Jim Diers Biographical Sketch

Participatory democracy has been Jim Diers' preoccupation and his career for the past 30 years. In his work with grassroots community organizations, with the nation's largest health care cooperative and with city government, Jim has found ways to get people more involved with their communities and with decisions that affect their lives.

Jim moved to Seattle with his wife, Sarah Driggs, after graduating from Grinnell College in 1975 with a major in Colonialism and Nationalism in Third World Development. For six years Jim worked as an Alinsky-style community organizer in the low-income, racially diverse community of Rainier Valley. Bringing people together to take action on issues ranging from dangerous intersections to nuclear power plants, 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. He also helped members organize special interest groups: the Senior Caucus, the Nuclear Awareness Group, and Partners for Health, an organization that provides medical support to Nicaragua. 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 Seattle’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 the United 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. He was awarded an honorary Doctorate of Law from Grinnell College.

After leaving the Department of Neighborhoods in 2002, Jim worked for a year as Interim Director of the Delridge Neighborhoods Development Association and for three years as Executive Director of the South Downtown Foundation.

Currently, Jim spends most of his time at the University of Washington, where he teaches courses in architecture and social work and supports community initiatives with faculty and students across all disciplines. Jim also speaks frequently in other cities as a faculty member for the Asset-Based Community Development Institute and as the author of Neighbor Power: Building Community the Seattle Way.