The importance of health and safety in Black communities: MLK Seattle Coalition pays tribute to Willie Austin

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Photo by Ian Bourn
Photo by Ian Bourn

On Monday, Seattle's annual Martin Luther King, Jr. Day celebration drew hundreds to Garfield High School for the 39th consecutive year. Speakers at the rally highlighted the systemic barriers to safety, bias, and well-being for Black youth in Seattle, as well as a tribute to the late community health leader Willie Austin.

Amid the COVID-19 pandemic and with health and safety disparities persisting across BIPOC and LGBTQ+ communities, the moving tribute came as a timely call to action for attendees to remember that their personal health is vital in the fight against injustice.

Photo courtesy of The Austin Foundation  

Willie Austin: One of King County's "late greats"
Hailing from West Memphis, Ark., Austin first came to Seattle as a cornerback recruited for the University of Washington. However, his career as a star athlete would quickly become overshadowed by his life's work in service.

In 1994, Austin founded the Willie Austin Foundation, an organization dedicated to community well-being and providing health and fitness programming for youth in King County.

Austin quickly became known for his work in health accessibility. His athleticism was his cornerstone, and he used it to touch the lives of people in his community through accessible personal training and motivational mentorship.

"He would tell me he didn't want to achieve anything fantastic for himself if everybody else couldn't be a part of it," said Gariel Keeble, formerly a trainer at the Willie Austin Foundation.

Austin's legacy lives on at the foundation, which now brings free fitness and nutrition education to thousands of area young people each year.

Austin grounded himself in the community through regular involvement in the Seattle Martin Luther King, Jr. Organizing Coalition, which hosts the march from Garfield High School each year. His major contribution was developing a program for about a dozen youths to participate on organizing committees for the MLK Day march. He did this from 1998 onward, until he passed in 2013.

"Be in shape for what's ahead"
Rev. Terrence Proctor, of the Church by the Side of the Road in Tukwila, and Larry Gossett, one of Seattle's most high-profile civil rights activists and former King County Council chair, both worked with Austin throughout those years. At Monday's rally, they honored his legacy with speeches and presented his family with an award.

"Willie was a proponent of making sure we stayed fit. Because you don't know what's next, but you better be in shape for what's ahead," said Proctor.

His words served as a reminder that the act of self-preservation is a form of resistance itself. If the people who make up the greater community are physically, mentally, and spiritually strong, the population will be more prepared in times of need or injustice.

"We can't leave the task to the abstract ideology of justice, no. We've got to make sure we're fit so that we can do some heavy lifting. If the pandemic has taught us anything, [it's that] what we can't do alone, we can do together, and must do it now," said Proctor.

Proctor put his tribute to Austin in the context of Martin Luther King, Jr. Day. "Listen, beloved: as a community, as a people, as a nation we've got some heavy lifting to do," he said.

Black health disparities and community well-being
Financial stress and the stresses of racism are costly for Black communities, and while exercise is one proven way of alleviating stress, Austin's approach to fitness had more than just a physical effect on those who worked with him.

"Willie believed in holistic health. Holistic means the whole health. Mind, body, psyche, and spirit," said Proctor.

Stress and safety factor into overall health, and community leaders constantly put themselves at risk in both aspects. On the flip side, people who do not know where to start with their own bodies and health have been shown to be less likely to take on leadership roles in their community.

Prolonged or chronic stress can affect our emotions, behaviors, and overall health, and actively exacerbates health problems in low-income communities of color across the United States today, according to studies published by the National Institutes of Health.

The same can be said for the LGBTQ+ community, and the disparity only deepens for QTBIPOC.

In recent years, new studies are also revealing the link between mental health, community health, and physical fitness, indicating that this holistic type of approach is the key to optimal living. Some research has also shown that the happiest places in the world are where walks with friends or family are integrated into community culture.

Serving those who face barriers
Austin's approach to holistic health showed his students the physical, mental, and spiritual strength they already had.

"He didn't just lift," said former Austin Foundation student Marco Jackson. "He would build your confidence, slowly, even when you didn't have the courage to build it yourself."

The foundation currently serves people of all backgrounds, with a priority for youth and families who could not otherwise achieve health and wellness due to systemic limitations.

According to the US Department of Health and Human Services, the major barriers most people face when trying to increase physical activity are time, access to convenient facilities, and safe environments in which to be active.

These barriers prevent people of socioeconomically vulnerable populations from being able to exercise in typical gym settings, thus excluding working Black families and individuals from vital health and wellness opportunities.

In honor of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., celebrations marched on after the tribute, including the annual three-mile trek from Garfield High School to City Hall, but the message and legacy of Willie Austin will last beyond this tribute: health and fitness spaces are crucial outlets for youth to engage in learning about themselves, and prioritizing the self is just as important as uplifting the other.

You can support or learn more about the Willie Austin Foundation at, and find the Seattle MLK Organizing Coalition at