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Nikkita Oliver – Poetic and Political Powerhouse

You might recall the name Nikkita Oliver from the most recent mayoral election.  I had no clue what she was about other than that, but I had an opportunity to witness her in action at a recent event here at SCC, and as it turns out, Nikkita Oliver is kind of hard to pin down.  An activist, an artist, a boxer and jiujiteira*, a lawyer, a political player, among many other identities, over the course of an hour Oliver shifted between styles of speech effortlessly, and yet throughout her presentation I had a constant, consistent impression of authenticity.  She opened with an invitation to breathe, to settle into our bodies, to feel our feet and shoulders, to let go of tensions both corporeal and otherwise, and I was reminded immediately of a yoga instructor, setting a tone of emotional intimacy with structured ease. From there, she gave us a spoken-word poem wrapped around the Swahili word Nia, a guiding principle of Kwanzaa that means “purpose,” and that explicitly stated goal of intentionality hit a note that remained resonant with every rapidly measured beat of the rhythm she dropped.

She also paid recognition to the reality of our city and populace as occupying land stolen from indigenous Duwamish and Suquamish peoples, who are still living among us without formal legal recognition or compensation for their losses of land and culture, and built with labor from people who had been stolen from another continent and condemned by force to generations of enslavement.  This reality seems to inform Oliver’s philosophy of values, not shying away from harsh and uncomfortable truths and unapologetic in its blunt acknowledgement of historic, and current, systemic violence against particular groups of people. A queer woman of color, Oliver knows only too well the oppression concomitant with minority status, but she also identified her own privilege as a light-skinned Black woman in a country that statistically deals much harsher damage to her darker skinned brethren.  The intersection of privilege and oppression seems to be a nexus from whence Oliver draws an ice-cold, clear-eyed analysis of the culture that surrounds us.

That analysis acts as impetus to Oliver’s strategy of what she terms “disruptive storytelling”. Using her linguistic skills developed as a hip-hop and freestyle artist and honed as a working attorney to deliver vivid, incisive commentary, Oliver is clearly both quick on her feet and comfortable in front of a crowd.  Impressed, I watched her transition between poetry and prose, song and speech, to challenge the various tenets of the Eurocentric, cisgender, heteronormative ethos that dominates our American ideological landscape. In a piece which featured the refrain “I am my own medicine,” Oliver drew comparisons between elements associated with decay to those with science, progress, and healing; rot, rust, and mold were juxtaposed with vaccines and the kind of strength that is acquired through hardship.  She circled back to the conclusion that the medicine, or solutions, to our social ills live within us, and most particularly within our communities.

The intersection of privilege and oppression seems to be a nexus from whence Oliver draws an ice-cold, clear-eyed analysis of the culture that surrounds us.

Oliver’s modus operandi is fairly simple and she outlined what she considers to be her three essential priorities for effective political and social change: to serve, to politically educate, and to mobilize.  Service, to Oliver, means listening deeply to the group or community that is seeking change in order to meet their needs so that they are then able to expand past a sphere of day-to-day survival. Once achieved, that community is then much more able to take a longer view toward the future and begin making plans to benefit the coming generations, developing a far-sighted strategy of further betterment.  It also allows the capacity for deeper political education, which includes functional knowledge of political and bureaucratic systems and how to work with them; understanding of underlying political intrigues and dramas; the knowledge of what tactics work when, and how to effectively work within an explicitly political environment; how to create policy, or challenge it. Beyond that is the need to mobilize: to create action from ideas, to get people to where they need to be, to get boots on the ground, but also to connect with people on an emotional level.  Oliver says, “If you can touch people’s hearts, you can change their minds.” Combined, these three principles create a solid, functioning guideline for decision-making and informed a huge part of Oliver’s campaign style.

One of the many things Oliver said that has since stuck hard for me is the observation that the people most affected by the failures of society are the ones who should be, and need to be, closest to the power to effect change. Instead, they are typically the ones most restricted from access to creating solutions, which is why so many of our social ills are chronic and recurring.  As a city, and a country, we are seeing a growing population of people made homeless, decreasing access to affordable medical care, and much more. It is such a bitter irony that it’s the people at a distinct remove from the problems who have the greatest ability to solve them, but lack the motivation and the understanding and expertise to actually do so. Old men make decisions about birth control and medical access that affect women more significantly than men; white people make decisions that drastically affect the communities of people of color; rich people make decisions which maintain poverty.  I tried to imagine the alternative, a society where the people affected by a decision were the ones making it, and it seemed like a fairy tale; something too good to ever be real.

Oliver’s modus operandi is fairly simple… for effective political and social change: to serve, to politically educate, and to mobilize.

For Oliver, though, it seems to be a concrete goal worthy of a lifetime of effort, and attainable with persistence, and she emphasized that “a diversity of tactics” is necessary, and intrinsic, to the process of political and social change.  We are all capable of different things, have different skills, different abilities, different strengths and weaknesses. We have to bring them all together, to connect in community with mutual goals, in order to make genuine progress as a people.  We are at a critical cusp, both a political one but without doubt an environmental one as well, and a social one, as these things are all tied together, and it is right now that we are in desperate need for everyone to take a pull in whatever way they are capable.  Oliver hit upon the criticality of team effort and the need for every day action. And we are seeing it, as more young people become involved and more first-time political campaigns are run. This system is desperate for a fresh infusion of blood.

I had the opportunity to ask Oliver a few questions at the very end.  I also do jiujitsu, so I asked about gyms that she recommends, as well as her opinion of the role of independent journalism in today’s climate, and how to balance the drive for public attention with the principle of integrity and respect.  I then asked if she has any plans for the future. She gave me an indefinable look. “I do have plans, but I’m not going to say what they are.” Nikkita Oliver, like any good boxer, like any wrestler, hard to pin to the very last. But I won’t be surprised to see her name crop up again along the way.  Like we say on the mats, you either win or you learn, but you never lose. I think we all have quite a bit we could learn from this particular example of humanity.

Here is the video of Nikkita’s presentation, filmed by Seattle Central’s College Activities Board: Nikkita Oliver @ Central

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