Sitting Down With Pamela Banks
Pamela Banks (B.A. 1981), sits down with me at a table in her office at the Urban League of Metropolitan Seattle (ULMS). She is taking a break from her duties as CEO and President to speak about her experience as an undergrad at the University of Washington, her career in service spanning three decades, and how much more work there is left to do.
Banks was born and raised in Portland, OR and was the first person in her family to attend college. She told me that as a girl, she would watch college football with her family and during the commercials, ads for different schools would promote student life on campus. With a smile that seemed to be ever present throughout the interview, she tells me about a young Pamela Banks.
“My family will tell you, from the time I was in the 2nd or 3rd grade, all I talked about was, ‘I’m going to go to college!’”
Luckily for the City of Seattle, Banks chose the University of Washington. She tells me with a touch of wistfulness that she attended the UW at the height of black student enrollment. She loved the diversity in class. She loved going to football games. She loved the Department of Communication. She loved walking on campus. She loved being a Husky.
“The campus is so, so gorgeous. I would spend a lot of time in the spring and fall studying outside. It was a really positive experience.”
The UW was also a jumping off place for Banks to lean in to her activism.
“I was there when one of the very first protests around affirmative action happened. It was around the time of the Bakke decision and I remember protesting and being involved with student groups around the equity issue in the late seventies. That helped me to decide who I wanted to be. It’s why I ended up as a community organizer right out of college.”
Banks is eating a salad while we talk and somehow not missing a beat in our conversation. It dawns on me that I haven’t seen her eat a bite and yet, she is almost done with her lunch. She is multi-tasking. She is constantly busy, always planning, and striving to make her world better. She talks next about working for the City of Seattle as an administrator for a weatherization program that was being rolled out during an energy crisis. The city was offering English language tools to residents from a number of different cultures. Banks came up with a plan to make her community better.
“I ended up running that program. I built a staff of forty-five. We got a huge five-million-dollar budget. We did TV ads. Placed ads in newspapers. We got the first ever City of Seattle material translated into different languages. I think my degree from the UW Department of Communication honed my skills for all of this. I could talk to anybody. I think that’s the beauty of the job.”
Vice President of Strategic Initiatives for Eli Lilly and Company Nate Miles (B.A. 1983) is a fellow Department of Communication Alumni Hall of Fame inductee and has served as the immediate Past Chair of the ULMS Board of Directors. Miles has worked with Banks for over twenty years in the Seattle community. They have worked on a number of educational programs and human services issues as well as equity injustice projects. Here, he remarks on the same work ethic that has become clear to me after a matter of minutes.
“Her two most prominent characteristics would be her immense amount of energy, as she is affectionately known as ‘The Energizer Bunny.’ Secondly would be her authentic commitment to what she does and the community she serves.”
After various positions with the City of Seattle, Banks took a position with former Seattle mayor Greg Nickels. She acknowledges the debate that exists for folks about whether or not one should attempt to bring community change from the inside or remain ‘in the streets’ and bring change from the outside.
“It’s about both. You have to have people on the inside and you have to have people pushing from the outside. That is fundamental. If we’re not represented—if we’re not judges, if we’re not attorneys, we can’t have impact on these systems that have been set up, whether overt or invert, we can’t invoke change. So, I took that risk.”
Katherine Bush Jolly is the Director of External Affairs at the City of Seattle, Human Services Department. She worked alongside Banks during outreach efforts by the mayor’s office to the businesses impacted by light rail construction in 2003. She spoke about what it is like to work with Banks in the community.
“She was committed to ensuring that the businesses, many of which were owned by immigrant and refugees, received the assistance they needed to stay afloat during this difficult time. Pamela would go out in the rain, sleet and snow checking on businesses regularly. Nothing would keep her from helping people. Pamela’s passion and commitment has made an impact on me and others who witnessed her in action.”
After working for the mayor’s office, Banks took on the position that led her to the building in which we were speaking. The offices of the Urban League of Metropolitan Seattle (ULMS) located in Seattle’s historically black Central District neighborhood. ULMS empowers African Americans and underserved communities to thrive by securing educational and economic opportunities, envisioning a Seattle and a world where there is equity for all. When she tells me about taking the position at ULMS in 2012, her eyes get serious for a moment as she unfolds the details.
“There was no budget, there was no staff, it was just horrible. I literally put my head down and through the grace of God, wrote the first grant. Slowly, things began to change. Built my board. Started hiring some phenomenal staff. And then, we were back. We were strong. Solid.”
Banks is animated and passionate in the way she tells stories and talks about her work with the ULMS. She recounts the many relationships she has built along the way, aligning them with the programs that have brought social uplift.
“Every Career Bridge graduation I get teary because people are talking about the impact and how this service, this movement we’re creating around equity and education opportunities has impacted them.”
Career Bridge began in 2012, following a string of gun violence and deaths in Seattle. The Career Bridge Program model brings together workforce training, social services, as well as grassroots community support networks in order to provide a relevant and comprehensive approach to assist participants attain the abilities and skills needed to achieve short-term economic and personal stability.
“I always tell people, anyone given access and opportunity in education or employment, it will change their lives. They will reach their full potential. But if they have barriers, they can’t. Part of our goal and our role here at the Urban League is to reduce those barriers and give people that access and opportunity.”
Nate Miles added this about his fellow incoming Hall of Fame inductee.
“Pamela has demonstrated leadership in the community and the successful implementation of the ideas she comes up with. She also has demonstrated the values and core philosophy of the University of Washington and the Department of Communication. I can’t think of a person more deserving and worthy of this award than Pamela. Our school is a little better off today by having her be inducted into the hall.”
Speaking with Banks was a conversation that flew by for me. She has that thing. I felt as if I had known her for some time and yet it had only been about an hour and a half. It is her comfortable style that drew me in to the dialogue. It was her passion that had me leaving the ULMS office inspired.
“I love my community. I love Seattle. I really want to be here to help deal with income inequality and deal with gentrification and deal with these high rents and deal with affordability and deal with access and creating opportunity for all of us to succeed because I think if we’re all in this together and we rise, we will be a better society.”
Pamela Banks loves the Department of Communication. She loves walking on campus. She loves being a Husky. Come celebrate the love, career, and achievement of Pamela Banks on October 4 as she will be inducted into the UW Department of Communication Alumni Hall of Fame.
To RSVP or learn more about the event, click here.