Westward Ho! Chicago Native Lands Dream Job, Adopts New Hometown
Boeing engineer discovers Everett, Wash., is full of pleasant surprises
When Joseph Mitchell was offered a dream job fresh out of college, he knew he wanted the gig but wasn't sure how he'd fit into a community that seemed so unlike his own. The African-American engineer grew up in Chicago, Ill., and spent some time in Atlanta, Ga., both cities with large African-American populations. So when Boeing offered him a job at the company's commercial airplane division in Everett, Wash., Mitchell was a bit skeptical about moving to place where only 4 percent of the population shared his skin color.
“I had never been to Washington," he says. "I didn't know anything about it. Having lived in Chicago and Atlanta, my first thoughts of Seattle were – boring and white."
In cities where the ethnic populations are marginal (Seattle ranks as the fifth whitest city in the country), many people of color can feel like outsiders. Like Mitchell, many African-Americans in predominantly white communities work to overcome those feelings of isolation and alienation by seeking connections with people and groups who look like them and share a common cultural background.
“My plan was to move back South after graduation,” Mitchell says. “There weren't too many job offers that would have stopped me from moving back to Atlanta, but this one, it was like, 'Okay, this is a job I can't pass up.'"
Mitchell's preconceived notions about Everett and the Seattle area being "boring and white" were quickly challenged after he settled in and discovered the community was much more inclusive than demographic statistics would have one believe.
“When I first got here, the first thing I noticed were the many multiracial families. Not only that, but the neighborhoods were more integrated than I was used to,” he says. “I have a Korean-American neighbor. I have a black neighbor. I have a Samoan neighbor. As far as I can see, there are no all-black or all-white neighborhoods. It's more of a melting pot than I experienced in Atlanta or Chicago.”
There were a few cultural hiccups, like when Mitchell went searching for a soul food restaurant comparable to those he frequented in Chicago. Eventually, he did uncover a piece of home and in the unlikeliest of places.
“Groupon,” he says with a chuckle. “I found a Groupon for a salsa dancing class. And that got me wondering if there were classes in town for other styles of dancing – like Chicago-style stepping [a dance that originated in Chicago with roots in swing].”
Friends in High Places
He soon found a class and has performed with a steppers group for the past few years. Mitchell also discovered a love of hiking through a group he met online called Black People Hike. The group meets several times a month to hike a different mountainous trail, such as Snoqualmie Pass and Lake Twenty Two, an oasis of alpine wetland nestled on the northern shoulder of Mount Pilchuck.
“It's something that you don't get to do in the Midwest. You get to see the earth from a totally different perspective. Unless you've hiked a mountain, you just have no idea. I totally fell in love with it,” he says.
Mitchell says he also owes much of his social acclimation to Boeing. With nearly 40,000 employees, Boeing is by far Everett's largest employer, and Mitchell says company officials don't take that designation for granted. And to show its commitment to diversity, the company created the Boeing Black Employee Association, an employee-run affinity group that offers networking and social opportunities as well as mentoring, career advice and volunteer opportunities.
“It's no secret there aren't that many black people here, and add to that the fact that we're spread out across the city," he says. "The BBEA helps you meet people, which is helpful because most of the engineers are transplants. Most of the people I know – I would say 90 to 95 percent of the people I know – work at Boeing. I'm sure it's the same way at [big companies such as] Microsoft, Google and Amazon.”
As for the Seattle area's 'boring' moniker, Mitchell says, “It is what you make it.”
“A lot of people get out here and want to do the same things that they did in other cities, and they get disappointed. But once you realize all this area has to offer – from dance classes to hiking to hot yoga to bowling leagues – that's when you start to enjoy it. That's what I did, and now I can say I love it here. I really do.”
As far as I can see, there are no all-black or all-white neighborhoods. It's more of a melting pot.