Barriers and Inspiration

"Artists We Will Be" panelists gathered in February.

Gennette Cordova is a homegrown Seattleite, lover of words and founder of Via Seattle, a charitable organization whose self-professed mission is to “bring Seattle and Pacific Northwest natives together to collaborate on philanthropic endeavors at home, across the country and internationally.” Via Seattle is a local organization with worldly ambitions. In that sense, it mirrors its founder. After attending Western Washington University, Cordova moved to New York City in 2012. She achieved success as a copywriter for Nike’s gritty “New York Made” ad campaign and as a frequent contributor to Huffington Post before finding her way back home last year. Cordova’s widely shared essay “In Defense of Running Away From Your Problems” has 1,800 recommends—a delicious irony for a woman who’s picking up the mantle of elevating women’s voices in the town she’s always called home.

This Saturday, March 18, Via Seattle is hosting a panel titled “Artists We Will Be” at Salt Room Yoga. Sponsored by the City of Seattle’s Department of Neighborhoods, the public talk centers eight women of color: Alaina Caldwell and Jasmine Jackson of the HellaBlackHellaSeattle Podcast, musician Alana Belle, designer Cristina Martinez, visual artist YASSA, photographer Erica Daniels, writer Emery Desper and business-owner Katrina Felicitas.

With “Artists We Will Be,” Cordova wants to combat the erasure of women of color from Seattle’s arts scene. I interviewed her about it via email.

Are you from Seattle originally? What were some of the formative cultural experiences you’ve had here that’ve inspired you on your present path as an arts facilitator?
I was born and raised in Seattle. I went to college in Bellingham and I moved to New York in 2012. But prior to that I’d always been in this city. In elementary school, I played the violin and performed in plays and talent shows. I got a scholarship to study classical ballet through a great program at the Pacific Northwest Ballet called Dance Chance. At a young age, my mother and my aunt took me to see the plays Pygmalion and August Wilson’s Jitney at the Intiman.

In elementary school, a woman came into our class to teach a special program that she called Word Market. The program instilled in us the importance of really understanding every word you read. This revolutionized my relationship with books and words in general. The curriculum of the first project that I did through Via Seattle was a reading camp for elementary school girls that was modeled after Word Market.

Why this particular panel, why these panelists and why now? Is this panel integral to your mission as founder of Via Seattle?
The purpose of Via Seattle is to help people make positive contributions to their communities. The panel is something that I personally feel is essential right now. Black women and other women of color deal with misogynists in our own communities, and also with non-intersectional feminists. I feel like we are silenced by respectability politics more than other groups. For this reason, I wanted a panel full of women of color artists—some of them business owners, some of them mothers—who could speak directly to other women of color about the importance of expressing ourselves. Whether it’s through art, activism or a combination of the two, we need marginalized voices to be louder. I want to do everything I can to give those voices a platform.

How will your panel conversation and the relationships and insights that come out of it speak to the larger collective situation while staying focused on achievable, immediate aims and aspirations?
I believe very strongly in art as resistance. Some of my favorite women writers and singers—Nina Simone and Lorraine Hansberry come to mind—were vocal about injustice and dismantling oppressive systems. Now is the perfect time to encourage people, particularly people who will be most negatively affected by the policies of the Trump administration, to focus on creating that potentially influential art.

Unity and collaboration are vital to social movements. A main focus of mine is building strong coalitions of women. This panel is a step towards that.

As a Black woman and feminist, what has the experience been like of observing somebody like Trump rise to power? How does one stay morally calibrated at the individual level when so much of our leadership has revealed itself to be morally bankrupt?
As a Black person, as a woman, as a feminist—really, just as a decent human being—I’ve been horrified for the last few months. We’re discussing Muslim registries and rolling back reproductive rights, and I’m looking around trying to figure out what year we’re in. There’s not a lot of bad behavior from powerful men that would surprise me at this point. I used to feel like there were certain things that, if they were made public, would disqualify from you from even being considered for president. 2016 changed that.

As bad as this administration is, it’s not the emergence of moral bankruptcy. That’s around us all the time, even in politicians and other public figures that we support. You have to be passionate about being a good person and doing the right thing for the people around you.

Do you feel at home in Seattle’s creative ecosystem? How has it been interfacing with the Seattle Department of Neighborhoods, and how did this partnership come about?
I feel driven and productive there. The close-knit community of creatives is one that I’ve come to admire and depend on. In doing so much charitable work, it’s easy for me to exist in these circles without feeling plagued by competitiveness. While I find myself moving more slowly here and sometimes being tripped up by the weather, I do value the love and encouragement that the creative community heaps on me.

I first worked with the Department of Neighborhoods on the Share the Warmth coat drive that I put together last year. They offer Neighborhood Matching Grants for community-building projects. I applied and was approved for the Artists We Will Be project. Minh Chau Le and the other people at the Department of Neighborhoods have been wonderful. I’d recommend looking into their funding opportunities to any Seattleite who has a good idea for a charitable event.

What are you reading these days? What can we look forward to from you and Via Seattle in the future?
I’ve been revisiting a lot of Alice Walker, James Baldwin and, for no particular reason, Steinbeck. I also recently jumped into Sinclair Lewis’ It Can’t Happen Here after reading that it predicted Trump’s rise. It was written in 1935.

After “Artists We Will Be,” Via Seattle will be working on a second panel, of the same kind, in Brooklyn. We’re also putting together a program where we’ll travel with four or five high school girls to Cape Coast, Ghana. They’ll visit the “slave castles” and work in a primary school. 

The Via Seattle panel “Artists We Will Be” takes place Saturday, March 18 from 3 p.m. to 6 p.m. at Salt Room Yoga in Pioneer Square. The event is free of charge.