By Wendy K. Leigh
Like an epic urban “barn-raising” in the heart of Seattle’s high-tech metropolis, the 2017 Comcast Cares Day in Beacon Hill – one of many such projects in 13 cities around the state – hosted some unexpected neighbors from all walks of life who pitched in with paintbrushes, paste, and power washers, garden hoes, varnish, lumber, and good old-fashioned sweat equity to just get things done. Reinforcing the concept of caring communities that uplift the entire city, a pile of volunteers, neighbors, and Comcast employees converged on the El Centro de la Raza complex on Saturday for some fun, fellowship, food, and live Tejano music after spending a backbreaking day sprucing up the entire neighborhood.
El Centro de la Raza is a voice and hub for Seattle’s Latino community as they advocate on behalf of their people and work to achieve social justice. However, they stress that they are also a center for people of all races who are interested in continuing the struggle for a better world by serving, educating, defending, and organizing to build the “beloved community” as envisioned by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and other leaders. El Centro has put those concepts into real play by creating affordable housing, economic opportunities, childhood development and education, and community gathering spaces.
Though the day was a corporate event duplicated in almost 8,000 projects since Comcast Cares Day began 16 years ago, it was far from a choreographed “charity event” between strangers. From “that voice” of King 5’s evening news anchor David Espinosa-Hall to the galoshes-wearing dynamo Beth Hester, V.P. of External Affairs at Comcast and to the spirited maternal heart of Seattle’s Latino community, Estela Ortega, the gathering felt more like a big family reunion of folks whose daily lives are scattered about the city, but still tied by a fine invisible thread of purpose.
Ortega moved to Seattle decades ago, initially following her larger-than-life and soon-to-be husband Roberto Maestas, the namesake of the center’s new housing and education plaza and one of the original Four Amigos who literally built the foundation for Seattle’s deep-rooted diversity beginning in the 1960s. But Ortega was no wallflower herself, soon becoming a major yet subtle strength behind the movement for equality and community in Seattle. That undercurrent of resolve and conviction is startlingly evident today as she continues carrying the torch of El Centro de la Raza as Executive Director.
Noting that the day was not just about getting tasks and projects at the center completed, Estela pointed out that the volunteers pitching in that day were contributing to the much bigger purpose of allowing the center to concentrate on feeding and housing people, solving family crisis, and giving children a good start in life.
“Comcast is putting into practice what Dr. Martin Luther King referred to as ‘building the beloved community’, working side by side, fixing things, beautifying, recycling, fundraising – and most importantly, getting to know each other,” she explained.
As a newcomer to Seattle, having moved to Rain City from Florida to work with King 5, David Espinosa-Hall, who has Spanish/Latino roots from his family in Panama, echoed the importance of places like El Centro in every community, and in his own life as well.
“My personal story is this … growing up in my community, we had places like this, and we had mentors who were extremely important in my life and my development,” he explained, noting that having common goals effect change for an entire community.
Striding through the rainy plaza with Estela, Beth Hester of Comcast reminisces herself about moving to Seattle 25 years ago when things were different, and noting that those new to Seattle don’t always realize the effect that leaders like Roberto Maestas had on Seattle as a whole.
“The people who are new to Seattle … get that we have this liberal ethos, but they don’t necessarily know the history, that it wasn’t always this way, or how we got there – and that some of these people were incredibly transformative for the community that we all now love.”
The newly built Plaza Roberto Maestas next door to El Centro, which incorporates all the concepts of the “beloved community”, was Ground Zero for much of the volunteer labor at the Comcast Cares event – but it wasn’t a one-off partnership for Comcast and the Plaza. The company has been involved with the center since 2003, and volunteers converged in the same spot there for Comcast Cares day in 2006.
Tech savvy and core business principles are evident throughout the entire Roberto Maestas Plaza, including its affordable housing complex and child development center. In addition to the 16th annual Comcast Cares Day, company-donated internet, computers, and small-business startup gear underpin the functional success of El Centro throughout the year. However, those things didn’t take obvious center stage amidst the get-your-hands-dirty crafts of carpentry, landscaping, and culture-building arts projects that bubbled up all over Beacon Hill that day.
Marianne Wilkins, a volunteer from the Wild Garden Club and The Garden House a couple of blocks away, explained quite simply why she was there. With her hands happily coated in soil and mulch, she wondered wistfully about the future of Beacon Hill, noting that she didn’t know how long their little garden club would continue with all the impending development.
“The Garden House is the oldest home in the area, built in 1893, and it was donated to the community. I hope it stays in the community, but we’re not getting any younger, and who knows what the next generation will value?” Wilkins said. “But here I am today with my petunias and mulch, and basically it’s just me here as a neighbor – pitching in.”
All the volunteers at El Centro conveyed similar sentiments, with a strength and conviction that little bits of time and small acts of kindness go a long way in strengthening a community.
As the day wore on and the newly spit-shined neighborhood began to glisten, it became obvious that Comcast isn’t the only one who cares – we all want our communities to survive, thrive and excel through Seattle’s epic rise on the national stage of technology and innovation. When we all come together on days like this, the blending of high-tech and low-tech create an energy that moves everyone forward in positive ways, regardless of backgrounds, occupations and skill sets.
Development thunders through our city at breakneck speed, but a windy day outdoors in the rain and dirt, on what happened to be Earth Day, is a reminder that we’re all stewards of the Emerald City – and a little dirt under the fingernails feels pretty darn good sometimes.