“I heard the gunshots behind me. I ran around the corner of the building as fast as I could and looked back. I felt like my heart was exploding from my chest."
Silence filled the classroom as Tijani described escaping from a shooter in his neighborhood. It was 2016 and I was leading a workshop for 7th graders as part of a non-profit organization that I founded called Rising Leaders, Inc. Rising Leaders aims to equip underserved middle school students with professional networks, mentorship, and monthly trainings. In this particular workshop, we worked with students on their personal statements — stories they would one day submit with their college applications. We asked them to think of life experiences that shaped who they are and to connect those experiences to their broader goals. One by one, students in the wealthiest country in the world told stories of surviving multiple shootings, living in homeless shelters, or losing their parents only to go through a traumatic foster system.
If you spend any time with Rising Leaders students, you will see they are brilliant, thoughtful, and mature beyond their years. If you look up their state exam results, you could find that only 5% are meeting state standards for math and 8% are meeting state standards for English.
This is our society’s shameful discrepancy: extremely talented kids, bad life outcomes. What explains this gap? Hearing our students’ personal statements, it was not hard to understand some of the sources of this discrepancy: poverty, trauma, and a dearth of resources and infrastructure in their schools and neighborhoods.
Like Tijani and our other students, I know this dynamic personally growing up in South Seattle. My parents are Ethiopian refugees who gave birth to me in a refugee town in Sudan. When I turned 3, we boarded a plane and flew across the Atlantic to the United States through a resettlement program. Neither of my parents had the opportunity to go to college so they worked minimum-wage, physically demanding jobs in nursing homes. We lived in many of Seattle’s public housing projects, including Rainier Vista and Holly Park. When I was eight, we even lived in a homeless shelter through the Union Gospel Mission. I’ll never forget the feelings of not having a place to call our own, constantly having strangers in our personal space, and losing control over the most basic things like the types of food we were allowed to bring to our room.
But fortunately for me, I have a mother who was relentless about protecting and providing for her children through all this adversity. She worked three jobs at a time to give us everything we needed to survive and thrive, even though that meant she rarely slept. She worked evening and graveyard shifts as a nursing assistant, lifting patients and cleaning up after them, for 16 hours or more every single day just to make basic ends meet. She did this brutal work for decades until both of her knees gave out. She is now disabled.
She gave every ounce of herself so her kids could have a better future and I knew I could not squander that sacrifice.
I tried my absolute hardest at Franklin High School and was able to graduate with honors and enroll at Stanford University. Attending a school like Stanford helped me realize how many of our realities in South Seattle are inequitable and unacceptable in a modern society. It’s unacceptable to grow up with no parents in our household because our single mother had to work double shifts, 7 days a week, only to be one paycheck away from financial ruin. It’s unacceptable to know dozens of young men who have been shot and killed in our neighborhood. It’s unacceptable to have our family and neighbors suffering from mental illnesses with nowhere to go for care. It’s unacceptable for half our family to have asthma because people of color were forced to live in dilapidated, unsanitary army units in segregated and under-resourced parts of the city. Most importantly, it’s unacceptable that many, if not most, of these realities are products of policy decisions.
Once I knew public policy could design despair, I realized it could also design hope. These realizations fueled my drive to pursue public service and fight for poor and working-class families through anti-poverty and anti-racism work. After graduating from Stanford in 2009, I participated in a year-long fellowship program that trains leaders to fight poverty and hunger in the U.S. I spent the first six months in Bed-Stuy, Brooklyn, where I helped low-income residents get access to fresh food by incorporating produce into local corner stores and food banks. I realized, however, that while food banks offer temporary hunger relief, they do not implement the systemic changes necessary for long-term prosperity.
Seeking to change systems, I moved to Washington, D.C. and worked with policy organizations to advocate for better federal legislation on behalf of low-income citizens. I researched and wrote summaries on Congressional proposals, such as healthcare and tax reform, that aimed to aid the poor.
I helped activists around the country participate in the political process by updating them on federal legislation and showing them how to persuade their elected officials to vote in their favor. I also met with members of Congress to report my findings on community health in Brooklyn. They all agreed that having first-hand accounts from community members is integral to making sound policy. I learned here that the most effective solutions to poverty marry the strengths of grassroots and government efforts: bold legislation that actively seeks input, leadership, and commitment from the people it is intended to impact.
After my time doing policy and organizing work, I enrolled in the University of Pennsylvania Law School where I was elected class president. In my third year of law school, I interned at the White House and saw how the Obama administration combined law, policy, and grassroots efforts to drive change. I was excited to one day run for office and do the same in King County, the community that raised me.
In 2014, I started my legal career in New York at Skadden Arps. Practicing as an attorney taught me how to solve problems, manage projects, and communicate effectively. But private practice was too removed from the communities I wanted to serve. With this in mind, I co-founded Rising Leaders to give underserved students support, mentors, and life-skills training.
After moving back to Seattle in 2017, I practiced law at Perkins Coie and launched a second chapter of Rising Leaders in Seattle with the help of dozens of incredible volunteers from around King County. But just like I felt when living in New York and DC about food pantries, I began to feel like mentorship has its limitations. Helping individual students is critical, and it is also true that opportunities exist to make broader structural change to help many youth at once.
With this in mind, I ran for the King County Council in 2019. I wanted to help build a region where students like Tijani feel safe and supported so they too can have the option to go to college, start businesses or nonprofits, achieve their personal goals and serve their communities. I believe King County is a region with enough talent and resources to ensure the health and wellbeing of every person who lives here. We just need the right regional policies and leaders to get us there.
My name is Girmay Zahilay and I began my term on the King County Council in 2020. I ran for this seat because I believe in the promise of all our residents from our youth to our senior citizens. I ran because in one of the wealthiest counties of the wealthiest nation in the world, none of our neighbors should be too poor to live. I believe that county government must take a leadership role in building affordable housing, fixing our criminal justice system, promoting environmental justice, and providing reliable access to transportation.
In my first term in office, I have collaborated with communities and colleagues in every corner of this region to advance transformational policies that will be felt for generations. We have worked together to build thousands of units of affordable homes, make generational investments in our behavioral health system through the crisis care centers initiative, transform our criminal justice system, dramatically increase voter turnout, change the fate of one of the most underserved neighborhoods in the state, pass historic tenant protections, and much more. You can read about more of our policy victories here: electgirmay.com/victories
In 2023, I am running for my second term. I hope to get to know you and your priorities, and hopefully earn your support. Let's work together to build a brighter future in King County.