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Seattle Neighborhood Builder Jim Diers Takes Improvement Project Around the World

Jim Diers is a former Seattle public official and citizen activist who found a way to help neighborhoods help themselves, becoming better places to live in the process. Now he is taking his innovative matching funds program to towns and cities across the United States and beyond.

If Jim Diers needs to be reminded of his legacy as Seattle's Director of Neighborhoods, he has only to step outside his own door. By the early 1990s, his Columbia City neighborhood was run down and crime ridden. Shops, restaurants and grocery stores had left the historic area. But with support from Seattle's neighborhood matching fund, Columbia City residents joined forces to bring their community back to life.

"They tore out the asphalt around the local elementary school and put in community gardens," Diers recalls. They converted a Christian Science church into a cultural center and a museum, telling the history of that community. We started a farmers market on the site of the former supermarket, and now about 2500 people come on Wednesday night. And then when they're done they go to local restaurants, local retailers, so it's really helped revitalize those business districts. And that same thing is happening in different ways all over Seattle."

The spark for many of those citywide projects came from the matching funds program that Jim Diers created after becoming the first director of Seattle's Department of Neighborhoods in 1988. Whether they are defined by their scenery, their ethnic make-up or their political leanings, neighborhoods had long been a way of life in Seattle, a source of local pride and civic activism. But they had also become a source of discontent over the years, with complaints that the city government favored costly downtown projects over more modest neighborhood programs. A longtime local activist himself, Jim Diers devised a plan in which the city would provide matching funds for whatever neighborhoods were willing to invest in a project.

"We decided to make an eligible match from citizens not just cash," Diers explains, "but it could be volunteer labor or donated goods and services, so every community would have access to this. And what was really exciting about that program was not just that we completed so many neighborhood self help projects, and projects that are incredibly innovative, but the way in which it built community, that it involved tens of thousands of new people who had not been involved in their communities previously or with their city government."

Neighborhood ties are important to Jim Diers, who moved to Seattle in 1976 after graduating from college. Getting involved in civic causes helped Diers find the same kind of community he'd enjoyed growing up in the Midwestern state of Iowa, and taught him valuable lessons about getting other people involved as well. "I learned the importance of thinking big, but starting small, that when you bring people together they need to have a sense they accomplish something," Diers says. "So you don't start by working on world peace. You maybe start on a dangerous intersection and hopefully move people towards world peace and social justice. A key organizing concept is never do for people what they can do for themselves."

Sometimes even Jim Diers was surprised by the results. When Seattle's Fremont neighborhood announced plans to place a giant sculpture of a troll beneath a bridge, on a site overrun with weeds and litter, Diers was dubious. So was a local newspaper art critic, who wrote a scathing column. "The community got so angry about this column they started rallying around the troll," Diers recalls. "Kids wrote a troll rap. They started doing street dances to raise funds for the troll, and it's been such a spectacular success. It brings people from all over the world to Fremont, helps with economic development. On Halloween they call it Trolloween, and hundreds of people go up and howl at the troll. Everything happens on that troll."

The Neighborhood Matching Fund has supported some 3000 projects around Seattle over the years from an Eritrean immigrant cultural center to a wheelchair accessible playground to oral history programs, tree plantings, environmental cleanups and community gardens.

"Twenty of the most recent gardens are for immigrants and refugees from Southeast Asia and East Africa, people with agricultural backgrounds who had a hard time finding a place to garden because they were living in apartment buildings," Diers says. "So now they're able to grow organic produce from their cultures. They're also able to sell the produce, so it's a great way for them to make cross cultural connections with the larger community."

Stroll through Columbia City's Farmer's Market on a Wednesday afternoon, and you will meet young people like Kevin, who sells organic produce for the Seattle Youth Garden Works. "The thing I like about this job is I learn how to give to people in the neighborhood and people in need," Kevin explains, "and I think that is one of our main goals for growing produce, is to give organic food without chemicals."

Or you will meet people like Mikala Woodward, who helped renovate a park after moving to Seattle from Los Angeles. She says she didn't grow up with a strong sense of community roots. "And I've been so impressed with how people in this neighborhood are very rooted. I fell in love with it, and wanted to make sure I would stay and my kids would feel rooted here."

The Neighborhood Matching Fund is still inspiring improvement projects in Seattle, but Jim Diers has a different job. He was terminated when a new mayor took office in 2001, and he now acts as a liaison to Seattle communities for the University of Washington Office of Partnerships. He has written a book about his experiences called Neighbor Power: Building Community the Seattle Way. And he has used a $100,000 "innovations award" from the Ford Foundation to help other communities launch matching fund programs.

"We now have over 100 cities that have similar programs," Diers says. "It works in small towns. It works in big cities. It works in the United States. There are programs in South Africa, both in Port Elizabeth but also in rural townships. They have a Neighborhood Matching Fund in Kobe, Japan. It's a strategy that works everywhere."

When he travels to other communities that have used that strategy, Jim Diers feels right at home. He sees new community centers, gardens, parks -- and in Taipei, a group of artificial goats standing on a hillside -- a reminder of that once controversial Fremont troll. It is all a testimony to what can happen, Diers says, when city governments not only give citizens a voice in their communities, but empower them to bring about change.

For earlier profiles in VOA's
American Profiles series click here