Over the past three years, the COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted existing inequities—and exacerbated them. In response, mutual aid groups and organizations in King County and beyond have risen up, reaching out helping hands to ensure community needs are met, even as a pandemic made doing so newly complicated.

Along the way, the Renton Regional Community Foundation took notice of the work community groups were doing in South King County, and felt moved to document it. “Part of our commitment is to amplify the voices in the region, not to be that voice ourselves and be arrogant to think, ‘Oh, we know what’s going on,’” explained LeAnne Moss, executive director of Renton Regional Community Foundation, which fosters philanthropy by connecting people, ideas, and resources.

To that end, the foundation gathered 12 community advocates from across South King County beginning in September 2021 for a project that would become a community-led storytelling initiative, Together: Stories of South King County. “We are a community foundation,” Moss said. “We’re about lifting up the community and making sure our community is a place where everyone can thrive.”

By supporting community leaders in sharing their stories, the Renton Regional Community Foundation hopes to draw attention to their subjects’ work within the community. “[We’re] really wanting to bring more resources down here and highlight the beauty and joy and assets,” Moss said.

The project had another benefit, too: It brought community leaders into conversation with each other, some for the first time. “That was a secondary objective of ours, is: If we pull this group together and they connect with each other… powerful things can come out of that,” Moss said.

“Making a way out of no way”

The first series from Together features a conversation on the power of community in South King County among leaders from South King County’s Multi-Service Center, the United Territories of Pacific Islanders Alliance, The Silent Task Force, and Alimentando al Pueblo. Led by South King County residents, these organizations address poverty and food insecurity, support inclusion in the community, and uplift people. That conversation can be found on the Together South King County website.

One of the leaders present, Linsay Hill, is a community programs supervisor with the Multi-Service Center, a Federal Way nonprofit offering holistic services, such as support for housing and utility payments and supplemental food programs, to fight poverty.

Those doing this kind of work, Hill said, can face additional challenges, like burnout and vicarious trauma. “I don’t think people realize the impact it has for the person who’s receiving that story,” she said.

This secondary trauma of bearing witness to the violent impacts of structural inequity has a compounding effect on community workers. But it doesn’t keep them from showing up to uplift their own communities, something Diana Krishna, a development associate with United Territories of Pacific Islanders Alliance  (UTOPIA) Washington, can attest to. Led by queer and trans people of color, UTOPIA Washington promotes the resilience of South King County’s Queer and Trans Pacific Islander (also known as Q-T-Pie) community.

At the beginning of the pandemic, when there was a great need for food distribution, Krishna saw gender-diverse folks take the lead on connecting South King County residents with practical support. “They congregated here in Kent, and they showed up,” Krishna said. “They showed up every Monday, while dealing with harm themselves, while navigating a pandemic they were already living, of harm and neglect.”

Cultivating food justice, housing accessibility, and health and wellness is also a major mission for La Tanya Horace-DuBois, founder and executive director of The Silent Task Force. The group’s goal is to “heal the impact and effects of the systematic violence that ​occurs historically and currently in the lives of our Black families and communities.”

“Our community is one of creativity, of brilliance, and making a way out of no way,” said Horace-DuBois, in conversation with other community leaders.

Roxana Pardo Garcia’s organization, Alimentando al Pueblo, was born out of the pandemic in response to the disproportionate impacts of COVID on South King County’s Latinx community.

The project was started by Garcia and four other women, and its genesis was this question: “Why are there no Latino food banks?”

From that question, the organization created food boxes that included culturally specific foods from Mexico and Central America. In an effort to support small businesses that were struggling due to COVID, the group also partnered with Latino farmers and distributors for food sourcing.

But there was still more to do.

“As we have said, multifaceted problems require multifaceted solutions,” Pardo Garcia said. For Alimentando al Pueblo, that included hiring musicians to play at the food bank, in order to support artists and bring joy to the space. “We don’t want this to be a typical food bank experience … [Food is] associated with joy and celebration and community,” Pardo Garcia said.

Alimentando al Pueblo came from a collaboration of six organizations based in Burien and Highline. “I think that really speaks to the relationships and the commitments that we have to the wellbeing of each other,” Pardo Garcia said.

All four leaders highlighted the importance of working within communities to make the greatest impact. Too often, said Horace-DuBois, help from outsiders can feel extractive and miss the mark—and despite a “mindset of scarcity,” it is far from the only support available.

For years, Horace-DuBois said, she has seen organizations that are based outside the South King County community extract information from community members — ideas, their stories of struggle and strength — and then co-opt those ideas and parachute in with an agenda based not on what the community needs, but outside interests.

“They’re just throwing crumbs from the table,” she said. “They want you to come sit at the table, and share all your ideas, and have focus groups … and they take all your ideas, and create a program and then they put Becky to work the program on the front line, in your community.”

Horace-DuBois attributes this harmful dynamic to systemic oppression. “But the other piece is not giving power or control to the community itself,” she said. “The community itself can do its own work. We have everything we need, everything, and I mean everything.”

That includes resources for mental health, substance abuse recovery, and life skills: “Everything that we need for our communities to thrive exists already in our communities,” she said.

This kind of gatekeeping even extends to things like grant applications, the group said. Often, the paperwork asks groups to identify how they are pursuing diversity, equity and inclusion goals. Pardo Garica pushed back on that, saying her organization is representative of—and working for—their diverse community.

“I’m not working on diversity, equity and inclusion,”  Pardo Garcia said. “I’m working on healing and liberation and justice. We’re actually trying to transform the material conditions of our community, so that they can stop trauma-dumping on us, so that they can actually live a very dignified life and a life that they deserve.”

Krishna said community supports of the kind groups like UTOPIA Washington provide already emerge from the community’s diversity, with the goal that “we’re changing systems of oppression with systems of care.”

South King County shows up

Groups like Krishna’s are deeply rooted in the diversity of their communities.  South King County includes cities like Renton, Skyway and Tukwila, all of which have higher percentages of communities of color than Washington state as a whole, according to the most recent census data. A 2020 Seattle Times article noted that the population of Black Washingtonians was growing in the suburbs, not Seattle. In the 2022 census, 6.8% of Seattle’s population was Black, but in Tukwila it was 19.2%. The same year, the Hispanic or Latino population was 7.2% for Seattle, and 18% for Tukwila.

Economic inequality is partially to blame for displacement from bigger cities to the suburbs, but Pardo Garcia wants people who don’t live in South King County to know that  this community has its own rich history, and there’s much more to it than displacement.

“I think a lot of people think of us now, because people are getting pushed out,” Pardo Garcia said. “When in reality, we have existed out here in the suburbs, before gentrification and before displacement of residents from Seattle.”

But there’s so much more to communities  in South King County than this narrative would suggest. They’re organizing and serving each other, and they have been for a long time, Pardo Garcia said. She wants people to respect that legacy, and to understand the work organizations like hers are currently doing to help the region thrive.

“I think that the beauty of South King County is that we’re in constant relationship, constant communication and connection with one another, about the ways in which we can do our work better,” she said.