Vibrant Communities: White Center
This diverse White Center neighborhood is growing stronger through Communities of Opportunity
August 28, 2018
Story and photos by Stacy Nguyen. Read this story and more in Volume 5 of Seattle Foundation's Heart & Science magazine.
Khatami Chau, 17, lives with his family in White Center, an unincorporated pocket of King County with a racially and ethnically diverse population. With many immigrants like him and a mix of cultures, White Center is a vibrant place that is also gentrifying rapidly. It's one key area where the Communities of Opportunity partnership between Seattle Foundation, King County and local partners is working to improve health, social, racial and economic outcomes and strengthen community connections.
Chau and his parents are Cham, a minority ethnic group of Muslims who have been persecuted in Southeast Asia. The family immigrated in 2007 from a rural area in South Vietnam where they faced economic hardship and feared for their safety. The family settled in White Center when Chau was in first grade. “We had family here, and it was really cheap,” he said.
Today, his father is a custodian for the Renton School District and his mother stays at home. They live in a subsidized home in Greenbridge, a mixed-income community spanning about 1,000 homes and 100 acres.
“We left Vietnam because it was our last resort,” said Chau. “My parents didn’t have much money for immigration, but they scraped enough together. We left everything behind — just to be in a better environment, even if it’s not always financially stable.” Before the bridge went in, the only way into West Seattle and White Center was by a low-level drawbridge constructed in 1924. That left the two communities relatively isolated from Seattle due to frequent bridge openings for ships traversing the Duwamish Waterway. Those limited transportation options kept property values low, and the demographics were primarily white, working-class wage earners, many of whom worked for Boeing, the Port of Seattle or at the steel mill.
Today, average incomes in West Seattle have rocketed up and so have property values, putting pressure on nearby communities like White Center.
Daschle’s nonprofit now has an annual budget of $4.5 million and a staff of 70. It supports primarily immigrant and refugee families in White Center, South Park, Delridge, West Seattle, Burien and SeaTac. As housing prices continue to soar in the Seattle area, Chau and his parents face an uncertain future — the danger of being priced out of the home they have lived in for a decade. “My parents can’t move even if they wanted to,” said Chau. “They are too scared to move.” As the area rapidly gentrifies, the fear of displacement is also growing. In a 2017 community survey of White Center, where about a quarter of the residents live in poverty, 61 percent said one of their top concerns is the cost of rent or a mortgage.
A changed landscape
In 1988, after graduating from Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government with a Master in Public Administration, Steve Daschle became executive director of Southwest Youth and Family Services (SWYFS). SWYFS is a multi-service agency serving children and families with youth development and mental health, education and family support services. At the time, the organization's annual budget was
$300,000, it had 15 staff and the West Seattle bridge had opened only four years earlier. Daschle said creating more affordable housing in White Center is critical to addressing the gentrification. SWYFS is redeveloping a King County public health building in White Center into an emergency shelter for homeless families, as well as a community hub. The County has made surplus property like this, currently home to the White Center Food Bank and some SWYFS offices, available for affordable housing.
“The real challenge is creating opportunities for people from diverse backgrounds to stay in the communities,” said Daschle. “Mixed-income communities are a way to provide low-income families the opportunity to live in quality housing close to downtown Seattle and social services… We’re creating conditions so that people who don’t have the means to keep up with rent increases can stay in their communities and continue to provide the wonderful diversity White Center has become known for in the last 50 years.”
One strategy the community has considered is incorporating into Seattle because that would bring services and resources White Center now seeks, including increased transportation. It remains controversial as it may lead to a tax increase.
Communities of Opportunity
Helping White Center preserve its diversity and strengthen its vibrancy are two key goals of Communities of Opportunity (COO), an initiative launched by the Seattle Foundation and King County in 2014. This effort aims to improve outcomes through policy and systems changes that target areas of the county that currently suffer poor outcomes, including White Center, Rainier Valley and SeaTac/ Tukwila, but that ultimately will benefit all of King County.
COO strives to shake up the traditional top-down relationship between funders and grantees, working instead in a collaborative partnership.
An early financial investment brought representatives from groups in White Center together to solidify community partnerships, asking these communities what they wanted to see happen in White Center, and creating strategies for optimal outcomes.
Andrea Akita, Director of COO, said the initiative focuses on community groups where there have been great disparities in health and well-being. “We often talk about these communities as ‘communities in need,’ but really, they have great assets and strengths — what they need is resources,” she said. “COO is working to improve results in four areas: safe, affordable housing, health, economic opportunity, and community connection.”
Akita, who has a background in planning and public administration, said her path to working in social justice stems from her own family’s experience.
She grew up hearing stories from her father, who was one of 120,000 people of Japanese ancestry who were forcibly relocated and incarcerated during World War II. She has more than 20 years of experience working to develop affordable housing, increase access to human services and shape policy to improve health and social equity.
Akita said eight organizations in White Center have received COO funding and support to improve the health and well-being of the area. Projects include a collaborative vision to develop a community hub and increase affordable housing, as well as work by youth interns trained to facilitate conversations on displacement and annexation.
New Faces at the Table
One of the key COO partners is White Center Community Development Association (WCCDA), a nonprofit increasing community-driven action in White Center.
WCCDA coordinates work by the community-based organizations involved in COO and is led by Executive Director Sili Savusa, whose family immigrated from American Samoa in the 1950s and was among the first Pacific Islanders in the area.
Savusa’s parents were active community leaders. She has vivid memories of people — relatives and new immigrants — coming and going from her house, sleeping everywhere there was space. “The notion of taking care of the community was just my experience growing up,” said Savusa, who has lived in White Center since 1996.
Savusa helped create the COO initiative and said residents have helped shape its course in White Center. “It’s so refreshing to see new faces and so many communities getting these grants,” she said. “I feel really good how funding is happening through COO.
It could be a model you can take anywhere, as long as you put the right base together. That required conversations and establishing strong relationships between those of us doing the work. There has to be trust in the room to say what needs to be said.”
Youth and the Future
Another organization participating in the COO initiative is the Food Empowerment Education and Sustainability Team (FEEST), a youth-led food justice group in White Center and Delridge founded in 2008. FEEST is known for weekly youth-led dinners at Chief Sealth High School and Evergreen High School, at which about 40 students cook dinner from scratch using healthy ingredients. Dinner includes discussions about health inequities, unsustainable food systems, and social and environmental justice.
The leaders of these weekly dinners are FEEST’s year-long high school interns, who also develop and implement local campaigns for food justice and engage in policy making processes. At Evergreen High School, 70 percent of students qualify for free or reduced lunch, but only 30 percent actually eat school lunch. Most opt for nearby fast food options because they find school lunch unappealing. FEEST interns are hoping to change this.
Becca Meredith, FEEST Development and Operations Director, said the group plans to use COO funding for multi-generational workshops around healthy foods and good health for the White Center community.
Chau is one of FEEST’s interns. A senior at Evergreen, he was recently accepted to the University of Washington, where he plans to study public health.
The issue of gentrification and displacing families, including many immigrants and refugees, from their homes weighs on his mind, as it does for many who live in White Center. Chau sees change there as inevitable, but he has hope that it can preserve its diversity and vibrancy. “The thing I want White Center to keep is its many layers of diversity — people from different communities trying to start businesses and finding their home here.”
Heart & Science Magazine
Read Heat & Science magazine Vol. 5 for more on how philanthropists, community organizations and Seattle Foundation are working to create a healthy community through addressing basic needs and building vibrant communities.
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