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Reimagine Seattle: John Wesley Sargent

The challenges of the past two years have changed the way we live, the way we work, and the way we show up for each other. They have also given us a rare chance to collectively reimagine our future. Through the Reimagine Seattle Storytelling Project we invite community members to reflect on their current experiences in Seattle, how they have been impacted by recent events, and their hopes for the future of our city.

Reimagining Seattle

by John Wesley Sargent

I am proudly a native Texan turned New Yorker (2011-1018) who moved to Seattle in the summer of 2018. What right do I have to reimagine this city? There are architects, engineers, city planners, designers, politicians, business leaders, activists, and community organizers with far more time, energy, and capital invested in this endeavor.

However, I will graciously and humbly attempt to give my perspective.  I am the creative director of a Seattle based non-profit aimed at revitalizing organic urban farming and designing better food production and distribution systems. Our goal is to ensure that everyone has access to pure water and organic produce on a daily basis, especially the most vulnerable and disenfranchised populations. (Sounds simple enough.)

As an individual, I am deeply interested in creating more conversations aimed at articulating the cultural complexities, intellectual diversity, and political polarization that exists within American cities. I think we have so much to learn from each other, and it’s a shame that we aren’t mature enough to discuss complex issues without digressing into identity-based insults. We’re better than that. We have to be better than that!

At one point in time, I was a tour manager and booking agent for independent bands and a marketing executive at two record labels in NYC. Working in the music industry, I spent quality time in at least 100 American cities. I must admit that I have not experienced a (major) city in America that is more aesthetically pleasing or filled with such beautifully designed green spaces as I have in Seattle. (This was at least true before the pandemic)

I had no intention of moving here. I loved New York City and still do. When I came to visit my brother for a week during the summer of 2018, I knew it was the place I needed to be. I felt like I could breathe in a way that I hadn’t experienced in many years. I found peace here.

My question to myself and to you is: How do we help everyone find peace? Those without homes; those without jobs or financial security; those who have lost their businesses due to policies enforced during this pandemic; those without adequate food or healthcare; those who protest city initiatives and demand swift change; and those who graffiti “ACAB” on walls as a response to their dissatisfaction with policing efforts. 

The cynic may say, “It’s not my job to worry about everyone’s peace…just my own.” To which I say, fair enough. But are you okay with watching one of the most beautiful cities in the world become a continual battleground? Is that the landscape you want your children to grow up in? Is that the climate you want to build your business in? Does the unrest and anger of thousands of voices have to reach YOUR front doorstep before you become concerned with the welfare of everyone else?

I don’t think that an “every person for themselves” philosophy is sustainable for a city. There has to be room within the framework of a democratic capitalist society for accountability. And if there isn’t room for accountability, do we need another system? 

I happen to have a very diverse group of peers. They don’t all know about each other and they certainly wouldn’t agree to all be in the same room together. Some work in tech. Some for non-profits. Some in government. Some are activists. Some lobbyists. Some are artists. Some anarchists. Some voted for Trump. Some don’t vote. Some are Democrats for life. Some want to build communes on the outskirts of the city. And some want to build their personal paradise a few blocks away from Amazon’s headquarters. 

My biggest goal right now is rooted in finding ways to imagine the facilitation of conversations between individuals and groups of people that have very different perspectives. It feels like everyone is just yelling at each other without listening. Every time I go back to visit Texas, someone asks me if I’m safe in Seattle. They’ve heard about “armed anarchists” and “radical militants” taking over neighborhoods. I tell them “That’s ridiculous. Nothing like that is happening here. That’s just sensationalism by the press.”

While national media does sensationalize most of the events that have happened in Seattle over the past year, I think we can all admit that we can and MUST do better! More businesses are shutdown than ever before. More businesses are boarded up due to fear that their property will be destroyed. More people are out of work. More people are homeless. More people lack food security. More people feel unsafe. More people are dissatisfied with local and state government. Let’s start there.

Let’s say that no one in particular is to blame. Can we at least admit that we have a problem? That there are many things we need to be collectively concerned with fixing…right now?

I’m not against marches, protests, sit-ins, demonstrations or any other kind of political participation. I just want to imagine a city where we don’t need to have any of that. How is one of the most affluent cities in the world, failing to imagine solutions that provide sustainability for so many of its citizens?

Can we create more public conversations between government officials, non-profit and community leaders, business owners, and concerned citizens? 

I was asked how I would reimagine this city. But is it even possible that my imagination is any different than yours???

Who doesn’t want affordable housing, clean water, healthy food, good clothes, health care, quality education, transportation, and the ability to live without fear of encountering discrimination or violence? Does my American dream have to compete with yours? Can we all feel safe walking home at night or is that too radical of a concept to design?

Who doesn’t want to have trust in their local government and in those who are tasked with “protecting and serving” our communities?

I’m willing to bet all of my $600 government stipend (lol) that your imagination and my imagination are the same in this matter. The problem is…we never talk to each other. We live in zip codes that look similar, but our worlds couldn’t be more different. 

We need to talk more. We need to collaborate more. We need to sit down at the table (or the Zoom call) and articulate what the new social contract entails. And we need to do that immediately. 

I will listen to anyone, from any background, who is working towards the goal of achieving sustainability for everyone. Will you?

John Wesley Sargent is a creative director, curator, and community organizer based in Seattle, WA. He presently directs Seattle BIPOC Organic (Food Bank). This non-profit organization is focused on designing and producing organic urban farms and food distribution networks in order to ensure that everyone has access to pure water and healthy food on a daily basis. 

Submissions for the Reimagine Seattle Storytelling Project were commissioned by the Seattle Department of Neighborhoods. The opinions expressed and information contained in each submission do not necessarily reflect the policies, plans, beliefs, conclusions, or ideas, of the City of Seattle.