As of this spring, Solid Ground will have been in the business of changing lives and building community for half a century – a time during which we’ve helped over a million people overcome poverty to pursue their dreams.
Throughout the year 2024, we’ll be celebrating 50 Years of Changing Lives. We’ll feature articles to shine a light on some of the incredible community leaders who came through the agency and are leading (or have led) many community efforts to address poverty, homelessness, racism, climate change, and other challenges.
And we’ll gather as a community for a 50th Anniversary Gala on the evening of Wednesday, May 8, at Summit (the new wing of the Washington State Convention Center in downtown Seattle). The Gala will include dinner, an inspiring program, and fabulous local live music. Stay tuned for more info coming soon!
Of the thousands of staff, volunteers, and community members who’ve contributed to the success of Solid Ground and its forebear, the Fremont Public Association (FPA), perhaps no one has had a more profound and lasting impact in Washington state than Representative and former Speaker of the House Frank Chopp. Our 50th Anniversary Gala will feature and honor Frank for his lifelong legacy of service toward the vision of achieving Freedom from Poverty through Action.
Frank served as FPA Executive Director for 17 formative years, from 1983 until 2000. While still leading the agency, he took his passion for advocacy and coalition building to Olympia in 1995 as the state representative for Seattle’s 43rd District, which he still serves. And he went on to lead the state House of Representatives from 1999 to 2019, serving out one of the longest tenures as a state legislative Speaker in the nation’s history.
We interviewed Frank in 2013 and again in fall 2023 about the FPA’s early impacts and ongoing legacy as Solid Ground.
Creative activism in service of community
Frank Chopp’s long career as a rabble-rouser, innovator, community builder, and legislator started around a Bremerton dinner table. “Quite often when I was growing up, my dad and my mom would talk about politics literally at the kitchen table,” he told us in 2013.
“FPA was very much an opinionated group, very activist-oriented, as well as very creative,” Frank said. “We were willing to push the envelope in terms of things, new things. We listened to the community and really responded to community rather than sitting back.” ~Frank Chopp
“There was a lot of talk about how much my dad and mom believed in labor organizing, in public service. They grew up in Roslyn, WA, where there used to be a bunch of coal mines. The working conditions and wages there were so bad that they went on strike. My mom and dad would meet for dates on the picket lines outside the coal mines.”
Frank was hired in 1976 by the City of Seattle’s North Seattle Community Service Center, which supported the fledgling FPA. The agency, founded in 1974 by Fremont neighborhood activists, was a part of the national movement of Community Action Agencies funded by the federal War on Poverty.
At the time, Fremont exhibited many of the hallmarks of entrenched poverty. It had the second-highest infant mortality rate in the region. The Vietnam War had extracted a heavy toll, leaving many families grieving those lost in the war, or struggling with the trauma, drug abuse, and other challenges faced by those who made it home.
“FPA was very much an opinionated group, very activist-oriented, as well as very creative,” Frank said. “We were willing to push the envelope in terms of things, new things. We listened to the community and really responded to community rather than sitting back.”
This spirit was embodied in the long-time FPA tagline: Freedom from Poverty through Action. It was also reflected in the programs that FPA pioneered, including:
- Housing and support for women and children healing from domestic violence and homelessness (still operating as Broadview Shelter and Transitional Housing).
- One of the nation’s first curb-collected recycling programs (more on that below).
- A national network of community voicemail providers that helped people experiencing homelessness connect with housing, employment, and family at a time when few people had access to cellphones and the internet.
The power of working in coalition
FPA also aggressively pursued coalition building to get more done, initially focusing on persuading the City of Seattle to pay for critical community needs. In our fall 2023 interview, Frank explained the power of working in coalition: “It’s one thing to go to public officials as one agency and say, ‘Please, Sir, may I have a little more gruel?’ You know, like the Dickens thing. But if you link up with the other nonprofits facing the same struggles all over the city, then you get something going.”
So Frank partnered with other organizations to organize and co-lead the Coalition for Survival Services, an umbrella organization that included food banks, emergency homeless shelters, and community health clinics.
“All told it was about a 50-agency membership,” Frank recalled last fall. “And we all went down to the City, all 50 agencies, and we convinced them with our numbers that the City ought to respond. So that initial amount was, believe it or not, only $500,000. Now it’s well over $100 million of city funding [to address these issues], which supplements, of course, the state and federal funds.”
Frank said that FPA and its partners continued to replicate that success, often spinning off new coalitions that continue to advocate for investments in human services today. “We constantly were on the move to do some variance of this basic idea: community organizing to meet community needs,” he reflected in 2013. “We started with the Coalition for Survival Services, which led to the First Things First Coalition, the Human Services Coalition, and then to others. All those things spun off like a chemical reaction. It was very exciting.”
And just as Solid Ground does today, Frank said that FPA and its coalition partners worked to center the voices of the communities they served. “As a community organizer, you want the community to be the face of what the need is, and they have to take group action together to get something done. You can actually achieve more if you put the real people who are directly involved front and center. The most effective spokespeople are directly involved.”
Marriage of direct services and advocacy
Solid Ground (and FPA before it) has always understood that programs like food banks and homeless shelters are only able to treat the symptoms of unjust systems. But as Frank explained last fall, there’s also no point in advocating for systemic change if you don’t understand the needs of people most impacted by those systems.
“If you’re just doing advocacy, but you’re divorced from the actual direct services to real people, it lacks something. So we work to have a lot of actual direct services for people in need, but also use that experience to then advocate for changes overall in the state of Washington.”
One early example of this is one of FPA’s first programs, Fremont Recycling Station #1.
“We work to have a lot of actual direct services for people in need, but also use that experience to then advocate for changes overall in the state of Washington.” ~Frank Chopp
The recycling effort was the brainchild of Armen Napoleon Stepanian. An opera singer and set designer with a larger-than-life personality, Armen moved to Fremont from San Francisco because it was (at the time) a cheap place to live.
Armen saw trash as a resource that could be recycled into something positive. And he saw the opportunity to engage youth involved in the juvenile justice system in another kind of recycling – making the community a better place.
Frank gave us some of the back story on this innovation: “One of the strategies that we carried out was to make sure that every Seattle City Councilmember was on one of the recycling collection routes we ran, so they were asked at their doorstep, ‘Do you want to recycle?’ We got them engaged by coming to their door and saying, ‘So you want to be part of this?’
“It was very successful. City Councilmembers – either because they believed in it or because they thought they should because of politics – actually participated in the program. Later, they had the City of Seattle take it over, but it was definitely a strategy to combine policy and program with politics.”
See where there is a need and do something about it. Connect services and advocacy to create freedom from poverty through action. That’s the approach Frank took as FPA Executive Director, and it informed his approach to serving in the state House.
Lifelong legacy of impact
Through Frank’s leadership at FPA and in the state legislature, his flair for political and community organizing has helped create programs and policy changes that have impacted millions of people in our state. Among them:
- Established and resourced the state Housing Trust Fund, which over time provided close to $2 billion for nonprofit, low-income housing.
- Increased the state minimum wage and indexed it to the cost of living.
- Brought FPA’s Seattle Personal Transit to scale as the modern-day ACCESS Transportation program, still operated by Solid Ground Transportation and other providers today.
- Brought Healthcare for the Homeless to King County.
- Secured a portion of the former Sand Point Naval airbase to provide housing for formerly homeless people, which today includes Solid Ground’s Sand Point Housing.
- Cofounded the Low Income Housing Institute and Seattle Tenants Union.
- Created Apple Health for Kids to provide free healthcare to nearly a million young people.
- Initiated free college and university tuition for low-income students through the Workforce Education Investment Act.
- … and countless other initiatives to support housing and equitable opportunities in Washington state.
Frank stepped aside as Speaker of the House in 2019 to focus on the very issues that brought him to the legislature in the first place: affordable housing, economic and social justice, and health care for all – particularly those with mental illness. One of his more recent successes is the Covenant Homeownership Account Act:
“We found through research that there were tens of thousands of restrictive, racist real estate covenants that existed for many decades in the documents when you buy a home. It would say only white people can live here. And that was throughout the state, not just here in North Seattle or Seattle itself. Fifty thousand such covenants have been tracked down, and we’re still adding to the list.
“So, what could we do about it? We created the Covenant Homeownership Account, the first in the nation of its kind. We are raising $2 billion over the next 20 years for down payment assistance to buy “starter homes” for people who were directly harmed, and their descendants who were harmed, by those racist real estate covenants.”
Solid Ground and FPA’s success of 50 years of Freedom from Poverty through Action is built upon the efforts of hundreds of thousands of staff, community volunteers, and of course, program participants. We’ve been guided by the vision and tenacity of countless leaders through the decades, each important in their own right. And many of the brightest spots in our history – and indeed the history of Washington state – have been kindled and sustained by Frank Chopp, who we’re proud to honor for his lifetime of leadership, service, and achievement.