Earlier this month, mayor Ed Murray announced an executive order to replace the city's traditional outreach model— which relies on 13 citywide district councils—with a new model that strives to be more inclusive. The specifics were TBD, but seeking broader representation and broader definitions of community, Murray says a new Community Involvement Commission could find leaders from community-based and/or non-profit organizations, the city's 44 varied issue boards and commissions, and frankly, from any number of local level groups. It is, the Department of Neighborhoods says, a work in progress. Murray's current DON director Kathy Nyland has been a driving force behind the change. With a backlash brewing, we asked Nyland to explain the thinking behind the decision to change the model.
Nyland herself is a product of the district council model. She was on the Georgetown Community Council from 2006-2012; she was the chair in 2012. She was on the Greater Duwamish District Council between 2007-2010 and chaired the group between 2008-2009. She was also on citywide Neighborhood Community Council, the group made up of reps from all the district councils to advise the city, between 2007-2009, and served as the group's chair in 2009.
I learned long ago to not read comments. It’s something I try to abide by but there are times when I falter. Last week was such a time. After a media advisory was released regarding the mayor's announcement about equitable outreach for neighborhood planning, I saw a handful of comments posted online. Many revolved around the idea of the Community Commission, and several people speculated about these “community leaders.”
The use of quotation marks around the term community leaders is what struck me.
People’s credibility was immediately being questioned. Some wondered “Why does the city of Seattle get to decide who is a leader?” That’s a fair question and one I ask right back. Why does anyone get to determine who is a leader and more importantly, who is not?
For quite some time I have questioned how we determine who represents a neighborhood and who speaks for a community. On a personal note, I remember being asked if I would serve on one of the city’s advisory oversight committees. Upon accepting the role, I inquired as to why I was chosen and was told “we needed a neighborhood person.”
So I was considered a neighborhood person. Excuse my naiveté, but aren’t we all neighborhood people? Apparently not.
There seems to be some unspoken criteria needed to achieve the status of community or neighborhood leader. In my case, it was hours and hours of meetings, attended for a span of many years, for more than a decade! My experience is not uncommon. Councils, associations, organizations, friends of groups throughout this city are filled with volunteers who give countless hours to make their community better and, as a result, our city stronger. It’s often thankless, often exhausting, but incredibly valuable work.
It’s not easy to be a volunteer and it is even more difficult to get involved in our current city hall-sanctioned system and structure. I say this as someone who missed countless family dinners, events and celebrations because I needed to attend an executive committee, or council meeting or an agenda planning session. I had to be at the meetings. Attendance at meetings was deemed the official path to participate. You had to be there in order to count, or so the belief was. As a former District Council member and chair (and former City Neighborhood Council member and chair), I know of what I speak. Being involved, especially at a higher, more recognized level, can be consuming and few have the stamina or luxury of time to do it.
Last week’s announcement by Mayor Murray is addressing the current system. It is about making involvement easier, less exhaustive. It is about making access more equitable, inclusive, and effective.
Last week’s Executive Order is not a power grab, but a power share. We have valuable partners at the proverbial table, however, barriers exist that prevent some from being able to join, and others don’t even know they are invited to take a seat. This is about bringing more chairs, and yes, that might include having a virtual seating.
The Executive Order and directive to create a new framework is about looking at obstacles that prevent participation and turning those into opportunities for involvement.
It’s not about silencing. Everyone has a voice, and it’s our job to listen and we need to create more opportunities so people can be heard. When people say “anyone could participate but only some people chose to,” that is not the case. Some can participate, but many cannot, and some are denied entry. The current structure, and how it is set-up, determines who can participate not based on interest, but based on your ability to attend.
Not everyone can attend a community meeting, nor should they have to. Having the endurance and fortitude should not be the determining factors for involvement. Last man standing shouldn’t be the mantra to get things done. Not everyone has the same access, or capability, or time or resources. We cannot operate as though everyone does. We need to acknowledge and be responsive to that fact.
The executive order is not a case of “elimination,” but rather a case of “in addition to.” We are adding to, not taking away. Nothing will replace the value of face to face meetings, and those will continue, but we need other avenues to complement those efforts. What works for some is not going to work for everyone. There is no one tool or approach that works for all. This is why city hall is exploring several options and approaches to outreach and engagement. We intend to tap into our most valuable resource, our residents, and work together to find innovative ways to engage.
This is about how the city connects with communities and, just as important, how we can help connect communities with one another. This is about conducting authentic outreach rather than checking a box. This is about being culturally sensitive and respectful of community’s time - because if we are going to ask you to attend meeting, we had best make it worthwhile. This is about providing information that people want and need. This is about the underrepresented having greater opportunity to participate. This is about creating genuine partnerships, and building community block by block.
Last week nothing was dissolved or disbanded. The city was given a directive. A proposal was not unveiled. Principles of equity and inclusiveness were introduced. We will work to: Improve and expand inclusive outreach and engagement; be responsive and culturally-sensitive; build community capacity for meaningful participation; effectively and efficiently manage the use of all resources, including community members’ time.
For far too long, we have operated under a structure that works for some but is a barrier for others. As a result, only the select few get to wear the badge of honor or label of "neighborhood leader.” I am a big believer that all of us have the potential to be neighborhood leaders because community is the thread we all share.
Kathy Nyland is the director at Seattle's Department of Neighborhoods