All the world’s a stage, including an Olympia City Council meeting, where supporters of a higher minimum wage played their parts in a politically charged poetry slam this week.
A handful of people from Working Washington have been weekly fixtures at the council’s public comment period to advocate for a $15 minimum wage in Olympia and beyond.
The supporters took it to the next level Tuesday in what likely was the first organized poetry slam at an Olympia council meeting.
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Nine speakers — one after another — used their allotted three minutes to grieve openly about their struggles to survive on low wages, or to harshly criticize the council through prose and poetry.
Holly West spoke of the struggles to make ends meet in a society that’s set up to exploit her and extend her personal cycle of poverty.
“Race, gender, citizenship, status, class — it’s all connected. Don’t you see I’m screaming? Open your eyes,” she said in one part. “The Olympia City Council must take action now because I can’t ask my parents for money again. They already don’t make enough.”
Nani Nguyen’s poem directed frustration toward the council itself.
“If I were to act the way some city council members act, I would be asked to step down. I would be told to leave. I would roll my eyes when the female veteran told her story; behind my reading glasses I would squint my eyes and cock my head to the side and stare ever so disrespectfully at the veteran and at my fellow neighbors during public comment,” Nguyen said in one excerpt. “If I were a city council member, I would do more.”
The real twist, however, came when the council members praised the speakers — and even responded with poetry of their own.
“When you speak for a group, you bring all that power,” Clark Gilman recited in a stream-of-consciousness riff on the experience of speaking during public comment. “And when you bring all that power, you don’t have to shout to make your voice louder. … You say your group’s willing to help? Meet me for coffee. Be resolved to really listen and act.”
Mayor Pro Tem Nathaniel Jones recited part of a poem called “Ode to the minimum wage sucker” by Harry J. Baxter, and thanked the speakers for their unusual spin on public comment.
“Bringing us your message in a different tone with a different meter is effective,” Jones said.
Councilman Jim Cooper said he looks forward to more conversations about raising the minimum wage and establishing more rights for workers such as paid sick leave.
“This is the most beautiful public comment in my four and a half years on the City Council,” Cooper said.
Mayor Cheryl Selby urged the minimum-wage supporters to address other city councils, too.
“Keep coming back here. We need to do this together,” Selby said. “Help us out by talking to our neighbors and go to the county as well.”
In response, one audience member remarked, “That’s your job.”