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Monday, March 30, 2015

The Little Picture: A Look at Grassroots Movements in West Hill

Urban Family founder Paul Patu speaks
at the Secondary Learning Center

As those of you who follow me on Twitter may know (@levi_sweeney), I was originally going to do a post on the Air Nomads and Religious Vegetarianism. However, I would instead like to write a somewhat belated post concerning a more pressing matter. It's about "the odd social issue" advertised in the blog description at the top of this page.

This last week, I received a flyer and a questionnaire in the mail from Skway Solutions, asking questions about possible solutions to problems in our community. I live in the West Hill area, a chunk of unincorporated King County stuck in between Seattle and Renton. The area has it's fair share of problems, such as poverty, crime, and truancy, among other things. Apart from one or two community meetings, I'd never thought to get involved much in helping to solve any of these problems. I helped my dad during the West Hill Annexation vote in 2012, but that's about it. But the aforementioned flyer was an invite to an open house at a local school, offering food, door prizes, and a community forum. Intrigued, and out of the dojang for a while due to a knee injury, I decided to go.

When I arrived at the school on Thursday, the first thing that struck me was that most of the assembly was made up of minorities. I, white as an onion, stood out like sore thumb, being one of only seven or eight white people out of fifty attendees, the majority of whom were either black, Hispanic, or of mixed ancestry, with a couple of Asians scattered here and there. I don't really know what I'm supposed to take away from this observation. At any rate, I made fine friends with some of the people there, and they all seemed good and friendly. A few were trying a bit hard to pull off that gangster, tough-guy look, but I doubt there was much bite to be found. I sat next to a guy named Corey who said that his grandfather was trained by Bruce Lee. He even had pictures on his cell phone! Man, that sounds so cool.

The other thing that was particularly noticeable was that most of the attendees were either children or teenagers. I was expecting this before I arrived, as the event was dubbed "Teen Talk," meant to engage youth of the community in the process of addressing West Hill's problems. There were several adults in the audience and adult speakers, but much of the discussion was coordinated by members of the Skyway Youth Neighborhood Council (SYNC), a cadre of young activists trying to help further change in the community for the better.

After a meal and acquainting period, SYNC invited audience members to answer into a microphone their own answers to questions projected onto a screen. Questions included, "What barriers do teens face in the community?" and "Why should teens be involved in their community?" Each answer was given a round of applause, including mine. I answered the first of these questions with a basic assessment of the obvious: joblessness led to crime, which is a problem. I elaborated that the citizenry should be informed and involved in the issues of today, as the Founders intended, lest a "political elite" take power and begin running the country however it wanted. (Oh, wait a second...)

After the open forum, representatives of SYNC, Alajawan's Hands, the Skyway West Hill Action Plan Committee (SWAP, an arm of Skyway Solutions) and Urban Family all gave speeches, highlighting their respective organizations' efforts to improve conditions in the community. SYNC is educating youth on various hazards related to gang violence and delinquency. Alajawan's Hands, also known as the Alajawan Brown Foundation, is offering tutoring, scholarships, and various charitable activities. SWAP representatives discussed the economic challenges facing the West Hill area, and ideas concerning how to mitigate them. Urban Family, who probably had the biggest presence at the event, spoke about what they've been doing to keep kids on the right path, deter gang violence, and generally improve conditions in the community. They showed a nice video featuring their accomplishments, and scenery around Skyway. It was almost surreal to watch, as I drive past these places all the time, and now I'm watching them on a video, probably recorded while in a moving car.

After the speeches, there were some cultural displays courtesy of a Somali immigrant organization from over in I think Rainier Beach, featuring a poetry reading and what I believe was a traditional Somali dance. Let me tell you, it makes any dancing I've seen look pretty sub-par. When the meeting was officially adjourned, I stuck around to talk to a gal from SWAP named Andra. I asked her about the idea of annexation, and she stated that she was a "neutral" on the subject, being neither for nor against it, but was mainly concerned that the interests of the people of West Hill be addressed. As it is, annexation won't be on the discussion table for a while now, since it the vote failed back in 2012.

I came away from this event with a different outlook on the way things ought to be around here. On the one hand, I had always embraced the idea that annexing West Hill into Renton would be good for the community. Andra herself said that King County has failed to provide basic services and law enforcement to the West Hill area. But I've always been the sort of guy who looks at the big picture. I read the Wall Street Journal and WORLD Magazine. I follow national and global news avidly. When election time rolls around, I gear up for local politics as a matter of course. I have to vote, after all. But apart from a few stints here and there, I've never really been a part of a local, small-scale, grassroots campaign. Attending this meeting, I've glimpsed what that atmosphere, that culture, is like. I think that it can be a powerful force for conservative, free market political reform. You may ask, "What's new?" My point here is that I've never fully understood the concept of a grassroots effort, and now I've gotten a front row seat.

Going back to the annexation thing, I still believe that it's West Hill's best bet. On the City of Renton website, an article on the subject of annexation reads, "The City's policy stance has been to welcome areas that wish to annex but at the same time Renton must maintain service levels to current residents. Annexation is ultimately a choice of area voters." Now that I've had a glimpse of the grassroots activity going on in the Skyway/West Hill area, I'm beginning to understand why that initiative may have failed. 

My father, his friends, and myself in a minor capacity, worked very hard to secure victory with the 2012 West Hill Annexation Vote. We distributed literature, put up signs, did door-belling, and may have run a call center. But there wasn't the streak of enthusiasm brought on by your typical grassroots campaign, not enough of the youthful energy I saw at the Teen Talk event. I can't help but wonder that if we had worked with the local grassroots organizations, organized rallies and speeches, reached out to the community in much the same way as these organizations are doing now, that they would have succeeded. The initiative lost by about 10 percent of the vote, 680 votes to be specific.

But here's the thing: The people of West Hill want to combat their problems. They're open to solutions, which was plain to see at the meeting on Thursday. And if they're open to solutions, to positive change, then maybe a real difference can be made. Concerning the providing of services, Renton Mayor Denis Law noted in his 2015 State of the City address earlier this month that "the culture for quality service begins at the top." In our present state of affairs, King County Executive Dow Constantine is the guy at "the top." I don't know much about him or his policies, but I understand that he's focused on increasing the efficiency of the bus line and combating climate change. While that is neither here nor there, what I do know is that Mr. Constantine is not focused on helping the citizens of West Hill. I for one don't want to wait around until he does want to help us. 

Ladies and gentlemen, it's time to try something new.

Follow Levi on Twitter at @levi_sweeney, and submit questions and post ideas with the hashtag #QLevi