Interview: Harris-Talley on Community-based Organizations

Last Friday I interviewed new Council member Kirsten Harris-Talley on a topic that is coming up with increasing frequency in City Hall: community-based organizations (aka CBOs), who they are, their role in our community, and their relationship with city government.


KS: The term “community-based organizations” has been popping up a lot in City Hall.

KHT: CBO’s. That’s the shorthand for the term.

KS: I wanted to have a conversation with you about how you think about CBOs, what are and aren’t CBOs, and the value they bring, and how they fit into the big picture of how city government works.

KHT: I can give you a context to my lived career and experience with CBO’s and a context of my personal philosophy of the interface with governance. Most of my career has been in the nonprofit realm; I had a little short spin early in my career in the for-profit in my early 20’s doing retail and stuff that I think everyone sort of does. In that realm, really for me the CBOs on a domestic level are similar to the NGOs on a global level, those organizations that work in collaboration as a liaison between community and government systems. And because they are community based organizations they actually have access, a litmus, and analysis that’s quite, just different in orientation from governance and city lobbies in making decisions.

KS: So good examples: would El Centro de la Raza be one?

KHT: El Centro is a wonderful example.

KS: The Ethiopian Community Center?

KHT: Ethiopian Community Center, in a way. Yes. Actually, let’s run with the Ethiopian Community Center. So we have neighborhood community centers, right? On the South End, we have several of them. Our newest one is the Rainier Beach Community Center. We love that community center. It certainly provides a very distinct set of services that are public and open for everyone. We use public dollars for the brick and mortar and the staffing of it, and we use public dollars for the program development there. But the orientation of programs are specific to a fairly generic cadre of what kind of programs will want. The Ethiopian and Filipino Community Centers, which are two large community centers in very close proximity, almost a mile if even that of that city community center, have an analysis and mission of an orientation to the cultures, mores and needs of those communities. So that adds a layer of a community analysis to what they do in their programming. So both might have an arts and culture class but the class at the Filipino Center will be oriented and deeply rooted in the history and context of Filipino history and Filipino culture and serving that community. So for me the considerations of that and which one government chooses to fund work in, becomes really important, because if we’re trying to do a youth priority for outcomes where young Filipino people are better prepared to go to college, doing that out of the Rainier Beach community center is going to have a very different context and outcomes than working directly with the Filipino community center.

KS: But does it have to be that way? Are there structural reasons why the city community centers couldn’t do that work?

KHT. No, there is not. There is not any reason the promise of it couldn’t be any different. But to say that divorces us from the realities of institutional history and the power of institutions and choices of institutions that lead us up to this moment. So here’s why I say that. We cannot talk about the history of Seattle as a city and divorce ourselves from the reality that this is stolen land from indigenous people. And the context — even this Borderlands exhibit that we just saw with the city, there’s this amazing piece in that that has a beautiful silhouette of the United States and lines coming off and then a label blacked out. And every label blacked out is one of the residential schools that native children were sent to, to rob them of their culture. You see hundreds of names of these schools. We talk about that sometimes here on this coast. I had no context for understanding of that where I grew up in the Midwest. But that was a reality of our history. So for us to think that these government institutions, when government was doing those practices, don’t actually hold some of that history as a lens and analysis as to whether or not they’re going to be the best place where some of those cultural considerations, we have to ask ourselves those questions.

I’m not saying that there isn’t good cultural programming that happens through city community centers. Certainly there are, and the sensibility and the more diversity and the more voices that we have on staff and the more voices and diversity and representation we have in those program planning and all of that will shift that. And certainly you can move from different community centers and look at their base programming and see some of that happening where it has a flavor that is distinct to whatever neighborhood that program is in. But for some of our outcomes I think we have to orient ourselves that community itself has answers and solutions that those institutions just won’t readily necessarily have in this moment, and then we have to weigh whether or not we actually leverage our dollars in the best way and are investing to get the outcomes we want, by investing in ourselves and our own institutions and vessels we created versus investing directly into those communities that have been impacted and have new ideas and solutions.

And so I think that’s a good question for us always to ask. I’ll say this about nonprofit work: the reason nonprofits don’t work for profit but work towards a mission is that on some bigger scale you’re trying to work yourself out of business when you’re at a nonprofit, right? You’re trying to solve some problem, hopefully, that your goal, the vision statement, is always that this problem won’t exist some day and we won’t have to be here to solve this problem; we get to move on to a new problem together. So for me that’s a consideration. And I come from social justice movement work. And social justice movement work, what ties it all together, whatever the context area is — environmental justice is a different context area, reproductive justice is a different context area — but what ties those two together is that you center those most impacted by the injustices in the query of the solutions and when they say “We as leaders in these communities need you to do it this way because you’ve been trying to do it this way for so long and it’s not working,” you listen to them and you try it. And you give them the tools to do it well.

KS: Do you have a mental taxonomy of the realm of community-based organizations?

KHT: What do you mean by that?

KS: Let’s see if we can walk into this a bit here. What are some more examples of CBO’s?

KHT: I’ll give you a great one. I was just, a couple of weeks ago, at Country Doctor Community Health Clinics. They had their dinner, they have a lovely dinner. They hosted it at MOHAI, and this one was a special dinner because it was the passing of the baton to their new Executive Director, Raleigh Watts, someone I’ve known for a long time, a dear friend, from Linda McVeigh, who’s been the Executive Director there for decades. That is a very deeply community-based organization. They’re not like Swedish Hospital. They’re not even like a Planned Parenthood clinic, which I would also call a CBO.

KS: That was also going to be on my list of questions for you: is Planned Parenthood a CBO?

KHT: I would consider Planned Parenthood a CBO in some of the ways they acquire their dollars, certainly. They’re quite different from the reproductive health services you find from Public Health Seattle-King county for instance, which is a government health care interface.

But a piece of the history of Country Doctor Clinics which I had not known until this dinner, is that some of their clinic services actually came out of the Black Panther party’s services that they were doing, and the help that they were providing. That in a very true sense is what you’re talking about when you’re talking about a community-based organization. So these were neighbors providing care for other neighbors. And to give a context for what it looked like for the Black Panthers to give care, people talk about segregation, but we don’t talk about what that looked like on an everyday basis. And so some context for what that looked like on an everyday basis means, is that literally hospitals, when we moved to a hospital birth system for instance, black women were not able to access hospitals to give birth. They were still giving birth at home, not because of cultural practice, but because the systems and institutions literally would not let their bodies into the hospitals to get care. So the Black Panthers were doing their work in a context when those sorts of normative things were shifting out of really Jim Crow-era models and providing the care that their community simply could not get. And those were formalized over time, to what we now see as a cadre of clinics that the community health has.

KS: Other examples?

KHT: I talked about public health. I talked about community cultural services.

KS: And now you’re sort of answering my earlier question about whether there is a taxonomy of CBOs. Do you categorize them in your mind?

KHT: I don’t. I don’t always. I don’t think it serves us well, necessarily, to silo and categorize things. But I say that as someone who comes from an intersectional analysis of things often.

KS: But from sitting in this office now, thinking about “ok, we have public money where we are trying to accomplish certain things, either deliver services or accomplish specific goals,” does it maybe help a little bit more to think of it as categories?

KHT: I’ll say this. There are city departments that have certain functions. They do things and they don’t do other things.

KS: But is that not a helpful way to think about these organizations…

KHT: I think it’s helpful.

KS: … because maybe they’re intersectional?

KHT: I think it’s helpful in some degree. I’m not going to walk up to the Seattle City Light budget and say “why aren’t you doing more about public park golf courses?” Knowing the vessels that can help make decisions and make change are very helpful, and where are we going to dedicate dollars. For me, I will say, in my conversation about what it means to have funding for community-based organizations I am also having an eye at what the capacity is within the city departments and divisions to have the support for those organizations in the contracting and the support. And we have these built-in mechanisms, right? There’s quarterly check-ins, there’s quarterly reporting, there are goals that are set cooperatively between the city and those organizations. Some divisions are doing that in collaboration with each other, others have other constraints or meta-goals that they are facilitating. Between that, that looks really different between all of these different divisions.

But in all of that, I’m also taking an eye to look at “wow, what does it look like if your budget grows exponentially but your internal city staff hasn’t?” So you’re actually managing five times the number of contracts that you did a few years ago but you don’t actually have more staff inside to do that. Is that serving us well? I also have to have a consideration for that. So at the same time that I’m like, yes, some of these CBOs are the best vessels for delivery of the work to communities because they’re trusted, they are in language, they are in culture, there are all sorts of considerations they can have that quite frankly, with a lot of money we couldn’t serve everyone in the same way, for all of the kinds of capacities that those organizations already have, but at the same time, there’s this layer of: are we as a city equipped to manage that relationship? So I think that’s more of the core question for me in looking at analysis of that.

And for me, this all builds on the way I do work anyway. It’s all about relationships. Ultimately it’s about the relationships that the end-users are going to have with the interface for the services. It’s about the relationship that the CBO is going to have with the city. It’s about getting the work done and the outcomes that we can show, “yeah, we’re making measurable change, people are getting what they need.” More people are getting what they need more of the time, with better results. We all want that goal, right? So those are my considerations.

KS: Do you have priorities for things you think the city should be empowering CBO’s to do? And on the flip side, do you think there are things that the city should not be trying to delegate to CBOs and should be trying to do directly?

KHT: It’s interesting. I say this as someone who’s worked in CBOs, and someone who’s worked with government funds in the past sometimes in my capacity with those, and I’m getting a feel right now in my role about what the city’s relationship is with some of these folks. And because of relationships all of those are different things from different places. But my big consideration there, a lot of it is slightly a different question of: do we have a philosophy of delegation, or do we have a philosophy of collaboration? Because those are really two different modes in which city can be working with these organizations. So I will always lean towards collaboration. I think collaboration is inducive of better ideas. I think collaboration lets you be not reactive but responsive to changes in the environment. And I think for a city that’s growing as quickly as Seattle is growing, and with needs coming up as quickly as they are, being responsive to that change is crucial. I know how government works; sometimes you need to have long processes to get to a decision point, at a budget sometimes there’s been processes up to now where there’s a decision point. I’m having conversations with as many folks as I can right now about the [Center City] streetcar project and wrapping my mind around that. Because there’s been a lot of process and we’re at a decision point now. And a lot of people in the city have some opinions about this decision point, and I have to catch up fast to co-align my analysis around that.

KS: So if we put those last two answers together, is it fair to say you believe there are opportunities for collaboration with CBOs pretty much everywhere but there are places where the city government is not equipped to actually manage those well right now, so there are things it has to do first to get to the point where it could do that?

KHT: I’m not even going to say that. What I’m going to say is that I don’t think that we have an even philosophy everywhere across the city about whether it’s top-down or whether it’s collaborative. About whether it’s delegated or whether it’s collaborative.

KS: Is that a necessity?

KHT: I don’t know that it’s a necessity. I think some offices have a completely different function from other offices. There are some offices that are always going to be insular to the city. Like Seattle City Light is probably going to very rarely have opportunities for community interface with their work. Although there could be some, right? So Seattle City Light, Seattle Public Utilities, I know there are checkboxes where you get to check “I’m going to give little extra for my neighbor who can’t quite pay their heat bill.” Or that kind of thing. That could be an interface maybe for a liaison who is working with community to talk to neighbors to know “hey, do you need help keeping your heat on Ms. Jones?” Maybe that is an interface moment. But that looks really different from folks working on healthcare issues or the houselessness issue where interface of direct human-to-human service is just so hugely amplified in the way the work happens, that a CBO can become a really essential vehicle to do the work.

KS: SO now let’s flip this around: is there a danger that the attractiveness of city funding is going to reshape CBOs in ways that make them less valuable to the communities? Nonprofits often shape what they do to where they know there’s funding available. And does it change their credibility with the community, making them look more as a tool of the government?

KHT: The “establishment!” That is a critical question. It is unfair to think that every community sees government as an ally. It is unfair to think that in every iteration of our history government has been an ally. And even in this moment there are some communities asking whether government is an ally. I’ll say, we were at the People’s Budget event last night, it’s hosted by Council member Sawant. I was not surprised to hear houseless neighbors say “I do not feel good about Seattle city government right now.” And why would they, when they’ve literally, in the dead of night, been told eight times, they have to get up and move their home. That’s not a way you treat citizens and constituents. And I know some folks, and I hear it from some of the constituents, say, “Well they’re not adding value.” But the truth is there is not a person in the city for whom the dollars that I am stewarded to manage right now has not contributed to that. Every person who ever bought anything or paid sales tax, I am spending part of their money. Every person who’s paying property tax, I’m being asked to spend part of their money. Everyone standing in the city right now has contributed to the public dollars we are being asked to steward in this moment. So it’s a core question. It’s a complex answer.

But I did want to say one thing: some nonprofits find themselves forced into the position of having to be responsive to the funding, and I put that onus not on the organizations but on the funders. If funders don’t actually open up, whether they’re government or philanthropy or other funding institutions, if they don’t open themselves up to actually seeing the people doing the work as the lead and the experts in the work and that what they are is a tool for facilitating that work being able to be done, if we don’t all actually orient ourselves to that, we’re going to have a lot of problems. A lot of problems. And I don’t say those rubs don’t come up, I’m not saying that the institutions that fund shouldn’t have collaborative assessments of what outcomes are and how to measure those outcomes. We should. We need to show that what we’re doing works, because sometimes we’re going to try new things and they’re not going to work. And the value of knowing they don’t work is just as important for us to have invested in that question to know that as if it did work.

KS: And that was going to be my last question: what is the appropriate role of performance measurements in making decisions about funding?

KHT: I think with any measures of outcomes it has to be collaborative. And I say that because I’ve worked in institutions where in the guidance for funding something comes up and it’s like, can you prove that you’re going to get 50% of people to do this? And it’s for something where it’s like a 50% increase measure on anything, especially for something where someone is going to have to change their attitudes, that is impossible for everyone. So it doesn’t actually help the institution that put that directive down, because they’ve just asked people to do the impossible. It doesn’t help the people doing the work, because they now know they have been charged with doing work that they can’t actually be successful at. No one is served by that top-down thing that is not in the realm of reality. And when you work in a collaborative way, they can come back and say “Hey, we want to do this work, but here’s what we know. We’re only going to make a 5% increase in the first year, but we’ll be able to quadruple that in the second year, and by the third year we’re going to hit our stride and you’re going to see consistently a 10% increase every year after that.” That’s a really different conversation about outcomes and what you measure.

KS: Any last thoughts?

KHT: I guess I would just say, just reinforce that for me, that my considerations with the budget are that because these aren’t the city’s dollars, these are the people’s dollars, we’re working with public dollars that have been contributed to the public good. And I see the budget as an opportunity to walk our values. We’ve made some really definitive declarations in the last few years about what our values are, and I think we have some really critical questions in this budget season that I am just honored that folks saw fit to have a process and the Council saw fit for me to be invited to help shape some of those decisions and be a conduit for folks to tell us what they think the outcome should be. I’m just really looking forward to what we’re able to contribute out of this budget season.