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"Everybody In" packs it in

SESCO convention 1985John Hoole and I began our exploration of community activism in the Rainier Valley with a simple question: How do ordinary people affect positive change in their communities? The Rainier Valley has a long tradition of civic activism, dating back at least as far as the petition filed by the ladies of Columbia City in 1905, urging the Town Council to close the local pool room on Sundays and at 11 pm the rest of the week. We were particularly curious about the period from 1970 to 1990, when many of the issues facing the Rainier Valley today came to the fore, and many of the people and organizations now at work in the community got their start.

 

Our research began with a treasure trove of slides, minutes, correspondence, and other materials documenting the activities of SESCO, the South End Seattle Community Organization, which was founded in 1975. The materials were donated to the RVHS by Rodney Herold, one of SESCO’s founders. We knew SESCO represented a specific approach to community activism, inspired by the work of Chicago organizer Saul Alinsky, author of the classic “Rules for Radicals.” We were curious to understand SESCO’s philosophy, goals, and strategies, to compare them to the work done by other community activists during the same period, and to see what lessons we could glean from the mix.

 

As we read through documents and conducted oral history interviews, we learned of many interesting connections (and a few conflicts) among the people and groups that were at work in the Rainier Valley in the 1970s, ‘80s, and ‘90s. We saw successes and failures, flashy media-savvy campaigns and long hard slogs behind the scenes. We saw people who were empowered by small victories, and good intentions that lead to unintended consequences. The threads are complicated; it would take years of research to fully untangle them. We hope to continue our research in the future, and we encourage those of you with stories we failed to capture, to share them with the RVHS.

 

Meanwhile, we would like to share a few of the lessons we drew from the various stories people told us over the course of the project.

 

First of all, we learned that experts can be wrong. As the story of Greenwood Gardens [link] shows, bureaucrats and planners do not always make decisions that benefit individual communities. They may have self-serving motives, like maintaining their jobs or perpetuating their organizations. Or they may have broader goals – from ending homelessness to balancing the state budget – that may not align with the priorities or needs of local residents. Or they may be under the sway of a new trend in city planning or education reform that will prove to be deeply flawed. That large government entities often wield massive resources only makes their blunders bigger.

Second, social capital is powerful. People who live and work together over a long period of time – like the members of the Rainier Chamber in the 1970s [link] -- develop a network of mutual trust and reciprocal responsibility that can be called upon when they want to make change in their community. Small acts of neighborly generosity can help build that network. Never underestimate the power of a shared lawnmower!

 

Alinsky-style campaigns can be extremely effective. A narrowly defined issue with a clear target, and escalating tactics designed to hold that target accountable, will almost certainly produce action on that narrowly defined issue. The story of the Dunlap dump [link] demonstrates this, as does the tale of the Lucile Street Bridge. (The Lucile Street Bridge [link] story also shows us the necessity of vigilance in the endgame!)

 

Focusing on small, achievable goals can prevent activists from seeing the bigger picture. Now, the bigger picture can be overwhelming, confusing, discouraging, and paralyzing; there generally isn’t a simple, obvious solution -- this is why Alinksy advised organizers to focus on small, achievable goals. But sometimes the problems are bigger than that, and the solutions have to be bigger too. In the case of Whitworth School [link], there were systemic, fundamental problems underlying Whitworth’s situation – systemic problems that pitted school against school, parents against neighbors. What might have happened if everyone had worked together to address those systemic issues?

 

Finally, and perhaps most importantly: ordinary people can change the world. Despite the cautionary principles listed above, we have found ourselves inspired again and again by the stories we heard and the people we talked to during this project. Kay Godefroy, the PTA President who went from founding an afternoon Kindergarten at Whitworth to heading up the Rainier Chamber’s anti-crime work in the 1980s, told us: “If you can organize a PTA spaghetti dinner, you can do anything. You don’t need professionals, you don’t need funding, you can make change with the force of your will.”

 

Many other people embodied this spirit. Pauline Wilson, Brighton resident and mother of seven, whose talents and passion were brought out by SESCO organizers and who became a powerful voice in the fight to tear down Greenwood Gardens. Jean Vel Dyke, whose tireless advocacy on behalf of Rainier Valley businesses and residents has wrung positive change out of the worst situations. B.J. Santos, who at the age of eleven organized a talent show at Whitworth that raised $135 to paint the boys bathrooms, and who told the School Board that the students “could not take care of all such problems” without their help. Jim Diers, who started out as a SESCO organizer, and went on to take Saul Alinksy’s principles of community empowerment and build them into the city government, as the first director of the Department of Neighborhoods. It was an ironic idea, city hall training people to fight city hall, but the DON -- particularly the Neighborhood Matching Fund -- has been a powerful force for improvement and citizen empowerment in neighborhoods across the city.

 

We see a lot of hope even in the most contentious arguments in the Rainier Valley -- over density, light rail, school closures, and so on – even though they sometimes weaken the social capital that gives neighborhood activists their true power. These conflicts are the result of a necessary tension among different people, institutions, and perspectives in our community.

 

Conflicts also show us that people here care what happens in their community. They know its past (thanks to the work of the RVHS) and they have a stake in its future. And time and again they have fought passionately for the kind of future they want to see.

 

-- Mikala Woodward

Photo: Arther Harvey, SESCO board member, and Donna Ahearn, citizen activist, at 1985 SESCO Convention in Columbia City.