An Independent School • Grades 5-12

The following interview transcript is from a conversation between Jamari Torrence ’10 and Lakeside magazine editor Jim Collins for "In Our Own Words," from the "Black at Lakeside" Spring/Summer 2021 issue of Lakeside magazine. Photo by Ben Tankersley.

Lakeside Magazine:

I wonder if you could talk a little bit about where you grew up in Seattle... I know you were part of the Rainier Scholars program. Could you tell me about that, as well?

Jamari:

Yeah, so I was born and raised in Seattle. I grew up in South Seattle, specifically Beacon Hill. Single- parent household. I started in Rainier Scholars, like everyone who first started scholars, in the fifth grade. And then you do two summers of intensive academic work. Then during the school year, you have academic work on Saturdays and Wednesdays after school. I went to Aki Kurose for middle school, which is a Seattle public school. I applied to Lakeside, I believe my first time, in seventh grade. I did not get in. But I tried again for high school and I did get in. Prior to Rainier Scholars, my big problem was that I was always the smartest kid in the class. At Rainier Scholars, everyone was the smartest kid in the class. That helped me not rest on my laurels.

I took honors classes, so most of my classes were... not AP, but I forget what the program was called. Aki Kurose didn’t have AP classes, but most of my English, language arts, social studies, math... I had the same classes with the same people because we were all in an honors program. Academics came easy for me, so it was challenging, but it wasn’t super difficult. I was a pretty lazy student. So, most of my issues were just doing work. It wasn’t super challenging because at that point in my academic life, school just came naturally to me.

Lakeside Magazine:

I know Beacon Hill is one of the most diverse ZIP codes in the entire country. Was that diversity reflected in your classmates at Aki Kurose?

Jamari:

Yeah, I think it was literally like 40% Black, 40% Asian and the rest were Hispanic and a little bit of white, but not that many. Lakeside was definitely totally different as far as demographicwise. Even though Seattle is a very white city, most of my schooling and just my daily interactions were with people of color. I don’t think I had any white friends or... I think the only white people I came into contact with on daily basis was probably teachers.

Lakeside Magazine:

How was that transition for you to Lakeside? How did that go for you?

Jamari:

I mean, mentally it was difficult. Lakeside is a very clubby and tribal place, I think. A lot of the kids had been there since fifth grade. They had their own play groups, and there's a culture that you don’t know what to do to fit in. So, it took me three years to figure that out. I don’t think I was... I think I felt fully a part of like five communities, but not until probably my senior year.

Lakeside Magazine:

Where did you find a sense of community or comfort on campus?

Jamari:

I definitely found a group. It’s funny, because one of my best friends — who is still my best friend — we met at orientation for the incoming freshmen who hadn’t gone to the Middle School. And he was Black. I was Black. And I was like, “We are probably going to be friends because we are both the only Black males here.” We’re still friends to this day. But we had our own friend group. Towards the later part of my time there, I started to go outside of my social circle and, yeah, I became friends with a wider amount of people. But going in, definitely I was like, “Who are the other people of color that I can look to, who are probably going through a similar culture shock as me, to be friends with?”

One of my other best friends at Lakeside was a LEEP student. He’s Hispanic, but we kind of had that similar experience: we’re a fish out of water coming to this elite private school; we were plucked out to come.

Lakeside Magazine:

What was it like being in that world every day, then going back home to Beacon Hill?

Jamari:

I mean, I was going through it, I didn’t complain a lot. I wasn’t like, “Oh my God, I’m the only Black person here.” It was just something that was a matter of fact. That’s just what it was. But it wasn't difficult going back and forth.

Lakeside Magazine:

Were you treated differently by your friends back in Beacon Hill once you started going away to private school?

Jamari:

Yeah, definitely. I mean, yes, but I wouldn’t say it was me being treated different. It was just: we are on two different tracks and we could become interested in different things. And for my friends, it wasn’t me being treated differently, it was just, we are on different journeys. And like all friendships, especially middle school friendships, you sometimes lose touch, and that happens.

Lakeside Magazine:

How did you get to Lakeside and back? What was your commute like?

Jamari:

I took the 97. That is the “colored bus,” we used to call it. Because 987 was the bus that goes to the South End. Most of the people who rode that were students of color, and it was just like an inside joke we called it. It was very rough bus. Yeah. Yeah. It was fun. I rode that bus until, I think, junior year, and then senior year I carpooled with some friends.

I wouldn’t say the bus was a totally different place. The back-of-the-bus talk was like lunchroom talk. I mean, kids on that bus literally they all play games. Talk about school, talk about what happened, talk about other students. It was similar to the lunchroom atmosphere, the refectory atmosphere, as far as the back went. Certain parts of the bus, though, people sat there to be like, “Hi, I'm tired, I just want to be by myself.” If you're towards the front. And towards the back it’s the more jovial atmosphere. People played music from their laptops. We could be ourselves there.

Lakeside Magazine:

I understand you became interested in politics pretty early on. Did you have a teacher at Lakeside that inspired you?

Jamari:

No, actually, my interest in politics wasn’t because of Lakeside. I mean, it was definitely... Looking back, my experience at Lakeside has informed some of my politics, but I was always interested in politics since I was young. The first po­litical rally I attended was for Al Gore in 2000, when I was nine years old. I remember how disappoint­ed I was in the result of the 2004 election.

But I guess that kind of made me more... I don’t know. I loved Bob Mazelow’s history classes. Comparative government from Miss Miller. And I took African American literature. I guess my class choices would be the one thing that influenced my Lakeside experiences. The ones I really remember were all history-type classes, social studies.

Lakeside Magazine:

Did you write for Tatler about politics, or did you ever run for student government?

Jamari:

I did not. I like to lay low, so I didn’t really put myself out there. I should’ve run for student government, that’s definitely a regret. But I did not run for student government or work on Tatler.

Lakeside Magazine:

Did you still struggle with being a lazy student at Lakeside?

Jamari:

Oh, yeah, no. I was still lazy. I was on academic probation for a semester, my second semester, I believe. It was just, I thought, my laziness. I could get away with that at Aki Kurose, but at Lakeside I couldn’t. That was just not possible. I always say the transition from middle school to high school for me was the biggest transition as opposed to high school to college. Because it was just the expectations and just the level of work we were required to do at Lakeside is so much more than what Aki was.

We had a lot of Rainier Scholars. We had, at least in my class, we had Raphael, Erica, Janelle, Karen, Catarina. I want to say, like, eight. I’m not sure if I would have gone to Lakeside if I wasn’t a Rainier Scholars. So, that's a big trajectory change. I wouldn’t say I was super close to my Rainier Scholars cohort, but I mean we all came from the same areas, so we were familiar with each other, and that was nice.

Lakeside Magazine:

You went to Howard University coming out of Lakeside. What was that like compared to Lakeside?

Jamari:

Obviously, Howard is an HBCU, so you’re removing... I mean, there are other races and cultures at Howard besides Black, but you’re removing that big difference... I mean, there’s going to be differences regardless. Some difference will form between people, if race is taken out, or it’s an all-girls’ school or all boys’ school, the sex taken out. So yeah, you don’t have that race issue. I think power is interesting because there’s a lot of similar students to me who went to private school or came to Howard, seeking that all-Black experience that you’ll probably never get ever again in your life.

Academically, Howard was similar to Lakeside. Most high schools don’t do what Lakeside does, as far as having block periods. As far as how to manage your time and schedule from the college, you have classes sometimes every other day. You have independent study. It varies. So, Lakeside definitely prepared me for that, and having to deal with that. A difference I would say is that you don’t have as much support in college because you don’t have people checking in, handholding you, and having an advisor and all of that. I think that’s just normal college experience. You’re not obviously being looked after as close.

Lakeside Magazine:

You’ve worked on Governor Inslee’s campaigns. Was that while you were a Howard student?

Jamari:

So, I graduated from Howard in 2015. I was a five-year, I guess, kind of student. I went a little wild at Howard. I worked for Inslee in 2012 originally as an intern. And then when I graduated, I came back to Seattle after working at a lobbying firm. But my final semester at Howard, I joined Inslee’s campaign as a field organizer.

Lakeside Magazine:

What did you take away from that experience?

Jamari:

I loved it. I mean, being a field organizer is like the basic building block of political action, of political organizing movements. An organizer is the first person that a constituent meets that is representative of the campaign. So, it was definitely helpful in learning how to build relationships, which, I mean, that's part of my job now. Building a coalition, organizing events for your principal, as simple a thing as just knocking on doors and making phone calls. That is all a useful skillset to have in politics.

Lakeside Magazine:

Where did you learn those skills?

Jamari:

Yeah, so, I mean, I think going back to what I said, at Lakeside I kind of laid low. I think I’m very much an introvert. So, it’s very hard for me to put myself out there and be outgoing and do extroverted things. So, I definitely forced myself... I would say forcing yourself to ask for things, forcing yourself to speak up, being... I don’t know. I think to have skill sets for an organizer, you have to be resourceful and you have to be willing to put yourself out there. You have to be willing to get up in front of a room and advocate for your position or your candidate.

And part of Lakeside is having discussion and debating and saying what you think about something, for instance, a book that you’re reading. And teachers force you and encourage you to speak up, be voiceful, defend your position. So, that’s definitely a big part of the Lakeside experience that helped me with just being more forceful. My natural self is knowing how to defend the center position, knowing how to advocate for myself.

Lakeside Magazine:

What teachers who knew you at Lakeside would have predicted you might have in a career in politics?

Jamari:

Maybe Miss Aegerter. Or Mr. Doelger. I don’t know if he even remembers me. But yeah. I mean, probably a lot of my English teachers. Because those are the classes where I felt the most comfortable to speak up. And those are issues, I guess that’d be the most relevant. I think Mr. Kranwinkle, too — he was my French teacher and advisor.

Lakeside Magazine:

Did you do any service learning projects at Lakeside that were meaningful or memorable?

Jamari:

I unfortunately did not do anything super meaningful. That's probably one of my biggest regrets. It was a requirement when I graduated, because I remember rushing to find something to do it. I remember serving the homeless, so soup kitchen, that type of thing. Yeah. That’s the only thing I can remember off the top of my head.

Jim Collins:

Were there any aspects of your Lakeside experience that shaped your views about public service or politics?

Jamari:

Yeah, I mean big thing is just, going to Lakeside, the first thing that hits you is wealth inequality in the education system. I was fortunate enough to have a very good education. I was fortunate enough to be able to go to Lakeside. But obviously the vast majority of Seattle public school students or students in America don’t have that luxury. And aren’t able to experience all the things that Lakeside students are able to. And as far as wealth inequality, just my own recollection of just how different Aki Kurose students are compared to the average Lakeside household, it was completely unimaginable. Just the wealth inequality and how limited people’s...  because of the wealth inequality, how limited a lot of poor people’s access to opportunity and view of what’s possible in life is.

The the biggest thing that attracted me Reverend Warnock’s campaign was that he comes from the social justice, Ministries of Jesus, progressive Christian theology. That is, I think, a voice that was needed in the Senate. I’m glad he is a Senator now.

Lakeside Magazine:

I read that you had applied to work on the Warnock campaign a couple of times, and then the third time was the one that got you in. How did you not get discouraged after not being hired?

Jamari:

So, the first time I applied for a comms position, and the comms director, Terrence, he liked me, but I didn’t have the experience. So, he was like, “I’ll recommend you for another position on another team.” He passed along my résumé to the digital team, and I interviewed with them for a position, and I didn’t get it. It wasn’t like, “No, this kid is totally useless. Why is he applying?” They kept referring me to different things. So, I was like, “Well, if they’re referring me to different things, then...” There's some hint that they might want you.

So, then a position for body man came up. A “body man” is political terminology for basically a personal assistant. And I figured, “Hey, I’ll be able to have access to the candidate every day. And we’ll be able to spend a lot of time together. I think that’ll be a really big opportunity for me professionally if he wins. I mean, if he doesn’t win, great. I’ll have experience. But if he does win, I will be able to turn that experience into my next job.” This is my next job

I had been working for Congressman Andy Levin of Michigan. I was in that office for like a year. And after that year, I was applying for other jobs, and then the pandemic happened, and then no one was hiring. When I got hired by the Warnock team, and I had a week to move down to Atlanta and buy a car. I’m a little bit familiar with DC, but most people don’t have cars here because everything’s walkable. I had to figure housing and buy a car. And I did all that, drove down from DC to Atlanta, like a 10-hour drive, and I started work three days later.

I had not even heard of Raphael Warnock. And I know so many other politicos who worked on losing races this cycle that we thought were much more winnable than the Warnock or Ossoff races. This race was definitely not on anyone’s radar in August or September, but... yeah.

So now I am a legislative correspondent for Senator Warnock. Banking, tax, small business, trade, all things economy, basically, housing. I respond to constituent mail from any of those issue areas. I take meetings from different groups who are filling in those issues, as well as support our senior legislative person who handles those issues. I’m able to write memos, write letters on behalf of the Senator. It’s been a whirlwind. We haven’t had a break since last year, but it’s exciting.

Lakeside Magazine:

What are you thinking about for your own future, now?

Jamari:

I mean, honestly? Probably either running my own political consulting firm or being a lobbyist.  People think lobbyists are… just the bad word, but lobbyists advocate for all sorts of things. There are good lobbyists, quote unquote, and bad lobbyists, for different issues. Every issue has a lot of lobbyists on either side, but some issues in particular are interesting to me, especially banking and finance. The crypto and digital currency in that whole emerging market is very interesting. And the government is thinking of how or whether to regulate that industry. I feel like I can make my mark from the ground up. Housing is also interesting to me, because of the lack of affordable housing. I grew up in a ranch house on Beacon Hill. One floor. My mom has one son, and my dad has two kids, but I was an only child until I was 11. So, yeah, affordable housing and decent housing is a big issue as you know — here, too. That’s a really interesting area for me to reflect back on.