Young Black Professionals Make Their Way in the Northwest, Seattle Times

WHEN YOU'RE not from here, it can take some work to understand what sort of place you've landed in.

A job with The Seattle Times lured me to the Northwest after stops in Cape Town, South Africa, Boston and New York City, and I actually made some of the transition quickly. I started running, flirted with the idea of commuting by bicycle. And after receiving some admonitory stares, I even learned to politely stop until given the walk signal before crossing the street.

But three months into my new Seattle life, one thing eluded me still: Where was Seattle's community of young black professionals?

I looked for them everywhere: At work, shopping downtown, wandering the U District. Coffee shops and restaurants. Online communities, too.

Then one day a co-worker suggested I attend a mixer organized by a local nonprofit.

"Oh, heeeere's everybody," I thought as I walked in. Seattle and I became a better fit.

Yet the question lingered: Why is it that Seattle, with its green beauty, economic opportunity and coolness factor, finds it so difficult to attract and retain young black professionals?

Quintard Taylor, an American history professor at the University of Washington, says part of the reason is obvious: Seattle simply doesn't have the numbers that cities like Atlanta, Houston and New York have. So even though Seattle has historically been thought of as a place that's welcoming to African Americans, it's "not seen as culturally black."

Fully half of the state's black population lives in King County, but they're just 6 percent of county residents. And in the 1990s, rising property taxes and home prices prompted many of them to leave their historic neighborhood, the Central District, for South King County. Consequently, the county reached a demographic milestone: More black people lived outside Seattle than in it, a fact that remains true today.

Rough census data show that the growth rate of King County's 20-to-39-year-old black population declined about 11 percent between 1990 and 2000, ironically during the tenure of Seattle's first black mayor, Norm Rice. State population estimates showed the growth rate of this age group leveling off through 2008.

But folks like Jeanette James, who relocated from Chicago, say being part of a small black population is "a great problem" to have. "I find that you can very easily get overcommitted with volunteering here because people really want your voice." Locals like deejay Chukundi Salisbury agree, saying black professionals "have a disproportionate amount of access to services, to people, to public offerings."

Ed Reed, a criminal-justice professor at Seattle University, says blacks who thrive here typically have some things in common: They're educated and so are their parents; they've relocated for jobs, likely with the region's top companies; they're connected to social organizations.
Reed's right. After I attended the mixer, organized by a volunteer and professional-development group James founded, I took on leadership positions and cultivated satisfying friendships during my two years in Seattle.

James and Salisbury are among the black professionals who've planted deeper roots here. Their stories and others show that despite its challenges, Seattle can be a rewarding place for folks to call home.

Jeanette James

Director of admission and advancement, Seattle Girls' School

Jeanette James zipped across the University of Washington's Red Square on a fall Friday morning in 1994 as a stranger kept pace behind her. Though she was running late to teach a communications class, she stopped briefly enough for the stranger to hand her a flyer for Sisterhood, a newly formed volunteer-oriented student group for black women, many of whom, like James, were transplants.

James, who had relocated from Chicago in 1993, gladly accepted the invitation.

"When you're one of just a couple hundred on campus . . . it's natural to want to align," she says. "In Seattle, a lot of times we're experiencing very similar feelings of isolation."

Those feelings didn't go away with her participation in Sisterhood or even after she left the UW for Seattle Girls' School. Years later, James and a still small group of young black professionals would find themselves asking not only how to better connect with the city's African-American community but also "how can we better connect with Seattle?" So she organized and served as inaugural president of the Seattle Urban League Young Professionals, a now 6-year-old auxiliary of the Urban League of Metropolitan Seattle.

Auxiliary members network and volunteer. While the group has grown into somewhat of a refuge for black professionals, James makes it clear that members shouldn't isolate themselves in the group's bubble.

James, 41, offers her volunteer efforts as examples: She's a graduate of Leadership Tomorrow, a leadership-training program, volunteers with the historically black Delta Sigma Theta Sorority and is community outreach manager for the Junior League of Seattle. The two organizations have "radically different" racial demographics, James says, yet similar structures and aims.

Seattle is a very philanthropic, community-oriented city, she says, so you can find places to plug in "once you figure out what you're passionate about."

Chukundi Salisbury

CEO of Seaspot Media Group

Chukundi "DJ Kun Luv" Salisbury considers himself an "urban shaman," a provider of entertainment with the power to "call people to peace." For him, that's meant using his deejay booth to remind partygoers, "We came in peace, let's leave in peace," and to dismiss the don't-snitch mentality that discourages reporting violent criminals to the police.

Besides presiding at parties that draw crowds from as far as Vancouver, B.C., and Portland, Salisbury devotes his time to working with young people. As a trails coordinator for the city of Seattle, he's in contact with hundreds of kids.

He runs Seaspot, his publishing and entertainment company, from a nondescript building on South Main Street. Photos dating back to the early 1990s of Salisbury posing with hip-hop luminaries like The Fugees and Big Daddy Kane share a wall with news articles about him and Seaspot.

"Our young people are inundated with this BET lifestyle," Salisbury says of the cable network that often glamorizes the lives of entertainers. "We ought to be using entertainment as a tool for behavioral modification."

So he uses his platforms to engage kids. For example, his All City Teen Dance, a partnership of Seaspot, the city, Seattle Center and several community organizations, is for the high-school crowd. To participate in the free event, attendees sign a pledge committing to a peaceful summer; students must get a teacher or other community leader to sign the pledge.

"I'm trying a bait-and-switch," says Salisbury, 40.

Raised in the Central District, he credits his mother, the Rev. Harriet Walden, with teaching him social responsibility. Salisbury speaks at schools and community centers to share his story of perseverance. Graduating from Garfield High School in 1987 with a 2.3 grade-point average, higher education appeared out of reach. His teachers pushed him toward vocational training. But Salisbury enrolled at North Carolina's Elizabeth City State University, his father's alma mater, and earned a bachelor's degree in computer science. Discovering a love for deejaying, he returned home and launched Seaspot.

David Pierre-Louis

Lucid Jazz Lounge owner

As he greets patrons, replaces dishes behind the bar and chats with me over The Teaching's edgy jazz-blues set, David Pierre-Louis is thinking about what needs to be done next.

Tonight, and most nights, the crowd at his Lucid Jazz Lounge in the U District is mostly college-age white people, a fact that doesn't bother Pierre-Louis, whose parents are from Haiti.

In his business, he says, "It has nothing to do with the way you look, your age. It's about where you are now."

That business philosophy, coupled with his unending restlessness, is the very thing that enabled him to open Lucid.

His early businesses didn't always flourish. The carwash he owned while attending Bethune-Cookman University in Daytona Beach, Fla., folded in its first two years. His unsanctioned one-man, soul-food outfit at Long Island University was shut down. Yet he chalks up each failure as teaching moments that would bring the Brooklyn, N.Y., native to Seattle.

Pierre-Louis moved here for a sales job and became a regular on jazz nights at Capitol Hill's Faire Gallery and Café. Five years later, he changed jobs and was laid off. It was just the bad news he needed to make another risky move: Cash in on his 401(k), hold several fundraisers and solicit friends' support to open Lucid in November 2008.

"Being in Seattle has taught me to embrace those who embrace what I've created," says Pierre-Louis, 32. "Color is truly becoming a nonfactor in the decisions I make."

Evidence of this embrace was demonstrated after a massive earthquake struck Haiti last January. Pierre-Louis traveled there to find his mother (the journey was featured on the CBS Evening News), but she refused to leave her friends and neighbors suffering. So Pierre-Louis organized the Inside/Out Jazz Awards at Benaroya Hall, which raised $5,000 for his nonprofit, L'Union Fait la Force, or Strength Through Unity, to help rebuild his mother's neighborhood.

This year, his focus has shifted to launching a nonprofit to boost pay and expand access to recording opportunities for local musicians.

Miya McClain

Software-design engineer, Microsoft

When Miya McClain was accepted at Mills College for women in Oakland, Calif., it was difficult for her tight-knit Christian family to bid her farewell. Receiving one education from her mother's home school and other life lessons from a pew at First African Methodist Episcopal Church, McClain, the second oldest of six, was the first to move away from Seattle.

After she delivered a presentation attended by Steve Ballmer during her first year of college, the Microsoft CEO personally asked the 18-year-old computer-science major to intern with the company, which she did for three summers. As if that weren't unlikely enough, landing a full-time gig with Microsoft as a software-design engineer came as a surprise even to McClain.

She thought she was more likely to relocate to Atlanta — considered a mecca for young, African-American professionals — where she'd spent a college semester. "It was easy to see black leaders and black people in high positions in a company," she says.

McClain characterizes Seattle's black professional community as "disjointed." "Most people feel like they're squatting here. It's hard for them to get invested in the neighborhoods they're in because they feel like they'll be here for five years max" before going home.

Sometimes, black colleagues are surprised when McClain tells them she grew up here; she spends a lot of time dispelling myths. Now 27, she's raising a toddler with her husband in Columbia City.

McClain says she's often both the only African American and the only woman in the room at Microsoft. That's why she joined the board of the Technology Access Foundation, which prepares children of color to become tech leaders and is the very organization that piqued McClain's interest in the field. McClain also works with a group called IGNITE (Inspiring Girls Now in Technology Evolution). She says she routinely sees female colleagues, especially blacks, overworking, as if they have something to prove. Her advice to women considering these fields: Persevere — and "realize that you're good enough to be where you are."

Craig Sims

Chief of the criminal division, Seattle City Attorney's Office

Craig Sims was just 4 years old when, sporting a lopsided Afro and burgundy pinstripe suit, he gave his first public speech before an Easter Sunday congregation. "I did not come here to stay. I only came here to say, have a happy Easter day," he remembers telling the crowd.

Needless to say, his recitations have evolved since, but the values he developed as a young congregant have remained. Now 38 and still a sharp dresser in his 53rd-floor downtown Seattle office, Sims offers a quotation from spiritual leader Marianne Williamson: "There is nothing enlightened about shrinking so that other people won't feel insecure around you. As we let our own light shine, we unconsciously give other people permission to do the same."

Sims is quick to credit the mentors, colleagues, friends and organizations whose "light" guided him to the powerful position he holds.

One of four children, he graduated from high school in Beaverton, Ore., and earned a full academic scholarship to the University of Oregon, where he studied English and sociology. One day after graduating from college, he started at Seattle University Law School.

That momentum nearly came to an abrupt halt during his first year when Sims ran out of money, which prompted a weekend escape to Portland to contemplate whether he'd be able to go on. But Sims would return to his studio apartment to find a refrigerator full of groceries and an envelope bursting with cash on the kitchen counter. A note from "the crew," said, "you can lean on us any time." In that moment, he learned the meaning of Williamson's quote. "When you're a young guy like that, you're proud, and you don't want people to know you need help," says Sims, who kept the envelope in his back pocket until he finished law school. "But it had become clear to me that no one gets through this life alone."

April Simpson, a former Seattletimes.com Web producer, is a 2010-2011 U.S. Student Fulbright Scholar researching new media in Gaborone, Botswana. Ken Lambert is a Seattle Times staff photographer.