Walk, Talk, Drink Coffee: Creating Community Spaces in Seattle

Aug 23, 2012
Michelle in Seattle

Seattle is actively creating and cultivating spaces for community connections.

Two of my Seattle meetings took place on strolls through the Seattle Art Museum's Olympic Sculpture Park, which used to be a petroleum transfer and distribution facility. Today, thanks to philanthropic and volunteer leadership, the site has been transformed.

With unobstructed views of Puget Sound and the Olympic Mountains, the garden circles a bold, red Calder sculpture, “The Eagle.” The park is dotted with chairs to facilitate conversations in any and all groupings.

Jacob Coker Seattle

My Seattle hosts said the Sculpture Garden has become a gathering point, offering free yoga on the grass, food trucks and farmers’ markets, art classes, performances and family festivals like the Salmon Return Celebration.

The theme of creating community connections was a thread throughout my visit. Seattle is, of course, home to Starbucks, the leader in creating “third spaces” – gathering points between work and home. In my meetings with the Starbucks team – Cliff Burrows, Rodney Hines and Anna Cunningham – I was reminded of the way Starbucks has literally created a double bottom line, advancing community good and financial returns simultaneously.

Starbucks’ most recent “Indivisible” campaign tackles one of our nation's toughest challenges – joblessness. For every pound of its Indivisible Blend purchased, Starbucks donates $5 to the Create Jobs for USA Fund, helping get Americans back to work.

As if to reinforce the lesson, most of my meetings in Seattle were held at Starbucks. I drank a hot chocolate with Paul Shoemaker, the founder of Social Venture Partners, and learned about his success increasing the impact of area nonprofits. I shared chocolate almond cake with Jessica Markowitz, the 17-year-old founder of Richard’s Rwanda. When she was only 11, Jessica listened to a Rwandan man named Richard Kananga and was inspired to help Rwandan girls complete their educations.


Points of Light’s two Seattle affiliates, Seattle Works and United Way of King County, are demonstrating strategies for volunteers to give in new and more powerful ways. The United Way Volunteer Impact Program expands nonprofit capacity by training leaders to more effectively integrate high-value volunteers into their strategic work.

Through Points of Light's Innovation Hubs program, Seattle Works is piloting a program to bring together new donors to collectively pool their money, fund projects and learn about the grant-making process. This month, Seattle Works volunteers are gathering on a rooftop patio to listen to the pitches of three organizations. A $20 entry fee buys tasty treats and beverages plus four $5 poker chips to “chip in” and fund some great new projects.

Washington State has been a real leader in engaging veterans to help other vets transition to civilian life. The Vet Corps, made up largely of veterans and family members, supports veterans’ transition to colleges and jobs, and regularly helps first-generation members stay in college.

Seattle Veterans Corps

The Vet Corps also maintains 23 "rooms" for veterans in higher education institutions around Washington State. These rooms provide a space for veterans to connect and share their challenges and successes. One veteran spoke of the difficulties of her journey through college and how in the last 10 years, as a result of the work of Vet Corps and others, the culture of higher education has become a more welcoming place.

And finally, the creation of the 30,000-square-foot Hub Seattle in the heart of Seattle's Pioneer Square symbolized for me the importance and promise of the creation of community space. The Hub Seattle is bringing together entrepreneurs and investors to cultivate socially conscious ventures. This unique facility aims to educate innovative leaders, fund their ideas and incubate their social ventures. HUB Seattle anticipates housing more than a dozen social enterprises, with entrepreneurs sharing amenities and choosing from an assortment of work spaces. They aim to have the widest cross-section of world-changers anywhere.

In kicking off its Indivisible campaign, Starbucks Chairman Howard Schultz said, “We have accomplished extraordinary things when we act collectively, with courage, creativity and generosity of spirit.” Seattle’s leaders are accomplishing extraordinary things by thoughtfully creating spaces where community connections happen spontaneously.