Civic Story: Rachel Askew
“Most people hate Tacoma. I have friends who grew up in Tacoma and hated it and moved to Seattle because they didn’t believe for it.” Rachel Askew is born and bred Pierce County, and cuts to the chase talking about her city. Her quick wit and earnest friendliness show her experience working with young people. “I think a lot of people think this is dry bones, this is dead. As cheesy as it sounds, I totally believe this is the city of destiny.”
“I love Tacoma so much. And I never thought I would.”
When she was a sophomore at the University of Puget Sound, she started volunteering at a nonprofit that works with urban youth, kids in the juvenile detention system, and teen moms. Now she is a staff member and equips and develops young leaders: “The main goal is to change kids’ lives. So we do that through relationships and making more leaders indigenous to Tacoma.”
“For me, I think that I have a foundation of activism that I’ve built on over the last six-ish years, and part of activism for me is on an interpersonal basis.” With majors in communications and African American studies and a minor in business, it wasn’t just academics that shifted Rachel’s perspective. Intervening in the cycles of poverty and injustice for young people meant being part of their lives and stepping into their space.
“It’s like seeing a kid that has been walking through our programs from, let’s say, sixth grade, all the way to high school, and they graduate. A lot of kids graduate with really low literacy levels so we help them play catchup and help them get a job and a drivers license and get plugged in to career coaching or whatever it is they need to be in. If they didn’t graduate, we [help them] get their GED. If they want to go to college, we get them plugged into a program there. Whatever it takes to holistically get them ready. Nobody wants to just like suffer in their community; they want to give back to their community. Our kids don’t have the capacity because they’re financially illiterate and have never had a job before and never seen anybody with a job before in their family, or whatever the case may be. We want to create indigenous leaders, we don’t want to ship in volunteers from another neighborhood, we want to see the folks that are in that neighborhood really empowered to love and serve each other well. Now we have student leaders in high schools serving at McCarver Elementary School, and we have recent high school graduates in their 20s who have jobs, stepping in as volunteers in our middle school programs, and are being walked alongside in that whole process. I’m serving in a neighborhood that I never grew up in — I hope that I won’t be doing that for long, I hope that I will be replaced quickly, and that we would have indigenous leaders who would love their community well and develop it. It’s exciting.”
Moving to Tacoma from Puyallup gave Rachel perspective into a wholly different community despite living in Pierce County her entire life. “I grew up [as a black woman] in predominately white spaces my entire life until I came to college. When I moved to Tacoma, it didn’t seem like a big move — it’s like 20 minutes away from my hometown — but it was an incredible shift in the community spaces that I had access to.” Tacoma YFC, where Rachel volunteered and is now on staff, is a predominately black and brown site; the youth served and people working were people of color. “I got access to a piece of culture that I never had access to before outside of my family. So what Tacoma has given me is a really diverse experience. As a person of color, it was something that I was completely missing, an empty space that I didn’t even realize was there until I had access to a community of people that looked like me. And it started to bring out things in me that I had never seen before, like I was funny, and that I could be loud, and that I could be all of myself, and I didn’t have to shut down parts of that in an effort to fit into white spaces.”
The permission to be herself has inspired confidence in Rachel to live out of all of her experiences to connect with people.
“Tacoma’s a really segregated community — it’s not something that I love about our community, but I do believe that it’s something that can change. So as somebody who’s lived in both contexts, I get this really cool opportunity to bridge-build.” Having been born and raised in Tacoma, gone to college here, and now working here, Rachel has a unique opportunity. “I stayed here and continue to develop relationships with people that look like me with the new understanding of the value that that carried in my life. And now, with that experience, I have developed this really cool knack for bridge building.”
Rachel has been part of the Roadmap Academy Fellowship with the City of Tacoma, focusing on developing a comprehensive violence reduction and prevention plan for the City of Tacoma. And as a national partner with Cities United, she is part of a team helping to decrease violence in and around the black community. Over 200 cities and organizations nationwide are working to cut in half the homicide rate of black men and boys by the year 2025.
“I think my vision is that Tacoma would be all that it is on the world’s stage, and in that vein, people from all different spaces and backgrounds could interact together in one space. That we would treat our houseless people with dignity, and that we would be a demonstration to the world of what community can really look like. I see so much potential in Tacoma. We have all of these people in the right place, we just need bridges to be built. My vision is that I and others can be a connecting point for that through relationship. I think we do that really well, but we need to be able to grow that in a macro sense. I think white lawyers from Gig Harbor should be friends with a poor mother of six on the South End. I don’t think that that’s impossible…we can break down power structures. I don’t know what that’s all gonna manifest as or look like but I believe for really great things, because we have the potential. The foundation is present for great things to take place. And as a person who’s working with young leaders who have vision for their own community — I’m just pumped to be a part of the process cause they’re the ones that are really going to take it on, and make change. And I hope it’s something that’s continuous. I don’t think we’ll ever really be done.”