Nick Licata tells us how to change society

by Israel Bayer | 12 May 2016

The former Seattle councilman and author of ‘Becoming a Citizen Activist’ says everyone has the potential to make a difference. And he is bringing his message to Portland.


Nick Licata is a lifelong political activist who spent 18 years as a Seattle City Councilman.

His early activism involved work on anti-redlining and poverty issues in the early 1980s in Seattle. During his tenure as a city councilman, he has been an avid supporter of low-income people and progressive causes.

Licata will be speaking and promoting his new book, “Becoming a Citizen Activist,” at 7:30 p.m. Thursday, May 19, 2016, at Powell’s Books on Hawthorne. The book is described as a playbook for citizen activists wanting to improve the world around them. It doesn’t disappoint.

Israel Bayer: You say in your opening to the book, “You don’t have to be a Marvel comic book superhero to change the world. You don’t even have to be a saint, a revolutionary, a political leader or a community organizer.” Say more.

Nick Licata: I hesitated in using the word activist in the book title. I think sometimes people don’t realize that we all have the potential to be activists. I think what may hold some people back from trying to change their immediate environment is that the tasks ahead of us look so daunting. It’s like climbing a large mountain. The first step is recognizing that you can actually change political and social environments. A long journey starts one step at a time. Any time you begin a journey, the first step is usually the hardest because you’re going to think of a thousand reasons of why there’s something else to do first.

I.B.: In your book, you talk a lot about movement building in local government. Talk about moving people in power and elected officials closer to your position on progressive issues. 

N.L.: One of the things that I discovered being inside of government is that many people get elected really wanting to make change. You don’t get elected to office to become a bureaucrat. Many times bureaucrats are a bigger hurdle to overcome solving problems than the big, bad corporations, but there’s a different reason for that.

A reason most politicians don’t follow through on what they promise is that they don’t know how to get there. They become frustrated. Also, water runs downhill. It’s much easier to start taking larger contributions from fewer people the longer you stay in office. You start talking to a narrower stream of people and are informed by a smaller group of people you trust.A reason most politicians don’t follow through on what they promise is that they don’t know how to get there. They become frustrated. Also, water runs downhill. It’s much easier to start taking larger contributions from fewer people the longer you stay in office. You start talking to a narrower stream of people and are informed by a smaller group of people you trust. It becomes easier to follow this route because of life, time or money crunches. People in power typically have more powerful networks. A lot of people get elected to office as idealists, but they become more practical. Over time the practicality begins to overshadow their idealism. In the end, it ends up hurting progressive movements overall because then elected officials can’t deliver on their promises and even worse yet, begin to drift off in other directions.

Part of my message for citizens that run for office and get elected is don’t walk away from the people that got you into office, and my message to citizens: Don’t walk away from people in office. You have to build and sustain authentic relationships.

I.B.: You spent 18 years as a Seattle city councilman. Were there times you lost your way and had to reassess where your values were? 

N.L.: It is a scary process. One of the things I tried to do was tell myself every election I wasn’t going to run for office again and that life would go on. I would assume that I would either not run or not get re-elected. It’s the opposite of optimism. It’s like, OK, this is the only time I’m going to be here so I’m going to do what I want to do or what the larger community pushes me to do. Every politician worries about being re-elected. It’s a job that you’re up for review and have a new interview every two to four years.

I.B.: You said, “Many times bureaucrats are a bigger hurdle to overcome solving problems that the big, bad corporations.” Talk more about that. Tell us how you define bureaucrat and why they become a barrier in creating real social change.  

N.L.: The term “bureaucrat” certainly has a negative connotation. And I don’t try to use it to describe staff. However, I have found in my 18 years in government that sometimes, all too often, unfortunately, central staff not directly accountable to an elected official see things through a narrow focus: how to get something done without taking into account what is best for the public or those who might be negatively impacted.

Perhaps they have become jaded over time as to how to look at things differently. They tend to do things the way they have always been done. And therefore that is the right way. They are not risk-takers, and because they are not risk-takers and they are not rewarded for being that way, they tend to lead newly elected officials down the path of caution, pointing to why something cannot work, like providing paid sick leave or banning plastic bags. It’s not that they are conservative or liberal, but rather they most often see the status quo as working so don’t rock the boat. Because of that attitude and frame of mind, they have a very nuanced yet powerful way of shaping issues that discourages challenging the status quo.

I.B.: It feels like the same conversation is happening in cities up and down the West Coast about the issue of homelessness and massive rental increases. What are your thoughts on the current climate and ways we can address the growing need? 

N.L.: We have to be more open to encampments. It’s just a reality. It’s not a final strategy. The battle then, of course, is that neighborhoods come in and say we don’t want encampment in our neighborhoods.

The debate about affordable housing has to be a very focused and visible support for the lowest strata of people surviving on our streets and in low-income housing, our most vulnerable.

As you get pushback from neighborhoods and others, the response has to be creating more subsidized units so more people aren’t on our streets. I know the argument from the market-rate developers is that we just need more market-rate housing built and the reality is that doesn’t solve the problem we have in front of us by any stretch of the imagination.

I.B.: Talk about the angry neighborhood folks and businesses leaders pushing their agenda on housing and homelessness. It seems like you need real political leadership to stand up and say we’ve got to have more affordable housing, and that may mean more encampments in the meantime.

N.L.: It really is a frightening process to go through as an elected official. The business community and neighborhoods are going to turn out people in large numbers, but you soon realize that they don’t necessarily represent the entire community’s perspective or priorities. You have to look at the bigger picture. People want an explanation, and they want elected officials to do something. It’s not always going to be popular, but the reality is politicians should be looking to target that middle strata and to frame the conversation in a way that brings people along and ultimately helps people.

I.B.: What are the pros and cons of working on the outside of the political machine versus working on the inside of it? 

N.L.: Protests, without a doubt, get media coverage, and you can help grow the movement, but ultimately the purpose of a movement is to gain power. When you think about it, what is the mechanism for power? It’s government. It may look different in different places, but the purpose of a movement is to gain political power. You have to use what political power you have or the tools you have available. One of the advantages of having an ally in government is not that he or she can vote your way, but that they are literally working with you to help frame an issue or working with you to disseminate information back out to the people. It also helps to have authentic relationships in government to help you understand the tools that are available to move an issue forward.

I.B.: Tell us more about the book itself and why Street Roots readers should pick it up. 

N.L.: I wrote this book trying to look at it through the lens of how did I end up going from a grassroots activist to being inside of government for more than 18 years. In some ways it’s a how-to book. I go into how do you get political power and change society. The book dives deep, but also looks at the small steps we can all take to move an issue forward without compromising your principles. It takes almost a craftsman look at a larger journey of social activism in all of our lives and what we can do.

I.B.: Tell us what we have to be hopeful for. 

N.L.: Let’s put it this way, there’s never going to be any progress without hope. In the end, the final element you have for social change is your attitude. You can do all of the other mechanics right around building a social movement, but it really comes down to three things. You really do have to have an open mind. An open mind means that you’re always listening and working to build bridges with people. The second is, you really have to believe, to make change, that there are tools available to make social change. If you’re of the attitude that the shed is empty and there are no tools, really what you’re saying is “I’m not going to do anything.” I argue that we do have tools available to us and that if you’re not picking them up to use them for the benefit of people or society, then someone else will, and we may not like it. The third element is that we have to enjoy life when we can. The pursuit of happiness isn’t a given. You have to take it. Every time we have a win, even if it’s not everything we wanted, we have to celebrate it. You can’t always focus on the half-empty glass of water. Here’s the problem: A lot of liberals will go home and celebrate and are happy with that, not recognizing that tomorrow, we have to go out and work on the other half of the glass.

###