Community: Meet Bitaniya, an Artist and Activist in Bellevue, WA
Interviewer: Lillian Huang; June 11, 2020
Interviewee: Bitaniya Giday
Bitaniya reading “Hyphenated Identity Crisis,” her original poem (Seattle Arts and Lectures).
Could you tell us about yourself and the organizations that you are currently involved in? What do you do within these organizations?
I am currently involved in several different initiatives. I hold the position as the Seattle Youth Poet Laureate (my job is to use poetry for civic engagement in the city, as well as publishing a book by the end of the year), I am on the BNV team (a slam poetry team that represents Seattle in the International Festival of Poetry), I am an intern at the International Rescue Committee based in Seattle (I work with refugee children in the summer, teaching them poetry and English), I am a youth ambassador at the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation (working on exhibits and bringing in speakers from across the world to discuss issues like criminal justice reform and immigration), and I have held the position of Co-Vice President of the Bellevue Youth City Council for the past couple of years (we tackle homelessness and equity issues within the city). However, the most recent and the most important organization that I work with right now is Eastside 4 Black Lives, a grassroots organization of black and brown youth within the Bellevue School District that holds rallies and protests to demand that the Bellevue Police Department be defunded by at least 25% and for those funds to be re-allocated to public housing, as well as pushing for BSD to change its history curriculum and end police presence in schools.
"However, the most recent and the most important organization that I work with right now is Eastside 4 Black Lives, a grassroots organization of black and brown youth within the Bellevue School District..."
How has COVID-19 impacted your goals or the goals of the organizations that you are a part of? What worries you most regarding the effect that COVID-19 has/will have on your work?
COVID-19 led to the closure of most schools around the world. Unfortunately, there are large inequities between school districts in Washington. While students in Bellevue have laptops to go home with, schools in Auburn or Burien don't even have enough money for their students to work with laptops in classrooms. This is where a lot of the refugee children that I work with go to school, so my biggest worry is trying to reach them, and ensuring that they have access to learning opportunities so that they don't fall further behind their peers. Another issue I've been noticing is Seattle's lack of empathy toward its homeless population. As soon as the pandemic hit, Seattle Mayor Jenny Durkan and the Seattle Police Department began sweeping tactics to push homeless people out of their shelters to clear areas, without providing them access to adequate housing, food, and safety resources. I think times like these are helping many of us realize what local governments prioritize, who they dehumanize in the process, and how it’s ultimately up to us to go to the streets and care for those who do not have people that care for them.
"...Times like these are helping many of us realize what local governments prioritize, who they dehumanize...and how it’s ultimately up to us to go to the streets and care..."
In addition, with the recent advances in the BLM movement, many of us organizers within Eastside 4 Black Lives have to be very cautious when going out, especially because of the disproportionate impacts the pandemic has for black people. This movement is for black people first and foremost, so if we can't mobilize in a way that includes them, then we need to make changes that allow them to participate. It’s extremely important to us that our meetings and gatherings are centered around the black members of our community, and that those working with us are doing so for genuine, non-performative reasons.
If you are willing to share, how has COVID-19 affected you personally and your family?
Like many black families, my family members and I have severe asthma, which means that whenever someone goes out, everyone in my household is put at risk.
Bitaniya is a youth ambassador at the Bill and Melinda Gates foundation (Teen Action Fair).
How do you think others can help your organization's efforts?
People can help our efforts by following @eastside4blacklives on Instagram and Facebook, as well as signing and sharing our petitions about our demands for the Bellevue Police Department and demanding the end of police presence in schools. People can also educate themselves (especially if they can't attend protests) by reading and learning more about how we got to where we are because of the war on crime, war on drugs, and mass incarceration. I recommend sitting down and reading The New Jim Crow by Michelle Alexander for a foundational understanding of what black people mean when they refer to institutionalized racism. They can also donate to the International Rescue Committee in Seattle, so that refugee children have access to education. In the end, we must always prioritize securing the future for our children on all fronts.
What is the greatest lesson we can learn from the current situation of COVID-19? And the current fight surrounding BLM?
I believe the greatest lesson we can learn from the current situation is that a middle ground exists. We are all so polarized in our way of thinking because we are unwilling to sit with the other side to try to understand and have empathy for what they recognize as wrong with the world. For black people, I think we are learning resilience; picking up the baton of the civil rights movement and pushing it as far as we can go. We will not rest until every murderer cop is prosecuted and every police department is defunded.