Thursday, April 7, 2011

A Concrete Problem in the Rainier Valley: SESCO and the Principle of Escalation

Community organizing starts with problems -- a rat infested apartment, the steady drip, drip from the ceiling of an elementary school after a storm, an intersection with no stoplight where a car hits somebody's daughter. By the time the Southeast Seattle Community Organization (SESCO) set up shop in the summer of 1975, many Rainier Valley residents were fed up with all the little problems and had come to the conclusion that they the victims of the city’s neglect or worse, of a deliberate plan to dump Seattle’s problems in the South End.

The complaint was common, but vague; it unhelpfully pointed the finger at the city's entire political establishment and suggested no action. As pioneering community organizer Saul Alinsky put it, "what the organizer does is convert the plight into a problem." Trained in Alinsky’s methods, SESCO’s community organizers sought to overcome feelings of isolation and helplessness by mobilizing people around a modest issue that was concrete, specific, and realizable.

In a pivotal early organizing effort, SESCO hit upon one of those little issues that was symbolic of southeast Seattle's plight and literally concrete. Residents of the Dunlap neighborhood noticed a steadily growing pile of construction rubble behind their houses. The nuisance became intolerable when one day in February of 1976, it rained and the sheer bulk of the mound diverted enough rainwater to flood their basements.

The dumping was originally intended as fill for the site of a future church whose congregation at the time met at a house on the same property. The pile, which stood at 17 feet and was made up of dirt, large slabs of concrete and steel support rods, contained ten times more debris than the city-issued dumping permit allowed.

With the help of the SESCO organizer, the first thing the neighbors did was arrange a meeting with an official from the city Building Department, which had issued the dumping permit. The official told them he would investigate, but that they should really be taking the matter up with the property owner, who was ultimately responsible. Church officials said they had asked their contractor repeatedly to stop the dumping. The residents contacted the contractor, who said he had nothing to do with the landfill and that he was "not about to be the city's fall guy on this deal."

This dizzying circle of deferred responsibility is very often the point where people like the Dunlap residents give up. Alinsky observed in his book Rules for Radicals that "in a complex, interrelated, urban society, it becomes increasingly difficult to single out who is to blame for any particular evil. There is a constant, and somewhat legitimate, passing of the buck." He directed community activists to pick a specific target as responsible and "freeze" it, relentlessly holding them alone accountable.

The residents of Dunlap chose the superintendent of the city Building Department; unfortunately under the circumstances named Mr. Petty. Twenty-five of them made a trip to his office and presented for his signature a document stating that the debris would be removed within a month. He demurred, stating that "any action on the matter would have to come about through court proceedings." "It looks like someone erred," he told the Southeast District Journal, who had been called there for the occasion, and speculated that his department not intervening to stop the dumping "might have been an honest mistake."

The Building Department's idea of action was to issue a succession of stop work orders, which went ignored since nobody would admit to dumping at the site. Faced with continuing pressure for his department to clean up the site, Petty protested, "We're supposed to go through the proper channels. We'll only take it out if there are no other choices. It's the responsibility of the property owner."

In delivering what was no doubt his department's boilerplate evasion, the superintendent inadvertently spelled out the newly-minted neighborhood activist's end game -- to make it clear that there would be no choice Petty could stomach but to clean up the site.

On Wednesday, April 28, 1976, Residents and organizers loaded a pick-up truck at the dump site and made a trip north to City Hall. They unloading their cargo -- a concrete slab which was estimated to weight three tons and a twisted 20 foot-long steel support rod -- at the entrance to the Building Department’s office and labeled them with the specification of the fill material allowed by the city permit: "8 inch piece of dirt."

Though Petty was still out to lunch when the activists arrived (until 2:15 p.m., the Seattle Times noted), two or his representatives read a statement recounting the city's efforts to address the complaints. One city employee noted down the names of the activists "in case there is some liability for removing the material," he said. Before they left, the Dunlap residents handed out a press release warning that, until city cleaned up the dump, they would return with more of its contents.

The simmering conviction that the City was using their community as a place to hide Seattle's problems, became real in the chunks of concrete, and now with the help of SESCO, the community was rubbing the political establishment's nose in the mess they refused to acknowledge. City Hall had become the dumping ground.

Petty and other officials involved with the dumping issue took comfort that they were following the correct process, regardless of the result. Knowing they had acted correctly, they were able to address the residents from a professional remove. The residents of Dunlap, who lived with the growing landfill in their back yards were only concerned with results, which they intended to get.

As recounted in SESCO's newsletter, "the residents visited Mr. Petty at his home. There he refused to talk with them so they visited his neighbors to tell them how he ran his department." This dry account doesn't do justice to the outrage Petty must have felt -- they violated his private life and, within it, threatened to sully his reputation. What exactly was off limits to people capable of such an affront?

Rodney Herold, who was SESCO's director at the time, described the chain of events that led to the visit to the superintendent's home as the "principle of escalation." "People are reticent to get involved and do things," he said, "So first they write a letter and nothing happens and they get frustrated, so they make a call. If nothing happens then, they go to the person's workplace. And if that doesn't work, we certainly went to people's homes a couple of times." The principle of escalation, fed by intransigence and frustration, is the motor of community organizing. It turns detached authorities into personal targets and anonymous citizens into committed activists.

SESCO organizers built "action groups" around many other issues, which had names like Concerned Residents of Holly Park, Georgetown Community Against the Animal Shelter, and the Bolmor/Jacobus Committee. From these issue-specific groups, SESCO built a coalition of community groups made up of everyday residents who were ready to tackle issues that affected the entire Rainier Valley, like housing segregation and real estate redlining.

Someone must have told the mayor what SESCO was up to because a few days later, one of the the Dunlap residents received a call from the his office conceding that the city would take care of the problem. The next week, Mayor Uhlman, who was making a bid for governor, personally visited Dunlap to assure the residents the debris would be removed at the expense of the city and the contractor.

Friday, September 10, 2010

Dog Loans

Banks report that there is little investment interest shown in the commercial area of Empire Way and Othello Street. There is a surplus of commercially zoned land indicated by vacancies and non-retail use of land in prime retail locations.

This was written thirty-four years ago in a study of the same area where the Rainier Valley Community Development Fund, a public institution whose business is to stimulate local investment, now operates. A couple of weeks ago, Martina Guilfoil, the executive director of the RVCDF made a spectacle of that organization with her rather less diplomatic gloss on the same theme in a letter to a loan applicant: "We recognize a dog loan when we see it," she wrote. "We are very interested in how our programs are working to help Rainier Valley businesses who actually operate a business and not a hobby."

In the Rainier Valley the distinction between retail and non-retail use, vacancy and occupancy, hobby and business, has long been a fine one. This clearly vexed Guilfoil, who, on behalf of the RVCDF’s board of directors, also informed the business owner that she is “one crazy ass bitch.” Taking the long view, store fronts here, it seems, are always in the process of becoming something else and the commerce inside exists somewhere in the twilight between hobby, social club, side business, and going concern.

The lettering on the corner awning reads “import-export” next to an Asian name, but the sign above the door a few paces down says the shop is a halal grocery. A cut rate brothel becomes a social service agency which in turn becomes nail shop. The tavern next door to the brothel back in the day is now a church and, who knows, may yet be a tavern someday.

Down by the Rose Petal with its “RESTAU ANT” sign, which to workaday world looks abandoned, roars to life on Saturday night. One afternoon this spring, the proprietor of a gyro restaurant was shaken by my request for a gyro -- whatever people came there for, it wasn’t the only product advertised on the sign outside. A tavern is a social club whose exclusivity is maintained by its dilapidated exterior, plywood-covered windows, the lack of a sign that clearly establishes the nature of the business.

A single family home beside Martin Luther King Jr Way S. is the beach head that builds a steady clientele as a Vietnamese bridal shop. From its side has grown a three story apartment complex whose slow-motion construction moves forward in fits and starts as more funds from the paying business become available. Cottage industry grinds modestly onward inside Craftsman bungalows without the pressure of overhead.

Southeast Seattle, with it’s low, haphazardly collected rents is an incubator for business that could not exist in a higher profile location. Down here, businesses that fulfill different purposes than growth and expansion find safety at the periphery of the city, for a moment at least.

As executive director of the Rainier Valley Community Development Fund, Guilfoil knew all this far better than most. I sat down with her almost two years ago to learn more about what the CDF was up to and found her to be engaged with the neighborhood and sensitive to the local business landscape.

In particular, we talked about two Somali immigrants who were extended one of the first business loans the organization made. In a culturally savvy move that a conventional lender wouldn’t even consider, the CDF worked with the imam of the borrowers’ mosque to set terms that were considered compliant with Islam’s prohibition on interest. The loan allowed the borrowers to successfully branch out from their auto sales business into transportation. Evidently they are still making it happen -- I see Universal Translation & Transportation cars all around the south end.

So what happened? How could a local institution that has proved itself in so many ways an asset to the Rainier Valley and particularly to the MLK business corridor sink to the ugliest kind of condescension?

Here, among the strivers and the poor there exists privilege - it’s one of the things that keeps this place interesting. Though content to dip in and out of the Rainier Valley at will, privilege comes to identify with the “vibrancy” of the place. It considers itself hep enough to bring off a brassy lines like “crazy ass bitch” and street-wise enough to know who it should be applied to.

In this spirit a haughty distinction was made in the name of the board of the RVDCF between “real” business and some other kind run by “broke ass crazies” that is beneath consideration. No doubt the loan applicants who come before the board consider their businesses legitimate and “real,” but how can they be sure now that the staff and the board of the RVCDF feel the same way?

Saturday, April 25, 2009

More with Less Policing

Stop me if you've hear this one before:

Higher unemployment will drive more people to seek an illegitimate income, and budget shortfalls will force cities and counties to cut back on police officers, or at least fail to hire enough new ones to cope with their growing populations.
This prediction, from The Economist's "World in 2009" review, suggests that a new policing strategy will necessarily surmount the resource-intensive "zero tolerance" model pioneered in NYC in the early Nineties and adopted in most big city police departments since. The article continues:

The approach that will come to prominence in 2009 is almost the exact opposite of zero tolerance. Rather than cracking down on petty offenders such as turnstile-jumpers and squeegee men, the authorities will focus on those who are most likely to kill or be killed. Some may be drug dealers recently released from prison. Others may be the associates of people recently wounded by gunfire. What makes the approach particularly novel is that it depends on local people. Rather than insisting on zero tolerance from the police, it tries to change what the residents of crime-infested areas will tolerate.
This approach, pioneered in Boston and refined in Chicago, aptly describes Seattle's own Youth Violence Prevention Initiative (YVPI). Seattle's plan focuses government resources on the 800 or so youth identified as likely to commit future acts of violence. The YVPI uses a "case management" model to capture the target population, offer them various kinds of support, and allow opportunities for their behavior to be monitored and measured.

The notion that it "depends on local people" is a debatable feature of Seattle's YVPI. Using community resources and guiding a community's expectations by involving them in crime fighting is supposed to be what makes this strategy cheap compared with "broken windows."

One aspect of the program, the use of "violence interrupters" ties it to Chicago's CeaseFire program and provides at least an shred of community involvement -- the community in this case being ex-con or former gang member (the interrupter) with enough street credibility to diffuse potential violence before it erupts.

The YVPI conspicuously lacks another of piece Chicago's CeaseFire program -- community "responses" at the scenes of all shootings. These aren't built into the Seattle program precisely because the City has not developed the capacity to mobilize the community.

Seattle City Councilman Burgess affirms the need for community involvement in a recent Op Ed without pointing to any institutional framework for community involvement:

Most important, the initiative recognizes that one of the most effective ways to prevent violence is for community members to engage directly with at-risk youth, to challenge norms tolerating violence, and to encourage young people to speak out when violence strikes.
Two points to make here:

1) City officials have gone out of their way to champion their Youth Violence Prevention Initiative as "community-led" and "community-driven," which it is not. It is a smart "technocratic" strategy that leverages existing bureaucracy and expertise. It is led by government administrators, and driven by law enforcement, education, juvenile justice, and social welfare professionals.

2) I doubt the CeaseFire-like aspects of the YVPI signal a titanic shift in Seattle from one model of policing to another, but they do highlight a police force stretched dangerously thin and, owing to a tight budget, apt to see hiring levels reduced sometime in the next year. I have high hopes that case management for 800 kids will result in fewer shootings in our neighborhoods, but I'm skeptical that it will effect residential burglaries in Seward Park or other parts of the city. Budget woes or no, Seattle can't skimp on police hiring.

Thursday, April 9, 2009

Thoughts on the Youth Violence Prevention Initiative

Last Tuesday, I attended the meeting of the City Council's Public Safety Committee (available here in its entirety), and what follows are a few observations about the briefing on the City's Youth Violence Prevention Initiative (YVPI).

Council members attending were: Tim Burgess, Bruce Harrell, Nick Lacata, and Sally Clark. Other key attendees: Holly Miller (Office for Education), Sid Sidorowicz (Office for Education), Doug Carey (Department of Finance), Jim Diaz (Interim Police Chief), James Kelly (Urban League), Jamila Taylor (Urban League's YVPI administrator), Mark Worsham (County Juvenile Court), Pegi McEvoy (Seattle Public Schools)

The plan as it was initially announced to the public had a 9.2 million dollar budget. According to Doug Carey of the Mayor's office, "because of budget balancing needs and one select program reduction, the Council action resulted in an 8 million dollar initiative over two years."

The intended outcomes of the YVPI are:
  • A 50% reduction in court referrals for juvenile crimes against persons commited by youth residing in the Central Area, Southeast Area, and Southwest Area Networks
  • A 50% reduction in the number of suspensions/expulsions due to violence-related incidents at Denny, Aki Kurose, Madrona K-8, Madison, and Washington Middle Schools
Councilman Burgess pointed out that for similar programs across the nation, success often means reductions of 2.5% to 20%, which is far less ambitious than the YVPI's.

The Mayor's office announced that, in addition to the middle school "emphasis officers" the YVPI includes, they intend to apply for Recovery Act (stimulus) funds to provide emphasis officers for high schools as well.

Holly Miller, interim YVPI director, said that the plan is a "community-led and community-driven process." She said that "this is not going to be resolved by the government." Her example of how the YVPI is "leveraging community resources," was that somebody from the Seattle Vocational Institute called her the other day and said they have training slots and pre-apprenticeship programs available for youth in the program.

Pegi McEvoy of Seattle Public Schools affirmed that "it is the mobilization at the community level that we're doing with the Urban League that will allow us to be successful."

A potential weakness of the program is that, where "community involvement" is concerned, the government administrators have a bias toward engaging established institutions like nonprofits and educational institutions. The YVPI administrators are overstating the level of community involvement when they think of "the community" only in terms of citizens who have connections with groups like the Urban League.

Under the plan, payment of 10% of the contracts with providers are contingent on meeting performance targets.

Interim Police Chief John Diaz confirmed that the new 6 person Gang Unit day squad will start work on April 15th. They will patrol "the high schools and corridors."

* * *
Last Tuesday afternoon in Council chambers, there was a reassuring air of confidence and optimism among the assembled notables. They lauded their "tremendous group work" so far and expressed "delight" with the "magnificent effort on the City's part and the Police Department's part." There was laughter and thanks for everybody's contributions and a sense of accomplishment that suggests something powerful is in the offing.

I caution humility to all those involved in this promising initiative: across town at Rainier and Othello, not an hour earlier, in broad daylight, there was an execution-style shooting. Until further notice, further congratulations are not in order.

Tuesday, April 7, 2009

Choice Words from the City Council Prez on Police Staffing

Rumor has it that at the last City Neighborhood Council meeting, city council president Richard Conlin volunteered that, due to a tough budget climate, future hiring for the Seattle Police Department may be on the chopping block.

Here is a good place to say that SPD South Precinct staffing is the number one, slam-dunk priority shared by our community and our local patrol officers. There is a lot we can do and have failed to do as a community, and there is room for debate about what the best approach to solving our youth violence problem in the medium to long term, but there is no question that more police resources are immediately needed on our streets -- a beefed up gang unit, foot patrols in select neighborhoods, more total hours for 911 responders.

By way of reassuring a community member that he wasn't proposing a hiring freeze for the SPD, Mr. Conlin wrote the following:

...we may need to consider slowing down filling the new positions that were added in the 2009-2010 budgets. Since new recruits train for almost a year that would have no impact in the near term on crime issues. It would simply be stretching out the five year expansion plan. Might be better to be cautious now than to hire people spend money training them and then have to do layoffs if the budget picture worsens.
In the rarefied world of city politics, there may be some distinction to draw between a hiring freeze and "slowing down filling the new positions," but for us in the Southeast, where crime and violence are an undeniable commonplace, we take the withdrawal of police resources, however temporary, as an insult.

The South Precinct does not have the personnel it needs to do its job. I hear the complaints and the excuses officers feel compelled to make for not providing the level of service the community needs. I wonder why Mr. Conlin hasn't.

I wonder why, when there's not enough police to start with, he thinks it's a consolation that the "slowing down" will only affect us after a year or so when new police don't start work in the South Precinct?

Monday, March 30, 2009

New Information on the Mayor's Youth Violence Prevention Initiative

For anybody who might care to wade through 38 pages of the mesmerizing prose government bureaucracies churn out, here is the most fleshed out info I've seen yet about the goals, methodology, and implementation of the Mayor's Youth Violence Prevention Initiative. Nothing on specific partners the City will be working with though.

Saturday, March 28, 2009

Crime & Crime Prevention in the East Precinct

The Central District News reports that, according to the SPD, crime was down last month in the East Precinct. This is great news, as long as it's true. Past "errors" concerning crime statistics for the South Precinct make it clear that great news about crime in high crime neighborhoods should be met with some skepticism.

In other ambiguously good news, though the City cut the East Precinct's Crime Prevention Coordinator position at exactly the worst time, given the gang wars in the Southeast and Central Districts, the Central District News reports that, between the Mayor's office and the SPD, there is some will to restore it.