In Conversation with (Redux): Jim Diers
Over several years, beginning in 2015, PlaceSpeak presented a series of Q&A with experts in public engagement and civic technology each month. In 2023, we circled back to ask those experts for an update on their original contributions.
Next up is Jim Diers, community advocate and neighborhoods expert, from his original Conversation in March 2016.
Jim was appointed the first director of Seattle’s Department of Neighborhoods in 1988. His work in the Department of Neighborhoods was recognized with an Innovations Award from the Kennedy School of Government, a Full Inclusion Award from the American Association on Developmental Disabilities, and the Public Employee of the Year Award from the Municipal League of King County. He is also the author of Neighbor Power: Building Community the Seattle Way.
“I just think government needs to focus a lot more on neighborhoods and community. That’s what makes our cities livable – the unique character of each neighborhood, the way people connect with their neighborhood and support one another as a community. Governments need to see active citizens as a strength. Neighborhood activists often get dismissed and for good reason, because a handful of usual suspects are claiming to speak for everyone in their neighborhood. The problem isn’t that we have too many activists. It’s that we have too few. Government should have an interest in helping to build broad and inclusive participation in neighborhoods. There are so many things communities can do to enhance care, safety, health, the environment and emergency preparedness. And, of course, seeing active citizens as a strength rather than a problem is the basis of democracy.”
There are two developments since we last talked that deserve attention.
One is the pandemic. For the past three years it has been difficult to have community gatherings and yet I have never felt more connected to community or valued it more. Like so many, I spent more time in my neighborhood than I ever have. I connected with neighbors safely outdoors or via the phone, video or social media. And, I was amazed at how people stepped up to help one another: sewing masks, making meals, painting murals on boarded-up storefronts, volunteering to help neighbors get tested and vaccinated, organizing parades that came past people’s houses rather than making everyone congregate downtown to watch, using social media to entertain neighbors with music, building little free pantries, organizing a fund to help neighbors pay their rent, helping with shopping for those who were housebound, offering rides to those who needed them, creating art installations that encouraged people to observe healthy practices, etc., etc. My hope is that other people saw the value of community as well and that they will want to build on that now that the pandemic is waning and we can gather again.
The other development is increasing polarization. Communities are defined by a common identity whether that is a religion, politics, culture, race, sexual orientation, profession, age, hobby, income, malady, etc. But, when our communities get defined by one type of people, that leads to polarization. Neighborhood-based communities are different. It’s in our neighborhoods that we have people with many different identities. That is where there is the potential for an inclusive community. When people with differences get to know one another, they start to recognize their common interests and to appreciate their differences. They are less likely to stereotype and demonize one another. But, just because we have people with differences in our neighborhood doesn’t necessarily mean that we have an inclusive community. Even at the neighborhood level, people tend to associate with people who are like themselves. The challenge is to create gathering places that appeal to people from different walks of life and bring the different associations together around common interests so that we can truly act as one community rather than as separate factions.
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