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Remembering Garry Owens

Garry Owens in October 2019 at a family wedding, which he emceed with his son Jamil. (Courtesy of the family)

Garry Owens, one of the founders of the 1968 UW Black Student Union that is responsible for the infamous sit-in that led to the founding of the Office of Minority Affairs, died on September 30 at the age of 77. Owens was among those who received the 2008 Charles E. Odegaard Award on behalf of the 1968 BSU. The 1968 BSU were honored for the 40th anniversary of OMA&D.

Owens was a lifelong learner and lover of books. Friends at the UW remember him for his gifts of books for special occasions and the creation of a reading list of essential books he shared with other BSU members. Through emails to fellow BSU founder Emile Pitre he recounts, “My intellectual development started young because my mother taught me how to read before I started school and so I spent much of my time in the public library near my house.”

Throughout his life he mentored countless young people on effective activism, community organizing, and encouraged the youth of the community to continue learning and asking questions. In the Seattle Times announcement of his death, Owen’s wife Cindy Domingo remembered, ““he committed over 50 years of his life to radical change in the this world, both in the United States and internationally,” she said. “And he always saw that young people were the hope, the vision. So, he spent a lot of time mentoring, encouraging and educating young people.””

Owens had a long history of activism and community organizing in the Seattle area. In high school he was involved in the Seattle Chapter of the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE), was drafted into the U.S. Army, and upon returning home, enrolled at the University of Washington. After being a founding member of the UW Seattle BSU, he went on to be an early member of the Seattle Black Panther Party, and later worked a long and successful career at the City of Seattle Department of Neighborhoods. In a 2016 Seattle Times interview, Owens told reporters that of all the work he did with the Seattle Black Panther Party, he was most proud of the development of the free breakfast program. He is quoted as saying, “we didn’t just feed Black kids. We fed hungry kids.” He tells more of this story in a 2005 video interview with the UW Seattle Civil Rights & Labor History Project. As written on the 206 Zulu Seattle website about Owens after his time in the Black Panther Party, “he continued to organize but perhaps one of the most lasting aspects of his community work was how he inspired, taught, and uplifted countless young people beginning their journeys in political awareness.”

Garry Owens, center, protesting with the 1968 BSU at the University of Washington holding a sign reading "Black folks want an Education, too"
Garry Owens, center, protesting with the 1968 BSU at the University of Washington.

In the same Seattle Times announcement, Jim Diers, who led the Seattle Department of Neighborhoods recalled hiring and working with Owens for many years. “That smile, that laugh, that sense of humor. I like to call him a loving warrior for justice. Passionate about justice and made that his life’s work.” Diers also recalls, “He was trying to create a place where everybody was valued, where there’s justice, where there’s love. And he didn’t want to wait for that world. He acted like everybody was equal. Everybody had value, and everybody needs to be loved.”

Owens shared through email again with Pitre his advice to younger would-be change-makers. “My advice to younger activists is simple – Be as passionate about what you “want” as you are about what you “don’t want” because the politics of protest can open the door, but you must have a concrete and viable outline that documents what the future should be in the name of social justice. The best ideas are those that become “institutionalized” somewhere down the road!  Passion and protest may open the door, but you must be prepared to negotiate a serious plan for progress that matters.”

Owens was a master at building authentic relationships and reaching out to everyone, even opposing points of view in an effort to find common ground. He chose compassion and understanding over rhetoric and division, which in the end made him that much more successful in his organizing efforts, and that much more beloved by those he worked with and advocated for.

Owens is survived by Cindy Domingo; his children, Jamil Owens, Malik Owens and Ann Marie Diggs; and his grandchildren, Whitney Diggs and Maddie Diggs.