Unlearning the False Narrative: The Film “13th,” Racist Housing Policies and Being an Anti-Racist

By Mary Lacey, project assistant, Seattle University’s Project on Family Homelessness


13th logo


Like many others during quarantine, I have turned to film and TV to learn about institutional racism. As a white American, I have benefited from the exploitation and oppression of Black and Indigenous people. It is my responsibility to learn about and dismantle racist systems that I benefit from to help end racial injustice. Although conversations about racism are necessary, they are happening too late. It is a privilege for me to learn about racism instead of experiencing it every day.

A film that sparked my attention was the Emmy Award-winning documentary 13th. Netflix’s 2016 release, directed by Ava DuVernay, highlights the role of the legal system’s intentional role in prisons and policing that disproportionately criminalizes Black Americans. It spurred me to learn more about the impact of racism, especially in housing.

The film’s title refers to the 13th Amendment, known for abolishing slavery in 1865, but resulting in the continuation of forced labor. The amendment states that “[n]either slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction” (U.S Const. amend. XIII. Sec. 1). In the years after the Civil War, Black Americans were frequently falsely accused of crimes and imprisoned; and because the amendment does not provide protections against slavery for those convicted of a crime, America’s broken legal system began imprisoning people of color disproportionately. The film argues that America uses the 13th Amendment, through the legal system, to continue slavery.

Ava DuVernay
Ava DuVernay, a Black filmmaker and director of 13th, also directed Netflix’s When They See Us, recreating the true story of five Black teenagers convicted of a crime they did not commit. Photo from IMDb by Steve Granitz – © 2014 Steve Granitz – Image courtesy gettyimages.com


The film points out that Black Americans are over-represented in America’s legal system. Although Black people make up 6.5 percent of the U.S. population, they comprise 40.2 percent of the prison population. This disproportionality stems from the criminalization and mass incarceration of Black people through racist policies, the film contends. For example: A 2013 ACLU report found that despite similar rates of marijuana use among Black and white Americans, Black Americans are significantly more likely to get arrested for marijuana possession than white Americans.

DuVernay also charts the astounding increase in incarceration between 1970 and 2000, through “law and order” policies such as “three strikes,” which can result in long prison terms for minor offenses, and mandatory minimum sentencing for non-violent drug offenses.

Dr Ibram X Kendi_from twitter
Dr. Ibram X. Kendi, author of How to Be an Anti-Racist. Photo from his Twitter profile (@dribram)


State-sponsored racism: Recommended books

I’ve also turned to books that illustrate the role of racism in our society, particularly in housing. I am not an expert and I encourage others to read Black authors’ work about housing’s role in systemic racism, from this list curated by Diane Yentel of the National Low Income Housing Coalition.

One of those authors is Dr. Ibram Kendi, who contends that after we learn about and acknowledge America’s racist institutions and policies, we must take action to be anti-racist. The author of How to Be an Anti-Racist, Kendi defines being an anti-racist as a process of becoming, not as a fixed identity. Through defining racist actions and learning about systems that created racism, Kendi argues that we cannot be race neutral. Instead, we must be actively anti-racist by calling out racist behavior and supporting anti-racist policies.  

At the end of this post you can find a link to a conversation with Dr. Kendi and Ms. Yentel about racism and housing, along with many other resources.


Racist housing policies

The film 13th parallels a message in the book The Color of Law, written by Richard Rothstein, which exposes the repetitive political narrative that ensures Black Americans are segregated, disenfranchised, and jailed. In training for my job as a project assistant, I read The Color of Law to learn about the intentional actions of government that contributed to segregation and economic oppression of Black Americans.

The book highlights major government policies that contribute to racist housing policy, including the implementation of segregated housing and investment in white suburbs which explicitly oppressed Black people.

Seattle Redlining Map
Seattle’s redlining map, showing areas of the city where banks did not want to make home loans. The red areas – where people could not get home loans — include the Central District, historically home of Seattle’s Black population.


Rothstein’s examples include Seattle, such as housing developments built by Boeing founder W.E. Boeing just north of Seattle city limits that imposed a racial restrictive covenant to prevent non-white people from buying homes.  And it persists today. Despite Seattle’s image of progressivism, a look at housing data in our region further demonstrates a history of racial discrimination. The Seattle Times’ Gene Balk identified that only 28 percent of Black residents in King County own homes, versus 63 percent of white residents.

Balk cites the racist policies of redlining and racial covenants as historical barriers to home ownership, but he says modern economic conditions also contribute. He reports that Seattle’s tech boom excludes Black people from high-paying jobs, which contributes to the racial wealth gap; nationally, Black homeownership has remained steady at 49 percent but has eroded in Seattle. Home ownership disparities contribute to a lack of economic security for Black people, thus illustrating the impact of racist housing policies.


Disproportionalities in homelessness

Unfortunately, the disproportionality in the prison population and home ownership is echoed in King County’s homelessness data too. The 2020 All Home Count Us In report shows Black people make up only 7 percent of King County’s population but 25 percent of the homeless population. This disproportionality has remained consistent since 2017.

Further, student homelessness is disproportionately higher among Black students in Washington state too. My fellow project assistant Anneke created graphics using recent data from Building Changes, one of our partner organizations, who focuses on family and youth homelessness. Their findings illustrate that 60 percent of homeless students in the state are students of color, with Black students experiencing it at the highest rate. They found that one out of every 11 Black students will experience homelessness.

The disproportionality affecting communities of color across institutions demonstrates the intersectionality of social issues, especially in regard to race.


Anneke Infographic Student Homelessness POC
One of Anneke’s four infographics demonstrates the racial disparities among students of color experiencing higher rates of housing insecurity than their white peers. See more infographics at schoolhousewa.org.


The narrative around racial segregation was significantly different from what I was taught about American history, that racism was a result of individual behaviors. However, I now know that racist policies created and still uphold racism today. I am continuing to learn about racist policies and systems and unlearn the false narrative of equality that has biased my perspective on racism in America.

This led me to look at my own hometown and the neighborhood I was raised in.


Your zip code determines your outcomes

13th touches on housing’s role in perpetuating racism through redlining that segregated Black and white communities. These policies led to the economic prosperity of white neighborhoods and impoverishment of Black neighborhoods. The film explores how one’s zip code can predict the outcomes of its residents, highlighting the importance of one’s location and neighborhood.

Through census data, the Opportunity Atlas, which measures poverty among youth, reports that traditionally Black neighborhoods experience higher rates of incarceration, lower graduation rates, lower incomes, and other inhibiting social factors that were intentional to oppress the Black community. As Rothstein highlights in his book, these disparities exist through state-sponsored racist housing policies that benefit white communities.

My home state of Wisconsin exemplifies disproportional data in the legal system, with the highest rate of incarcerated Black men in the country. My white privilege is demonstrated through expected outcomes based on demographic data from Milwaukee County zip codes.

According to Health Compass Milwaukee, 53213, the zip code I grew up in, is 86 percent white, has a medium household income of about $80K, and has a 1.97 percent unemployment rate. In contrast, 53206, one of the most oppressed zip codes in Milwaukee county, is 92 percent Black, has a medium household income of about $26K, and has a 15.58 percent unemployment rate. Sixty-two percent of 53206’s Black men are incarcerated.

The Center for Urban Population Health found that zip code 53206 has the lowest rating for health outcomes, compared to 53213, which has the third-highest rating in Milwaukee county.

Despite these neighborhoods being only a 10-minute drive away from each other, their residents have drastically different outcomes in employment, health, and incarceration. As a result of racist policies including redlining, segregation and policing, disparities among Black neighborhoods illustrate housing’s role in racism.

Milwaukee neighborhood
An empty lot in 53206, one of the most incarcerated zip codes in Wisconsin. Photo from The New Republic by Danielle Scruggs – © 2019 Danielle Scruggs, The New Republic.


“Tough on crime”: Criminalization affects housing opportunities

13th discusses the repeated and intentional means in which federal policies enforced mass incarceration targeting black people, through the use of policing to address social issues, including drug use, mental illness, and homelessness. The role of policing contributes to the criminalization of Black people through the legal system’s enforcement of systematic racism. As I previously mentioned, that criminalization became a popular political message in the 1980s as the U.S. prison population began to skyrocket. DuVernay cites examples of politicians from across the ideological spectrum using “tough on crime” messaging that especially criminalized Black people, appealing to voters by capitalizing on fear and anxiety against “the other.”

Fear and anxiety-based messaging that is used to divide communities also applies to those experiencing homelessness. The criminalization of behaviors often associated with homelessness further contributes to mass incarceration. 13th discredits the perception of personal failures as the cause of incarceration and homelessness, instead laying out the deliberate actions of governments to oppress Black Americans.

Additionally, the stain of a criminal record inhibits people coming out of prison looking for a second chance, who are often barred from access to jobs, voting, food stamps and housing. For example, people with a felony record may be prohibited from public housing. DuVernay points to the hypocrisy of disproportionately jailing Black people on drug charges. Through the federal “war on drugs” campaign started by President Nixon, the criminalization of drugs that were more likely to be used by Black people resulted in them experiencing higher imprisonment rates. For example, policies that required longer sentencing times for crack charges targeted Black Americans even though the same drug used by white people, cocaine, did not have similar laws. Because many housing opportunities discriminate against tenants who have a criminal record, it becomes harder for those to find housing, and often leads to homelessness.

Gov Inslee Signs Fair Chance Act
Washington Gov. Inslee signs the Fair Chance Act in 2018. Image by AFL-CIO.

Washington state has been a leader in fighting discrimination based on criminal records through a “ban the box” campaign in efforts to support those with criminal records in finding employment. In 2018, the Washington legislature passed the Fair Chance Act to protect those with criminal records for equal opportunity on job applications. Additionally, Seattle’s Fair Chance Housing ordinance limits landlords from asking potential tenants about a criminal record on a housing application. These laws are meant to address racial disparities in the legal, employment, and housing sector.


Power and privilege

To achieve racial justice, positions of power must be led by the communities affected. In Project Homeless’ discussion on racism in homelessness, panelists urged for culturally appropriate and individualized services in housing and homelessness to combat its racist practices.

Marc Dones, executive director of National Innovation Service, highlighted the importance of moving power from white people to affected communities in order to change the status quo within the housing sector. LaMont Green, co-chair of the Lived Experience Coalition, exposed the “white non-profit industrial complex” in which he says white people uphold and profit from racism through their work in the non-profit sector.

Project Homeless Racism and Housing Zoom
Derrick Belgarde, Marc Dones, LaMont Green, and Michelle Merriweather talk with the Seattle Times’ Sydney Brownstone and Anna Patrick on racism and housing in Seattle.

As someone who works in the communications field in housing and homelessness, I realize the importance of recognizing the whiteness within the field. Dones said that white people working in these spaces must give up their power and privilege to communities of color if we really want to see the end to housing insecurity and homelessness.

Justice through compassion and re-humanization

Near the end of the film 13th, as the names of those who lost their lives to police violence stream across the screen, author of The New Jim Crow Michelle Alexander says, “[p]olice violence is a reflection of a much larger and brutal system of mass incarceration which authorizes this kind of police violence.” Alexander urges us to educate ourselves on institutional racism to understand where we are now with racism in America.

The film ends with an important message about the “re-humanization” of those who are incarcerated. It emphasizes valuing the human dignity of every person by recognizing their right to “life, liberty and pursuit of happiness,” as stated in the U.S. Constitution. The film calls on us to treat problems of society with a compassionate and solutions-based approach to end the mass incarceration of Black people. The re-humanization of those incarcerated includes the need to re-humanize those experiencing homelessness, in order to implement solutions that will keep people housed.

By seeing housing and homelessness as racial justice issues, we can be better advocates for positive social change and effective solutions.

What You Can Do:

  1. Learn. Continue to learn about systematic racism. Here are books, TV and films, podcasts, and other helpful resources.
  2. Start a conversation. It can be hard to talk to loved ones about racism, but it’s absolutely necessary. Read tips from best-selling author of the book So You Want to Talk About Race, Seattle’s Ijeoma Oluo, here.
  3. Donate to non-profits fighting racism, and to other organizations that need your help. Support Black-owned businesses.
  4. Contact your lawmakers about laws that address racism. If you haven’t gotten to know your local and federal representatives find out here.
  5. Vote for candidates who prioritize combating institutional racism through housing, legal reform, climate change, transportation, and understanding the intersection of these social issues in legislation.
  6. Fill out the census. The census is just as important as voting, as it counts every person in the U.S., determining voting districts and allocation of resources. Further, it contributes to gathering effective data about the communities that make up this country.
  7. Watch free webinars and panels with experts on racism in housing. Start with How to Be an Anti-Racist author Dr. Ibram Kendi’s conversation with National Low Income Housing Coalition’s President Diane Yentel. Then watch the Seattle Times’ Project Homeless conversation about racism and homelessness in Seattle.
  8. Make anti-racism a priority in your life. It doesn’t end with checking off all the “to-do” tasks on this list. Reflect on your privilege and racist tendencies. Actively be anti-racist in your work, home and community.

HEH Hall of Fame – A Photo Essay

By Anneke Karreman, Digital Design Assistant, and Mary Lacey, Project Assistant, Seattle University’s Project on Family Homelessness

Note: Anneke and Mary put together this photo essay featuring some of our favorite memories of the HEH Hall of Fame event. For more, including the video and list of Hall of Fame honorees, see the event page. All photos are by Steve Schimmelman.

Thanks to all who came out Saturday, Feb. 22 for the first Higher Ed on Homelessness (HEH) Hall of Fame event!


HEH HOF Buttons

The Hall of Fame honored many of the SU students, staff, faculty, and alumni who work to solve homelessness, at the Men’s Basketball Hall of Fame Game against CSU-Bakersfield. We gave Hall of Famers honorary buttons (above), designed by Anneke, to acknowledge their efforts to fight homelessness, and invited them on court for recognition from the SU community at halftime.

HEH HOF Southpaw Outside

The night started off at Southpaw Pizza across from the SU campus, where Hall of Famers attended a happy hour event, to eat, drink, mingle and reminisce on their SU memories. We consumed delicious pizza and salad over fruitful conversation. Thank you, Southpaw, for kicking off the night with a great start!

Photo Southpaw Barry Lee Catherine
We were delighted to welcome guests like our project founder and original director Barry Mitzman and Journalism Fellow Lee Hochberg. L-R: Diane McDade; Barry; Lee’s guest, Nancy Strohm; Lee; and project director Catherine Hinrichsen.
Photo Lisa Danielle Stephanie
Our friend and “sister project” leader Lisa Gustaveson (SU MNPL), of the Faith & Family Homelessness Project (2011-2016), with Danielle Winslow (SU ’12) and our colleague Stephanie Velasco.
Photo Amy Catherine
The amazing alumni of our project included Amy Phung (SU ’15), here with Catherine.
Photo William Kollin McKenna Catherine Katya
Another alumna of our project, McKenna Haley (SU ’14), center, met up with our project’s senior program officer Kollin Min and his family, William (far left) and Katja Shaye (far right), next to Catherine. Kollin, who leads the Family Homelessness Initiative at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, has funded all three of the family homelessness projects at SU; we are so grateful for his partnership the past 10+ years.

Photo Southpaw Armen

Our co-emcee, Armen Papyan (right), grabbed some pizza before heading to the Redhawk Center for the big event. Armen works in SU’s Albers School and is a grad student in the MPA program.



Photo Dean Powers Barry
Our Arts & Sciences Dean David Powers and Barry, showing some SU spirit.


Happy hour crowd shot

Honorees met each other to discuss their work on homelessness at their different organizations and make connections to collaborate in the future. Some of the many organizations represented included All Home, DESC, United Way King County, the Washington Low Income Housing Alliance, Wellspring Family Services and YouthCare.

HEH HOF Food Donations

We asked attendees to bring a non-perishable food item for the SU Food Pantry, located in the Office of Multicultural Affairs (OMA), which provides free food to the SU community along with other helpful resources. Donations support OMA’s Food Security Initiative that fights food insecurity on campus. We collected a tub full of food; thank you everyone who donated!

Click here for more information on OMA’s Food Security Initiative.


Photo Sally Zach Dean Powers

Prof. Zach Wood (center) of our department, the Institute of Public Service, gets an assist from Dean Powers as he checks in honoree Sally Hogan, budget manager for the College of Arts & Sciences.

Photo Paul David W Jennifer Catherine
David Wertheimer (right) was a funder of several projects on family homelessness at SU, including ours, during his time at the Gates Foundation; he now serves as an adjunct faculty member in the School of Theology & Ministry. His husband, Paul Beaudet, left, is an SU MNPL grad. Next to Paul is Catherine’s friend, Jennifer Fisch, a longtime supporter of our project (her son Jacques was one of the kids who came to our “Danny, King of the Basement” premiere).

With all this great company, the time flew by and soon it was time to head over to the Redhawk Center to get set up for our Action Table.

Anneke Desiree Mary

Project Assistants Anneke and Mary, alongside Desiree from the Center for Community Engagement (CCE), hosted an information and action table at the game. Hundreds came by to get action tips, grab stickers, and make buttons. They could also check out some of our students’ work, like Anneke’s infographics on K-12 student homelessness for Schoolhouse Washington, which were on display to highlight our community’s efforts in addressing homelessness. Many thanks to Desiree for volunteering at our table that night and to CCE for supporting our event.

Mary with table guest

Mary talking to game attendees about student homelessness and SU efforts to combat housing insecurity. Check out our website to learn about ways to act today, tomorrow and this year!



Anneke’s parents, Frank and Jennifer Karreman, came by to support us (below). Frank has been a big contributor to our project, having designed the art installation we’ve displayed at Housing & Homelessness Advocacy Day in Olympia the past two years.


Photo Anneke and parents

Photo Lindsay Anneke Mary David M
Here’s the mighty team that did a ton of work the day before the event: Lindsay Ohab, our IPS colleague; Anneke and Mary; and David Moser, adjunct faculty member in Social Work.  You are awesome!
Photo Katie Amy McKenna
Four “generations” of Project on Family Homelessness assistants in one photo: L-R Anneke; Katie Bradley (SU ’18); Amy; and McKenna.

The Game Begins!

The game started out with the Redhawks behind on the board, but we were lucky to see them surge back for an exciting first half and eventual victory!

Game Photo

The positive energy from the court carried over into the HEH Hall of Fame halftime event, emceed by the new President & CEO of United Way and SU alum Gordon McHenry Jr. Accompanying him was Armen Papyan, SU staff member in the Albers School, masters student in Public Administration and active housing advocate since his days as a student leader at UW-Tacoma.

Halftime Gordon Armen 1

Addressing the halftime crowd, Gordon and Armen underscored the importance of taking action on homelessness advocacy. Gordon emphasized that every person can make a difference and talked about the power of people working together; the Seattle U community has made an impact on solving homelessness in many ways. We are thankful to Armen, who shared some personal insights into his experience with homelessness and his constant fight for others. Safe and stable housing is a fundamental human right.

Halftime coming onto court
The HEH Fall of Fame honorees begin coming down onto the court.

We realize not everyone could be there for the event; but as Gordon said, hundreds, if not thousands of members of the Seattle U community have been working on solving homelessness and making a difference. Thank you to all who came out to symbolize our supportive community around people experiencing homelessness.

Honoress on court

The surprise was that all the people asked to come onto the court were “inducted” into the Hall of Fame, meaning that roughly 100 people are part of the inaugural group. As we gathered on the court, the monitor displayed a video montage of all of the Seattle U Hall of Fame honorees and their contributions to solving homelessness. You can find the video on the HEH Hall of Fame home page.


Post-game group photo
Post-event joy, L-R: Catherine; Lincoln Vander Veen; Matthew Dick (SU ’16 JD) and his family; Mary; Desiree; Dean Powers; and Armen.

Thank you so much to everyone who came out and also to those who couldn’t make it to the event. We want you to know how appreciative we are of your work! All of our individual actions add up, no matter what size, to address homelessness in our community.

For more background on this evening, see the Event Page.

Shifting the Media Narratives About Homelessness — A Review of the 60 Minutes Story

By Mary Lacey, Project Assistant, Seattle University’s Project on Family Homelessness

Editor’s Note: On the Sunday, Dec. 1, 2019 edition of 60 Minutes on CBS, correspondent Anderson Cooper reported on homelessness in Seattle in a piece called “’The Rent Is Obscene Here’: The Issues Forcing People in Seattle Onto the Street*.” It was the culmination of several months of reporting by 60 Minutes producers, capped off by a visit by the veteran journalist himself. But how did the show handle this sensitive topic? Our project assistant Mary completed this review in winter 2020 as one of her last projects before graduating. The pandemic delayed our posting it.

*The piece is viewable at the link above for those with a CBS All Access account. CBS, we wish you’d make it available to all.

Journalist Anderson Cooper visited Seattle for this 60 Minutes report on unsheltered homelessness. Photo Credit: 60 Minutes.



Cities like Seattle have a growing concern as they face increasing housing costs. As Seattle continues to fight homelessness by building affordable housing, providing emergency services, and setting up a regional authority, national audiences look to us to learn how we are dealing with housing insecurity.

A Dec. 1 60 Minutes segment, hosted by Anderson Cooper, looked at Seattle’s homeless population, focusing on those who are unsheltered – living outside in situations such as in a tent or in a car, rather than in a shelter. The 15-minute segment highlights three different stories of unsheltered homelessness in this city known for economic growth and tremendous wealth: Postal worker Emilee; the parents of a young child, Josiah and Tricia; and Jeff, an employee of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).

At the beginning of the piece, I was impressed with Cooper’s ability to define sheltered versus unsheltered homelessness, which can be confusing. Despite this strong start, the segment’s weaknesses quickly became clear.

I began to feel uncomfortable about the portrayal of peoples’ drug use and the negative stereotypes associated with them which was shown throughout the piece. Unfortunately, our perceptions around those who use drugs can affect policy decisions that exclude those needing housing. This ideology perpetuates negative “undeserving poor” narratives of those experiencing homelessness. Judgmental media depictions of our homeless neighbors can further spread these negative images, especially toward those who use substances. Continue reading

Top 10* Films of the Decade — About Homelessness

By Catherine Hinrichsen, Project Director, Seattle University’s Project on Family Homelessness

A film about homelessness was named among the top 10 best films of the entire decade. That’s something we couldn’t have foreseen when we first hosted a film screening in 2011, in the anxious moments when we wondered whether anyone would want to come and watch a movie about homelessness.

Then came a stream of memorable characters, stories and performances, as well as creative ways to frame a story about homelessness and ground-breaking access to the people experiencing it.

As the decade’s Top 10 lists began popping up everywhere, and as our project celebrates our 10th anniversary, it’s a good time to reflect on some of the many excellent films made in the 2010s that deal profoundly and sensitively with homelessness. Continue reading

“Experts on Our Own Experiences” — HHAD 2020 in Olympia

By Anneke Karreman and Mary Lacey, edited by Catherine Hinrichsen

Our project assistants traditionally create an event to support Housing and Homelessness Advocacy Day (HHAD) in Olympia during the legislative session. For the second year, our student team, Anneke Karreman and Mary Lacey, chose to host an advocacy postcard project that would culminate in an art installation in front of the Legislative Building (aka “The Capitol”) in Olympia. Anneke had participated last year; Mary was a newcomer to HHAD.

Mary and Anneke at the HHAD rally in Olympia.

Another tradition is their reflection on the day. Here they talk about how they conceived of this project, what they learned, and what they advise for future students working on the project.

What were your expectations before HHAD, and what’s your perspective now after participating?

Mary: At first, I was intimidated by HHAD, but excited for my first time at the Washington state capitol to be advocating for housing and homelessness. I was hesitant about meeting with legislators due to power dynamics between elected officials and their constituents; however, the feeling of uncertainty was overtaken by excitement after the Morning Call to Action where 43rd District Rep. Nicole Macri [who represents the district SU is within] ensured advocates that we are experts on our own experiences, and those experiences are extremely valuable to motivating lawmakers to act. Upon reflection, I realized the power of showing up for important causes and participating in the legislative process. All of the organizers from WLIHA, workers at the capitol, and attendees were inclusive and welcoming, and that encouraged a welcoming, comfortable, and safe environment to engage in. I am grateful that I got to be a part of a state-wide alliance of solidarity that sparked inspiration, engagement, and advocacy.

Rep. Nicole Macri at the HHAD Call to Action. Macri, probably the most experienced legislator in Washington when it comes to homelessness direct service, represents the district (43) that Seattle U resides in. Macri is also an SU alumnus. Photo courtesy of WLIHA.

Anneke: Since I was lucky enough to participate in my first HHAD last year (2019), I felt like I had a sense of what it was going to be like a second time around. Even with its similarities, there were many with a slightly different twist. The “morning call to action” was hosted at the Washington Center for Performing Arts because the sign-up had grown from the year before, which was a good sign! [WLIHA moved the event from the longtime United Churches gathering place because, with 700 registrants, we had outgrown it.] It included a good luck and unifying prayer by a Chief Seattle Club Elder in her native tongue, and drumming performance by other club members. This was different from the year before because the prayer and drumming was only done at the rally itself. I really appreciated how the organizers of HHAD had a stronger focus on Indigenous Washington residents this year. At the rally, leader Colleen Echohawk from the Chief Seattle Club underscored the Indigenous People’s original success in housing before colonization and current fight to reclaim it and their culture. Symbolically, Rep. Debora Lekanoff of the 40th legislative district also spoke at the rally and excited the crowd as the first Native American woman to be elected to the House of Representatives.

Among the many legislators who spoke at the rally: Sen. Joe Nguyen of the 37th District — Seattle U’s Alumnus of the Year for 2020. Photo courtesy of WLIHA.

What was the postcard project, what was your role, and why did you decide to do it?

Anneke: This year, we continued the legacy of the postcard project within the SU and Washington state community. We also used last year’s installation display of the house to display the cards down at the Capitol. However, the concept was different this year. We decided to use the display as a vehicle for a mosaic of the postcards themselves. I designed 11 different variations of postcards to help construct and illustrate “beautiful multi-family housing,” as Colleen Echohawk mentioned in her speech. Each piece represents a “building block” for affordable housing, as they each were a voice from a different advocate. As a whole, they combine as the collective voice for the support of affordable housing. Side by side on the panels, the bright colors of the installation managed to attract advocates at the rally and we were able to gather more postcards for legislators! Thanks to my dad who agreed to come along for his second HHAD experience; also, he was able to staff the table when we had to race off to go to a legislative meeting with a Senator.

A team effort: With five of us, it took about 45 minutes to get from start…
…to finish.

Mary: The postcard project was an attempt to gather different voices, perspectives, and stories of those who could not attend HHAD but still have their messages heard by legislators. Anneke and I wanted to elevate the project from last year by having the structure serve as a mosaic installation for the postcards. We wanted the mosaic to represent each individual voice who helps to build affordable housing which completed a bigger image of multi-family housing. To accomplish our goal of 200 postcards, we tabled in the Student Center on four different days to encourage students, faculty, and staff to share their messages on housing and homelessness to their elected officials.

Additionally, we reminded them that they are a part of the larger image of helping to build affordable homes by filling out a postcard and adding it to the mosaic. At the HHAD rally, the mosaic was on display for advocates to read and participate in, to further demonstrate support for legislative action to address homelessness and housing insecurity. While advocates and legislators were encouraging the crowd, the image of the mosaic could be seen from the Legislative Building steps, further illustrating support for the construction and preservation of affordable housing.

Anneke and Mary had determined that the structure would need at least 140 different postcards to create the mosaic. They hosted four tabling events at SU in January to collect the postcards. Each postcard featured key messages about housing legislation, with space for advocates to write their own personal messages.

What worked well with the tabling events, and what would you change if you did it again?

Mary: At the tabling events, it was helpful to have part of the structure physically there to show the community where the postcards were being displayed. Having the visual imagery helped participants engage and get excited about their contribution to the project. Next year, it would be helpful to know who the postcards were going to beforehand, so we could encourage the community to personalize their message to certain legislators. [Each year, we need to address the postcards to two or three key legislators just before HHAD, depending where the bilks have moved by that point in the session.] Additionally, it might be helpful to have an additional location for tabling, to reach different audiences such as residence halls and other academic buildings.

A group of people standing in a room

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Anneke and Mary tabling at Cherry Street Market, engaging students in writing postcards to legislators.

Anneke: In terms of collecting enough postcards for the installation (140), we were able to do so with the four student tabling sessions at the Student Center. The first tabling session was lunchtime on a Friday, which I think helped us get more postcards than on the other days since students were excited for the weekend and had some extra time. At both lunchtime sessions, we were able to get more student engagement than at dinnertime, so if I were to schedule the tabling times again, it would be for all lunchtime. I also noticed that it worked to ask individuals, rather than to aim for groups of people. If someone is on their own, they may have more time to talk than if they were already socializing with friends. Over the days, I definitely learned to underscore how short of a time it would take to do the activity since many of the excuses not to participate was that they were busy.

Anneke and Mary at the first tabling event, wondering whether they would be able to collect enough postcards to fill the mosaic. They did!

On HHAD morning, we met near SU and set out for Olympia. We attended the Morning Call and our district meetings. Then we walked over to the capitol campus to install the structure. With our five-person team of Anneke, Mary and Catherine plus Prof. Wood and Anneke’s dad, Frank, it took about 45 minutes; we were ready for the noontime rally.

What’s one moment or memory that stands out to you from the day in Olympia?

Anneke: One memory that stands out to me from HHAD 2020 was the engagement that we were able to get at the actual rally itself. I think it may have to do with the way we decided to display the postcards this time around. Instead of having the illustrations alternate on the exterior of the display [every other card was flipped], we inverted them so the illustrations faced the rally itself. This way, you didn’t have to walk around the display to see the most engaging part of the postcard. During the rally, we were able to gather about 30 more postcards and that way be more representative of advocates and different regions.

Mary and Anneke at the rally, with hundreds of people wearing red scarves behind them.

Mary: The most memorable moment for me was at the rally on the steps in front of the Legislative Building. From helping attendees fill out postcards at the bottom of the steps and looking up to see hundreds of red scarves showing support for housing and homelessness advocacy was a special moment. Additionally, the presence of the Indigenous community brought an essential component of housing and homelessness, as Colleen Echohawk from the Chief Seattle Club acknowledged that “there is no justice on stolen land.” Another meaningful aspect of the rally was having the support and voices of legislators from a variety of districts as they spoke about the work being done in the house and senate to address homelessness and housing insecurity. HHAD highlighted the collaborative efforts between advocates and legislatures that advance positive change throughout the state.

What are you most proud of from your experience at HHAD?

Anneke: I am most proud of the ability to represent voices at the state government level that would otherwise not be heard. Civic engagement often has many barriers to participation, especially if you are a busy student, staff or faculty on campus. Also, the Capitol is an hour or so away from campus, which can be a limiting factor if you do not a have a convenient form of transportation available. I am also very proud of the complicated design we were able to pull off in such a short timeframe! Especially, during a busy time of school. Overall, it went rather smoothly in terms of time management and flexibility of schedules to accommodate what we needed to accomplish.

Mary: I am most proud of our ability to bring our creative vision to life in a short amount of time. Through effective collaboration and organization, we managed to deliver over 200 postcards with 11 different designs and ensure the mosaic would be complete. I am incredibly lucky to work with intelligent, hardworking, and dedicated people who continue to impress me with their ability to create engaging and meaningful projects.

A sample postcard, filled out by an SU student.

A view from rally attendees as we listen to legislators speak to the crowd next to the mosaic.

Would you do this again if you had the choice? What would you tell future project assistants about this experience to make it easier for them?

Anneke: I would do this event again given the chance. I think it is super important for civic engagement of students on campus with issues like housing affordability and homelessness. By engaging and educating about the subject there is an opportunity to change perspective and future action, which is priceless! To make this project easier for project assistants in the future, I would advise them to plan ahead. [This year’s HHAD was much earlier than in 2019 because of the shorter legislative session, 60 days in even years.] As soon as you get the main idea, work on a schedule to lay out deadlines and anything else you think is necessary for the project to be successful. Communication is key. Make sure to have be able to clearly communicate your idea with others and its feasibility.

Catherine, Mary, Anneke, and Zach in front of the display of postcards before delivering them to Speaker of the House Rep. Laurie Jinkins, Majority Leader Sen. Andy Billig, and Representative Nicole Macri.

Mary: I would absolutely participate in HHAD again. It created a unique opportunity to gather like-minded individuals and collaborate to make a difference through civic engagement. HHAD opened my eyes to the importance of organizing and demonstrating the power of the people. It’s essential to keeping our democracy alive and our elected officials accountable. Although I didn’t get to meet all of the legislators from my district this year, I would love to meet them next year to continue an important dialogue about housing affordability and security. For future project assistants, I would encourage them to step outside their comfort zone to make connections and start an important conversation about housing and homelessness within their communities. Further, I would encourage them to tap into their creativity to contribute innovative messaging and advocacy projects that engage different audiences. HHAD encouraged me to bring my advocacy into the different spaces in my life to generate greater support to create change.

Lastly, who would you thank and why?

Anneke: I would like to thank my fellow team members, Catherine and Mary, who each uniquely filled in the gaps of my wildly unorganized creative brain for their attention to detail, sensibility, and planning skills. We each had an important role to play in the outcome of this project being a success, down to the very small details. I also want to thank Prof. Zachary Wood for his company and moral support at the Capitol, it was such a pleasure to have your presence and expertise! Also thank you to WLIHA for the coordination and providing a means to get our installation down to the actual event; we couldn’t have had the same impact if you weren’t willing to help us with this element.

HHAD is something that I will remember for the rest of my life because it was the first real frontline advocacy work I’ve done and toward such prevalent issues in Washington State.

Anneke and her dad, Frank, the architect who designed the structure.

Mary: I would like to thank the Washington Low Income Housing Alliance for hosting and organizing this important day. I would like to commend my fellow project assistant, Anneke, who spent long hours designing 11 different postcards in a short amount of time while also being a hardworking student. Additionally, Anneke and I could not have done this without our Project Director, Catherine, who supported our vision for the postcard project and ensured its success. Also, special thanks to Prof. Zachary Wood and Frank Karreman for attending the event with and helping us set up the art installation. Lastly, we could not have done this project without the engagement of the community who took the time to fill out postcards, the mosaic would not be complete without you!

Our beautiful Capitol dome at the end of the day. Photo by Anneke.

Our thanks to the staff at WLIHA, especially Caroline Lopez and John Stovall, for their help securing the approval for us to install the mosaic in front of the Legislative Building and for moving the pieces of the structure to and from Olympia. Thanks also to our Facilities Department at SU for yet again helping us move pieces of an art installation in the Puget Sound region!

Equitable Storytelling — Best Practices from the Dec. 3 Workshop

ComNetwork ES Erin photo
Erin Murphy said she comes from a storytelling heritage as an American with Irish and Mexican roots.

By Catherine Hinrichsen, project director, Seattle University’s Project on Family Homelessness


Communications work that is strengths- and values-based — in which racial equity is prioritized — was the theme of the recent “Equitable Storytelling” workshop, Tuesday, Dec. 3 at Seattle University. Our project co-hosted the workshop with ComNetworkSEATTLE.

About 70 communications professionals, mostly from human services and social justice organizations, attended. It was the largest workshop of this type we’ve ever held, and perhaps the largest ComNetworkSEATTLE meeting ever — a testament not only to the importance of partnering, but to the deep interest in this topic.

Fortunately for all of us, the three speakers were incredibly generous in sharing their knowledge, some of which I will attempt to impart here as time allows.

First, an introduction to the three terrific speakers, all professionals whose commitment to equitable storytelling is baked into their organizational values:


  • Eric Bronson, Digital Advocacy & Engagement Manager, YWCA Seattle King Snohomish
  • Erin Murphy, Communications Specialist, King County Department of Public Health/Best Starts for Kids
  • Vy Tran, Prenatal to Five Workforce Development Lead, Best Starts for Kids Initiative, King County Developmental Disabilities and Early Childhood Supports Division

Erin, Eric and Vy shared strategies to:

  • Champion the power of the storyteller and accommodate their needs.
  • Adapt to the challenges of the review and approval processes.
  • Protect the privacy of storytellers, while presenting a compelling human connection.
  • Recognize the importance of equitable *visual* communications.

A recurring theme: the emphasis on strength-based communications, which you also may have heard described as “asset framing” or “aspirational communication” — more on that below, at the end. These are becoming crucial frameworks for communications professionals.

Values as “North Star”

At Best Starts for Kids, Erin Murphy explained, there is agency-wide agreement on their values: equity, transparency, relationships and community-oriented. These values, built in from the initiative’s beginnings, are the “North Star” for communications decisions.

She pointed out that it’s important to consider not only who you represent, but how. As part of King County government, she’s frequently taking photos of County Executive Dow Constantine in the community. The typical communications person impulse (or pressure) is to focus on the boss, but at Best Starts, the community relationships take priority.

As an example, Erin showed this photo of the County Executive meeting with community partners. She had shot the photo from over his shoulder because the partner relationship is the key element of this scene.

Equitable Storytelling Dow photo
This photo of the County Executive meeting with community partners demonstrates equitable visual storytelling. Photo by Erin Murphy.



Erin shared the Best Starts values and equity statements by asking for help reading them out loud. Here, filmmaker Jordan Iverson reads one of the statements.

ComNetwork ES Jordan


“The Story Belongs to the Storyteller”

Eric Bronson then shared principles of ethical storytelling, and said “there is no ethical storytelling without equitable storytelling.” Eric had written about this last year in “The Ethics of Storytelling: A How-To Guide.” Among his advice is tips for ensuring you are making accommodations that enable more people to be included in storytelling, such as providing help with transportation, childcare and scheduling, as well as an often overlooked element: food.

ComNetwork Eric Photo 2_by Kara
Eric Bronson shares tips to ensure wider representation from storytellers. Photo by Kara Palmer.


The 60 Minutes story on homelessness had aired only two days before, and Eric used that as a case study in how *not* to do equitable storytelling. He noted two major flaws: first, that the story ignored that people of color disproportionately experience homelessness, and second, that the producers only interviewed white people — among all the providers, officials, researchers and people experiencing homelessness they talked to.

Eric said that periodically YWCA does a Racial Equity Blog Audit to make sure they’re meeting their goals for who is being represented, and how.

“Positive, warm, relational…”

Vy Tran showed us how Best Starts incorporates the values of positive, warm, relational and genuine into its work, not only by exemplifying those qualities as a speaker but by walking us through some exercises. Vy had hidden some index cards around the room, with sample phrases that that are commonly used to describe people and situations in social services.

ComNetwork Vy Photo 2 by Kara
Vy Tran describes do’s and avoid’s of terminology in equitable storytelling. Photo by Kara Palmer.

Which of these would you use? Vy’s slides give insights on the impact of words we commonly use.

ComNetwork ES Vy exercise_by Kara
One of the cards from the exercise, with a phrase that should be avoided — do you know which? Photo by Kara Palmer.


Unfortunately it’s time to bring this post to an end, but before I go, here’s what you came here for: The speakers were kind enough to share their presentation slides.

In addition, here are the handouts you might have missed, and a couple bonus items.


Bonus Materials:

  • Stanford Social Innovation Review, Winter 2020, Aspirational Communication,” by Doug Hattaway of Hattaway Communications (and The Communications Network leader)
  • ComNet19 keynote on Asset Framing by Trabian Shorters, founder of BMe Community

Thank you to our fantastic speakers, to ComNetworkSEATTLE — especially Kara Palmer of Pyramid Communications — for partnering with us, and to all the people who came to our workshop!


ComNetwork ES reception_by Kara
As Eric pointed out, food is an important element of a community communication event.

“Communication and Collaboration” — Happy Hellos and Hard Goodbyes, 2019 Edition

By Catherine Hinrichsen, Project Director, Seattle University’s Project on Family Homelessness

Connor Anneke June 2019
Dynamic duo: Project assistants Connor (L) and Anneke, June 2019 at SU’s Tsutakawa Fountain.

Saying goodbye to our graduating student assistants each year is always tough. This year, we had only one goodbye — along with one “so glad you’re coming back!” and one hello. Belatedly, here is this year’s edition of our tribute to the fantastic Seattle University student assistants who serve our project, with a spotlight on our 2018-19 team — Connor Crinion (SU ’19) and rising senior Anneke Karreman — and a nod to our incoming student, Mary Lacey. Continue reading

Changing the Housing Narrative — A Talk with Dr. Tiffany Manuel

By Catherine Hinrichsen, project director, Seattle University’s Project on Family Homelessness

An emotional video about a blind man begging — “Change Your Words, Change Your World,” with 27 million views on YouTube — is one example of powerful messaging that Dr. Tiffany Manuel shared at a convening of housing communicators July 24 at Seattle University.

The video tells the story of a blind man unsuccessfully begging for change, until a passerby intervenes and shifts his story. “DrT,” as she prefers to be called, asked for our observations on the before/after scenario in the film: What was different about the message that didn’t work, and the one that changed everything ? Our discussion uncovered some of the key elements of successful messaging: A positive approach. Shared experiences. Evoking empathy rather than sympathy. A call to action.

But too often, says DrT, our messages about housing and homelessness backfire. “Our single biggest failure is that we treat it like it’s a technical problem – like we only need more housing,” when in fact there are systemic and adaptive challenges, she said.

Tiffany Manuel snip

Forty-five communicators representing 37 different local housing and homelessness providers, advocacy organizations and funders attended the convening to hear this national expert on building inclusive communities. We also thank Philanthropy Northwest for their partnership on this and recruiting their members. While we hold smaller quarterly convenings with our advocacy partners, we were able to offer this expanded experience through the generosity of Katie Hong of the Raikes Foundation, who had invited DrT to Seattle for a foundation gathering. Continue reading

Come work with us! Hiring assistants for 2019-20


We invite Seattle U students — undergrad and grad — to apply for a position on our team for the 2019-20 school year. Positions begin as early as this summer, but we can wait till fall for students who already have commitments this summer. The deadline to apply is May 23, 2019. Applicants will need to complete a writing test in addition to an interview. Check out the job description!