By Garry Clark / For The Herald
The first time I became aware of what hunger meant, I was about 8 years old.
Every few months or so, the Brookland Manor management would set our belongings out on the street. I watched as neighbors and friends watched us being evicted. I saw the pain on my mother’s face: black, beautiful, and heartbroken, by life, by public housing, and zero answers.
It’s an anxiety I know too well. Where do I find funds when there are none? Who do I call when social service options are limited. This was about 1989. Our nation’s Capital was in a 12-round fight with the cocaine hustlers that saturated Washington D.C.’s black communities. From drug lords like Rayful Edmond, Pablo Escobar, to Griselda Blanca, the city was the aged Larry Holmes being pummeled by a young, aggressive and surgical Mike Tyson.
Just a few miles from President Reagan and the worlds political leaders, our American dream was stuck in a cycle of government cheese, drive-by shootings and liquor stores with high profits and zero community involvement.
I saw the tears build up in my mother’s eyes. The proverbial Mike Tyson was getting the best of her too.
When things were good at home, I could tell by the smell of bacon wafting through the basement apartment we lived in on 14th Street in Washington, D.C. My mother, Marquita Barnes, could make miracles happen with any set of scraps. Ramen noodle specialties with onions and eggs, soy sauce and more.
But her presence began to disappear with every blow from the crack epidemic. I’d wake up to cold sweats some mornings wondering where she might be.
My older sister Kiyonna would help me bum change from neighbors, or food from the Fletcher-Bray family upstairs.
Kiyonna and I are 3 years apart in age. Most days during this time, we’d stay with family members or neighbors to get by with school. On days or nights when we did have our place, Kiyonna would make sure I made it to school, even if she might not attend herself. Instead, she would go looking for our mother, or food.
On nights when we were too prideful to ask for food, or bum change, I’d dream about the White House. About the corporate dinners and political events. I wondered if those folks ever thought about us, in projects.
I would dream of ways that I might one day have an impact on communities in a positive way. I did not want to imagine anyone else starving, falling asleep to stomach grumblings and anxiety.
Now, upon the two-year anniversary of my start at Economic Alliance Snohomish County; I am the leader of an organization that has the ability to convene our leaders, our businesses, and people. Economic Alliance is the manifestation of a dream I had in 1989. I learned early on what weaves together community. It’s the Boys & Girls Club on 14th Street in D.C., that became my saving grace. It’s the small businesses that take a chance on a single mother who’s done all she can to make a home for her four children, in Everett.
Today there are kids who are in worse shape than I was back in ‘89. I see the promise in these kids, the hope for their futures.
And, through the interconnected world of business attraction, housing accessibility, diversified job training and skills, Snohomish County can continue to live up to our nation’s creed.
That all are created equal, and have a right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.
What I learned as a chronically homeless kid in the D.C. area is this: It is imperative our leads extend the ladder down to those who struggle to make it from one day to the next in Snohomish County.
The homeless issue affects our youth, our businesses, our future. Today, there’s a little kid hiding his at-home traumas from his friends. He has potential. He has promise. He may even be the next Mr. Boeing if our holistic efforts are successful. We need our businesses, our leaders, our local small business entrepreneurs to have access to each other, to have access to programs and conveners who might shine a light on that chronically homeless kid. That kid might one day make more ripples than any of us, to better Snohomish County, to better Everett, to better a global world.
According to the Common Cause Partner Campaign, 1 of 3 students in Snohomish County are currently experiencing homelessness or housing instability, and 3,078 are currently (at last count) unhoused. In Snohomish County, there are currently 44,857 Snohomish County students in the Very Low-Income category, vulnerable to being unhoused.
Are we doing all we can? No. Can we do more? Yes. The paradigm has shifted to a need for holistic economic development. This means that each of our chambers or commerce and government organizations, local nonprofits and businesses must find a way to place people over profit. Place people over profit, and profit will grow. Place people over site selection, and companies will continue to come. Be the voice of the voiceless, and you’ll never be out of touch with the voice of the people.
Economic Alliance Snohomish County believes in the Snohomish County people. Its collective vision is more powerful than any independent dream. We have the power to move from problems to solutions, chronic struggles to unlimited resources. We believe opportunity lives here.
Garry Clark is president and chief executive of Economic Alliance of Snohomish County. He lives in Snohomish.
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