Native Empowerment: An interview with Colleen Echohawk

Annicette Gilliam is an undergraduate student at the Foster School of Business studying accounting. She had a remarkable conversation with CEO and mayoral candidate Colleen Echohawk. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

The lack of affordable housing and decreasing the number of people experiencing homelessness in Seattle are top of mind for most of us living in Seattle. The Indigenous community is particularly invested in this decades-long conversation. Only 1% of Seattle’s population identifies as Native American, yet the same population makes up 15% of the city’s unhoused people according to 2020 King County count. Many Indigenous people, including myself and my family, have been homeless, and most Indigenous people have someone close to them who has experienced homelessness. While homelessness is a continuous discussion among residents of Seattle, it is also a constant source of pain for Indigenous communities.

I had the opportunity to discuss these issues with Colleen Echohawk, CEO of Eighth Generation, a Native lifestyle brand, and the former executive Director of Chief Seattle Club, where Echohawk and her team secured property in Pioneer Square to build 300 units of affordable housing for our city’s unhoused Natives.

Annicette Gilliam (AG): What is Chief Seattle Club and how did you get involved?

Colleen Echohawk (CH): Chief Seattle Club was founded in 1970 by a Jesuit priest. Then it was later turned over to the Native community, but it was just a drop-in center in a basement. Fifteen years ago, we built the current building down in Pioneer Square. I was a board member when our Executive Director left. I didn’t put my name in the hat, but I was recruited for the role and three days later I was hired.

Our community members have the highest rates of homelessness on our own lands. It’s insanity! When I left, we had 300 units of housing in the pipeline, but now Chief Seattle Club has 600 units. It’s amazing.

AG: Chief Seattle Club is in Pioneer Square and that seems like an expensive location to maintain.

Chief Seattle Club building in Pioneer Square

CH: Not only is it expensive, it’s one of the most difficult places for construction because it’s built over landfill. It’s also a historic district. (Historic preservation is its own topic, as it contributes to racist housing systems.) There are a lot of homeless services in Pioneer Square, so even though it’s difficult to build there, we realized if we could buy the building next door to the Seattle Club, then people could have all the services right next door. It seemed like a great opportunity. But in retrospect I would have chosen to build outside of Pioneer Square. There’s just too many geotech issues.

We fought to have Native art and design on the outside of the building. Everything is literally whitewashed in Seattle. There’s very little Native art and design anywhere, so we were passionate about making that happen. We were fortunate to work with John Paul Jones, one of the most famous Native architects in the world. He’s a hero. He’s Cherokee and an esteemed elder. But the Pioneer Square, historic preservation board are very particular about what you can do with a building. We had to raise another $230,000 to put brick facade on the outside of the building. Embedded in the brick you can see the designs of the Coast Salish communities. We said to the board on public record, “You may call yourself historic preservation, but the real historic community is the Coast Salish communities. Why aren’t we protecting them?”

We conducted community engagement with the folks who were experiencing homelessness, asking them, “What do you want to see in your room?” We tried to get all the members of Chief Seattle Club involved. We would even do design sessions with them, which is unusual. We had a female elder who said, “I want this building to feel more like the outdoors. I don’t want to see any paint.” Of course, you cannot build a building without paint, but we heard the heart of her comment and we tried as much as we could to build in infrastructure that felt and looked like the outdoors. I could go on and on with the challenges, but it was fun too. That building is going to be housing Native people for years to come.

I have also been involved in philanthropy. I’m a trustee on the board of the Seattle Foundation, one of the largest community foundations in the country. I’m very aware that the racial wealth gap has not changed for Native people. The housing we built was helpful, the folks who are going into that housing have experienced so much trauma that they need time to heal. It’s not that they can’t succeed in housing, but it will take a while because of how much they’ve gone through. When you’re homeless, it’s like someone ran over your entire body over and over again. You need time to heal from that.

AG: My family was homeless for a time, and that definitely reminds me of my mom’s experiences.

CE: I always tell people, “You have no idea.” No one wants to be homeless. It’s so painful. Sometimes you have the ‘not in my backyard’ people saying, “Well they choose to be homeless.” No one chooses to be homeless. I have never spoken to a person who was experiencing homelessness who didn’t want to be in housing, we just have to figure out what the right kind of housing for each individual experience.

AG: I first heard about you when you ran for mayor. I was researching who to vote for and after seeing your experience with affordable housing and non-profits thought, “Wow, this person is impressive.” We went through LIHI (Low Income Housing Institute) and DSHS (Department of Social and Health Services). What do you think LIHI could improve on?

CE: Interesting to ask about LIHI specifically. I am definitely keeping my hands in that work. I was interim CEO of Youth Care and am carefully paying attention to what is happening in the current system. I was one of four consultants on the Federal Strategic Plan on Homelessness. I’m also on the board of the National Income Housing Coalition. LIHI is an amazing organization and I appreciate their work but also struggle with their building of tiny homes. We have to understand that tiny homes are a distraction. Our homeless community deserves to have real housing, housing that includes kitchens and bathrooms! The more attention we put on these tiny homes, the more of a distraction it is from building the permanent housing we need. There is limited land in Seattle and it’s so expensive. If we have an opportunity to build permanent housing versus tiny homes, then let’s build permanent housing. Is there a place for tiny homes in the system? Yes, but we have enough. Let’s build real permanent housing.

We know homelessness impacts Black and Indigenous people of color disproportionately. I fear we will have ghettos of Brown people stuck in these tiny homes. The Regional Homeless Authority already got their hands slapped for calling them tiny shacks. The reality is that in the past we have built shacks for our homeless community. We’re building better ones now, but it is a distraction and best practice around the country is that we do not focus on these tiny homes. I have great admiration for Shannon Lee. I know her. I appreciate the work that she’s done. But it is time for us to move beyond these tiny homes and build real housing for our homeless community.

AG: You’ve been with Headwater People consulting for a long time and a lot of your family works there. How much time do you spend working with them?

CE: I own 51% of Headwater consulting and my husband owns the rest. We work with all BIPOC consultants, mostly Native folks. I usually work with a few clients and spend about 5-10 hours a week on consulting. It is important we find ways to build our own business and build prosperity within our family and the Native community.

Read part two of the interview.