This is the fifth and final article in NPQ’s series titled Building Power, Fighting Displacement: Stories from Asian Pacific America, coproduced with the National Coalition for Asian Pacific American Community Development (National CAPACD). Authors in this series highlight stories of comprehensive community development in Asian American and Pacific Islander communities across the United States.
Community organizing is more than solving problems. It is, fundamentally, about being together—and thriving together. It is about both building and preserving the good things we have.
The White Center Community Development Association (White Center CDA), where I work, is deeply engaged in this community building work. The organization was formed a little over 20 years ago, in February 2002, when resident leaders came together to support their unique and culturally diverse neighborhood: White Center, WA. Our work has recently become even more critical, supporting community strength and solutions through the challenges of poverty, pandemic, and vandalism.
Community organizing is more than solving problems.…It is, fundamentally, about being together—and thriving together.
White Center is an unincorporated suburb in King County, located south of Seattle between West Seattle and Burien. Its population of about 16,000 is incredibly diverse; over half are people of color. It is home to over 3,000 immigrants from Vietnam, a sizeable population of refugees from Cambodia and Somalia, and a large Mexican and Central American immigrant community, among other groups. It is also home to many successful community-based businesses, including the 28-year-old Salvadorean Bakery and Restaurant.
In this community, poverty remains a challenge: 16.4 percent of families live below the poverty line, a poverty rate more than six percentage points higher than Seattle. As an unincorporated area, White Center residents and businesses often feel overlooked. At the direction of the state legislature, King County is supposed to help urban areas like White Center merge with either Seattle or Burien to gain access to more public resources, but such a merger hasn’t happened yet.
The community network that is the White Center CDA, however, is not waiting. While we face many challenges, we are proud of the community that we have collectively built and are looking to the future.
Designing a Holistic Approach for Our Neighborhood
The White Center CDA has a mission that includes both place-based work of neighborhood revitalization and a people-based role centered on family development. Our philosophy is one of comprehensive community development—a diverse set of holistic strategies designed to embrace a community’s culture and assets as well as meet the needs of historically disinvested and marginalized communities.
Faced with the ever-rising cost of living in the region, White Center CDA aims to develop affordable housing while taking care to avoid displacing current residents and contributing to gentrification. Our new White Center HUB (Hope Unity Belonging), a project initiated in 2017, will break ground soon. The HUB is envisioned as “a place of learning, sharing, and quality homes for working families.” The development includes a four-story building of 86 family-oriented affordable housing units, as well as a space for health clinics, young adult education, and youth engagement run by social services and nonprofit organizations.
Our philosophy is one of comprehensive community development—a diverse set of holistic strategies designed to embrace a community’s culture and assets.
The HUB repurposes a former public health center location on 8th Avenue, conveniently located near public transit and retail corridors and within walking distance of local schools. The buildings and open space are adjacent to the Dick Thurnau Memorial Park. Combined, the existing public and community spaces support each other and together provide a gathering place for the wider White Center community.
White Center Community Development Association partners in the project are Southwest Youth & Family Services, HealthPoint community clinic, Community Roots Housing, Communities of Opportunity (a collective impact organization), and King County Department of Community and Human Services, all of whom have collaborated in the community-driven process informing the campus design.
The cost of the housing development is currently estimated at around $40 million; the community center is about $28 million. Most of the funding has already been raised, including $4.9 million from the state housing trust fund in December 2022. The HUB is also part of a collaborative capital campaign called Rise Together Now, uniting six nonprofit organizations across the Seattle area to support equitable and inclusive development projects in the Central District, Capitol Hill, and White Center neighborhoods.
Dealing with Adversity: The White Center Fires
While the HUB offers a powerful illustration of our vision going forward, community building is challenging—and the White Center community has faced many issues along the way. Sadly, a series of fires hit our community in 2021. These seemingly random fires—including one in July 2021 that led to the shuttering of two community-based businesses—have been devastating.
Before these fires occurred, we had a thriving multicultural business community. For example, for a good pork belly sandwich or a beer in the busiest dive bar in King County’s “206” area code, residents often went to places like Huong Xua Deli. Other prominent White Center community businesses included the Lumber Yard, the area’s first LGBTQ+ bar; the Boxing Gym, which offered inclusive, community-centric boxing; and the Locker Room Tavern, where retired welders, Boeing mechanics, and assembly workers often drank side by side—building connection and a sense of community, as such spaces, sometimes called “third spaces” famously do.
The fires, the causes of which are still uncertain, came on top of other challenges. As is well known, small and micro businesses throughout the country were hit harder than large businesses during the COVID pandemic. Many of these were owned by immigrants and people of color. Vietnamese immigrant Kevin Bui had purchased Huong Xua Deli from the previous owners just two years before one of the 2021 fires forced his business to close. People were struggling and in shock, gathering belongings from the fire-damaged storefronts, dealing with insurance adjusters, and figuring out paperwork.
Our community knew that a forceful response was required.
Launching a Local Advocacy Campaign
Community-led organizing must always be central to economic development, especially during crises. It is community organizing, after all, that enables people in the neighborhood to identify their common economic needs and effectively organize to get those needs met.
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The community challenged local officials: “How will you respond to our specific demands and help us rebuild?”
In the wake of the fires, a key organizational response by the White Center CDA was to walk with merchants and have one-on-one conversations with the affected business owners. This relationship-oriented approach allowed space for grieving losses caused both by the pandemic and the fires.
Active listening honored the lived experiences of the merchants, gave community members a voice, and made solutions possible beyond the trauma. Community responses included creating blankets for doors and marking the storefronts of 18 businesses for the neighborhood to remember what had been there before. The immediate benefit for business owners was to be supported and feel seen. The long-term impact was even more significant.
This relationship-oriented approach built the community trust necessary to empower action. For example, despite losing his business to fire, Bui became a respected community leader and advocated for his and other businesses. He testified at county council meetings to increase the budget to include COVID relief funds for local businesses. Merchants, community leaders, and White Center CDA created a community petition with six demands, including emergency relief, technical assistance, and hiring security. We gathered 892 signatures. The community challenged local officials: “How will you respond to our specific demands and help us rebuild?”
The county agreed to allocate $2 million in funding for businesses and another $175,000 to institute an additional night patrol from the county’s general funds. The night patrols, of course, are critical to protect our community businesses, which have not only faced fires (some of which might have been the result of arson) but also break-ins and vandalism.
As for the funding, there is bureaucratic resistance and the amount that has been disbursed so far is less than what was promised. Our staff organizers and merchants pushed for general fund dollars to flexibly meet the challenges and needs of fire-impacted businesses and the broader community. The King County Council initially agreed to allocate general funds, but the funding source was later switched to draw down on federal pandemic relief funds, which created delays and reduced allocations.
Nonetheless, despite these challenges, the public funds that our community organizing unlocked enabled White Center CDA to assist close to 40 BIPOC and immigrant/refugee small businesses to receive 200 hours of one-on-one counseling, as well as reimbursement-based grant support for expenses such as rent, payroll, utilities, insurance premiums, and supplies. Businesses also received support for relocation when that was necessary.
Due to this advocacy, in many ways the community emerged stronger—and certainly the business community is better connected with each other—after the fires than before. Community business owners now share a stronger ethic of mutual support, which encourages them to share the available resources at their disposal.
Helping Businesses Respond to Federal Agencies
Part of community work is also helping local businesses interact with federal authorities. Take the case of Khmer immigrants Dalis Sun and Mon Rith, who owned Grocery Plus since 2014.
Grocery Plus became a SNAP retailer—accepting benefits from the government assistance program formerly known as food stamps—in part to better serve the local population. The owners pride themselves on carrying specialty items from Thailand and Cambodia. They say that more than half of their customers buy groceries with SNAP benefits.
But in 2018, Grocery Plus fell under the scrutiny of the US Department of Agriculture because of an algorithm the agency uses to screen for fraud. The owners had initiated a layaway system for regular customers, enabling many community members to buy the food they needed while waiting to receive their SNAP benefits. But by allowing customers to rack up a few weeks’ worth of grocery bills before paying with their benefit cards, Grocery Plus violated the USDA’s rules prohibiting retailers from establishing informal credit systems with their customers.
Sun does remember someone from the agency coming to her store to take pictures, but they didn’t initiate a conversation. On another inspector visit, while Rith was not at the store, the inspector interviewed Sun in English; she had difficulty understanding many of the inspector’s questions. The inspector did not ask Sun if she needed an interpreter. “It’s a system small business owners don’t understand,” she noted.
White Center CDA, with the assistance of Khmer Community of Seattle King County, helped the store to address the situation. According to Sun and Rith, no one from the USDA Food and Nutrition Service ever called them to explain the appeals process. With this support, the store was able to retool its program so that the store would no longer run afoul of USDA guidelines.
Building for the Long Run
Community building involves everything from building trust, to fostering a network of support, to understanding lease terms, to advocating and working with county staff, to addressing neighborhood issues, and preventing displacement. Supporting art that is intriguing and beautiful, as well as meaningful and relevant to the community is part of this work. Community building is also about documenting community stories.
Former executive director Sili Savusa points out that balancing these different aspects of community development is challenging. As Savusa says, “One of the hardest things over the years is to be able to articulate the different ways we move in community and our ability to really be in those spaces as community residents and leaders of the work here in White Center.” Another key challenge on the horizon: like many Seattle-area communities, White Center residents and businesses are facing gentrification, driven by rapid increases in rental and housing prices.
Community building also requires investment in the future. A new home, the upcoming HUB project highlighted above, will include 86 units of affordable housing with a commercial kitchen, makerspace, gardens, and multipurpose community spaces on the ground floor.
Jenny Chhim, a Cambodian American resident of White Center, captures the spirit of community pride that animates so many in our community and which motivates the work of so many residents: “Growing up,” Chhim notes, “most, if not all, businesses [in White Center] were BIPOC owned and many of the community members were just as richly diverse. My hope is that it remains that way.”