While the greater Seattle area’s tech boom is creating high-paying jobs and spurring innovation, leaders and locals are increasingly worried that the influx of wealth and new residents are creating a widening chasm between those who can afford to live and work in the Emerald City and those who can’t.
It’s stoking a sense of resentment against tech newbies who are blamed for rising housing prices and are viewed by some as disconnected from Seattle’s historic grunge-informed ethos. The housing situation alone has become so dire that elected officials say the region is facing a homeless crisis, causing leaders to spend millions of dollars on new affordable homes and shelters to ease the emergency.
“Seattle is being transformed by an engine of change, fueled by the same large and disruptive forces that are upending social orders all across the globe,” Seattle Mayor Ed Murray said this week in his State of the City address. “And today we are presented with a fundamental question: Is a knowledge-based, technology-driven economy going to drive equity in this city, or is it going to drive us apart?”
Ben Reuler has an idea that could help mend this growing rift and shift one image of tech workers — as an entitled, indifferent force that undermines the city’s identity — to one that strengthens it.
His idea: Volunteerism.
“Getting people connected to one another and to social issues is the number one thing we can do to strengthen the social fabric of our region, one stitch at a time,” he said. “That’s what we’re on a mission to do, to get people meaningfully engaged.”
Reuler is the executive director of Seattle Works, a nonprofit founded 27 years ago that connects corporations and individuals with other nonprofits in order to do good work. The group facilitates volunteer projects, and trains and helps place people who would like to serve on nonprofit boards responsible for fundraising and overseeing an organization’s operations. Increasingly, Reuler is spending time with tech companies and employees, many of whom are new to Seattle and have not yet grown accustomed to its culture norms.
The hope is that by encouraging more people to volunteer — particularly the millennial transplants flocking to the Northwest for tech jobs — Seattle and surrounding cities could build communities where residents care about social, educational and environmental issues.
Last year Seattle Works helped orchestrate 410 volunteer projects with more than 150 nonprofits, including food banks, conservation and arts groups, organizations helping low-income people and others.
Tech companies including Microsoft and Google are stepping up to participate.
“That young generation — maybe more so than generations before — really want to make a difference in what they do and engage in the community,” said Jane Meseck, director of Global Programs for Microsoft Philanthropies.
“We want our communities, our backyard, to be healthy and vibrant and a great place to live. That’s been long-term thinking,” she said, “helping our employees who live and work here contribute to the community.”
Microsoft recently announced that their workers set a record last year in charitable giving and volunteering, donating $125 million globally to nonprofits and schools, an increase of 7 percent from 2014 totals.
In addition to the greater societal benefits, Meseck said that the volunteering and donations help the employees as well as the Redmond-based software company.
“For a volunteer who goes out into the community, they’re not just sharing their skills, they’re learning,” Meseck said. If, for example, a worker is creating a tech solution for a nonprofit, they’re also seeing firsthand how a customer is using Microsoft technology, she said. “There is a give-get that is bringing back knowledge and learning.”
National research by Deloitte suggests there are a number of perks that come with workplace-driven volunteerism, including employees with more positive feelings about their company’s corporate culture, and greater employee loyalty and satisfaction. Volunteers also can gain marketable skills from their efforts, according to the studies.
Hector Mujica, Google’s social responsibility regional manager for the Pacific Northwest, agreed that volunteering pays dividends for everyone involved.
“Googlers benefit by better understanding the communities where they live and work, which provides an important perspective when designing products for everyone in the world,” Mujica said by email. “It also allows them to apply their skill sets to work outside of the core roles, with people outside their core teams, which serves as a developmental opportunity.”
Google, which has partnered with Seattle Works since 2014, met last week with Reuler and his team to discuss volunteering and board-training opportunities for the coming year.
One of their most successful ventures has been the GooglersGive Local Leadership program in which workers spend a week volunteering their technical skills at an area nonprofit.
Last year participants worked with Neighborhood House, an organization helping low-income and immigrant residents in King County. The volunteers built an intranet site for posting announcements, a shared calendar and galleries of new hires and recent events, Mujica said. They also began helping the group replace its file-share hierarchy with a set of sites, and trained Neighborhood House’s IT staff on managing the site.
The Google volunteers also developed a 12-to-18-week technology curriculum to be taught at West Seattle’s High Point Community Center.
More than 27 percent of Google workers in the Puget Sound area volunteered in some capacity last year, Mujica said.
In addition to its partnerships with specific companies, Seattle Works has a variety of volunteering opportunities open to everyone. Through their Team Works program, people form a group that meets half a day, one Saturday a month for four months to do charitable work. The organization’s biggest annual event is Seattle Works Day, a day-long volunteer event and party held each June.
Volunteer efforts clearly can’t ease all of the disparity in wealth and opportunities plaguing Seattle and other areas, but it can build awareness and a commitment to helping those in need. Reuler hopes that by engaging younger tech workers in particular, local communities will benefit over time.
“This is about creating a stronger region and creating a culture of philanthropy and giving back,” Reuler said. “We are trying to get this next generation plugged in early. We believe this is like early-childhood education. We need to get them young and start molding folks. We are on a mission to really get folks in their 20s and 30s engaged. Now is our time.”