When Diana Krishna moved to South King County, it was during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic. At a time when many Washington residents were staying home and turning inward, Krishna quickly saw a need within her new community, one she could help fill.

“I joined a nonprofit here in South King County to come and help marginalized communities,” Krishna said.

When the pandemic had begun, followed by measures to lessen its spread, Krishna knew it would have significant impacts on her community, because she’d felt them herself. Krishna is a trans woman who was born and raised in Fiji Islands. She’s seen gender diverse folks, especially people of color, barred from community spaces, which results in isolation, a dynamic that was in play before the pandemic but was exacerbated by the crisis.

“A lot of … gender-diverse folks, like trans individuals who are visible, we’re already living a pandemic of isolation,” Krishna said. 

So she began pitching in with a nonprofit distributing protective equipment, food boxes, science- based education and awareness, as well as COVID-19 test and vaccine sites. Every week, they provided food to about 600 families.

“People from all walks of life were coming and picking up boxes of food,” Krishna said. “And these were distributed by folks like me, folks that were already enduring [the] harm of isolation.”

Krishna said this community aid helped to bridge a gap in the community between cisgender and gender-diverse folks.“[T]hey saw that we were doing something that was good for community,” Krishna said. “That interaction was very beautiful.”

Interactions like these, and the work of community organizations in South King County, have been documented by the Renton Regional Community Foundation in a community-led storytelling initiative called Together: Stories of South King County. The foundation also facilitated conversations among 12 community advocates from across South King County beginning in September 2021 to co-create and shape this project, which begins with the conversation between these four women.

Sacred work

In one conversation documented by the Renton Regional Community Foundation, Krishna and three other women doing community work in South King County, describe their efforts as  “sacred.”

“I think a lot of us are shifting the ways we do work, because we’re seeing a need to heal,” said Roxana Pardo Garcia, Executive Director of the Latinx food bank Alimentando al Pueblo. “For centuries we’ve known that we have to heal, but this pandemic has really pushed that to the forefront.”

Pardo Garcia started Alimentando al Pueblo in Burien during the pandemic as a way to provide Latinx community members with culturally appropriate foods, among other services.

Pardo Garcia said the services the group  provides restores not just basic needs,  but also joy.

“I also want the people in my community to be able to dream,” she said.

Linsay Hill, who has worked with multiple South King County nonprofits and goes by the title of community healer, said while community work is challenging, it is a calling.

“It is spiritual work, it is our ancestral work, and it is sacred ground,” she said.

In 2020, after the murders of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, Hill created an event for her community called “Nothing to lose but your chains,” to give Black community members a space to grieve together. This has transformed into a new event series,  “Heal the healers.”Hill with LaTanya Horace-DuBois, Executive Director of The Silent Task Force.

Folks working to heal their communities need to be healed as well, said Hill,  because they are also living through  trauma, and experiencing it through their work.

“When I talk about sacred work, I talk about us healing with ourselves,” Hill said.

It’s work she feels called upon to do by her ancestors. “Part of the sacred work is continuing to support those who are in the Black, BIPOC community, and really working on the traumas, and the generational traumas that have plagued our populations for generations,” Hill said. “So that way we can really start healing as a team, as a community.”

Changing the game

When organizations are led by and with, community, they’re often more effective. “We’re transforming at a place these philanthropists are not catching onto, because they are not a part of that sacred work,” Pardo Garcia said.

The pandemic made their work more urgent, but it also allowed them to make changes that reduced barriers, such as no longer requiring that food bank patrons show some form of ID to access services.

“The whole point is reducing all the barriers,” Horace-DuBois said. “We changed the game, y’all know that, right?”

These women, and other community leaders, are also trying to change feelings of shame that may come with accessing services.

When she was first establishing food distribution sites, Pardo Garcia said when people would share traumatic experiences with her, presumably in an effort to justify why they needed the food. “Why do you have to justify your humanity to me? Food is a basic need,” said Pardo Garcia.

Horace-DuBois said some service organizations have made people feel like they may not deserve the services they need.

But these leaders are leading the charge to shake up this status quo. “South King County has an energy that can't be explained, we have diversity, we do have a lot of struggles right now,” Hill said. “But people are wanting to do better. They want their community to thrive. And so the energy of South King County is what keeps me working in that area.”

How to help

While some engage in paid work, community-led organizations and their leaders often serve their communities regardless. “I’ve actually done work in [the] community where I’m not getting paid,” Hill said. “Because if somebody needed me, I’m not gonna say, ‘Oh, no, Im not going to help you.’”

But funding these projects can be challenging, which is why these leaders invite other organizations to reinvent their approaches to serving their communities. To be effective, Pardo Garcia said, these organizations need to be in touch with their humanity.

 “This is an invitation for people with resources and money to start to align with the people who are doing this work, so that we can restore the humanity that has been forever robbed of so many of us,” she said.

For potential donors or nonprofits seeking to bolster their work, Hill said the best way to help is “just give us money, and let us do the work.” “Stop asking for outcomes, stop asking for things that make people share their trauma,” Hill said.

The people doing this work are not doing it for accolades, or a paycheck, but because they have chosen to walk this path and support their communities, said Hill. She wants this work to be done so that fractures in the community can begin to mend, instead of just being bandaged over.

“When we start really mending them, we can start talking about healthier communities, healthier people, healthier families and healthier kids,” Hill said. Because she recognizes that South King County is a hub of love—and wants others to see it, too.