, so deal with it.  They’re the ones that are key in these changes in the law because they’re voting to support these changes.

I read about you working with Bernie Whitebear who was Native American and Filipino and that that type of intermarriage wasn’t rare. Can you talk about that?

That was the case in my family. When my grandfather emigrated from the Philippines he landed in Canada, a place called Nanaimo, probably the only Filipino there for a thousand years. He was running away from something because we never knew his real name. He took the name of Nicol, Cornelio Nichol. In the last eight years my wife and I went to Nanaimo to check it out. It’s beautiful, it’s north of Victoria BC. The main street in Nanaimo is Nicol Street, so grandpa took that name. He married a woman who was half French-Canadian from Quebec and half Alaska native from Cape Fox Island, so we have native in our family.

Returning, though to the subject of the Central Area, the Maryknoll missionaries left the Church in the mid-60s. The Mission sold that property to the Archdiocese, and they renamed the complex the St. Peter Claver Center. The Center hired me as Executive Director of CARITAS, a tutoring social service agency centered at St Peters.  So, as a young man, I went back to my roots at our old church and our old hang out as it became the St Peter Clavier Center. And that building became one of the centers of the civil rights movement in Seattle.

The Archdiocese had a guy named Harvey Mcintyre, Catholic Priest, who was Pastor of Immaculate Church to manage St Peter Clavier Center.  He had his pastoral duties at Immaculate and he had also to manage this center. Since I had my offices at Claver, Father Mcintyre said, ‘why don’t you become Assistant Manager and take care of the building, hire custodians and all that and rent out the space.’

So, the first people who rented out space were the Black Panthers for their breakfast program,  Elmer and Aaron Dixon  

Also, there was a group of Indians from Montana who had left the reservation and met at St Peter Clavier Center.  It was also the meeting place for a group of elder Catholic women called the Marion Club. So, when it was time for me to invoice these groups, I told Father Macintyre and the Archdiocese, ‘They’re doing the Lord’s work. People in the Civil Rights Movement learned they had a place at St. Peter Claver Center where they could meet. Where Uncle Bob will let us meet for free. So, that’s where all the meetings were, and it was all centralized in the Central Area, 14th – 16th -17th and Jefferson. Tyree Scott would meet there. Now, because the Black Panther Party breakfast program  got there so early, at 6 a.m., to get the food ready for the kids by 7. At the same time, Tyree Scott and the United Construction Workers would meet there to plan the shutdown of construction sites where no black workers were employed. Activities started at 6 a.m., so who had to open up? Me.

So then groups that wouldn’t naturally communicate like a union-based organization and young people who were perceived to be radicals, were in the same space. I would imagine there was time for conversation so there would have been an awareness…

I would sit in all these meetings. (I wouldn’t go to the Black Panther Party meetings, their meetings were held at Elmer’s Mom’s house, so I didn’t go to those). CAMP (Central Area Motivation Program) with Larry Gossett he had meetings there. Also, when Bernie Whitebear and the Indians were planning an occupation of Fort Lawton, I was there.  That’s actually where I first met Bernie
in 1970. 

A lot of the Chicanos with Roberto Maestas were attending meetings that were held by the United Farmworkers. The United Farmworkers sent up two women, Nancy and Sara Welch and Fred Ross Jr. I gave them space at St Peter Clavier Center in old classrooms so their meetings to plan boycotts of Safeway were there. And that’s where I met Roberto Maestas. That’s where I met Clara Frasier,
 she was the employee in the City Light who was trying to infiltrate women into the workforce for City Light women, climbing the telephone poles and all that. She led that fight. She was a really outstanding speaker and she really rallied women, organized women, working class women, white women, Asian women, black women She founded Radical Women and she also formed the Socialist Party Movement.  They would meet at St Peter Clavier Center, too, so you had all these crazy people.

There there were still nuns living in the convent on the other side of the Church. One day, Bernie and his young folks were rallying about the occupation and the strategy of what to do with the property if they were to get it.  They were doing a Native American ceremony where they do the blessing with the burning of sage, chanting and the drums. One of the nuns runs into my office and says, ‘The kids, they’re starting to smoke sage.’ I tell her, it’s ok, sister.

So that was my experience in the Central Area, growing up in the war years and as a young adult. Many of our friends joined up during the Armed Forces during the Korean Conflict, many of them were in the Marine Corps.  In the mid-1950s we all started coming back home and then hanging out at some of the restaurants in the Central Area. There was a place called the Old Snack Bar on 23rd and Union. That was our hangout and so we’d go from the Maryknoll Community to hanging out in what was then the black community.  So our buddies expanded from our basketball friends to a larger group of kids who were graduating out of Garfield. Our network expanded like crazy…

As I’ve been meeting activists and hear about successful social justice movements in the 1960s and 70s and then I think about where we are today, what changed? Why was there this fervor and action then? There are a lot of the same problems today but there doesn’t seem to be a feeling that people can do something about it.

A lot of leaders of that time, civil rights leaders, especially the black civil rights leaders when the new programs were started from the federal government Housing and Urban Development (HUD) a lot of the black leaders were hired by directors of programs in the federal government. As these leaders moved into bureaucracy, there was a gap of young leadership in their communities. CAMP had three to four executive leaders that left for federal, city or council positions. Larry Gossett who came from, initially, a militant background then agreed to run CAMP. In between, we lost a lot of impetus.

Organizing demonstrations was easy, everyone wanted to march for civil rights, against the war, people even wanted to go to jail it was a badge of honor. In particular in our community as we started to join Tyree Scott and Larry Gossett and the Indians and the Latinos in their quest for justice, our community was developing leaders. I started at CARITAS and then moved to Inter-Im. We had all these young people. We’d make one phone call and the next day 200 young people would show up. We were fighting against the King Dome. We were fighting to preserve this neighborhood. Every week there was a street action. That’s fine, but what happens after the street action? The Mayor will say, ‘Ok, let’s sit down and talk what about your needs and how can we help.’

So, I became a negotiator, there were others who were leading demonstrations. After the demonstrations the point was made, so I became that person who’d sit down at the bargaining table. Through that we got a lot of public development. We got mitigation for most of that development, not as much as we wanted. One example, I-5 was built through the district. To mitigate that construction, Inter-Im was able to get a long-term lease of the airspace under the freeway as a parking lot, we still have it, 233 stalls, we charged $6 per month in 1970 and we’re charging today $130. As mitigation goes, that helped the community a lot. When the Kingdome went up we had demonstrations, we occupied the Mayor’s Office the County Executive’s Office. We got out of there with support from the city and the County for the International District to have high priority for any housing allocations that came from the Federal Government into Seattle. So, we able to build high rises like the Imperial House and the International House and to convert some of the older buildings into low-income housing for the elderly.  We started learning that political process, you got out the hammer and then you have to sit down and listen to them. Then, you have to negotiate and as we’re doing that, we would bring our young people with us to the bargaining table. So, there was never a loss of leadership out of the Asian Community because these young people stayed with it. When the old-timers
decided it was time for us to retire, we felt very comfortable leaving because we were leaving it in good hands.

We did that; some communities were unable to do that. We were able to look to the future. When you look at the Executive Directors of the 10 most prominent non-profits for Asian Americans, eight of them were women. They came up though Inter-im and organizations down in this neighborhood. What I found really odd, is that after work I like to go have a beer and talk about the Seahawks game. But the women would get together and they’d talk about organizing the elderly for this or that. They were always organizing; they were always scheming. So it was natural for them to become leaders (laughs). It’s sort of over-done now, just kidding!

What would you say you learned from the Central Area that would be valuable as advice for young people?

I never say ‘no’ to an opportunity to lecture students, even elementary students even though their attention span is about 5 minutes. So with them, I do a little dance, I do a little hamming it up. When we’re perceived as leaders, we have to keep connected to young people, to our communities. I don’t know how many of these lectures I’ve done but I keep doing it. For my part, I lecture about personal experience, telling them about the issues of the International District from a personal perspective. I’ve been doing a lot of lectures I got a call this morning from the Economic Development Institute to do a panel at Weyerhaeuser. I never say ‘no’ to anything like that.

I give two or three tours a week of the International District on the preservation of the neighborhood, the fight to keep this area as a residential area. Every week, we have to fight these ideas of public and private development.  Every week we have to fight to preserve this neighborhood as it should be. We’re surrounded by concrete, we have two major freeways here, two major stadiums and the encroachment of government center on the north part of the district.  That really pissed off us off, when Mayor Greg Nickels decided to develop the Emergency Response Center on I-90 and incorporate it with the Fire Department between 4th and 5th and Washington, bypassing the city’s own environmental review. We only knew that this complex would be there when we saw the bulldozers. It was done in secret and we were angry. So, we met with city council and they said, ‘Get a life; it’s going to happen.’

We were very successful in preserving this neighborhood for the seniors and the elderly. For the new emerging families, this is still a choice neighborhood for young families but we still have this encroachment from development. I’m just now going to a meeting, I’ve been called in by a group of young activists who are concerned about the street car that is going through the neighborhood from the waterfront trolley to Capitol Hill. We can deal with that on Jackson Street, but there’s a spur from Jackson Street to a facility on Charles Street on 8th Ave to bring the trolleys in and out. However, there’s no mitigation for the disruption of the neighborhood here and elderly housing there.  Not only during construction by during the time the streetcars are going from the tracks to their facility at night, that disruption is constant. I’ve been calling the Mayor’s Office and City Department heads because even though you can tell the young people how to negotiate, how to deal with mitigation. They have to sit with you to learn how the beast works and how best to do this. We started with nothing and now it’s at about 8 million. We want the city to acquire a piece of property.

I agreed to sit in on these negotiations with young people just for that purpose, we are sitting down nose-to-nose with people who can make decisions, Department heads and the Mayor’s Office. So, we share that experience with young people. Anytime anybody wants to apply for graduate school, or a job at the city, or the county, I never say no to write that letter of support. You know why? It expands your network and of those people 10% of those people become influential themselves. One of those young people we wrote letters of recommendation for became Governor and now he’s Ambassador to China. You also have people who become elected officials after those letters. Right now, there are about six to seven Asian Americans, People of Color who are Department heads in the city, they came through our system.

It sounds like that deep value of teaching and involving the young kept this community viable.

In the early 1970s, Ben Woo was an architect and a leader in the old-timers’ Chinese Community and the Asian community. He said, “Hey, Bob. Let’s take a trip down the west coast and see what’s happening in similar communities.” We went to LA and looked at Little Tokyo. It had become a really commercial area because money from Japan came in and built new hotels that displaced the old-timers. They were also pushed out by the newer higher tech businesses. We looked at the old Chinatown in LA and that was completely wiped out. The new Chinatown was built and the businesses went to the new one. The worst one was in San Francisco, the old Manilatown on Kearney Street, 10 blocks of Manilatown was all wiped out when they built the new financial center. When the very last surviving building was to be destroyed, the community came out and protested to preserve it. It was the International Hotel.  There were 10 years of demonstrations then the Sheriff came in with his horses. Radicals stood in front of the building, got beat up and sent to jail and all that.

We looked at that and thought, why did they wait ‘til the last building? They should have been protesting at the first building. Here in Seattle in the 1970s, the same thing was happening, investors from Hong Kong and Japan were looking at the International District. We not only had demonstrations about encroachment, against stadiums, we also wanted to preserve the area for those that built it. So, we learned the political process. One of the things we were able to do was work with the city to establish a District Review Boundary. There was a Board of community people with some appointed by the Mayors Office, and any development, any construction in this district has to go through this board. It has to have a stamp of approval from this board. It’s another element in planning. It has no power, it’s something over the overlay. Still, when foreign investors come in and ask and about the potential for investment, they’re told about this review board. It’s an extra level of bureaucracy so that was how we were able to preserve this area in those early days.

There’s no way that we could really stop progress but we could threaten McDonalds. About 10 years ago, in the Vulcan Development (Union Station Buildings) the original developers were Union Pacific. They came into our community and met with us to make it compatible with the district. That was cool. Instead of building one big factory building we were able to negotiate view corridors and upper level setbacks so the complex is acceptable. Then, McDonalds takes a 40 year lease on a property on 5th & Jackson. We met with them. We ask them: Why here? Why now? They say, ‘We want to provide low cost meals for your elderly and jobs for your young people.’ We say, ‘What do you think we’re smoking? All you care about is the thousands of new people who’ll be moving into the office buildings.’ So, we tell them we can’t stop your 40 year lease but we can sure make it hard for you to do business. The next week, we went to the McDonalds on 3rd & Pine Street, at the largest McDonalds in Seattle. We disrupted it for a whole afternoon to prove what we were willing to do. The next week, they broke the lease.  We weren’t concerned, they told us we have a McDonalds in the Chinatown in San Francisco.  We told them, big deal, it’s not there now. If we let them in, all the other big franchises would have followed. So, the word gets around that it’s difficult to deal with this community.  That’s what we’ve been able to established here to preserve the culture of the neighborhood.

It’s ongoing. The street car spur. The city wants to build another development here. If you don’t get something for the community from the development, they have to pay to acquire property on behalf of the community; otherwise, they will just run all over you.

What was your happiest memory of the Central Area?

At Maryknoll Kindergarten, I fell in love with a girl named Pauline. In first grade I’d go around with my Dad to the gambling halls down in the ID. Since my Dad had been a boxer, he was a hero not only to the Asian community but also in the Seattle sports scene. After he retired from boxing, he’d go to all his favorite places: the restaurants, the barbershops, the gambling halls, the haberdashery shops, and he’d bring me along. At the gambling halls, if these guys were winning I’d get a nickel, a dime or a quarter. We’d go from spot to spot. If my Dad forgot a place, I’d tell him we had to go there. I got all this change together.

In the first grade, Pauline was sitting up by the teacher. We had wooden desks with two people facing each other so I paid my way up to sit next to Pauline. I remember I had to pay a couple of folks off to sit next to Pauline. That was the happiest day of my life. Of course, one day we went to school and Pauline and all the other Japanese kids had been hauled off to concentration camps. And only the Filipino kids were left. That was the saddest day of my life.

Read Bob's new fascinating book for more! It's on the Gang of 4, Bob Santos' activism across ethnic and racial lines for important social change

(Bob Santos was referred to this project by Yosh Nakagawa)

©  Madeline Crowley People of the Central Area 2013   All material is covered by copyright. Express written permission must be given for any copyrighted material on this page. Email to request permission to copy or paste materials. 

This project was supported in part by
4Culture's Heritage Projects program


Tuesday, October 29, 2013

Claudia Stelle. Executive Director, Coyote Central

Claudia Stelle has been a director at Coyote Central since 2001.  We spoke 
about the creative programming Coyote offers kids in Seattle and especially 
the Central Area.

Photo: Madeline Crowley

Tell me about the choice to locate in this neighborhood.

We had a real history here, having been working with kids from the schools in this neighborhood for over 20 years. Coyote Central had also partnered with community groups here to do projects in the Central Area at Garfield Community Center, Miller Community Center, Flo Ware Park, Powell Barnett Park. I’d be hard pressed to think of a better neighborhood in the city for us to locate. I've lived just blocks from here for the past decade.

Can you share a bit about what Coyote Central does with kids?

Coyote was founded with the idea of serving all kids so we have always gone into the public schools to offer our program to every child. Marybeth Satterlee, our co-founder, was a teacher in the public schools, so she had relationships with school counselors and teachers. They welcome Coyote into their schools every term to do presentations to their students. We have display boards and we go in and introduce ideas about trying welding or cooking. It just excites kids with the possibilities of what they could try at Coyote. I think we recruit in over thirty schools, yet we get kids from over eighty schools a year.

Photo: Madeline Crowley

The idea has always been to serve all kids. We were not founded to serve any one demographic or address a specific need like serving at-risk kids. Coyote is based on the important idea that all kids come and work together, so kids from every ethnic and economic background are all working in the same class because they want to learn how to weld, or they want to learn how to do animation, or they want to learn how to design a dress and sew it. Whatever the task, they’re there because of their interest in it. In that process, they are meeting and working in teams with kids from all over the city.

We believe that experiencing creative problem solving is so important to every child. Coyote has never really been about art, per se, it’s just that art is a great way to explore creativity and problem solving.  Anybody who’s ever tried to draw a portrait realizes, it’s all about solving problems like, why doesn’t this look like it should? What do you do to make it better? In essence, that thought process is in every one of our courses, and that’s really what Coyote is all about.

So, if I understand correctly Coyote is here to serve the creative mind? It doesn’t matter whether the child is interested in clothing design, or painting, or animation, they’re learning skills and counting on their own creativity to solve problems.

Photo: Madeline Crowley
Yes, that sounds pretty good. Also, there’s no question that working with professional creative people is really key to give them that sense of their own possibilities and their own future and getting together with peers who happen to also think it’s really cool. So, they work with a professional fashion designer who has her own line of Shibori scarves. They work with a professional chef who’s in a restaurant six days a week. So they meet a role model in their field of interest. Also, they are grouped with other kids who also think it might be cool to be a chef, or to be a fashion designer. This must be terribly reassuring to a middle school kid who has these interests and has no idea if anybody else shares them. They come here and discover a whole class full of kids who share that interest here.

To come to a class full of people that you share an interest with who don’t all go to your school makes your social world expand exponentially. That also is amazing.

We did little interviews recently with kids who were both current students and former students. When they were asked by the interviewer about, ‘What mattered most to you about Coyote or what do you remember?’ many of them said it was the people. It wasn’t just the instructors, but the other kids, meeting a whole new group of people. Middle school can be so insular and kind of, well, deadly (laughs). I think Coyote is the ideal alternative to that.    On the weekends, no matter what your week is like at school, you come to Coyote and it’s a safe place.

Photo: Madeline Crowley

It’s this welcoming, colorful, beautiful place where you get to explore a genuine interest. It’s like Glenda the good witch, it doesn’t get better than that.

As importantly, it’s a safe place to take risks. You learn how to make this wild hat that you would never be caught dead in anywhere else. You can just do whatever moves you and try it out while not worrying that people are going to make fun of you or think you’re weird.  The opportunity to take creative risks is big; it is one of our main learning goals.

There’s something really wonderful about meeting other kids that share an interest, you know you are literally no longer that weird kid who likes animation, you’re one of twenty kids who you know, who you like, that share an interest. The space has such an incredibly warm, inviting feeling and…  I can imagine, in the worst case scenario, an at-risk kid who’s not safe at school, they’re not safe at home and they come here and there are bright colors, it’s clean and it feels safe and open. And for them, it’s like, this could be how my life could be… But, let’s return to how this place began.

Photo: Madeline Crowley

So Marybeth Satterlee cofounded Coyote with Greg Ewert, who was a fellow teacher, in 1986. Their concept was to make creative problem-solving available outside class. Greg fairly shortly thereafter moved to Lopez Island. He has since lost a battle with cancer so he is no longer with us, but he was a wonderful, wonderful person. Marybeth then soldiered on. Coyote grew very gradually from, I think, nine kids the first term.

We have a chart of the growth of Coyote, in a brochure that shows this incredibly steady growth. We worked out of Marybeth’s kitchen for years. When I came on in 2001, it had been small but growing for fifteen years. Then we started growing faster. By 2005, we rented office space in Madison Valley. The growth was so organic and so gradual. We never thought, ‘Ok, now we’re going to try to have 40% more kids.’ We just offered programs. And as the demand went up, we offered up more.

It was just driven by the demand. More and more kids and their families were finding out about Coyote and wanting to do cool stuff. So we added more and more courses and then took little leaps like having our own office.  Which led to the big leap of having our own space here. Having our own space has expedited our growth exponentially and now that we have these facilities we can indeed leap to ever more new programs.

Now we’re serving about 1,300 kids a year. So the growth and the quantity of kids served is pretty mind-blowing.

Photo: Madeline Crowley

Studio Coyote
 The bulk of our programming is ‘Studio Coyote’ which are 20-hour courses over a really wide range of subjects. It puzzles some people because they wonder, ‘Well, why don’t you specialize in wood-working, or bikes, or fashion design?’  We believe that Middle School is an age of discovery. It’s when you’re seeking to find, ‘Who am I? What do I love to do? How am I going to find work that I love?’

One of our wonderful board members (who’s been at the YMCA for years) says Middle School is the age where it’s developmentally appropriate to dabble. Dabble is her word. It’s really true. So a child comes here and takes four different courses in a summer: Cooking; Welding; Design and Sew, and Breakdancing. It’s not that they don’t love any one of them, it’s that they want to try lots of things.

We support that.

We also have developed some advanced courses for kids who say, ‘Oh, I want to learn animation.’ They would come back and take the same course three, four times because they just loved it. So now, hopefully, we give them a chance to develop an individual skill when they find one that they really love. But our biggest mission is to give them the chance to try different things, to find out what they love.  During that process they build confidence and skills, it makes them feel competent in the real world, something rare in the digital age.

What are the other programs you do?

Photo: Madeline Crowley

Hit the Streets
Since 1992, we have been doing ‘Hit the Streets’ Projects, which are summer public art projects with 24 at-risk kidsIt’s a work program, they get a stipend to learn job skills like reliability and showing initiative, and working in teams. Most of the kids attend Washington Middle School, Madrona K8 and surrounding schools, and live in the CD or South Seattle. Our kids come from here, we’re doing public art here, so when a building here came available, it just seemed like a great place for us to be. We’d been thinking for many years, ‘Gee, we could do so much more if we had our own facility.’

Coyote Works
Last year we started a program called ‘Coyote Works’ which is similar to ‘Hit the Streets’ in that it is very much focused on at-risk kids. We started with a community matching grant from the Department of Neighborhoods that specifically funds programs for youth in the Seattle Youth Violence Prevention Initiative, SYVPI.  We had our second year of that program this fall, with different cohorts of cooking, welding, and spoken word.

Photo: Madeline Crowley

It’s a great program for us for a number of reasons: it brings in slightly older kids, they’re 13-15; it engages them in not only learning skills, but also in community service. The cooking cohort made meals for Straley House or the families at Nickelsville. The welding group made a bench for the bus stop right out here. We’re looking to expand Coyote Works, so that it’s not just in the fall. We’re trying to get funding to do it other times of the year.

At the end of the last Coyote Works session, staff and instructors got together and collaborated on what we could do to make it even stronger. We were really focused on, ‘How do we tweak this to make it as good as it can be?’ Then we got back the little surveys we passed out to the kids, and they all rated it: 8; 9; 10 out of 10. It was all positive. We thought, ‘Wow, I guess we must have done something right.’ The kids really seemed to like being here and what they were doing.

Bringing in the community 
Now, we’re always thinking, ‘Gee, how can we use this space?’ We invite in community members.  Lots of people use the kitchen.  Madrona K8 uses it for their 7th-grade poetry slam.

Photo: Madeline Crowley

We’re trying to get the building integrated into the community and available for youth and other community events and uses, hopefully all with a creativity orientation. We’ve partnered with Sawhorse Revolution, which is a group that works with high school kids doing woodworking projects for non-profits. They used our shop to build a structure for Green Plate Special, which is run by Laura Dewell, as you know.

Yes, who I so admire. 

It’s just great to have the facilities so we can open our doors and share them. We’d love to get Coyote families, neighbors, whatever, in for cooking events as well. That is a goal always, to bring in community. Still, everything takes time and we have a tiny staff and a lot of organizing going on all the time. We work very hard; we have great volunteer support. It seems to work.

How did you happen to get the building?

This particular building on 23rd & Cherry was ideal in so many ways for Coyote. It was the site of our first permanent public art project back in 1995, the art tiles around the façade, for Dilettante Chocolates when they had this building. We did that project for them, and lo and behold, fifteen years later we moved in. So, it’s felt sort of like karma.

Photo: Madeline Crowley

Then, we happened to hit the real estate timing quite well in that the market was way, way down. We acquired the building in 2010, for less than half what it had sold for 2 years earlier.

Oh, that’s great. 

We never could have afforded it any other time. We spent a year completely renovating it. It was gutted and had been vacant for, I believe, five years.

We moved in the office in April of ’11 and then our first courses here opened in the summer of 2011.
In our first two years here we brought in 40% more kids. The building has had a huge impact on what we do and the number of kids we serve. We give scholarships every year. Last year we provided about $96,000 dollars in scholarships, so we have had an increase in scholarships that is more than commensurate with the increase in attendance, which means that we are in fact reaching a lot more kids from families that don’t have the means to pay tuition.

There’s no question that we are reaching more kids from the CD by being here. Just having the presence on this corner has been huge. I have to say, from the first year we were here ‘til now there’s less drug activity, less street life with a negative vibe. There’s no question that having the sidewalks full of kids in the summer is a good thing. It’s really great to have a lot of kids in a neighborhood.

Photo: Madeline Crowley

The lots to the east and behind us were not available when we first got the building. They were owned by another fellow who had permits for building ten live/work units. He wasn’t interested in selling because he was deep in the process, but we kept in touch. By December, when new housing was lying fallow all over town, he decided to sell it.

So we got a pretty good deal on those properties as well. It was a really big leap for little old Coyote to buy property. We had a stalwart board that just believed so strongly that we could make it great that they supported it. We got individuals, banded together and each loaned us some money so we could make an offer. It was a real group effort. We’ve just completed our capital campaign, so that’s really great.

There will be capital expenses over the years for maintenance and we are establishing a maintenance fund and all of that, but the amount we save on rent is just incredible (laughs). I mean, all of our occupancy expenses and every roll of paper towel and everything else, put that all together it’s a fraction of what our rental costs used to be, which is wonderful.

The fact that you own your building and have a strong board, you know this will last as long as there’s interest and people coming. You know that, for an arts organization, that’s huge. Very few artists have created what you and Marybeth have created, this place for experimenting, creative decision-making and taking risks. It’s like a dream come true. 

In a lot of ways, it is. Especially for kids who get fired up by what they get to do here, and find out just how much they’re capable of.  We’re going to do all we can to make sure every middle-schooler gets that opportunity.

Special thanks to Julia Eckels for her excellent transcription of the recording.

©  Madeline Crowley People of the Central Area 2014   All material is covered by copyright. Express written permission must be given for any copyrighted material on this page. Email to request permission to copy or paste materials. 

This project was supported in part by 4Culture HeritageProjects Program

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About Me

Seattle, WA, United States
I am not a professional photographer nor a trained journalist. At community meetings, it became clear that many of us don’t know each other. We haven’t heard each other’s stories and don't know each other’s circumstances. This is my attempt to give a few people the chance to tell their story, to talk about our community, to say their piece in peace. As such, comments have been disabled. The views and opinions expressed here are those of each narrator and do not necessarily reflect the position of views of the CentralAreaComm.blogspot blog site itself. The is not responsible for the accuracy of any information supplied by narrators of this project. All interviews have been edited and in places condensed.

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