Colleen Echohawk. Photograph by Carlton Canary.
Colleen Echohawk Heals with Housing
The nonprofit leader’s run for the city’s top job reinforced the need to right systemic wrongs.
I don’t expect the subject of Colleen Echohawk’s mayoral candidacy to come up. I’m sitting across from Jolene Neiss inside a temporary modular home at Chief Seattle Club’s Eagle Village, documenting her housing travails for a story in the last edition of this magazine. It’s emotional. Her journey to a stable living situation was harrowing, full of confidants who’d let her down and others she’d disappointed along the way. But talking about the nonprofit staffers that connected her to this community helps, and even if she’s off on the campaign trail, that apparently requires talking about Echohawk.
“She puts her hands in the dirt!” Neiss tells me, by which she means that Echohawk’s handed out food, socks, and something even more fundamental to those in need over the years. “She looks all prim and proper, but she’ll give you a hug when most people are like, ‘Oh, hi,’” Neiss says, pantomiming an arms-length greeting. “It’s meaningful. It’s not fake.”
Not an empty compliment when describing a politician, which felt odd to call Echohawk during her monthslong run for the city’s top post. The founder of the National Coalition to End Urban Indigenous Homelessness had spent years building Chief Seattle Club into a venerable organization that embeds the urban Native experience into its housing and human services work. As executive director, Echohawk adeptly moved between long-term planning and the urgent demands of a community in crisis. Her nimble advocacy added almost 400 units to the city’s low-income stock, including a new affordable housing development in Pioneer Square designed for Indigenous people. “I believe that part of our healing in the Native community is to reclaim our rights to house our elders and help our families,” says Echohawk.
The member of the Kithehaki Band of the Pawnee Nation and Upper Athabascan people of Mentasta Lake didn’t see similar results at the city level. “I was frustrated,” she says. “I believe in our homeless community…I know them.”
Though Echohawk’s bid ultimately fell short, venturing into an election reinforced for her the systemic disadvantages faced by Native communities and other people of color around Seattle. For now she’ll carry that awareness as interim CEO at another nonprofit, YouthCare, that aims to end youth homelessness. Her role is only temporary, she says, because her project is broader. “I am really excited,” she says, “about changing the trajectory of who has the privilege and wealth in this city.”
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An earlier version of this article misstated the name of the nonprofit at which Colleen Echohawk is interim CEO. It's YouthCare.