Seattle’s Smartest Global Women: Cherry Cayabyab

Cherry Cayabyab, King County Elections' inclusive engagement manager, is responsible for dozens of more voting boxes and more languages being translated in the county's most diverse and underrepresented neighborhoods. (Photo by Olivia Sundstrom)
Cherry Cayabyab, King County Elections’ inclusive engagement manager, stands in front of a new ballot box at the Skyway Library. (Photo by Olivia Sundstrom)

Cherry Cayabyab was born in the Philippines and immigrated to the U.S. with her family in 1982. Her experience as an immigrant inspired her to make political engagement in historically marginalized communities her life’s work.

For more than 15 years, Cayabyab has worked in both government and nonprofit entities to ensure more voices of color and immigrant voices are at the table to ensure systems work better for them. She’s also helped several area nonprofits build fundraising and staff capacity so that their own community programs sustain and thrive.

As the inclusive engagement manager for King County Elections (KCE), Cayabyab works to increase equitable and inclusive programs and practices across the department. She’s also responsible for planning and delivering community engagement initiatives.  As the lead on the 2016 King County Elections engagement plan for diverse communities, she initiated collaboration with The Seattle Foundation and partnered with community-based organizations to perform culturally relevant voter education and registration efforts.

This November, King County Elections will add a total of 43 ballot drop-off boxes throughout the county to increase voting accessibility. This is also the county’s inaugural year of translating voter education materials into Spanish and Korean.

Making voting accessible is nothing new to Cayabyab.  As a result of her coalition-building work in the 2010 Census through the “Make Our Communities Count” campaign, ballot materials were translated in Vietnamese for the first time in the county under the federal Voting Rights Act.

This outcome, she says, was “a clear example of how communities can increase their influence,” mobilizing together to improve and benefit from public policy.

(Photo by Olivia Sundstrom)
(Photo by Olivia Sundstrom)

Prior to King County Elections, Cayabyab, 38, and a mother of two, served on Seattle’s Immigrant and Refugee Commission, then between 2012 and 2015,  advised and implemented community engagement initiatives at the City of Seattle’s Department of Neighborhoods. At the city, Cayabyab grew a program from infancy to a nationally renowned, award-winning Public Outreach and Engagement Liaisons (POEL) program, doubling the department’s diverse community liaisons and increasing partnerships between departments to host about 72 community events throughout the city.

Last month, I got the opportunity to discuss a little more about where her passion for community and public policy sprouted.

What inspired you to go into public policy, and how did you get into public policy?

I got politicized around race and social justice when I was young. Coming from an immigrant family, we initially lived in low-income neighborhoods in Los Angeles surrounded by extremely diverse neighborhoods. We had Koreatown, P-town, Thai-town, Little Armenia and where the majority of the neighborhood population were Chicano/Latino.

In high school, I was active in some leadership groups. One of my most profound experiences in high school around politicizing my race consciousness was visiting the Museum of Tolerance in Los Angeles.

… In college, I graduated with a major in public and community service and Asian American studies. I was fortunate at the time when I went to college in the ’90s that UC Irvine had an ethnic studies major.

After college, I moved to DC working for a national nonprofit and serving as a congressional fellow in U.S. Congress. I had the exciting opportunity to work on expanding and strengthening federal Civil Rights Act legislation such as the Higher Education Act of 1965 to ensure low-income, recent immigrant Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders (AAPIs) were recognized and receive higher education support.

… After working in DC and seeing the need for more people to do policy and systems change work with a progressive, race-and-social-justice analysis, I realized I didn’t need a PhD or law degree for the public service work that I wanted to do.

What brought you to Seattle?

It was hard to say no to a full ride to University of Washington’s Evan School of Public Affairs. I was also lucky to have mentors that I had met in DC who are local Seattle heroes here like the legendary Uncle Bob Santos, who took me in and gave me my first job in Seattle working at InterIm CDA.

I cared about neighborhood-based community-building, organizing and development, and with Seattle’s Chinatown/International District’s great history, it was a great place to get my grounding on neighborhood community economic development.

I particularly enjoy and love how extremely diverse and active South Seattle is as well as pockets of communities in King County are in general.

What has been a great community moment for you working in public policy?

I would say one of my favorite moments was serving as lead senior organizer with the United for Fair Representation Coalition, where we made Washington state history by collectively advocating and winning Washington state’s first people of color (POC) majority Congressional District (9th CD in South KC), and Latino legislative district (15th LD in Yakima).

This was a huge statewide effort, where we organized around 600 diverse individuals to testify at redistricting hearings (some testified in their native language).

We can see some of the results today where electeds from these districts are more visible, present and accountable to constituent concerns and issues. We also see more people of color running and winning in these diverse districts, particularly Latinos elected in Yakima.

For those who are interested in becoming involved in refugee crises and immigration (work), how do you feel is the best way to get involved?

Very simply, join an organization. Get organized. Most importantly, understand the need and learn how to support leadership from within these communities: help provide tools, resources and support spaces for those that are most impacted to advocate for themselves and self-determine their community’s own course of action.

What has been the most challenging moment of your career and how did you overcome it?

In general, being in unsupportive environments that don’t allow you to grow. Keep moving and surround yourself by great supports.

What would you advise those who are interested in working in public policy?

Remind [them] that public policy work is serving people: especially those most disenfranchised. Ask yourself why you want to do public policy work, locate your privilege, understand your role within supporting community self-determination.

This post was produced as part of the Globalist Youth Apprenticeship program. The program is funded in part by the Seattle Office of Arts & Culture and the Community Technology Fund.

Editor’s note: This story has been updated since its original publication to clarify Cayabyab’s role and job description with King County Elections.