Recently, Seattle has earned a reputation as the starting point for progressive ideas, indicated by the emergence of the #SeattleFirst hashtag. But the city has been on the leading edge of social movements for a while now, and for much of the last two decades Town Hall Seattle has been a gathering place for those conversations. Over the years, the organization, housed in the 100-year-old church building on First Hill, has provided fertile ground for ideas to take root, community groups to grow consensus, and movements to burgeon into real, lasting change reaching far beyond the walls of the historic building. “Town Hall has become recognized as a place where news gets made, and where we determine together what kind of community we want to share,” says executive director Wier Harman.
In the midst of a $25 million capital campaign, we revisit five key examples of times when Town Hall helped push the conversation forward.
Presidential Powers Since the recent presidential election, Town Hall has served as a safe gathering place, not only for discussions on principled, nonviolent social protest in the face of political turmoil, but for those seeking clarity in a perplexing political environment. On February 1, 2017, University of Washington School of Law and Town Hall co-presented Presidential Power 2017, a sold-out panel discussion on the scope and limits of presidential power in modern politics that proved to be incredibly timely. Just five days prior, the Trump administration had issued its first attempt at an executive order banning refugees and certain Middle Eastern nationals from entering the United States—an order that was later challenged, and defeated, by Washington State Attorney General Bob Ferguson. “Here is the question I have for the panel,” asked moderator Lisa Manheim, a law professor at UW. “Why does it seem like sometimes the president can’t get anything done, but other times the president can do anything he wants, simply with the stroke of the pen? The answer lies in the law of presidential power and that law is confusing. … Today’s discussion is an attempt to respond to that confusion.” Town Hall will see many more discussions like this—for the next four years, at least.
$15 Minimum Wage When activists in Seattle began calling for an increase in the citywide minimum wage to $15 per hour, critics thought it was politically impossible to mandate a living wage for an entire community. Nearly every month, during 2013 and 2014, SEIU and Working Washington partnered with Town Hall to host speakers from across the country (Robert Reich, Andy Stern, Manuel Pastor, Kristin-Rowe-Finkbeiner, and others) to explore the economic and political cases for “Reclaim Prosperity” through a living wage. In early 2014, Seattle City Councilmember Kshama Sawant and Socialist Alternative launched the 15 Now campaign, and Town Hall’s role as a central platform for dialogue around the issue was cemented. On March 5, 2014, hundreds of citizens weathered a rainstorm to attend the Seattle City Council’s public comment session in the Great Hall, a meeting that would extend into six long hours of testimony. “We know it’s not a matter of if we will get to $15 per hour, but when and how we get there,” said Mayor Ed Murray. A few weeks later, the law passed.
Gun Responsibility Historically, Town Hall has hosted conversations exploring both sides of the gun debate, balancing the rights of gun owners with concerns for public safety and public health. In 2013, the Washington Alliance for Gun Responsibility began meeting at Town Hall, where the group celebrated after winning a hard-fought campaign for Initiative 594, expanding gun-purchase background checks. And on February 18, 2016, the group held a press conference at Town Hall to announce yet another initiative, I-1491, the enactment of the Extreme Risk Protection Orders, which carried in November with 69% of the vote statewide. “[Town Hall is] a place where thoughtful, meaningful discussion happens and where change is inspired,” says Tallman Trask, communications manager of the Alliance. “Being a part of that tradition was a huge part of why we chose to launch [our campaign] there.”
Same-Sex Marriage Equality In the spring of 2012, Town Hall board member Jennifer Cast helped form Music for Marriage Equality, pooling the collective resources of the local music community to rally support for Washington State’s Referendum 74, which would legalize same-sex marriage in Washington State. In Town Hall’s downstairs gathering space, the early meetings included representatives from bands including Pearl Jam and Death Cab for Cutie, organizations like Seattle Theater Group and KEXP, and local leaders from the political realm (current Washington State Democratic Party chair Tina Podlodowski) and the music industry (Sub Pop general manager and vice president Megan Jasper). “A lot of the ideas about how we were going to make Music for Marriage Equality foremost in voters minds sprang from those meetings at Town Hall,” says Kerri Harrop, Project Manager for the group. With participation from Macklemore, they adopted “Same Love” as an “unofficial anthem” of the campaign, helping pave the path to victory as one of the first states to enact same-sex marriage by popular vote.
WTO Protests During the World Trade Organization protests of 1999, approximately 40,000 citizens assembled in Seattle to take a stand for anti-globalization. Amid the chaos, Town Hall became a gathering place for journalists covering the protests. On November 30, the city imposed a curfew, but a planned debate at Town Hall was still on. As the streets of Seattle roiled, the Great Hall was packed with 1,000 citizens, the aisles filled with camera people, and even the downstairs overflow room was at capacity when anti-globalization activist Ralph Nader and economist Jagdish Bhagwati debated each other on the merits and demerits of free trade. “At the end, the largely anti-WTO audience was asked to applaud the other side,” recalls Town Hall Seattle founder David Brewster. “They did, vigorously. A moment of learning and civility while the city was in uproar.”
Town Hall Seattle’s historic building is turning 100, and it needs some work. A top-to-bottom renovation will preserve the landmark’s historic look and feel while making critical infrastructure, seismic, and performance advances. With state-of-the-art lighting and sound systems, a new downtown-facing entrance, and new multilevel restrooms, Town Hall will be more accessible, more comfortable, and more vibrant than ever. Learn more and get involved at townhallseattle.org.