Seattleites do not always play well with others.
There’s the notorious “Seattle freeze” — a personality trait that puts a chill on forming new friendships. There’s the massive influx of newcomers trying to find their place in the Emerald City. And there’s the typical struggle to meet and bond with people outside of one’s profession or community.
But the rapidly-growing city is facing a daunting slate of challenges — homelessness, traffic jams, gentrification, soaring housing prices, threatened natural resources — and it’s going to take unified action to address them.
So the Washington Technology Industry Association (WTIA) is trying to spark a thaw and help people connect, facilitating relationships that could lead to solutions.
“How do we have innovation if we don’t have collaboration? How do we create a way to have people come together and work together?” asked Julie Pham, vice president of community engagement and marketing for the WTIA. “If we can get that collaboration part, we can tackle any issue.”
Pham is leading a civic experiment launched by the WTIA called the Ion Collaborators. Volunteers for the program are chosen from government agencies, nonprofit groups and the private sector, with many participants coming from the technology field. The objective is to assemble a diverse group in terms of age, neighborhood, ethnicity and race, and family status.
The volunteers break into six-person teams and select a local problem they’d like to tackle over the course of half a year. The WTIA acts as a facilitator, setting up interviews with organizations and experts already working on the problem. These consultations guide the Ion participants in brainstorming a new tool or project that they could build to help address the issue.
“Before people can connect the dots, they have to know what the dots are and what the dots need,” Pham said.
Since the cohort meets for a limited time, the Ion teams try to create something that another group can adopt and continue using long term.
The first batch of Ion Collaborators formed a year ago, and a second cohort recently began meeting. Some of the initial participants give enthusiastic reports about the experience.
To solve big problems, “you have to have everybody in the room talking,” said Josh Buchacher, a software engineer based in Seattle. As a part of the initial cohort, Buchacher volunteered with the economic growth team on a project to help people leaving prison find jobs. They created a site called Second Chance Hiring and also supported the nonprofit Post-Prison Education Program.
Buchacher enjoyed breaking out of his tech silo to partner with folks in different sectors, and he learned a lot doing interviews with people in city and county agencies, nonprofits and different companies to get their perspectives.
“That is really the message: If you want to make an impact go do it,” Buchacher said. “And programs like Ion are going to help more people recognize their own potential and get back into a community they don’t feel a part of right now.”
Another group created a search tool for Commute Seattle, a coalition that supports transportation issues. The Ion team’s tool, called Neighborhood Finder, helps people identify neighborhoods with features including ethnic groceries and community centers.
“We’re trying to connect people from different sectors, but it goes a lot deeper than that. I haven’t seen a volunteer group like this before,” said Faisal Jama, a project manager with Galvanize and former executive director of the nonprofit East African Community Services. He was a member of Ion’s accessibility team.
“We talked just as much about personal beliefs and values as about the project,” Jama said. “That is what makes Ion special; it builds close bonds.”
The third team was the livability group. Deena Pierott, founder of iUrban Teen and an equity advisor for the city of Seattle, was a member. Pierott, who moved here from Portland two years ago, was eager to tackle the city’s cool reception.
Coming here, “you don’t feel welcome,” Pierott said. “It’s hard to feel that you belong and this is home.”
Their solution? A template for organizing story sharing events, which they’re calling Bonfire, where people can share 10-minute stories about themselves. They held storytelling events at public libraries and the coworking space, Impact Hub Seattle. The Bellevue-based company Limeade recently used the Bonfire tool for an employee event.
The idea of fostering civic collaboration isn’t entirely novel. The WTIA’s Pham said that Boston has a program called New Urban Mechanics that supports this sort of innovation. One important difference, however, is that it’s a city-led project whereas Ion operates in the community.
In addition to launching the second cohort, Pham’s hope is to tweak their methodology to allow implementation in other cities and communities.
Members of the first cohort said they’re still in close contact with their former teammates, though their tenure has technically ended.
The economic growth team is even continuing to work on their project, as many in the group discovered a passion for helping people with criminal records find work and stay out of prison. They’re eager to partner with employers to target this population for hiring, just as companies seek women, minorities, military veterans and other underrepresented workers.
“We’ve all figured out how this second-chance hiring and recidivism activism fits into our day-to-day life,” Buchacher said. “It opened our awareness and we realized it’s not just a project anymore and is part of our identities. I can’t say how life and perspective-changing this opportunity has been.”