Representation Matters: Spotlight on City Councilmember Kristiana de Leon

This is part of The Humanist’s monthly 2021 series highlighting openly nonreligious elected officials across the nation. There are now more than 80 elected officials who identify with the atheist and humanist community.

Prior to the 2016 election there were only 5 public nontheist state legislators, because of our efforts we have over 60 today—more than a 1,100% increase!

It is critical that our community connect, engage with the elected officials who represent our community and our valuesyou can see a list of these elected officials here.

Councilmember Kristiana de Leon

Representing Black Diamond, Washington

“If anyone wants something done with a sense of purpose and urgency, leave it to a public servant who does not believe that there is any life beyond this one beautiful life we have the fortune of living now.”

Kristiana de Leon serves on the Planning/Community Services Committee and Budget/Finance/Administration Committee on the City Council in Black Diamond, Washington, where she openly identifies as an atheist. She grew up in Kent, Washington and received undergraduate degrees in Global Studies, Chinese Studies, and Scandinavian Studies, as well as her Master’s Degree in Education, at Pacific Lutheran University. Kristiana worked in the public education system for seven years, first as an administrative assistant in a high school counseling center, and later as a secondary teacher for ELL (English Language Learners) and English Language Arts. She enjoys hiking and trail running, attending and guest instructing group fitness classes, traveling, and continuously learning.

Sarah Levin: What motivated you to run for office?

Kristina de Leon: I decided to run for office right during filing week in my county! That said, long before I was old enough to vote I had a dream that one day I would serve my community in elected office because of my belief in the power of what good legislation can do for our communities. As a kid, I admired people like Senator Patty Murray and Senator Wellstone, and more recently, I was inspired by the amazing elections and resulting leadership I saw in my own state.

When I directly saw how my work as a volunteer and activist translated into meaningful work on equity and diversity, our environment and climate change, education, and more, I knew I was hooked. I was a secondary ELL (English Language Learners) and Language Arts teacher when I finally decided to officially jump in. I loved being deeply involved in the work of listening to students’ stories, building empowering relationships, and engaging in community advocacy. I wanted to ensure that our school districts and cities were embracing the growing diversity of our communities with a commitment to accountability tools, programs, and curriculum. I worked a lot on diversity and equity resolutions, especially to respond to the disturbing rise in hate crimes, hate speech, and hate incidents. I knew that my own city needed to respond with aspirations for better. When my 29-year-old self saw other young leaders in elected office, I thought, what am I waiting for? So, I dusted that dream off its shelf and filed to run.

Running for office has been an absolutely wild journey and one that I wouldn’t change for the world, even on the toughest of days. I love that I got to learn more about my city, talk with more neighbors and hear about their own dreams and frustrations. I am grateful each day for this honor of being hired by my neighbors to serve them.

Levin: What are your policy priorities and how does your nonreligious worldview impact your policy platform?

de Leon: A little context: when I was first coming to terms with the fact that I was an atheist, after years of really trying to make my progressive Lutheranism “work,” I soon realized that one of my biggest fears, which kept me from embracing my atheism, was that sense of a “void.” While the emotions of de-converting can be very complicated, it was nowhere like what I thought it would be. It was important for me to identify what did I believe in, since it’s not the same thing as an absence or lack of belief. I wrote down what I still believed in, because I was adamant in being frank about how my most deeply held values were not contingent on a belief in a deity. I ended up stumbling on the American Humanist Association’s Humanist Manifesto, and I felt like I was home. It perfectly encapsulated the values of the chicken scratch on my scrap notebook paper. It is not only possible, but it is our reality that we can all be good without a god.

My policy priorities are probably not that different than what they’d be if I still claimed to be part of a religious faith, but I do see them through a different lens. I am deeply passionate about proactively building just and equitable communities in which all feel welcome and included, and where there is that sense of belonging. The community I grew up in, South King County, Washington, is strong because of its diversity, including its religious diversity. My community is made up of Sikh, Muslim, Hindu, Buddhist, Jewish, Ba’hai, Zoroastrian, Christian, and yes, secular people like me. More than 150 languages are spoken. I want all to feel that they are welcome in the community and that their agency is affirmed.

I recognize my privilege, including that I am “Christian-passing.” It behooves me to recognize those who do not have that privilege to work to dismantle those barriers. This was the work that brought me into being in public education and it is why I am still passionate about education policies and practices that dismantle systemic barriers—it’s no easy lift but it is crucial and past time. The same goes for city parks planning, holistic approaches to justice, and other policies, including hiring, retention, and the very nature of our city codes and how meetings are conducted. We need to break down the gates rather than gatekeep. If anything, I think my atheism has made me even more aware of that need.

I’ve cared deeply about the environment and the climate crisis since I was very young. I grew up in an area where I saw wetlands and forests turned into strip malls in the blink of an eye. I am passionate about preserving our beautiful green spaces, not only for the sake of wildlife, but because it preserves the mental and physical well-being of the humans living in increasingly urban areas. In high school, I took an active leadership role writing letters to city and council members and legislators about zoning laws and reducing greenhouse gases. Today as a Councilmember, I’m working on these same issues—zoning, transportation, green building, green jobs in rural and exurban communities.

I could go on, because all of these issues are so interrelated, but in a nutshell, my policy priorities are education, the environment, meaningful diversity and inclusion, healthcare and housing.

Levin: Why was it important for you to be open about your nonreligious identity?

de Leon: The time is beyond due for people across our country to see nonreligious people, with our diverse backgrounds, views, and priorities, for who we actually are, not the caricatures we’re portrayed to be. For me, my humanist values mean that we share mutual respect and work together for the collective betterment of our community. It means we must uplift and empower all who are working for a more just, sustainable, and equitable society, regardless of, because of, and despite our religious beliefs or lack thereof. I live in a historically conservative area, where I think it is particularly important to make sure this conversation is happening.

If anyone wants something done with a sense of purpose and urgency, leave it to a public servant who does not believe that there is any life beyond this one beautiful life we have the fortune of living now. For me personally, I want to do the right thing—not because I think there will be some reward at the end, or because any of us will get another chance for some sort of “do-over,” but because if this is our one and only life, I want it to be the best it can be for everyone.

That in itself is a really tall order because there’s so much work ahead. Ultimately, I am accountable to the people who hired me and to my conscience, not to any deity. I strive to keep my conscience rooted in evidence, listening, and reflection on impact and intent. This is how I see secular leadership. I hope that “nones” like me can positively push back on those cruel mischaracterizations of atheists and secular humanists (that I also heard growing up), so that more people can finally see who we actually are—as neighbors who want a better quality of life for all.

Levin: How did voters respond (if at all) to your openness about your nonreligious identity?

de Leon: While I wasn’t running as an openly humanist/atheist/nonreligious candidate, I didn’t hide it either. I was able to join my neighbors of other faiths as a guest at faith-centered events in houses of worship, where we could talk about our shared values. It was probably quite clear at these events that I am not Sikh or Muslim, for example; but the fact that I was still part of these multi-faith events was a true honor, and a sign of the kind of respect and spirit of welcoming that our communities must imbibe.

On the campaign trail, the only other time religion came up was, say, if a voter would say something like “God bless,” which I took as a well-meaning gesture of kindness in the way my neighbor best thought they could. It may not be how I’d greet or wish someone well, but ultimately the job I was interviewing for was about making their lives better. It was about issues like better transportation, safety, access to safe water, a clean environment, and inclusive programs.

I got far more questions about party affiliation than about my religious affiliation. My election, as it turned out, was the first in my community in which candidates ran with open partisan affiliations—both I and my opponent had party endorsements and perhaps I can draw some parallels. Sure, these kinds of labels help a voter to understand about our world view and how our views can influence how we approach policy decisions. It’s truly great whenever we electeds and candidates can, as we are comfortable, be proud to share who we authentically are. When I was a kid, I looked up to Senator Patty Murray because I saw someone who was “just a mom in tennis shoes,” and thought, “Someday that person who nobody thought was going to be serving in office, could be me, too.” I want more people to feel the same way.

Learn more about Councilmember Kristiana de Leon