Build Nothing for Us Without Us

Build Nothing for Us Without Us

Author: Patricio Ku, Former IslandWood Board Member, Graduate Program Alum (’14)


The first time I heard that IslandWood was going to host a Community Engagement Forum I was curious to see what would happen. I’ve attended numerous panels and lectures that talk about the “right” way to engage a community, and it usually revolves around this idea: Build nothing for us without us. In other words, don’t try and help out a certain group of people without first asking that group how they need help. It sounds so simple, yet I hadn’t really seen it done.


When I arrived at the forum I was blown away by the time and effort the IslandWood School Overnight Program (SOP) team had taken to ensure this was something meaningful that would result in real change. We met at a place that was close and accessible for those who live in South Seattle. IslandWood met the community on its home turf. There was child care, so parents could attend and be fully present. We opened up folders and there was financial compensation for our time, an actual check—a small gesture that spoke volumes about IslandWood’s commitment to creating relationships and helping our underserved communities. There were also many different strategies that the SOP team used to make sure everyone’s voice and ideas were heard. The point is everyone could tell IslandWood genuinely cared, not because they said it, but because they showed it.


The forum brought together a diverse cross section of the South Seattle community. There were parents, teachers, principals, past graduate alumni, board members, IslandWood employees, and even young adults who attended IslandWood as children. The solutions everyone contributed were the most valuable part of the forum. The ideas were brilliant, genuine, and meaningful because they actually came from people living in South Seattle, and not a social work textbook or someone in a position of power. The community knew all of their own problems and many of the solutions to getting low-income schools to IslandWood, they just needed a formal setting where those ideas could be heard and translated into action. Build nothing for us without us.


I thought to myself, “Wow, this is what real community engagement looks like. This is what all those panels are talking about.”


Tiffany Chan, a Forum member and past SOP student with Wing Luke Elementary, explains her experience like this: “As a 5th grader in the SOP program, Islandwood was a novel hub set in the woods for me to explore and be with my friends outside. [As an adult] the Forum has been the official way for me to interactively add insight back into Islandwood. In this way, the Forum is empowering. Through this, I’ve collaborated with other SOP alum, teachers, parents, board members, and staff to brainstorm ways in which Islandwood can progress in engaging community. This synergistic approach has fostered community, because I probably wouldn’t have met most of the forum members otherwise.  Much like how I’ve come to think that institutions thrive when those involved feel empowered and a sense of community, my feelings of empowerment and community fuel my investment into growing Islandwood and its mission.”


I believe that the Community Engagement Forum is the most important tool IslandWood uses to advance its mission in the underserved school communities of South Seattle. These forums are vital because it gives IslandWood a chance to listen.


Sapna Sopori, the Director of Residential School Programs for IslandWood, sees the Forum as an important shift in thinking: “Historically, we have worked to change the lives of students. But now, IslandWood is working to change itself to better serve those students. We are moving towards creating reciprocal relationships with communities. The Forum members and their communities see IslandWood doing the work they asked us to do, the work we collaborated on and designed together. This transparency and constant communication is what builds trust.”


Without these forums, IslandWood would likely never know how to navigate the complex cultural mosaic of South Seattle, some of the nation’s most diverse zip codes.


The outdoors is such a wonderful place, but the way people experience the outdoors and interact with our environment might be completely different depending on what culture one comes from. We’ll never know until we ask. Unfortunately, there are still students who are not getting the IslandWood experience, these are students who would probably benefit from IslandWood the most. The community forum allows IslandWood to learn why students are left behind indoors and what organizations can do to reduce those barriers.


Randy Komatsu, SOP School Partnerships Coordinator, has been an avid Forum participant and directly sees the change in himself and how he relates to his students: One of the things that most affects me is the reason that our forum participants work so hard on behalf on their students. [We believe] that as educators we have responsibility to do more than teach. From [the Forums] I learned that kids need compassion and justice. What makes our forum participants change agents is more than subject knowledge; it’s the whole hearted belief in compassion and their quest for social, economic, educational, and environmental justice for their kids. When I teach, I now do my best to look through that lens. I realize now that this is the basis for all kids to understand themselves and their classmates and for me to set my course for modeling and teaching with compassion and social justice.”


IslandWood has a duty, bound by its mission and vision, to learn what is keeping students indoors. The Community Engagement Forum is answering that call. It is providing a space for different community stakeholders to have their voices be heard, for IslandWood to listen, and to work together to provide exceptional learning experiences and inspire lifelong environmental and community stewardship. I am excited to continue participating in the forum and look forward to seeing the ideas continue to progress and be put into action.


As part of our commitment to engaging new audiences and deepening relationships in South Seattle communities, IslandWood is proud to be co-sponsoring the Muslim Association of Puget Sound’s upcoming Martin Luther King Day Youth Advocacy Workshop to Combat Islamphobia.


About the author: Patricio Ku is a former IslandWood Board Member, an alum of our Education for Environment & Community Graduate Program  – ’14, and currently works as a Project Associate for Triangle Associates, where he writes and teaches environmental workshops for students around the Puget Sound. 

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