TALK OF TAKOMA: “A crying need to express another voice” — Seth Grimes joins the city council (Ward 1)


Seth Grimes got his picture in the May 22, 1998 international edition of the New York Times, and, while it might qualify as his 15 minutes of fame, it is also part of a longer story of how he met his wife Franca and how they came to Takoma Park.

An Agence France-Presse photographer happened to find Seth at a protest rally in Nablus in the occupied West Bank, the territory over which Israelis and Palestinians continue to struggle. The rally was news because the protestors included many Jewish-Americans who were taking an anti-settlement stand, which is less than popular in Israel.

It was also news because, no matter that the rally was peaceful and sanctioned, there was an element of risk, as is the case at every such rally. “We got pushed around by soldiers, ‘Stand here, don’t stand there.’ But I don’t want to overplay it,” Seth demurred in a recent interview.

For a guy who is an acknowledged, high-profile political leader in Takoma Park – he won election to the open Ward One seat in November as if he was the incumbent, facing no opposition – Seth rarely talks about himself.

Part of that may have to do with how he makes a living.  He does the sort of software technical service that is hard to explain in everyday words and goes over many heads. To quote from his website, Seth offers “business analytics strategy consulting and implementation services with a focus on advanced analytics (BI, text mining, data visualization, analytical databases) …”

Not that he doesn’t have a clever Main Street sensibility about his one-man company, started in 1997 and situated in a second-floor office in Old Town. He calls it Alta Plana. “I concocted the name,” he said. “I didn’t want a name like all the other technology places, and I wanted one that would be near the top of the alphabet.”

Seth Grimes

Seth Grimes works out of his office in Old Takoma. Photos by Julie Wiatt

He pondered a bit. “I don’t think it matters anymore,” he said. “My brand now is my own name, not my company name.”

Seth’s status within his professional sphere is such that he has been able to travel to Rome, Paris, London, Barcelona, Caracas and Edinburgh.  “It’s nice. You go where the work is. The software world doesn’t have geographical boundaries.” He missed his own election to the Council because he was the main organizer of a conference that day in San Francisco. “I’m still waiting for the really good invitations to China and India,” he said, chuckling, “but, oh well.”

Over the years Seth has worked within the mainstream for the U. S. Census, the Department of Transportation, the International Monetary Fund and the Goddard Space Center. Yet, politically, he has that Takoma Park edge, “vaguely lefty,” as he says.

At Wesleyan University in the early 1980s he helped launch a recycling program before that idea was in vogue.  “We drove around campus and collected bottles, cans, newspapers. But Wesleyan was like Takoma Park.  You were encouraged to do things differently. It wasn’t just accepted, it was welcomed.”

Seth arrived in the Washington area in 1983 and lived in Riverdale and on the Hill.  He got involved with the New Jewish Agenda, an organization that had as its slogan, “a Jewish voice among progressives and a progressive voice among Jews.” In 1985, at a Hanukkah party of likeminded friends, he met Franca Brilliant, and they hit it off.

Franca, who is today a Center for the American Dream senior director and the Takoma Foundation president, left soon afterward for two years of study in New York City, but four years later the New York Times reported their engagement.

By then Seth had made his pilgrimage to the Middle East.  His protest was against the Israeli occupation of the West Bank and Gaza and the administrative detention of thousands of Palestinians.

“Why did I do it? I thought there was a crying need to express another voice,” he said.

When it came time to buy a house Seth and Franca looked immediately to Takoma Park because they had friends here from the New Jewish Agenda. In 1996 they moved onto Willow Avenue, in the same block as a couple of their friends.

They have stayed in the house and raised two sons, now teenagers.  Seth’s days as a protestor are long over, but he did mention another time, before the kids, when he had gone down to the Mall and held up a sign, “Militarism Begets War.”

“That was something else that needed saying.”