Participatory democracy has been Jim Diers’ preoccupation and his career for the past 36 years. In his work with grassroots community organizations and with government and other large agencies, Jim has found ways to get more people engaged with their community and more involved in decisions that affect their lives.
Jim moved toSeattlewith his wife, Sarah Driggs, after graduating fromGrinnellCollegein 1975. For six years Jim worked as a community organizer in the low-income, racially diverse neighborhoods ofRainierValley. Bringing people together to take action on issues ranging from dangerous intersections to obtaining a new health center, Jim helped the South End Seattle Community Organization grow to include 25 member churches and neighborhood organizations. Its annual meetings drew as many as 800 people.
Jim spent the next six years with Group Health Cooperative of Puget Sound where he organized medical center councils to review budget and quality-of-care issues from a consumer perspective. He also helped members organize special interest groups: the Senior Caucus, the Nuclear Awareness Group, and Partners for Health. Jim also organized-and reinvigorated-the cooperative’s annual meetings, which attracted as many as 3,000 members.
In 1988, Mayor Charles Royer appointed Jim to direct the City ofSeattle’s new Office of Neighborhoods. Jim was reappointed by the subsequent mayors, Norm Rice in 1990 and Paul Schell in 1998. By the end of Jim’s 14-year tenure, the four-person Office had grown into a Department of Neighborhoods with 100 staff.
The Department’s mission is to decentralize and coordinate City services, strengthen communities and their organizations, and work in partnership with these organizations to preserve and enhance the neighborhoods. The Department manages 13 Little City Halls that provide basic services to citizens and serve as meeting places for neighborhood organizations. It supports about 400 community self-help projects each year through a $4.5 million Neighborhood Matching Fund that was recognized by the Ford Foundation and Kennedy School of Government as one of the most innovative local government programs in theUnited States. Another program of community empowerment involved 30,000 people in the development of 37 neighborhood plans. The Department also manages the City’s historic preservation program, a P-Patch Program of 75 community gardens, and a leadership training program. In 2000, the Department received the Full Inclusion Award from the American Association on Mental Retardation for its Involving All Neighbors program and a Best of the Best Award from HUD for its Cultivating Communities program.
In 2001, Jim was named Public Employee of the Year by the Municipal League of King County. That same year he was awarded an honorary Doctorate of Law fromGrinnellCollege.
After leaving the Department of Neighborhoods in 2002, Jim Diers worked for a year as Interim Director of the Delridge Neighborhoods Development Association, for three years as Executive Director of the South Downtown Foundation, and for five years as Director of Seattle Community Partnerships for theUniversityofWashington.
Currently, Jim teaches courses on community organizing and community development at the Universityof Washington. Jim also speaks, conducts workshops and provides technical assistance to communities and agencies around the world as a faculty member for the Asset-Based Community Development Institute and as the author of Neighbor Power: Building Community the Seattle Way
which is available in English and Chinese editions.