Washington’s newest state senator-elect from the 28th District defies one troubling statistic after another: T’wina Nobles will become the only Black member of the Senate and the first to be elected to the Legislature in a decade. She is also a rare lawmaker who survived a childhood of homelessness and multiple moves through the foster care system to go on to obtain a four-year college degree; just 3% of her peers achieved that distinction.
“I always knew that if I could hang in there, better days would be ahead for me,” the Democrat and mother of four said in a phone interview with The Imprint on Veteran’s Day.
Nobles, an elected school board member who is president of the Tacoma Urban League, beat Republican incumbent Steve O’Ban, for a seat that has been red since the 1960s. Her victory makes her the only current Black member of the Washington State Senate and only the second Black woman member in history.
The 38-year-old follows in the footsteps of Rosa Franklin, now 93, who spent from 1993 to 2010 in the Senate as a Democrat representing the 29th District, which also includes parts of Tacoma. Franklin, who was a nurse, is remembered for her work to eliminate health disparities by race, ethnicity and gender.
Franklin’s trailblazing inspired Nobles, but she said she was disappointed that her election is notable for her being an “only” one. “There should be consistent representation of many voices in the Senate,” she said, adding that she’ll put in the work needed to increase the number of Black senators in the future.
Nobles’ parents met in California, where both served in the military. Her family’s troubles began when her mother became addicted to crack cocaine in the 1980s, she said, while still in uniform. My parents “had a period where they tried really hard to keep our family together and secure and provide all of our basic needs,” she recalled. Her father reached out to the military about the problem, but the drugs ultimately cost Nobles’ mother her career.
Beginning in elementary school until she graduated from high school, Nobles experienced a dizzying number of moves back and forth across the country between her parents, in and out of shelters in the Columbus, Georgia, area, and between two foster families.
By the time she was 13 years old, Nobles and her family had lived in nearly every homeless shelter in Columbus, Georgia, and Phenix City, Alabama — cities lining the Deep South’s Chattahoochee River. But she became fed up with constantly moving through with her mother and two brothers. So at one point, she just decided to stay, even though her mother decided to set out yet again.
Nobles had befriended the woman who ran the facility, who had nieces about her age. She volunteered at the shelter’s front desk and helped out in other ways when a young teenager could be of service.
“I was tired of moving around,” Nobles said. “That shelter gave me stability and allowed me to provide a lot of leadership, helping adults and those in need even though it was at a time when I was in need.”
As an older teen, Nobles tried to reconcile strained relations with her mother, but that ended in a foster care placement, where she received a proper pair of running shoes and discovered a love of track. At 16, she reunited briefly with her father in California, but when she became pregnant, he sent her back to Georgia, again living in a shelter, where she gave birth to her daughter.
She eventually reconnected with a family she knew from her track team and they obtained foster parent credentials, allowing Nobles to join their household with her newborn. Nobles graduated high school and attended college nearby, helped by a program for youth who had grown up with similar struggles.
When she was 19 years old, she married her first husband, her daughter’s father, and moved to Washington state because of his military career, where she obtained an undergraduate and graduate degree from the University of Puget Sound.
Nobles’ children are now 21, 16, 14 and 9. She credits her faith in guiding her to overcome her difficult times. “My mother did not raise me in the church,” she said, “but from an early age, God has been in my life.”
And from early on, Nobles added, she knew that school was a route away from her family trauma, which reached back generations. “Education was non-negotiable. I knew I wanted to be well educated because that would be a pathway to break the cycle and detach myself from the things our family had been through.”
Consequently, she made education the focus of her campaign platform, advocating for better funding and resources to pay educators more, reduce class size, and “push for more equity and inclusion in our schools,” according to her website.
She was widely endorsed by Democrats including President-elect Joe Biden and Sen. Elizabeth Warren, who said on Twitter that Nobles is a “fighter for big, structural change who knows what working families need to get ahead.”
Nobles also sits on the board of directors for Building Changes, a nonprofit that helps homeless families and youth. She expects to weigh in on future legislative issues that support foster and homeless youth and young people. “We need to make investments and work really hard to attach funding to those vital programs, so we can ensure successful futures for our youth.”
Nobles only decided to run for the Washington senate at the beginning of this year, after she said her opponent and her state senator at the time, O’Ban, didn’t show up for a meeting during the Urban League’s legislative day. The organization had scheduled several meetings in Olympia after being told by legislators that the Black community needed to have more outreach for their legislative agenda.
O’Ban told Crosscut he was not in Olympia that day because he was chairing a meeting on mental health in Tacoma. On Monday he posted a message on Facebook congratulating Nobles and wishing her well.
The race against O’Ban, who helped shepherd through 2017 legislation that remade the child welfare system by creating the new Department of Child, Youth & Families, was tainted by racism.
A flyer mailed to voters this summer by a political action committee linked to Senate Republicans darkened Nobles’ skin color. In a written statement to KUOW, O’Ban rejected the alteration of the photo but didn’t specifically disavow the mailer as racist.
Nobles said her campaign never received an apology. In the end, it was one more obstacle she overcame.
Note: This article was updated to clarify that approximately 3% of youth who transition into adulthood from foster care obtain a four-year college degree, according to one major study of transition age youth. The same study found that about 32% had completed at least one year of college.