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 to.

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 seem small.

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 staff accordingly.

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 lecturer.

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 “neighborhood privilege.”

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 officials.

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 through change:

Stress collaboration and award matching funds to those whose projects show they can think larger than a couple of blocks or their own property values.

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.