Jim Diers sits at a table in a University District cafe nursing a cup of coffee while a photographer shoots flashes into his bleary red eyes. The night before, he closed down a pub with some of the 126 community activists he had spoken to earlier in Ontario, Canada, then caught a plane home to Seattle.
It is now 10 in the morning and, other than his eyes, the 56-year-old Diers, a University of Washington instructor who was the city's first director of neighborhoods, shows no sign of fatigue, speaking as rambunctiously about the power of communities to shape their lives as he must have in Ontario, if a bit more quietly.
It's Diers' passion and his life's work. In his 20s, he started out as a community organizer in Rainier Valley, where he was paid $2,500 a year to help low-income residents help themselves, at one point getting both a bus and boat full of tenants to surround the waterfront home of a slumlord and, in another action, setting loose a chicken in the office of Mayor Charles Royer.
Royer must not have minded because, in 1988, he named Diers to head the newly formed Neighborhoods Department, where he spent 14 years championing grassroots projects like P-Patches and the Fremont Troll. In 2002, after then-incoming Mayor Greg Nickels canned Diers, he filled in a year as head of Delridge's Neighborhood Development Association, helping to create a plan that led to building a neighborhood center and turning a closed school into today's Youngstown Cultural Arts Center.
It's a short list, Diers says, when you think about what people can do when they get organized and take charge of their surroundings -- a concept he plans to teach formally next quarter in a UW evening course on "Building and Mobilizing Community." The course is one of six that Diers has helped develop for a new year-long Community Development Certificate Program he started this fall at UW Extension.
Diers joined the university four years ago as an adjunct professor in architecture and social work and directs UW-Seattle Community Partnerships, a program that puts university resources and students out in the field on a long-term basis to help communities create change. In Toppenish, Wash., for example, he says students worked with the community to envision and rebuild a park that had been overrun by gangs. It now includes a plaza and playground with a giant hay-bale dragon built by residents and embedded with some of the $1,200 in pennies raised by local children.
Rather than defining an area by its problems, "the idea is to recognize that everyone has skills, knowledge and passion," he says. "Everyone has skills of the heart or skills of the hand," he adds, that can be used to fix things from the ground up.
A year and a half ago, the UW added educational outreach to Diers' duties and he started thinking about a course that would train and share best practices with a new generation of idealists in the field of community development, a nonprofit industry in which affordable housing developers work to promote equity and investment in distressed areas.
Many of Seattle's old-guard community developers, he says, took training years ago at a short-lived statewide academy that taught the topic, but they are now moving on or retiring. Among them, Carla Okigwe, director of the Housing Development Consortium, and Sue Taoka, former head of the Seattle Chinatown International District Preservation and Development Authority, told Diers he had a great idea and joined an advisory committee to help him develop the certificate program's courses.
The program, which costs $2,800 (with single courses at $450 each), started last fall with "Community Development and the Role of Planning" and "Tools for Poverty Alleviation." In addition to Diers' course on community organizing, winter quarter will include a section on "Strategies for Neighborhood Revitalization," with spring's program to cover "Real Estate Investment" and "Building Organizational Capacity," a course that will be taught by Taoka.
The overall goal, Diers says, is to bring people into a new realm of community development that focuses on people and the housing. "We want to make sure it's just not about a building, the physical infrastructure," he says, "but building relationships and a sense of community and power to ensure the infrastructure fits with the community's needs."
In its first quarter, he says, students filled the program, most of them adults already working in community development, public housing, education or other areas of social justice.
At a time when light rail is reinventing the city's lower-income Rainier Valley, the "Poverty Alleviation" course taught by Rachel Garshick Kleit focused on a hot topic: how the poor can retrain, start businesses, or build assets to take advantage of redevelopment rather than being forced out by rising real estate prices and rents. "Gentrification isn't bad if the poor people become the gentry," Diers says, "but that's generally not the case."
One of Kleit's November classes included a guest talk by Tony To, director of HomeSight, a community developer that started in Seattle's Central District in 1993 and, in addition to developing condo projects, helps poor people buy homes by providing a second loan that has no payments until their first mortgage is paid off.
The topic of the night was home-ownership, and To found himself the subject of a pleasant grilling on whether it really builds wealth and for whom: the individual or the community? In HomeSight's case, To said, it's largely the individual, who accrues the equity in the home.
But, one student asked, if HomeSight doesn't cap the sale price when its buyers sell their properties down the road, doesn't that contribute to escalating prices that can push out the poor? To agreed, but pointed out that 90 percent of HomeSight's buyers never leave their homes, creating the kind of stability that can help the poor and families of color get ahead.
"You can't kick them out," To said of homeowners. "They can't be gentrified."