On April 5, Mayor Ed Murray will
host the 2014 Seattle Neighborhood Summit, from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m., at the
Seattle Center Exhibition Hall (305 Harrison St.). The idea is to provide
information and solicit input from community leaders.
A new mayor will meet with possibly hundreds of
neighborhood activists. There’s already outreach by the Department of
Neighborhoods (DON), Mayor Ed Murray’s office and City Council staff about the
summit. It is an opportunity to be seen and perhaps heard, maybe even listened
What direction will the City of Seattle take with you and
me, the people who live next door and down the block?
Some change is in the works. City Council staff have
openly discussed with me complaints the council has received about DON. Most
Some complaints are about matching-fund grants that were
allegedly rejected by DON staff. This program — comprised of the Small Sparks
Fund (up to $1,000), the Small and Simple Projects Fund (up to $25,000) and the
Large Projects Fund (up to $100,000) — emphasizes collaboration between the
city and applicants. They are considered (and therein lies the problem) as DON
tends not to support collaborative projects between neighborhood groups.
It would do a better job of supporting community
development in Seattle if selection criteria for the Small and Simple and the
Large Projects funds included demonstrations of public meetings in the
immediate neighborhoods of proposed projects, as well as how the proposal
complements other work in that community.
No neighborhood outreach
Funding of projects aside, DON’s ability to perform
community outreach has been hampered by budget cuts over the last 12 years that
resulted in staff reductions and the closing of neighborhood service centers.
Only six of Seattle’s 13 neighborhood districts have staffed service centers. A
priority in any change to DON would be to reopen the centers and distribute
DON has also been hampered by politics. Its first
director, Jim Diers, wrote “Neighborhood Power,” an influential book in Seattle
neighborhood politics. Diers promoted and popularized the concept of
neighborhood empowerment in municipal life. When Greg Nickels became mayor, one
of his first acts was to fire Jim Diers. Since, Diers has become a popular
Neighborhood power — grassroots organizing to provide a
basis for community political leverage — is still a rallying point for many
activists in Seattle. Unfortunately, “neighborhood power” has become more like
How so? Projects led by cliques are passed off as having
broad community support. Small groups may come to dominate community councils
and then pass themselves off as representing neighborhoods where tens of
thousands of people may live who never voted for nor heard of them. People with
money and/or time can position themselves with city representatives and elected
In my neighborhood, this came to a head when an activist
talked Seattle City Councilmembers Mike O’Brien and Richard Conlin into coming
to Beacon Hill in 2011, intending on passing off her opinion as a popular
vision. DON got involved with that one, contacted others in the broader
community and made sure that people of color were included.
The person who’d originally planned the event showed up
with a map and, in conversation, revealed she knew nothing about the three
parks, p-patch or public stairways only a mile north of her house. No one could
disabuse her of the notion that she knew better about the community than the
people who lived there.
Go beyond the norm
So, this modest proposal is to DON, as you will be going
Stress collaboration and award matching funds to those
whose projects show they can think larger than a couple of blocks or their own
Go beyond community and district councils. At best, they
are community forums; at worst, they become vehicles for individuals who claim
to represent people they don’t even know.
Do research. Find out who is actually doing work, and
engage them respectfully.
But most of all, find a different model than
“neighborhood power.” Through misuse, it’s become a metaphor and little else.
Seattle should hang out together, not hang together.
CRAIG THOMPSON is a longtime community activist. To
comment on this column, write to QAMagNews@nwlink.com.