Sometimes it's better for people to rely on themselves than on government. That's an idea you might associate with the political right, but really it has much broader roots, and...
Sometimes it’s better for people to rely on themselves than on government. That’s an idea you might associate with the political right, but really it has much broader roots, and it’s one of the places where we stand on common ground.
I’m not talking about people going it alone, but rather about groups of people working together to solve common problems.
Jim Diers, who ran Seattle’s Department of Neighborhoods, is a champion of grass-roots community projects. He likes them not just because they get things done, but because they create community.
People may come together to build a park, chase off drug dealers or build housing, but in working together they construct a community of people who know each other, who recognize their common needs and their individual strengths, and who have a starting point from which to address new issues.
Diers has written a book about his nearly 14 years running the tiny Office of Neighborhoods as it grew into a large Seattle Department of Neighborhoods.
An essay Diers crafted from material in the book ran in the Opinion section of Sunday’s Seattle Times.
The book, “Neighborhood Power: Building Community the Seattle Way,” is part instruction manual, part memoir and maybe a smidgen of nose thumbing.
After running the department under three previous mayors, Diers was fired by Greg Nickels two years ago. Diers just celebrated the third anniversary of his release, which also happens to be his birthday.
Fired at 50 would be cause for depression for most folks, but Diers says it was a gift. He was able to take time to write the book, and he is still doing the things he loves.
He has a gig with the University of Washington forging relationships with three neighborhoods that could use partners, White Center, Delridge and South Park. He’s executive director of the South Downtown Foundation, and he’s been working on a park project with kids in Toppenish, Yakima County.
Diers told me he wrote the book to help other people replicate Seattle’s success, to stimulate and inspire people to get involved or stay involved with their communities, and because he worried that “it wasn’t just me, but the programs could be gone, because Greg just didn’t get it.”
Government can build a play field, but when people do it themselves, “it’s not just about building projects but building community. In a democracy, government should see active citizens as a good thing,” he says.
Good citizenship is about more than voting and paying taxes, but you don’t have to join the Army or become a full-time community activist. There is a lot in between.
The book has lots of stories of people who did something constructive in their neighborhoods, participating in projects like the creation of an Eritrean community center, a P-Patch community garden in New Holly, the troll in Fremont. There is a whole section on the revitalization of Columbia City.
The object of Diers’ work was to help ordinary people get things done. He and the department sought to organize neighborhood groups and provide structure and money for the projects the residents saw as most important.
Community involvement probably comes more naturally to Diers than to most folks. Both of his grandfathers were ministers, and his father had a church in Vancouver, B.C., where Diers was born.
He grew up in monochrome Waverly, Iowa, but graduated from high school in Richmond, Calif., a Bay Area city where African Americans are the largest demographic group and white people are a minority.
But Diers had plenty of experience with black folks through his father’s work.
Herman Diers was active in the civil-rights and anti-war movements. He’s lived with Masai in East Africa, worked in Nicaragua and spent time in a village in India that runs itself in a self-sustaining, democratic way inspired by Gandhi’s ideas. He and Diers’ mother live in Tacoma now and are both still involved with social causes.
Diers, when he was a high-school sophomore, organized a hunger walk that raised $16,000 for the Black Panthers’ Chicago breakfast program and for Operation Bootstrap in Tanzania.
They are an unusual family, but most of us can find something that matters to us and give it a day, or an hour.
“Democracy isn’t just going to the polls every two years or four years,” he says. He’s right. Seems like you can’t even be sure your ballot will be counted, but when your citizenship is hands-on you know you’ve accomplished something.