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City Council candidate Jon Grant on leadership: ‘It’s about building power, rather than holding power’

The people running for office this November have lots of policy ideas for Seattle. But how would they actually learn and lead? Nine Evergrey readers sat down with them to find out in a project we’re calling The Evergrey Leadership Lab.

This election season marks Jon Grant’s second run for a seat on the Seattle City Council. He is running against union organizer Teresa Mosqueda for Position 8, a citywide seat. Jon is the former executive director of the Tenants’ Union of Washington State, which advocates for renters. (Oh, and for the record, we did meet with Jon in person, but we totally forgot to grab a group photo at the end of the interview, so we got everyone onto a video chat to snap a pic!)

We asked each candidate, “What are you still learning about being a leader?”

 

Here are our main takeaways from talking with Jon:

1. He’s not opposed to building political alliances, but he says he will always be a voice for underserved Seattle residents first.

“[With] my experience through organizing, whether it’s on a policy level or a community level, there are imbalances in power. There’s imbalances of power between renters and landlords. There are imbalances of power between employers and employees, immigrants and folks that have status. We have to recognize that in these policy conversations, I feel like there is a strategy by mainstream politics and by people who have power to say to the community that ‘both sides need to be heard.’ … For me, [this campaign] is about rectifying that imbalance. It’s about building power, rather than holding power. For me, in my role and what I’ve taken away from my experience at the Tenants’ Union, there’s no scenario where I can go back to the team members and say, ‘Sorry, we can’t do what you want.’ That is not a real thing. That value system is the same value system I have in this campaign. If there’s something the community wants or needs or feels needs to be done differently, that is your guide post. I don’t think it’s my role to say, ‘No, I think you’re wrong about this.’… It’s how do we address imbalances of power?”

2. His role as a leader has been questioned in the past, and if he could do it over again, he would.

“I think the unspoken story in the room is my departure from the Tenants’ Union. When I left the Tenants’ Union, I had promoted a woman of color into a leadership position and gave her a raise and when I left the organization afterwards, the organization demoted her and cut her salary. I was not a part or privy to any of that, but that triggered a discrimination complaint against the organization and in that complaint—it’s public record—the employee reflected on some concerns about me as a leader. I did not know about those concerns, I didn’t know how explicit those concerns were until after I read about them after I had left… I to this day feel bad about it and you know, my relationship to that person matters. What I learned from that is that you can really not be aware of how you’re coming across, even with the best intentions. That was a real learning experience for me. I think if I could do it again, I would do it completely differently. It was hard because I was, in my mind, both running the organization and starting this campaign for city council—this was two years ago. I think my attention was divided in a way that I couldn’t see those conflicts when they were there. What I learned from that was not to overextend myself… The problem is communication and making sure that there are check-ins with folks, especially staff of color to make sure that you actually are being accountable to them. And I think in that situation, I wasn’t totally accountable to them. Clearly, because she was upset and I think that her experience is legitimate and right. I don’t have any criticisms about that. For me, I wish I would’ve been more aware and more attentive to address those things in a proactive way.”

Here’s what The Evergrey Leadership Lab interviewers thought of the conversation:

Priya Gupta:

Austin Valeske:

Elliott Bronstein:

Jon Grant made his moral commitment clear, but he doesn’t see any difference between being an activist and being a citywide elected representative. If you don’t either, then this is your lucky day.

Rachael Ludwick:

I went into the Jon Grant interview with pretty strong thoughts about his leadership style inferred from what I’ve seen in forums, public statements, interviews and so on. The impression I’d gotten was that he was strongly against compromise, and to be honest I was pretty strongly turned off by that – that if he sat on the city council, he’d push for 100% of what he wanted and sit out if he didn’t get it. But obviously the leadership questions touched on compromise a lot. How and what you compromise on (and how you handle the fallout from backers when you do) is really really important in government! And he had a couple good, credible stories, where he talked to and compromised even with constituencies (i.e. landlords or Republican state legislators). We also talked about a recent minor campaign “controversy.” In short, SDOT has been planning a change to a complicated intersection. Fairly late in the process, another community group didn’t like a part of the project and wanted to slow it down or change it. Grant promoted that group’s petition. He explained that he did that because he felt this group wasn’t feeling heard. It wasn’t about whether he agreed with them. This speaks to a particular attitude towards making sure that folks are heard before proceeding with changes, which I actually find appealing.

Curious how the rest of the conversation went? Check out our whole interview with Jon here:

Thanks to Jon Grant and his staff for making the time to chat with us, and to Evergrey Leadership Lab interviewers Elliott Bronstein, Priya Gupta, Rachael Ludwick, and Austin Valeske.