streetwise revisited: one story among the countless

streetwise revisited: one story among the countless

I first came across this photograph in May 2015 when I learned the photographer, Mary Ellen Mark, had passed away. I felt entranced by the photograph’s irony: a child living in Seattle dressed up to look like an adult French prostitute. This costume wasn’t far off from reality.

This photo is part of a larger collection of photographs by Mary Ellen Mark for a 1983 LIFE magazine piece “Streets of the Lost,” that documented the lives of street children in Seattle who made their living as prostitutes, pimps, and drug dealers. Among these children was Erin Blackwell (pictured above), known as Tiny, who spent her time on the streets with her friends as a prostitute and lived with her alcoholic mother who said she thought Blackwell’s prostitution was “just a phase.” A year later, in 1984, Mary Ellen Mark and her filmmaker husband, Martin Bell, released STREETWISE, a documentary film about the same children that was nominated for an Academy Award. While at the time Seattle was credited as “America’s most livable city,” this story painted a stark contrast.

A few weeks ago, I went to the Seattle Public Library to see a collection of Mary Ellen Mark’s photographs—“Streetwise Revisited: A 30-year Journey”—that included images from the Life feature, stills from the film STREETWISE, and new photographs that fill in the gaps in Blackwell’s story over the decades.

Thirty-three years later, it’s heartbreaking how Blackwell’s story is still relevant today. Families with children make up a quarter of King County’s (where Seattle is located) homeless population. The number of people without shelter in Seattle increased by 20 percent between this year and last. As the city continues to grow, so has the homeless population, which includes many with mental health issues. Blackwell’s is therefore just one of countless similar stories in Aggregate’s backyard.

I’ve come to learn that one story doesn’t change the world, but many iterations of the same tale told over time does. Hopefully Mary Ellen Mark and Martin Bell’s retelling of Blackwell’s story will help sway public policy in Seattle and the state of Washington to come up with effective ways to address homelessness, and the trauma, abuse, and addiction with which it is associated.

In fact, I like to think this is why Mark and Bell were relentless in sharing Blackwell’s life with us. The story must continue to be told. We must continue to listen and talk about the issues. We must be empathetic and take action to help those around us.

If you have the chance, go and see “Streetwise Revisited: A 30-year Journey” at the Central Library before it closes on November 3. Mark and her husband were working on a follow-up documentary on Blackwell’s life since STREETWISE. Despite Mark’s passing last year, the film, “Tiny: The Life of Erin Blackwell,” is complete and will be screened at the Central Library on October 14. Martin Bell will be present for a Q&A session following the screening. I hope you can make it. Bring a friend and keep the conversation alive.


Photo credit: Mary Ellen Mark

Poetry, Buses, and Activism

Poetry, Buses, and Activism

I saw a bus ad the other day calling for submissions for Poetry on Buses, one of my favorite public art programs in Seattle. It reminded me of a conversation I had back in May with my friend Elizabeth Austen, who was the Washington State poet laureate until earlier this year.


I’d been thinking about art as activism after writing about Kehinde Wiley’s exhibition at Seattle Art Museum, when I concluded that art doesn’t necessarily exist to change the world, but to spark conversation, and perhaps, to set viewers on a path towards action down the road.


When I asked Elizabeth her thoughts on the topic she told me, “To choose to be an artist in our culture is in itself a form of activism. And activism isn’t just about ‘let’s change the world,’ it can be about ‘let’s change ourselves, let’s make space for humanity.’” This statement is one of the reasons I love Elizabeth (I actually have a line from one of her poems tattooed on my arm, so I’m not kidding)––she reminds me that there are many ways to be in the world.


Whether or not she defines herself as an activist poet, Elizabeth finds the most joy and meaning as a poet when her work causes people to think about something in a different way. And she thinks we should all be reading poetry by poets like Claudia Rankine, Lucille Clifton, Tim Seibles, Adrienne Rich, Sharon Olds, and Danez Smith. She also shared that there is “a huge, fabulous area of very socially and politically engaged poetry happening now––the internet has democratized access and sprouted up communities of poets.” So, your new favorite activist poet may be just a few mouse clicks away.


If you’ve got a poem to share—activist or otherwise—and are a resident of King County, Washington, consider submitting your own poem to this year’s Poetry on Buses project, Your Body of Water.


Image credit: Chris Blakeley via Flickr

the loudest day for american women: international women’s day

the loudest day for american women: international women’s day

Five years ago today, a man in Paris stopped me to give me a flower as I walked down the Boulevard St. Germain.

“For you, on your special day,” he told me. Reading the confusion on my face, he quickly added, “Happy International Women’s Day!”

I smiled and thanked him as I accepted the flower.

Twenty-one years I’d been living on this earth, and March 8, 2011 was the first time I had ever heard of International Women’s Day. Why did I have to move abroad to learn about this important commemoration?

Women’s Day isn’t a foreign concept. Its roots can be traced back to February 28, 1909 in the United States when the Socialist Party of America observed the first National Women’s Day, but progress on national recognition for this occasion stalled with the dissolution of the party and earning the right to vote. It wasn’t until 1975 that the United Nations began to recognize and celebrate the day. In 1977, the UN General Assembly adopted a resolution proclaiming a United Nations Day for Women’s Rights and International Peace.

Perhaps the occasion’s ties to labor ideals associated with Lenin’s socialist party affected its success in the United States. Perhaps male politicians thought it was enough to give women the right to vote in 1920 or allowing women to permanently join the workforce after World War II was significant progress.

Whatever the reasons were that have stopped International Women’s Day from being as widely-celebrated in the United States as holidays like Mother’s Day, they are no longer valid. It’s 2016. We should be celebrating all women at all stages of life, especially the independent, working woman.

According to a study by Dalberg Global Development Advisors, women today drive the global economies. We invest more of our income than men in education, health, and nutrition, yet in the global workforce, we make 10 to 30 percent less money than men. If women were paid an equal rate, $28 trillion (26%) could be added to the global annual GDP by 2025. If you really think about it, parity in the workforce would open up opportunities and resources to address some of our biggest social challenges.

Today should be celebrated as loudly as Mother’s Day, if not louder. The conversation today should be about gender parity, but it should also go beyond that. We should be talking about empowering women of all ages by: celebrating female friendships, heroes, and matriarchy; embracing singlehood as an opportunity for independence, strength, and growth; vocalizing our right to choose what we do with our own bodies; and, sharing the gifts of diversity in age, physical appearance, and culture. Most importantly, today’s conversations should include men. We cannot expect them to know or share in our thinking if we exclude them.

March 8, 2011 marked the first time I was acknowledged for being a woman in this world—no strings attached—and I continue to celebrate International Women’s Day with my family and friends each year.

Join me in loudly celebrating double X chromosomes today by sharing your appreciation with your friends and family. You can join the larger conversation on social media by using the hashtag #IWD2016.

kind of a big deal

kind of a big deal

We’re thrilled over here in Aggregate land to announce that we’re working with Academy Award-nominated documentary filmmaker David France to develop and run the social impact campaign in support of his new film about trans rights pioneers Sylvia Rivera and Marsha P. Johnson. We’re super fans of David’s first film, How to Survive a Plague, and it was our fandom that – in part – contributed to having this opportunity. David knew we were a passionate group and that we understand what he is trying to do: tell stories about those who are not widely known, but should be because they changed the world – for all of us and for the better. Plus, we wrote a kick ass proposal.

The film is still in production; they will begin editing this spring. Aggregate’s work will involve working with the Sylvia & Marsha (working title) team – which includes producers Kim Reed (Prodigal Sons) and L.A. Teodosio (Love is Strange) – to create and implement the social impact outreach strategy, develop and manage the film’s advisory group and organizational partnerships, raise funding for the campaign, and more.

We’ll keep you posted on our progress and look forward to seeing you when the film premieres.

worthy in your eyes

worthy in your eyes

Aggregate celebrated four years of being in business this October and today we celebrate four years of showing our gratitude by giving back. We donate approximately 10 percent of our profits each year.

Selecting the organizations to which we make donations is a collaborative process, with staff proposing their ideas for organizations that reflect Aggregate’s values as a company: committed to social justice and equity, unapologetic about their passion, and believers in storytelling – in its many forms – as a tool for social change.

Every day in our work, we must pitch ideas to clients and make effective arguments as to why they should be embraced. And we must develop and execute upon communications strategies that impel people to take actions that will help our clients achieve their missions. So these pitches are also an opportunity for staff to hone their skills. In this case, they need to convince ME to write a check.

Wait…WHAT? Subjective decision-making?


Just as many of our “worthy” ideas never see the light of day because we have failed to convince a client to embrace them, only a few among the many that are worthy of our support ultimately make the list.

Once again I am proud of the team for their ideas. We share these organizations with you in the hopes that you will consider joining us in supporting them. But if we don’t convince you, we hope you’ll still share your good fortune with other organizations that are worthy in your eyes.

We remained loyal.
We made our fourth annual donation to the Southern Center for Human Rights. The Center provides legal representation to people facing the death penalty, improves legal representation for people who are low-income, and challenges human rights violations in prisons and jails. This year was also the fourth year we made a donation to the Ali Forney Center in New York City, which provides services to homeless LGBTQ youth. And for the fourth year in a row, we made the donation in honor of Spencer Cox, who gave so much to all of us in his efforts to end the AIDS pandemic.

We did something we never did before.
We maintain a strict line between our charitable donations and our business development efforts (i.e., we’re sincere), so we’ve never made a donation to a client organization. But then we had the honor of working with the Abortion Care Network. At the end of a year during which women’s access to their constitutional right to plan their families was attacked repeatedly, we think it’s an imperative to support providers who literally risk their lives every day to provide exceptional care to their patients. The Abortion Care Network is small in size, but enormous in ambition and their value to the abortion care community. We want them to succeed.

We believe in justice – in all its manifestations.
We’re heading into an election year and we need to be prepared to ensure that those who want to go to the polls are not impeded and their votes are counted, so we made the decision to support Common Cause. We appreciate how the Campaign for Youth Justice uses storytelling in their effort to end the practice of prosecuting, sentencing, and incarcerating youth under the age of 18 in the adult criminal justice system, so we made a donation to them to help them to continue to do so. We made a donation to Girls Who Code to help bridge the gender gap and inspire, educate, and equip more girls to have the computing skills they need to succeed. We donated to The Marshall Project, a nonprofit media organization focused on reporting on the American criminal justice system, because they help to make us smarter every day. We donated to Seattle’s Splash to support their efforts to provide clean water to kids around the world and, specifically, in response to the earthquake in Nepal this past April. And we made a donation to the Sylvia Rivera Law Project to better enable the organization to guarantee that all people are free to self-determine gender identity and expression, regardless of income or race, and without facing harassment, discrimination or violence. And because we love Sylvia.

We’re good friends.
We made a donation to The Lowline in New York to support our friend Dan Barasch to build an underground park in an historic trolley terminal on the Lower East Side. We supported Kat Galasso’s Kickstarter campaign to relaunch The Floatones at La Mama. And we supported another friend to show support to HIS friend by riding in DC’s Ride to Conquer Cancer.

We (still) love filmmakers.
For the third year in a row we are supporting the True/False Pay the Artists Program to enable the festival to financially support the filmmakers who screen their films at the fest (beyond travel costs) and to encourage others to invest in independent documentary filmmaking.

We attended Good Pitch this October and made donations to two of the films presented that day: Whose Streets and Canary in a Coal Mine. Whose Streets is the Ferguson MO story as told by the activists who took to the streets when Michael Brown is murdered by the police. It is “a first-hand look at how the murder of one teenage boy became the last straw for a community under siege.” Canary in a Coal Mine brings attention to Myalgic Encephalomyelitis (also known as Chronic Fatigue Syndrome), which disproportionately impacts women. (And is being executive produced by our hero Debby Hoffman.)

We love Seattle.
Last year we gave money to KEXP (for the second year in a row) to help them to move into their new studio at the Seattle Center. They made that move this month. This year we’re making our third annual donation to make sure they know how grateful we are to them for helping to make Seattle a great place to call home.

Unfortunately, calling Seattle home continues to become a greater and greater challenge to too many people. For the second year in a row we have made a donation to the Tenants Union of Washington State to support their ability to advocate on behalf of tenants.

We made a donation to the International Rescue Committee in Seattle to welcome refugees who have come to our fair city and allow them to rebuild their lives by providing housing, health care, food, education, and legal and social services.

Finally, we made a donation to our local YWCA, supporting their efforts to empower women who are facing poverty, violence and discrimination in our backyard.

Thank you to everyone who makes our giving possible. Best wishes for the new year.

creating connectedness

creating connectedness


Moments of connectedness can feel unfortunately rare in a place that is known for the “Seattle freeze.” But I get the sense more and more that Seattleites are craving that connectedness and seeking to build stronger relationships with their neighbors. The Buy Nothing Project, which began on Bainbridge Island, Washington, is a prime example. People request and share free goods and services—everything from furniture to kids’ clothing to lasagna—in hyper-local Facebook groups. You send fewer items to landfills, and you get to meet people in your community while you’re doing it. My neighborhood group is so active that it’s hard to keep up with all of the posts.

I also felt this spirit of connectedness during PARK(ing) Day last month. Held as part of the Seattle Design Festival, PARK(ing) Day is an annual worldwide event where artists, designers and citizens transform parking spots into temporary public parks. My Aggregate teammates and I ventured out to explore the pop-up parks around Pioneer Square, the historic Seattle neighborhood in which our office is located. I was struck by the mood at each spot—people were happy and smiling and chatting. The frivolity of the parks helped create a lighter mood and drive curiosity. You wanted to talk to the people who had organized the space to find out what their park was about and to learn more about their organization or company.

PARK(ing) Day aims to raise awareness about the importance of walkable, livable, and healthy cities and help people re-think how our streets can be used. I’d say it succeeds in doing so. Creating a flower crown in the middle of First Street felt way better than sitting in traffic on First Street.

Designing for Equity

Seattle Design Festival panel

Gaining a stronger understanding of the issues affecting Seattle—and hearing diverse perspectives on the potential solutions—also helps me feel more connected to other residents and to our city. I enjoyed hearing from designers, architects, community organizers and activists and discussing ways to design for equity at the Seattle Design Festival’s conference. It was refreshing to see a conference focused on equity live up to that ideal—it was free, open to the public, held at the public library in downtown Seattle, and the panelists were fairly diverse in terms of gender and ethnicity.

The discussions featured grassroots organizers and activists who are working every day to tackle social justice issues in Seattle. I learned about the recommendations that came out of Seattle’s Housing and Livability Agenda, which seeks to address our city’s dire lack of affordable housing.

I also learned more about efforts to stop King County from building a new $210 million youth jail in the Central District and a City Council resolution to ban youth detention (which has since passed). I appreciated the panelists’ honesty and directness. They named the three architecture firms signed on to build the new jail—one of which was a sponsor of the conference—and asked them to step down from the project. The panel was effective—I gained a deeper understanding of a crucial local issue, and I was compelled to act. I went home and emailed each City Council member about the resolution.

We need more events and programs like the Design Festival and the Buy Nothing Project. We need to bring people together in public spaces and break down the barriers that prevent us from talking to our neighbors. What events and programs help you connect? I’d love to hear about them.