Talking Equity—In Conversation with Bookda Gheisar 

 

Bookda Gheisar is the senior director for the new Office of Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion at the Port of Seattle. She has been an executive director of many organizations, a volunteer for many more, and has dedicated her life to fighting for social justice. She’s been on the front lines defending Iranians against discrimination at our northern border and, in December, she spent time at our southern border in Mexico with a group of interfaith women of color to observe and learn more about the people seeking asylum in the U.S. Since the pandemic struck, she has been working tirelessly within the Port to ensure that equity stays front and center in their response to this crisis.  

 

In January before social distancing measures were in place, the Minerva team caught up with Bookda over happy hour. We take any opportunity we can to talk to Bookda—in addition to her many merits, she’s very fun and funny—but for this happy hour, we wanted to chat about her role at the Port and how communication can support equity work  

 

 

You’ve had a lot of interesting leadership roles in your life. How do you describe your expertise?  

I get excited by the idea of organizational transformation. I’m good at leading organizations that are just getting started and need to scale upthat need to adjust because they’re not getting recognized for the work they’re doing, or that are looking to change something fundamental about their culture and strategy.  

 

For example, in 1993had been in my first role as executive director at an immigrant and refugee-focused organization for about seven years. I spent my time writing grants and talking to funders, and through this process I noticed that the funders didn’t know very much about the issues that they were funding. They wanted to fund “change” but didn’t know what it takes to make change happen. As I started to speak with other social justice leaders, I realized that my experience was typical. The gap between philanthropies and social justice organizations is vast.  

 

Right around that time, ATR Foundation was hiring an executive director and I saw this as an opportunity to close this gap. I was hired to run the foundation and led the charge to shift its mission. We also rebranded to Social Justice FundThe work my team and I did developed this foundation into a national model for giving circles that recognized all donors, even people who made a very small gift, to have an impact in the work that affects their lives. We saw this as key to building what is now called, social justice in philanthropy. Now people around the country use this model to get money into historically oppressed communities and distribute the funding with the support of people who come from those communities. 

 

The Port of Seattle role is new. Why did you take this job?  

Well, first, it’s because I can’t resist a challenge. No other Port in the nation has an office of equity, so I thought, “Why not be the first one to try this?”  

 

Also, immediately prior to taking my role at the Port, I was working at the King County Executive Office as a Policy Advisor for the Office of Equity and Social JusticeIn this role, I realized the impact that local government could have on equity in a region and wanted to continue working in that realm. Government is supposed to be for the people but often seems to be a little bit removed. So, when I took this Port position, I thought, “How can we make sure that the activities at the Port of Seattle are about the people most impacted by the operations of the Port?”  

 

How has the work been going? What has been your experience talking about the new Office of Equity and what you’re hoping to accomplish? 

I think we’re off to a good start. We have executive leadership that supports the efforts—which is important—and we have many employee groups that are eager to organize for this type of change.  

 

Many employees of the Port are very clear about the impact of racism and equity at the Port, and many are new to the conversation and need more education and awareness.  

 

The leadership of the Port as well as the workers in many of the Portrelated industries have historically been white and male. OEDI’s work is two-fold: Shifting this culture to be welcoming to those who don’t fit that mold as well as increasing awareness in communities who have very little information about pathways to aviation, maritime, and construction careers.  

 

On the second goal, I think it is critical to look at barriers to getting the training, degrees, and apprenticeship training opportunities in portrelated careers for people who have been historically marginalized.  This includes concrete, simple interventions like funding tuition for apprenticeships or items that people need to participate in trades like steel-toed boots, coveralls, etc.  

 

We can also work on upskill strategies by designing ways for people who are in lowpaid positions to get the training they need to move up to roles that have higher incomes.  For example, my office is now supporting a two-year course at South Seattle College for workers at the SEA Airport to become Aviation Maintenance Technicians. This qualifies the student for a role that pays upwards of 90 thousand dollars a year—a big jump from their current roles 

 

How has equity impacted the response to COVID-19? 

Equity is central to how the Port—and the region, country, and world—needs to respond to this pandemic. We must prioritize the needs of people who have been historically hardest hit by the advent of a crisis. If we do not, our response to this crisis—and the next one—will fail.  

 

At the Port of Seattle, I am proud to say that we have taken several critical measures to be responsive to our employees at this time and to the needs of small businesses. The Port has adopted a motion to put equity at the center of our efforts to restart our economy and our city—including an emergency financial relief for airport tenants with rent and fee deferrals, in addition to barring evictions. If you want to read more about what we’ve been doing, check out my blog on the Port of Seattle’s website 

 

In terms of how my life and work have changed, there has just been more to do. And like everyone else, I spend most of my time on Teams, Zoomand the phoneOh, and I’m a tenacious house-cleaner so my house is absolutely spotless 

 

What does success look like to you? 

Ultimately, the goal of our office is to make sure that the Port becomes a place where people in the community can find opportunities and resources for themselves and their communitiesCreating career pathways to living wage jobs is a big element of that.  

 

King County ranks as one of the wealthiest counties in the country. However, wealth and security are not equally distributed40% of kids of color are not graduating from high school in our state.  This is a huge problem. Why aren’t we as a region investing in kids and their paths to success 

 

What are you learning in this role?  

I’ve learned a lot, but the way we talk about equity and the words we use to describe our efforts have to be carefully chosen. And these frameworks and language need to be shared consistently and repeatedly.  

 

I’ll give you an exampleMost people who work in equity will tell you that in the US the best approach to “lifting all boats” is to approach this work through a racial equity lens. This means that we address equity understanding that racial oppression forms the backbone of oppression—the structures, language, and methods for all oppression in the USso if we break down oppression based on race, all oppression will be broken down.  

 

This is the idea of Black Lives Matter. Some people argue that all lives matter, which of course is true, but the idea is that if we can solve the challenges in the system that devalue black lives, then we will be solving the challenges for all lives. It’s not the most intuitive idea to white folks until you see it working. 

 

However, this does not mean that we think racial oppression is worse than sexism or ableism. We’re not ranking oppressions. The goal is to address all of them by dismantling the foundational structure of oppression which was built up around race(If you want to look more into this issue, it’s called “targeted universalism.) 

 

Another thing I’ve learned is that I need to emphasize wellness and mental and physical health for myself.  I volunteer my time too much. I work long days and then volunteer on two boards and several other groups and organizationsIt’s a lot. I need to take better care of myself. This is also social justice work. 

 

Tells us about your kids—do you feel like they’ve influenced your career direction? What was it like to raise twins?  

Ha, well I told you I love a challenge. It was hell to raise twins. am a single parent and that is incredibly challenging in this city. The rising cost of living coupled with the generally lower-paid—at least in comparison to the tech industrysocial impact jobs made it a stressful challenge. Worth it, of course, but stressful. 

 

Having kids absolutely affected my career. I was always going to do social justice work, but after I had the twinsI saw so many more gaps in the system for working moms and single moms. It made me even more motivated to change the world we live in. We are lucky to live in King County where we invest so much in our kids but we need to see more impact of this for kids of color and kids from low-income homes 

 

I feel lucky that my passion for social justice didn’t push them to the opposite direction of what I was doing.  They are both inspiring social justice warriors and I’m excited to see what they do with their lives.  

 

  

About The Author

Sara Veltkamp

Sara Veltkamp

Vice President

Sara lives in New Orleans, Louisiana and is Minerva's vice president. She takes a lead role in all aspects of Minerva Strategies’ smart communication strategies and implementation. She loves a challenge and is obsessed with learning new things, from how to use new platforms and tools for storytelling to languages like Amharic, French, or Farsi to mastering a difficult yoga pose. She applies this energy and curiosity to all clients’ communication challenges. Learn more about Sara.