Booming Diversity in the Northwest

Booming Diversity in the Northwest

September 20th, 2007 | Posted in Art & Society

This Tuesday, I attended a panel luncheon called “The Eastside’s Booming Diversity: Cultivating a Connected Community,” presented by Leadership Eastside.

The “Eastside” refers to the east side of Lake Washington (Seattle is on the west side of the lake). In addition to’s hometown of Kirkland, the Eastside includes 23 towns, and has a population roughly the same as Seattle. And it’s growing. Drive down I-405 through Bellevue, the Eastside’s biggest city, and you’ll see a couple dozen cranes raising several sky-scraper skeletons.

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Alongside its structural growth spurt, the Eastside is experiencing a surge of diversity. The Eastside has long had the reputation of being the wealthy, white suburb of Seattle. It’s home to Bill Gates and Paul Allen, for one thing, and the corporate campuses of Nintendo, Microsoft, and Google. That doesn’t exactly bring to mind a colorful urban center like Seattle – more like sprawling McMansions and wealthy white people.

But from 2000 to 2006, the white population of the Eastside increased just 3% – while the Hispanic population increased 36%, African Americans 13%, and Asian Americans 33%. A full one in three Bellevue residents was born outside the U.S. Of course, within broad categories like “Asian American,” there is even greater diversity – including people of Chinese, Japanese, Indian, Korean, Vietnamese, and Filipino cultural and linguistic heritage.

Huge percentages of students in classrooms are English language learners (up to a third at some schools), and speak different languages in their homes (27% in Bellevue). Many Eastside schools have a white minority, and a majority of students of color.

They are also facing significant income disparities associated with race. African American Eastsiders make 30% below the median income of the Eastside, and Hispanic Eastsiders make 37% less the than the median.

What to do about all the challenges associated with diversity? The panel focused on two key points.

The first point was about creating structural mechanisms and processes that accommodate diversity. Panelist Lourdes Salazar offered a simple example. Flyers in English are an ineffective way to reach Spanish-speaking parents of students. But an invitation in Spanish to a “cafecito” (a cup of coffee) at their children’s school is a good way to connect with these parents and to help their children succeed. She noted that when they first tried this tactic at a local school, forty parents showed up for a cafecito at seven in the morning. The idea is to make simple investments so that public announcements, events, and signs make cultural sense for all different people.

The second point was about creating safe, comfortable gathering places for diverse populations to interact in positive, respectful ways. Panelists Eddie Pate from Starbucks and Ron Sher, a developer, emphasized spaces like coffee shops and shopping centers as integral to fostering healthy diversity. People have work places and home places, and Mr. Sher pointed out the need for a “third place” – a space for people to gather and be with one another. Mr. Sher talked about the Eastside shopping center , which offers chess boards and seating to allow the community to gather while de-emphasizing consumption. It also financially supports celebrations of diversity like an annual multicultural holiday parade.

Of course, the Eastside needs to invest in more complex measures to keep their newfound diversity healthy – like affordable housing, education for English language learners, voter education, etc.

But perhaps the biggest – and simplest – step towards creating healthy diversity is a paradigm shift that starts with conversation like this one. The Eastside’s diversity boom represents the future of the U.S., and it’s time to be aware of it. These conversations truly do make a difference in the health of a region’s diversity.

Read more about this event in The Seattle Times.

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