While the Midwest is well known for its large Polish diaspora, the Pacific Northwest has also been home to a vibrant Polish community for more than 100 years. Recently, that community has become more visible as Seattle-area tech companies recruit new talent and invest in Poland’s growing startup industry. In 2014, the Republic of Poland opened a consulate in Seattle, establishing an official diplomatic presence in the Pacific Northwest for the first time. The Ellison Center caught up with Honorary Consul Teresa Indelak Davis to talk about what an honorary consulate does and about developments in the Polish community here in Washington State.
What do you hope to accomplish in the near future as Honorary Consul?
My goal is to build multilateral connections, whether that’s in the area of business, cultural, academic or student exchange. I started this role in 2014. This is a brand new post. Poland has not had a consulate in Seattle prior to that, but the Polish presence goes back at least 125 years. That’s when the first organizations were formed. They were in Tacoma, Aberdeen, and other south side communities. The first wave of immigrants arrived with industry—logging, forestry, fishing. That brought a lot of Polish immigrants, whether they came directly from Poland or came east from Chicago.
There is still a Polish cultural center in Aberdeen. There aren’t as many first generation Poles involved, but more second and third.
At the beginning of the 20th century, people began moving to Seattle. The first Polish Home Association in Seattle was formed in 1919. Even now it’s a very vibrant part of the Polish community. But there are other groups that still exist—in Aberdeen, Tacoma, Spokane, Bellingham, and some in Camus.
The main Polish organization is in Seattle. We estimate that there are 125,000 people with Polish heritage living in Washington state. About 15,000 of those are in Seattle. As far as numbers go, it isn’t that big, but the Polish community is very active and vibrant.
The Polish Home Association often focused on helping those who came from Poland—after World War II and after the Solidarity movement in the 1980s, for example. Those events really brought in the biggest waves of people.
Seattle has undergone a lot of changes in recent years. How is the Polish community changing?
We have a new wave of people coming from Poland. This group is made up primarily IT professionals and engineers who are recruited for economic reasons. The Polish community is part of Seattle growth. Because of that new activity and revived inflow of new families and young people, we were able to show that there are a lot of connections between Seattle and Poland. That is why we decided we needed an official diplomatic post. I would say that was on people’s minds for at least 10 years. We had to show the Polish and US governments that there was a real need. I think the economic connection was really the convincing factor. A lot of Washington State companies have a presence in Poland and we have been seeing trade missions and economic exchange between Poland and Seattle. Microsoft, Boeing, Amazon—they are all doing business with Poland, and so are a lot of smaller corporations.
There was no official Polish diplomatic presence in the community until recently. What spurred the decision to open an honorary consulate?
The Polish community here started getting more calls and requests for help with economic and trade missions, but we didn’t have the capability to handle that. We had a lot of cultural activities, but we weren’t so organized on the business side. A Polish Chamber of Commerce was formed in 2011, and then the Polish Consulate idea became more realistic.
In my role, I create connections in those areas—especially economic connections. About four times a year I help host a trade mission from Poland. Last year we had a representative at the Aerospace and Defense Summit for the 100th anniversary of Boeing. We had a big delegation from Poland come. In September we hosted a number of Polish companies who specialize in computer game development.
I partner with the Pacific Northwest chapter of the Polish-American Chamber of Commerce to hold meetings and organize events. I also partner with organizations to host cultural events and reach out to new partners. Last year we partnered with the Seattle Symphony. A Polish artist, Agata Zubel, performed for three nights. She is a prominent contemporary composer and singer.
I’m one of the cofounders of the Polish Festival at the Seattle Center. We are in our sixth year. It’s an opportunity for us to present Polish culture and traditions within the Seattle community. It’s very broad and open to the public. Typically, we get about 7,000-10,000 attendees. It features music, dance, food, exhibits, presentations, and a lot of high-energy celebrations.
What is driving increased economic cooperation between the Pacific Northwest and Poland?
The startup culture is very active in Poland. It’s sort of new, so the IT sector has a lot of very small developers who come up with new ideas for computer games and entertainment. That’s the industry that I’m focusing on as far as new, innovative startup industries. There is also a lot of manufacturing and more “classic” industries that I’m less involved with.
After last year’s initial trip, we hope that a group will come again in September that could lead to closer partnership between IT companies rather than just exploratory missions.
What areas do you think will develop in the next few years?
I would like to focus more on education and academic exchanges and identify academic institutions here with potential partners to formalize exchanges. There are so many great academic institutions, like the UW. There may be some specific departments, like engineering or computer science, that could lead to a more formal exchange. I’m also exploring other institutions and identifying potential partners.
How were you selected for this role?
I’ve been involved in the Polish community as a volunteer and a member for a long time—for about 20 years. I’ve been in Seattle since 1986. My background is in communications. I worked at Microsoft before I retired. I was able to use my communications skills to advance some of the causes that I was involved with by gaining exposure through events and reaching out to state, city, and industry representatives.
Because I was very active, my contributions were noticed by visiting Polish representatives—the ambassador, the consul general. When the Polish community was trying to get a consulate approved, my candidacy was put forward.
I’ve always come from the Polish community, through the grassroots. I was able to combine that with my skills from corporate communications and transfer that into community service.
What brought you to the Seattle area?
It was through a personal connection. First I came through Wyoming. I met someone there during Christmas dinner who was from Seattle. She raved about the city. I arrived here in January of 1986.
I studied in Krakow Poland before coming to America. In Seattle I graduated from the University of Washington, so this is my alumni network.
The Polish community here is really wonderful. It’s like a home away from home.
What else does the honorary consulate do?
One other service I provide is information about Polish passports. I don’t issue passports or visas, but I serve as the first person they can get information from. I organize passport services here in Seattle. Once a year the consulate from Los Angeles brings the technology here so we can serve a few hundred people with passport services.
I also give out information and refer inquiries to the right resources. I get several calls a day about registering foreign birth certificates, marriage certificates, death certificates in Poland. Inquiries about Polish roots, visas. If someone is in jail and needs to contact their family or needs a translation, access to an attorney, or that sort of thing.
We also have a very active UW Polish Studies endowment community that I partner with.
We have an upcoming event on February 15, an exhibit—“Poles Who Helped Jews.” There will be a presentation before the exhibit opening on exploring Polish-Jewish relations in a broader context, all the way to the current cultural revival.
This is a public service position, so it’s uncompensated, but it’s officially approved by the Polish Foreign Ministry and the US State Department. The commission is usually five years, and then it can be extended. It’s a citizen who agrees to serve as a representative of that country in a particular area and does that as a public service.