History may repeat itself in a dust-up in progress over the Old Coleman School, located on 23rd and Massachusetts in the Central District. Known to many as the African American Heritage Museum and Cultural Center, it’s an open question now whether the building will remain in the hands of a nonprofit, under the direction of a coalition of activists, or whether the city of Seattle will evict the current tenants and reclaim the property.
In 1985, a group of African-American activists took over the closed building and demanded that the city turn it over to the community for a museum. For months the group occupied the building in an uneasy standoff with the city. Eventually, the city backed down and allowed the activists to stay; the original occupation, now in its 13th year, has turned into the longest-running building occupation in U.S. history.
In 1995, Mayor Rice commissioned a task force to deal with the building occupation. The task force concluded that the museum should be funded, and the city established a nonprofit to run it. Several members of the original group of occupiers joined the board of the nonprofit, and the city pledged half a million dollars in start-up funds.
But, whenever government and money enters the picture, so do “professionals.” The most recent chair of the nonprofit’s board is Bob Flowers, a senior vice president at Washington Mutual Bank. His idea of running a nonprofit organization includes hiring a full-time professional staff person for $48,000 per year (who answers to him) and hiring a cadre of lawyers, architects, and marketing consultants for $100 to $150 per hour to do endless studies of the museum project and throw posh fundraising parties, while the Colman School building continues to deteriorate. It’s a long, long way from the original vision of a center run by and for one of the city’s poorest neighborhoods. Activists, including some members of the original occupation group, are battling with the nonprofit board to make public the financial records of the organization.
All of this is coming to a head just as the nonprofit’s lease on the building expired March 15th, giving the city the option at any time to seize it back and evict the current tenants.
It’s a conflict that many nonprofit groups with their origins in grassroots struggles face all over the country. At the AAHM&CC, the nonprofit board wants the group to raise a lot of money (which attracts “money managers” like flies to shit), and undertake a vague program of building a high-toned cultural museum some time in the distant future, while the immediate goal is for the nonprofit to become an attractive charity for wealthy, liberal donors. On the other hand, a group of community activists wants the nonprofit to open its books so the public can see where all the money is going. This group wants the museum to be a community center that gives something back to the community and is run by the community, a goal that’s sure to alienate rich, white, liberal donors and the city of Seattle…but, unfortunately, may also risk the success of the project itself.
Obviously another marble-halled museum is not going to give much back to Seattle’s African-American communities. The original occupiers of the Colman School had another model in mind: a cultural center that would provide cheap or free meeting space, with as many extras included as they could manage: medical clinic, restaurant, vocational center, Internet services, radio or TV station…the list of possibilities is endless and limited only by the funds available. So far, most of the funds the city has doled out to the nonprofit board has been pocketed by professionals, and little real work has been done on the museum and cultural center itself.
The ultimate irony is that it may take another occupation to win what activists thought they already had won. Currently, activists are occupying the nonprofit’s offices in a trailer behind the Colman School, demanding that the nonprofit allow them a voice in the decision-making process, and that all of the funds be accounted for. They’re anticipating that the city of Seattle will side with the nonprofit board or simply decide to close down the project altogether. Police may arrive any day to evict them.
To offer help with the Colman occupation, call: 206-320-9723; 320-9527; or 680-8916.