A friend of mine recently mentioned that he never really had a life plan as such, that the major milestones of his life were essentially accidents. I can somewhat related to that, although my “accidents” haven’t been anywhere near as lucrative. But he does hint at a broader insight. The impact of an unexpected “accident” ultimately depends on your readiness to discern and seize upon an equally unanticipated opportunity.
Sometimes while I’m out photographing birds and other wildlife, I have come upon spiders just dangling in mid air until a draft of wind lifts and deposits them on a branch, sometimes yards away, where the real work of weaving begins between apparently random anchor points. In a sense, if you’re open and ready, it may not matter which way the wind blows. Just be prepared to do the work when you land. Let’s play with this for a moment.
In retrospect, the fortunate “accidents” in my life have sometimes been revealed to be new anchor points or major intersections in the weaving of a unique, lifelong network linking other existing relationships with varying degrees of intentionality, and with results that can sometimes take years to unfold.
Turned out the first anchor point, and fortunate “accident” on the way to Rainier Beach was in Tokyo around 1990 and meeting the Gang of Four (or Four Amigos)
The Four Amigos were Larry Gossett (founder of the Black Student Union at the University of Washington and Central Area Motivation Program or CAMP), Roberto Maestas (founder and director of El Centro de la Raza), Bernie Whitebear (co-founder of United Indians of All Tribes and Daybreak Star Cultural Center), and Bob Santos (executive director of the International District Improvement Association and later, regional director of the US Department of Housing and Urban Development). The four had become very close friends as well as comrades in arms. At each major presentation in Tokyo and Osaka, they shared, what to Japanese ears were somewhat shocking tales of occupying buildings and properties and transforming them into major centers of cultural, social and economic revitalization for their respective constituencies (Black, Latino, Native American, Asian/Filipino). And they were reveling in the opportunity to be off the frontlines for a moment, celebrate what had been accomplished, share what they had learned with a new and eager audience, and just plain enjoy being in each other’s company. “Uncle Bob” Santos would later reflect that Japan was where the four really began to bond and decided to meet regularly. And during at least one celebration event, he could hardly stop from literally dancing with joy.
I didn’t realize how much of an anchor point this was for me, particularly in relationship to Rainier Beach, until years later when I and my family moved to Seattle.
In Seattle, I became involved over time with several initiatives that were focused on connecting people in novel ways: the Seattle Community Network, a civic bulletin board project (pre-dating and then leading into the Internet) of Computer Professionals for Social Responsibility (CPSR) based on the Cleveland Free-Net; the Good Neighbor Network founded by Cheryl Honey as a grassroot, mutual support system; and an environmental justice event called the Interfaith Creation Festival, organized by Jim and Ruth Mulligan, the founders of Earth Ministry.
As Outreach Coordinator for SCN, I visited community centers and schools in Central and Southeast Seattle, including CAMP/ROPE (Central Area Motivational Project/Rites of Passage Experience), originally founded by Larry Gossett as mentioned above, and where Gregory Davis was then executive director.
Meanwhile, the Good Neighbor Network had been developing an online resource system, which made at least one connection: I was forwarded a request to help build a web site. The request had come from Von Paul Patu, who invited me to meet him at the Safeway Starbucks in Rainier Beach to learn about the work he and his wife, Betty, had been doing in tutoring and mentoring South Pacific Island youth out of a portable unit at Rainier Beach High School. Unfortunately, a week or so later, when we were scheduled to followup on our initial conversation, Von Paul had suffered a major stroke. Kay Bullitt, a Seattle activist, philanthropist and supporter of Von Paul’s work, invited me to join her in visiting him to celebrate his birthday while he was recovering in the hospital. There I encountered his family, particularly Marty and Paul and—in yet another unexpected connection—Larry Gossett, by then the King County Council representative for SE Seattle and one of Von Paul’s closest friends. I learned that Von Paul was informally the fifth member of the Gang of Four. Marty was then director of the SE Seattle Youth Violence Prevention Network (SYVPN) based at the Boys and Girls Club; and Paul with his wife Shantel, the leaders of Urban Family, another powerful youth-driven group; both organizations would continue to have prominent roles in the story of Rainier Beach Rising over the entire duration of my time in the neighborhood.
The core planning team for the Interfaith Creation Festival included the leaders of several churches and synagogues as well as Brother Benjamin, the imam of the Islam Center. He was arranging for the participation of W. Deen Muhammad, son of the founder of the Nation of Islam who subsequently split off to form the American Society of Muslims and became an enthusiastic supporter of interfaith partnerships. After the festival Brother Benjamin asked me to help with an anti-racism training event as a followup to a workshop at the festival, and my wife and I attended several iftars during Ramadan with his community at the Brighton Apartments at the northern edge of Rainier Beach.
And then, somewhat later, while expanding my Twitter network I came across @rainerbeach, the account for the Rainier Beach Community Empowerment Coalition (RBCEC), and discovered that the organization was led by Gregory Davis, yes, the former executive director of CAMP/ROPE. Gregory was also working in the Systems Improvement section of Casey Family Programs, where I had previously been employed in Child & Family Services. As we caught up over coffee, Gregory invited me to help integrate “new media” into RBCEC under a Seattle Foundation grant for establishing the framework and resources for a board of directors.
And so these seemingly random anchor points and network intersections settled into a center of gravity in Rainier Beach, where I would experience the generational ripples of the Gang of Four nearly 20 years later and encounter a new generation (as it turned out, several generations) of leaders arising from Southeast Seattle.
This has been the “happy accident” narrative for finding my way to Rainier Beach. Once I began getting familiar with the community (“walking the grid” for some of my other colleagues) and “living off the land” of local restaurants, coffee shops, schools, and other public spaces and transportation services, I would begin to recognize this journey as a calling and to begin reframing my own vocation as being played out as a witness amid a growing cloud of witnesses.
And the exploration of citizen journalism to transform the public narrative of the community would progress from Lift Every Voice to FreedomNet.
SPECIAL NOTE: As I am publishing these posts, RBAC is running a year-end funding drive toward breaking the cycle of public sector grants and moving toward a more stable foundation of grassroot support. As you will see in these posts, RBAC has earned the trust of the neighborhood and is raising the next generation of leaders who well deserve your support, so please consider becoming a partner in this work by donating here.