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Why this Seattle organizer is diving into our city’s political past

As our city keeps growing, Seattleites are feeling the crunch — of pricey housing, overburdened transit, and the rising cost of living.

One local who’s thinking hard about all that is Shaun Scott.

Shaun is an author, historian and filmmaker who’s been keeping busy politically, workshopping ideas from the bluer side of things as a writer for CityArts, an organizer for the local chapter of the Democratic Socialists of America, and a staffer for U.S. Rep. Pramila Jayapal. (He also just wrote quite the talker on the head tax.)

His latest project asks how we best grow the city today by looking at how we tried to do it decades ago — through a package of more than a dozen ballot initiatives called Forward Thrust.

The Forward Thrust initiatives were raised back in 1968 and 1970 “to prepare Seattle for its next wave of growth,” Shaun told us, and gave us tons of new parks, an upgraded sewer system, and the Mariners and Seahawks, among other things. But some bold proposals we would have loved to have by now — like 47 miles of rail transit — never made it.

We checked in with Shaun to see how things look from where he stands (and condensed our Q&A for clarity).

Why did you want to dive deeper into this bit of Seattle history?

I made a documentary back in 2008 about Seattle history and so that was sort of the genesis of finding out about Forward Thrust.

I was feeling like there’s a lot of political stagnation that exists now and many groups acting out of a sense of self-interest, not being able to see all of the ways in which taking on big civic improvement programs actually make everybody’s life better and makes the city more livable.

We seem like we’re stuck politically now, so can we look back to an era where we were not so stuck for inspiration?

Being stuck is no fun. As you see it, what’s contributing to that now?

If you have politicians that are kind of scared [about their chances of getting re-elected] and what those are going to look like down the line, you’re not really going to have leadership that’s taking a lot of big swings.

People who are already privileged are feeling like they’re getting kicked to the curb, but really what’s going on is we’re trying to get resources out of the hands of folks who have historically had too many and try to distribute those more broadly.

Aside from writing, you’re also deeply involved with Seattle’s activist community. What do you think it’ll take for Seattle to actually put to test innovative solutions?

I think we need a win. … I think it’s at the point where so many activists are getting so used to the idea that the best that you can do is lobby power, [which can] lead to a depression.

We just had a heated debate over a head tax where there was a lot of diversity of opinion across the city. As a progressive activist, how do you reach people who don’t see things the way you do?

I think that’s a lot of it has to do with understanding where the anxieties are — for example, the fear that the city is going to mismanage money that [would have] come about as a result of the head tax.

I think it’s important for those of us on the left in particular to recognize that Seattle voters historically have had a fear of largesse and a fear of one big government program infringing on the autonomy of populations.

You do a lot to bring locals together around ideas. What do you love about organizing in Seattle?

I think it’s an extension of relationship building. Once you find that community of people who are relatively like-minded, you’re able to feed off of one another in ways that sort of reinforce your commitment to the politics. When you organize because you care about people, that’s the core of it. If the empathy is not there, the organizing can’t be there because you don’t want to actually reach out to anybody.

Seattleites missed some chances at good stuff with those Forward Thrust initiatives. How do you see history repeating itself today?

I [see a lot of people] acting mostly out of a scarcity mentality that says, “What am I going to be able to get now or over the next three to four years?” as opposed to thinking in more sophisticated ways about how can all of us benefit for longer.

Go see Shaun’s talk tomorrow night (6/20) at Seattle University at 7:30 p.m. to learn more about Forward Thrust. Thanks to readers Giuliana Isaksen and Brian Stout for suggesting we reach out to Shaun. Know someone else we should spotlight? Email us at [email protected].