Jim Diers: Transforming Consumers into Citizens

Submitted by Rachel Elizabeth on May 13, 2013 - 6:56pm
Thought leaders for Neighbours: Policies and Programs

Jim Diers has a passion for getting people engaged with their communities and in the decisions that affect their lives. Since moving to Seattle in 1976, he put that passion to work for a direct-action neighborhood association, a community development corporation, a community foundation, and the nation’s largest health care cooperative. He was appointed the first director of Seattle’s Department of Neighborhoods in 1988 where he served under three mayors over the next 14 years.


We are thrilled that Jim Diers will be joining in less than a month, for Seeking Community’s first face to face gathering: Neighbours: Policies and Programs, June 10-12, 2013, in Kitchener, Ontario. We would love for you to join us as we eat local food, take walks around neighbourhoods centering on different topics, engage with some of the most influential thought leaders in the field, celebrate the life of John McKnight, and spend our evenings enjoying music and other entertainment. This event is almost at capacity, so make sure you sign-up today if you wish to join us!

Jim Diers’ work and experience will inspire and give us tools for how to create a society where consumers can be transformed into active and engaged citizens. Here is an excerpt from Diers’ book, Neighbor Power: Building Community the Seattle Way, that will make you want to hear more!

“I am convinced that people still yearn for a sense of community and want to contribute to the greater good. They also want a voice in their government. What they are looking for has less to do with reinventing government than it does with rediscovering democracy. True democracy requires deeper involvement than going to the voting booth once a year; people need to be engaged in their communities and with their government on an ongoing basis. People will commit to such involvement to the extent that they see results.

I say this with confidence because of the high level of citizen engagement I witnessed in Seattle between 1988 and 2002. Tens of thousands of people participated in implementing more than two thousand community self-help projects such as building new parks and playgrounds, renovating community facilities, recording oral histories, and creating public art. Thirty thousand people guided the development of thirty-seven neighborhood plans. Score of new ethnic organizations and neighborhood-based residential, business, arts, history, and environmental organizations were established. Five thousand people a year were involved in cultivating plots at sixty-two community gardens that they built themselves. Organizations celebrated an annual Neighbor Appreciation Day, and individuals delivered eighteen thousand greeting cards to caring neighbors. Many people with development disabilities and other formerly marginalized citizens participated in community life for the first time. These are some of the many activities that accounted for survey results showing that 43 percent of Seattle’s adults regularly volunteered their time for the community and 62 percent participated in at least one neighborhood or community organization.


Perhaps more important than the financial and other material benefits of civic engagement are the social benefits of a stronger sense of community. No amount of public-safety spending can buy the kind of security that comes from neighbors watching out for one another. Similarly, neighbors supporting latchkey children or housebound seniors can provide a kind of personal care that social agencies can’t replicate” (Diers, 19-20).