The book on how to change the world
How one of the most effective city-level politicians used the written word to change Seattle
By Emily Taylor @emrotayl
Every Seattle City Council hearing that Nick Licata was in charge of would begin with a poetry reading. The 18-year member decided early on in his political career that he wanted to offer a space for the arts and government to overlap; where better to do that than his own committees. This kind of simple change is exactly the kind of connections that Licata suggests in his book Becoming a Citizen Activist; Stories, Strategies and Advice for Changing Our World, and what he will speak about in Indianapolis later this month.
In 2012, Licata was named “Progressive Municipal Official of the Year” by The Nation magazine. The title seems to be well deserved. According to a 2015 article in The Stranger, Seattle’s alternative weekly publication, “during his time on the council, [Licata] fought for increased funding for social services and renters’ rights and against using public money for professional sports arenas. Over the last year, he’s helped lead the call for rent control.”
Over the years Licata has run into one continuous problem — how to affect change. He decided to write a play-by-play of how he spent years doing exactly that. He describes the book as a handbook:
“Many people want to improve the quality of their life but don’t know how,” says Licata. If they learn to see opportunities for improvements and know what tools are available to them, people can reshape the world they live in. Most importantly, the book shows how to work with others to sustain a democracy that allows its citizens the freedom to create a future free of prejudice and poverty.”
Licata did that in bigger ways like taking blighted buildings, zoning them as cultural districts and provide incentives for businesses coming in to care for those who were already in the neighborhood and set aside areas for performing art spaces. He started on a smaller scale with things like bringing poets into his committee meetings. In Seattle he saw it as an opportunity for unity.
“This would be something that would allow people in the art community to recognize that they could leverage government to support their efforts,” says Licata. “So we did other things as well, we created some cultural districts in Seattle that would help folks … We were able to get money put aside for artist housing, and were pushing for a fun set-up to help fund that setup.”
He also started a paper before his time as a council member. The paper began by printing 10,000 copies with a handful of volunteers. They used the money from that first printing to hire a few full time staff members and eventually launch a full newspaper.
“It played a major role in supporting newer… art galleries, and at that time the theaters were just starting up and it gave them outreach to people who might not have discovered them,” says Licata. “I think it played a role in helping build community organizations in that sense.”
Though he was only involved for the first year it was formative to how he sees the interaction of the written word and social change.
“I really think that it forces people, anyone, to think about the paper,” says Licata. “Then it forces them to see it, and think in sentences and paragraphs. And it forces them to think of beginning middle and end. The writing experience I think is a critical experience … Even simple writing forces folks to think through what they read.”
For years he used to write letters to the editor (to papers around the country), forcing himself to think critically about his own political and social stances.
“When you think about the different kinds of mediums and how they frame the reality around you,” says Licata. “It expands the ability to communicate and spread ideas. When you think about Twitter with 140 characters, I mean how many people today have their own blogs. There is so much now for people who want to share, and they feel frustrated about how to get it out … Now our struggle is that there is so much, how do we filter it? That’s probably the biggest challenge we face.”