Last month I had published an Op-Ed piece in the Seattle Times, “Where’s the Love (and $$) for Seattle’s Neighborhoods,” which focused on the tragic decline of Seattle’s Neighborhood Matching Fund.
My Op-Ed instigated a series of conversations with City Council members, aids to City Council members, City department staff, neighborhood community organizers, and more.
Here are some insights from those conversations, in three parts.
1. SHORT-SIGHTED VISION RISKS LONG-TERM PROSPERTY
Folks at the City-level are focused on solving the urgent problems that are confronting Seattle. Front and center right now are issues of homelessness, housing affordability, race and social justice, COVID, and climate change.
That’s no small list.
In that context, it can be easy to view community-driven placemaking projects, like the ones funded by the Matching Fund, as trivial and feel-good civic bonuses
This was a consistent theme that I heard when talking to people within the City. The Matching Fund just wasn’t on their radar, and its loss was viewed as a small sacrifice for directing limited resources to more urgent challenges.
Here’s why that perspective is short-sighted:
If you poke under the hood a successful city, you will find deep in its civic engine a social fabric holding us all together. This social fabric is woven with invisible bonds of trust, connection, and place – a sense of “we.”
When that fabric is frayed, people are isolated, disconnected, and don’t participate in civic life. People become quick to assume an “Us vs. Them” perspective, get angry because they feel powerless, or focus on self-centered concerns at the expense of the common good.
The tribalism and polarization gripping our national politics are symptomatic of this fraying fabric. It is also present at our state and local levels.
By shrinking the Matching Fund we sacrifice opportunities to knit us together and risk the long-term prosperity of our city through increasing tribalism and distrust.
It’s like plugging the cracks in the dam while ignoring the acidic water disintegrating the concrete’s binding glue.
As a consequence, Seattle will struggle to confront its pressing issues such as affordability and homeless.
We’ve already seen this action. For example, some of you may remember the Ballard town hall on homelessness a few years ago that devolved into chaos, and was chillingly documented by Erica Barnett in her Publicola post, “Two Hours of Hate.”
It is magical thinking to believe that our cultural slide into tribalism and disconnection will reverse on its own. The City needs to be actively cultivating social trust and connection.
The Matching Fund is so powerful and valuable because of the amount of social trust and place-based community that it generates for such little financial investment. Project by project, the Matching Fund brings people together and knits together a stronger social fabric.
There is very little within the City with such an explicit goal and a proven track record.
Tending to our social fabric is not a short-term feel-good bonus – it’s a critical investment in our future successes. We neglect it at our long-term peril.
2. CURRENT WORKAROUNDS ARE UNDEMOCRATIC AND EXHAUSTING
In the absence of accessible and adequate Matching Fund money, community groups are pursuing other means to achieve their goals.
A few recent local examples:
- The Garfield Super-Block project is appealing to Councilmember Sawant for a special budgetary allocation to move their project towards construction.
- Cookie Chess Park in Rainier Beach is collecting endorsements from leaders and seeking donations to try to secure $300k in funds to build their project.
- The Seattle Sink Project was allocated by a special $100k earmark pitched by Councilmember Morales.
All of these are innovative and amazing community-driven projects worthy of public support.
Yet these workarounds are creating a system that rewards those with access to power and influence.
And it’s that kind of power that structure has historically left many communities behind. No access to political power, no service.
If we are interested in an equitable and democratic allocation of public resources, this is the wrong direction.
Additionally, these groups are being forced to expend vast amounts of energy mounting advocacy and fundraising campaigns to see their community-driven initiatives become reality. On top of that, their projects are delayed by years, evaporating the precious momentum built up through the community engagement process.
How inefficient this all is!
These projects could be easily and immediately funded by a generous Matching Fund budget scaled to match today’s construction costs and balanced for equity.
The 2021 operating budget for the City of Seattle is a whopping $6.4 BILLION. C’mon now! Can we really not spare just a small bit of that for the Matching Fund?
The cynic in me wonders if we are witnessing a downside of Seattle’s recent switch to a District-based system of City Council representation. I’m sure Councilmembers Sawant, Morales, and others are happy to serve the role of hero, leveraging their power to bring resources to their constituents, and beefing up their list of achievements for the next election cycle.
3. THE ALLURE OF THE NEW AND SHINY AT THE EXPENSE OF THE OLD AND TRUSTWORTHY
Another refrain I heard is that the Matching Fund just isn’t new and shiny anymore, and is a relic of “old Seattle.”
Some of this sentiment may originate from when the Matching Fund rested under the guidance of the Neighborhood District Councils, which became increasingly dominated by white homeowners. Rather than implementing reforms, the District Councils were controversially ditched in 2016 by Mayor Murray, who replaced them with the toothless “Community Engagement Commission.”
Murray’s power grab left much of the City’s community engagement policy rudderless and accelerated our collective amnesia to the decades of Matching Fund successes.
But I suspect that the ‘old Seattle’ sentiment stems from politicians’ desires to have shiny new things to point to and show that they are getting things done.
When the nation was gripped by race and social justice protests last year, the City hopped into action with new efforts to distribute dollars to underserved communities and address racial inequities. Examples include the Equitable Development Initiative, Duwamish Valley Opportunity Fund, and Participatory Budgeting.
These are all exciting and long overdue. Yes, please!
Yet it’s remarkable how many of these initiatives duplicate the model and processes of the Matching Fund, which for decades has been quietly, confidently and consistently supporting communities of all races, classes and neighborhoods. An updated Matching Fund program could have easily been the vehicle for much of this work, as its most recent round of grants focusing on BIPOC communities attests.
Instead, we are reinventing much of the wheel with these new programs and missing critical opportunities during the time it will take to get them running and calibrated for success.
One of the key differences is that these new initiatives rely on community and non-profit representatives participating in specialized (and often handpicked) task-forces or committees to direct the allocation of dollars, often to pre-existing non-profits or groups.
But I worry that it may leave some people out. Not every community-led initiative, especially the innovative ones, is affiliated with an existing group.
Call me old-fashioned, but I like the idea that anyone that comes along with a great community-building idea, as long they can rally some neighbors or local community support, should have an opportunity to be funded.
While we sort all this out, let’s not throw out the baby with the bathwater.
Yes, the Matching Fund needs an update. To do so we should look to successful programs like Participatory City in England, a similar model to the Matching Fund but which invests more heavily in support systems for community-led initiatives.
Their approach has resulted in an impressive explosion of neighborhood-based economic innovation, social enterprise, and mutual cooperation, supported by data showing increased community health, reduced inequality, combatted gentrification, decreased isolation, and more.
This will be the topic of my next several posts, so stay tuned!