Interview with Nick Licata

Nick Licata, the author of Becoming a Citizen Activist: Stories, Strategies & Advice for Changing Our World, served on the Seattle City Council for 18 years. In 2012, The Nation magazine named him “Progressive Municipal Officer of the Year.” Licata is currently visiting communities around the US to discuss his experiences and ideas for successful local organizing. This Friday he will be at Ciné at 7 p.m. for the ‘Building a Better Athens: A Community Conversation about Local Governance and Action’ panel discussion. Below are highlights from our emailed interview.


Athens for Everyone: As you look back over your political career, what is the most important experience, issue, or event that prompted you to become active in local politics?

Nick Licata: The first, but not the most important, was when I discovered that my university was switching from a semester system to a quarter calendar. I realized that my future was being directly impacted, and that I had not been asked to participate in the decision. It was not a critical issue, but it did open my eyes to seeing the world differently.

Why has local politics been your focus, and is it still relevant in light of everything happening at the national level right now?

NL: Now, more than ever before, municipal politics will play a critical role in shaping national politics. For instance, raising the minimum wage and paid sick leave grabbed national attention because a few cities made a decision to adopt them. With their success, statewide efforts were made to do the same. This past November, four states increased their minimum wage. That would not have occurred without cities taking the lead.

Cities must work together in helping one another fight off regressive policies that hurt our communities. For instance, the mayors of a select number of major cities are openly stating that they will not have their police departments become part of a federal police force to hunt our immigrants who have not done proper paperwork. These bold statements have helped turn the debate from one of resignation to one of resistance.

What is the one local policy initiative or program you are most proud of helping to get passed while you were a city councilmember?

NL: I’m most proud of getting Seattle’s city council to adopt paid sick leave. The mayor was not supportive until the very end of the process. Councilmembers were very reluctant to begin the discussion. But it was the voice of many grassroots’ organizations, including leadership from unions, that forced the discussion into the open. It preceded the legislation that raised the minimum wage, and I believe that without the success of the paid sick leave legislation, minimum wage legislation might never have been pursued. That success emboldened both the community and the politicians to recognize that they had the power to make significant change. It brushed off the fear of failure and embraced the expectation of victory.

The immigrant community and supporters of migrant and undocumented people’s rights in Athens are mobilizing to protect our community from potentially negative policies of the Trump administration. What is your advice for those in such vulnerable positions in terms of local organizing and activism?

NL: In Becoming a Citizen Activist, I point out that being a citizen is a both a state of mind and a commitment to be part of a democratic community, it should not be defined as simply a legal status. I remind people that when the US had the last great wave of immigrants at the beginning of the 20th century, there was relatively little paperwork for entering the country. That reality has not been noted in our current public discussion…

Becoming a citizen activist as a concept means that everyone, everyone living in our country, has the right and the responsibility to be engaged in our democracy. We must recognize that every immigrant is a citizen. And our elected officials must echo that message out to the public.

Given the current political context that has become so divisive and threatening, what advice do you have for new activists just getting involved in the struggle?

NL: My advice is first to determine what it is that you wish to accomplish that will improve or protect your rights as a citizen. That is a personal decision. It cannot be assigned to you. But once you know what that is, then you must educate yourself about that issue. Read local news sources and follow the issue as it develops elsewhere. Know what it is that you want to actually change. Then, listen to those who are on the opposite side. What are their concerns? What do they fear? What do they want? What assumptions are they making? By understanding each of these answers, you are becoming stronger in advancing your issue because you are now prepared to know what objections will be raised…

And finally realize that victory is not an overnight journey, but it does not have to be drudgery. If you enjoy the process of being alive in the struggle to make our democracy accountable to all, then you will ultimately win because people want to belong to a community that celebrates engagement more than one that deals in cynicism.

You can buy Licata’s book Becoming a Citizen Activist at Avid Bookshop anytime or at Ciné this Friday at 7 p.m.

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