Sheley Secrest’s Fight Against Gentrification: Seattle NAACP Leader Vows to Keep Community Voices Heard

Seattle’s Sheley Secrest, a 42-year-old mother, lawyer and activist (she’s the VP of both the state and local chapters of the NAACP), is running for a seat on the Seattle City Council. Secrest bolstered the visibility of her campaign on April 20th, 2016, when she protested the Uncle Ike’s pot shop. Uncle Ike’s is located on the corner of 23rd and Union in the city’s Central District, a historically black neighborhood that’s recently undergone major—and potentially unwelcomed—gentrification.

DOPE Magazine: On 4/20 last year, you protested Uncle Ike’s, citing the store’s proximity to a teen center. What did you and the other protesters hope to highlight with this demonstration?

Sheley Secrest: The heart of the protest against Uncle Ike’s was not just the blatant ignoring of a [zoning] rule. It was about the bigger picture of what it means to involve community, to get folks at the table to see what it is that they want in their own community and having the courtesy of getting buy in. I think if Ian [Eisenberg, owner of Uncle Ike’s] had done a better job bringing local voices to the table, so they could raise their concerns and vision of what they wanted that block to look like – having that ahead of time would have saved a lot of headache, on both sides.

Q: How could Eisenberg have more positively engaged with the Central District community?

A: One of the things that came from the protest was [the idea of] “what does it look like to be a responsible member of the community?” What activities are you engaging in that are near and dear to all of the community around you? Ian said he did engage his community, that he’s Jewish and that he did some things, but when we pressed him harder and asked if he’d talked to his black and brown neighbors, he was pretty quiet.

It’s no secret that people are coming into the city; Seattle’s growing. In the Central District, we never said we don’t want people to invest in our neighborhood. Money is coming in and we want to make sure we have a say in what that looks like . . . ask us what would we want to see. Are you going to put a grocery store in, because Red Apple is closing? Are you going to sell neck bones, because on the first of the year when you cook your greens you need the right seasonings and flavorings? All of those key things that make up a community are important.

Q: Why do you think the black community is routinely ignored during neighborhood gentrification?

A: For the black community, it’s simply racism. Ignored. Disinvested. Don’t care. Deliberate. All of those things. Historically, the black community has been over-looked.

Q: The marijuana business is brand new, and for years many have been thrown in jail for selling the drug that Uncle Ike’s now legally sells. Should profiteers of the booming cannabis industry help those who have been incarcerated for selling or possessing the same plant?

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A: Yes, but honestly, it’s even bigger than that. Let’s take a step back. We’re talking about an industry that has done very well in Washington State. Seattle is known for having that good, green weed. The barriers for who actually gets to take part in that financial success, though, are horrible.

One barrier most can’t overcome is that if you have any type of criminal history, it’s harder to get the license. Knowing the disproportionate number of arrests and incarcerations, that kicks out so many people. And secondly, even if you can overcome that, many still get stuck on the bonds necessary that you need to acquire to enter into ownership of a dispensary.

Q: Are you currently working with Ian Eisenberg?

A: We are. For the campaign, Ian has endorsed my run for City Council. One of the areas we were able to have a meeting of the minds over is the engagement with the community. What does Seattle, going forward, need to do when making decisions? One of the things I’ve impressed upon Ian is that if you’re going to be here, you need to know the impact you have on the community around you. If you advocate for something, make sure you do a better job of talking with your neighbors, not just those who look like you—and I want to apply that same model throughout Seattle.

Jacob Uitti

Jake Uitti is a Seattle-based writer whose work has appeared in the Washington Post, Seattle Times, Alaska Airlines Magazine and others. These days, he's surprised at how often he wears V-neck t-shirts.