An anomalously diverse body as far as Seattle’s community groups go, it is also a time of transition for the Capitol Hill Community Council: As it prepares for its annual winter open house where it gathers face to face community input on what the organization’s priorities should be for the new year, council president Zachary Dewolf will hand over the reigns to the current vice president Natalie Curtis.
“I’m really excited to see Natalie Curtis lead this really critical volunteer-led community organization,” Dewolf told CHS.
Dewolf, who has been with the council since early 2013, won a decisive victory in his bid for the Position 5 seat on the Seattle School Board and is leaving the council to focus on his new duties.
Curtis, a 32-year-old Texas transplant who has served on the council’s board in various capacities over the last four years and is currently completing a master’s in nonprofit leadership and public administration at Seattle University, says she wants to increase community involvement and build on the various progressive causes and initiatives that the the organization has championed in recent years.
“I want to focus on ways to really get the pulse of the community,” Curtis said. “I’m hoping to get the community more engaged and more on board in 2018.”
Among the issues that Curtis wants to prioritize are activating the public spaces surrounding the eventual new housing developments at the Capitol Hill light rail station (such as bringing the farmers market to the development on a regular basis), working with the Seattle City Council on improving the City’s policies towards un-sanctioned homeless encampments, increasing opportunities for community members to volunteer in the neighborhood, and establishing a supervised consumption site in Capitol Hill.
“Safe consumption sites are really at the top, top top of my radar,” Curtis said. “I really want to get those going.”
The Capitol Hill Community Council is something of an anomaly among the various neighborhood community councils across the city. In recent years, its leadership has been composed of predominantly young and diverse renters, and have taken up proactive advocacy on a number of high-profile local progressive causes, such as endorsing supervised consumption sites early on and lobbying city hall to pass pro-renter legislation like the Seattle Renters Commission and a new requirement that landlords provide tenants with voter-registration information.
“Our work is about elevating the needs and issues of folks and communities that don’t usually have a voice,” said Dewolf. “We’ve really tried to challenge the notion that if you’re a owner … you somehow have ownership over the look and feel of a neighborhood.”
In contrast, other community councils throughout Seattle have been dominated by white homeowners, prioritized issues affecting homeowners, and have fiercely opposed efforts by city planners and leaders to increase density in the city. In late november, a coalition of community council’s and other neighborhood groups announced their intent to sue the city ovr proposed upzoning of 27 areas of Seattle (these up zones stem from the Housing Affordability and Livability Agenda recommendations that are now governing city housing policy).
“Certainly there are folks across the city that, when something comes up, they organize the same group of folks around community issues from a [specific] lens and that lens ends up being very narrow because we know that many folks don’t often have a voice or a seat at the table,” he said.
According to Dewolf, the Capitol Hill Community Council used to be similar to its counterparts back when he first joined in 2013.
“When we first started, the composition was older … it was less people of color, more homeowners,” he said. “It became a holding place for people’s frustrations and concerns about things that are happening around the neighborhood. And I think it limited the ability of things to move forward because it was so focused on reactionary work that it didn’t leave a lot of room to do the proactive [work].”
“It really took shedding away some of the structure of how we do things, making our purpose a little more proactive, and thinking about what’s going to bring people back,” Dewolf added.
Dewolf said that the council’s annual December open house has been integral to incorporating community input and gauging where the council should allocate its energy. “The energy and effectiveness really came from our December meetings. The things we did were 100 percent informed by our December open houses. It really shaped where we put our energy and what we worked on,” Dewolf said.
The council’s new approach of being proactive and open-minded in their outreach was integral to gathering community support for support for supervised consumption spaces, Dewolf said. “We’ve really tried to be ahead of some of these controversial issues; not by imposing our personal beliefs on social justice or equity and inclusion but rather having really frank discussions with people early on in the process before people were being inundated with opinions and values without really understanding an issue.”
Last November, the Seattle City Council allocated $1.3 million for establishing a pilot supervised consumption site in Seattle, and Capitol Hill has been floated as a possible location for the facility.
Curtis plans to adopt a similar approach to advancing the controversial proposal. “We are welcoming it with open arms. But, as I say that, there is still opposition,” Curtis said. “I really want to engage [the community] and have conversations regarding everyone’s perspective.”
She added that while she wants to hear from everyone, she also wants to incorporate the voices of those who would actually utilize the facility (i.e. people suffering from addiction).
While some may attribute the council’s revamping and recent legislative successes to Dewolf’s leadership, Zachary says the changes have been the result of the combined effort and effectiveness of the entire council leadership. “That [the successfully passed legislation] wasn’t only because I was there. The pieces of legislation that we had came from our work, the community, and our relationships, said Dewolf. “If it wasn’t be advocating [down at city hall], it would have been Natalie.”
Curtis said that she also intends to continue advocating for pro-renter and affordable-housing initiatives and working with relevant community partners such as Capitol Hill Housing, the Tenants Union, and Seattle Housing Authority.
“The reality of anyone actually owning something in Capitol Hill is not realistic today,” she said. If we get a strong stance and strong [city] policy in place that helps renters, that will pass along to other communities that are facing similar issues.”
That being said, Curtis doesn’t want to sideline homeowners, but merely make some room at the table for renters. “At the end of the day it [the council] shouldn’t be a limiting place to come to.”
Curtis hopes that this Thursday’s open house will not only inform her on the community’s priorities but also on the best ways of communicating with them to get them involved and active in the council’s work. She hopes to get attendees to volunteer to establish subcommittees to work on particular issues and projects. “With the open house this coming Thursday, I want to at least vet the best ways of communication,” she said. “I want everyone at the table.”
The open house will take place this Thursday, December 14th, at the Vermillion Art Gallery from 6-8:00 PM.
You can learn more at capitolhillcommunitycouncil.org.