Community Fitness Center

Ladies Night at Gym

Ladies Night at Gym

It’s been nearly five months since I began working at Rainier Health & Fitness and I would be amiss not to feature it on my own blog. As stated in the tagline, the gym is dedicated to “encouraging healthy lifestyles, strong bodies and authentic community through an accessible and high quality fitness center.” What makes this place different from other gyms? At RHF we aim to foster community and racial reconciliation, emphasize overall health rather than bodybuilder appearance and offer our services at affordable rates.

As an arm of Urban Impact, a faith-based non-profit dedicated to breaking cycles of poverty through community development, Rainier Health & Fitness is a social enterprise that aims to make quality fitness affordable for our neighbors. All of us on staff believe that God desires restoration and wholeness for creation, and a big part of that is physical health for humans. A major factor that keeps people in poverty, however, is lack of health. When people are unable to work, they and their families continue to struggle in the cycles of poverty. We simultaneously seek racial reconciliation that’s lived out in an authentic community, a purposeful intention of being located in the heart of one of nation’s most diverse zip codes.

How do these ideals play out practically? RHF has reduced rates and a sliding scale so people with lower incomes can afford to sign up. They can alternatively volunteer three hours each week in exchange for membership. In order to keep the emphasis on health rather than appearance, the walls do not have mirrors on them. Twice a week, the classroom is curtained off for a “Ladies Night” so women can workout in a separate space from men (while many women from all backgrounds appreciate this gesture, it particularly appeals to women from East Africa).

I love getting to be a part of this gym and community which lines up with my passion for community development and holistic health.

Green Stoves in the Slums


Today I’m sharing a guest post about a social enterprise that’s taking off in India. This piece was written by a friend who does community development and lives in the slums of Kolkata. 

Ashadesh is a social business in Kolkata­­­­ that helps us take action. Many people in South Asia use charcoal to cook with, which causes respiratory diseases and death and also harms the environment.

Why do they cook with dirty fuel?  Because they have no choice.

In order to get a gas cylinder hooked up, they need to pay a large up-front fee.  After that, they can get ongoing government-subsidized gas for the long haul.  Ashadesh helps people through the paperwork and subsidizes this up-front cost.  After getting over this unjust barrier, they’re set.

Unlike the poor, you and I have lots of choices.  You and I can offset (make up for our environmental degradation/climate change) our carbon.  This means roughly 5% of the price of a flight goes directly to help get gas connections for the poor at an affordable rate.  By using clean fuel, the person using their new gas connection emits much less carbon, and thus offsets our carbon output, or footprint.

Here’s how holistic the business is:

Health is improved.
The environment is protected.
The poor save time and money.
The unjust system is overcome.
Dignified jobs are created.
Rich and poor partner together.
This ethical business is prophetic in a culture of corruption and exploitation.
The business will be completely handed over to locals within two years.

And on top of all that, my teammate who runs the business, and his family, live in the very slum community where they do business.  As they share life with their neighbors, they share struggles and hope in a very personal and contextualized way that makes sense and is tangible.

Now, I don’t think it’s up to us to save the whole world, nor do I think we can do it overnight.  But I want my actions to match my belief.  I want to be a faithful steward of natural resources and a faithful neighbor to the poor who have less choice than I have.

All businesses need investors.  My dear friends, I cannot think of a more holistic, social enterprise investment than this.

Will you join me as I offset all my flights and driving for work and leisure?  Not out of guilty obligation, but out of joy, freedom and hope.

Visit right now to learn more and get involved.

Tierra Nueva: Organic Farm Social Enterprise

Tierra Nueva Autumn

Last summer a good friend of mine did an internship at Tierra Nueva, a mini organic farm located nextdoor to Burlington, Washington. I got to visit her then and help harvest some of the produce in the fall both last year and this. What impresses me the most about this farm is  their dedication to three main aspects of healing.

1. Heal the land. The staff at Tierra Nueva is dedicated to growing organic produce on healthy soil. One of their farmers told me a few weeks ago that they want to move away from using motorized methods when cultivating the land. Every season, they leave about half of their two acres to rest while carefully cultivating the other half.

2. Heal your body. They grow wholesome, healthy food that nourishes both the farm staff and those in Seattle or other nearby towns who purchase their produce boxes. Customers are invited to join in on the farming process by volunteering at a work party or harvesting U-Pick items.  Plus, their website provides a delicious recipes list where you can search by produce type. I love that they partially fund their work through this social enterprise aspect.

3. Heal the community. The farm staff simultaneously works with both the local migrant community and people in recovering programs from the jail and juvenile detention. Two of the farm’s primary workers are a lovely couple–Salvio and Victoria–who speak Spanish fluently and were once migrant workers themselves. Another cool aspect is that women, men and youth in their recovering programs also participate in farm activities. For instance, one woman set up culinary classes in the barn where she taught group classes on how to cook with the fresh produce.

Update: I drafted this post on Wednesday this past week. This morning I was talking to my friend who interned at Tierra Nueva and she told me that this lovely farm is closing because the produce sales were not covering expenses. I decided to publish this post anyway as a case study of an attempt well-made. Many social enterprises are difficult to sustain because they lack the organization, structure and strategy behind them (although even business start-ups often don’t take off until an entrepreneur’s third or fourth attempt). A short peruse of their website screamed for the need of a marketer and web designer. Transporting produce all the way to Seattle required a lot of time and fuel. Their new farmer (who will continue farming on another plot of land) said this land could have been better utilized. Yet in spite of its shortcomings, the farm met numerous needs during its time of operation and many of their practices and principles could be replicated in a myriad of other settings to bring about holistic healing for communities.

Passport Scavenger Hunt

Passport Scavenger Hunt

Participants holding lollipop bouquet prize and passport while sporting a unique find of the day: a giant hair bow.

Last summer during a road trip, I came across an activity designed to get kids and their families out in the local shops: a passport scavenger hunt. Local shopkeepers had hidden cardboard cutouts in the shape of “Where’s Waldo” inside their stores; when the kids found the cutout, they’d would get a stamp in their passport.The game not only provided families with a fun activity for long summer days, it also boosted local business. I thought, “Why not reproduce this game in Hillman City?”

Passport Scavenger Hunt

Cutout hidden in Tin Umbrella coffee shop

I posed the idea to my community development team and a few months later we launched our own version. In place of Waldo, we had the youth from Rainier Avenue Church color children of the world cutouts.

At first, we thought it may be difficult to convey to some shopkeepers who do not speak English as a first language the objective of this activity. In fact, the first shopkeeper I posed the idea to was hesitant.

“I’ll have to check with the owner,” she told me.

However, when we returned with a model Hillman City passport and colored cardboard cutout, they were excited to participate. We printed the passports with a list of 3 questions to trigger conversations with shopkeepers because one of our main purposes for the activity was to facilitate interactions among people who may otherwise live very separate lives (a goal of community development!). We kept the questions simple:

  • What is the most popular item in your store?
  • What’s your favorite thing from this store?
  • How long has this store been here?
Passport Scavenger Hunt

El Corazon workers serve us complimentary appetizers.

On the day of the event, about 40 people participated in visiting 8 shops. Afterwards, we reconvened and gave away 3 prizes:

First one back: $10 gift card to local restaurant

Most unique item: $20 gift card to local restaurant

Best story: Hillman City tote filled with local goodies

I recommend this activity for others doing community development as well as business associations. Being the third challenge of the year that engaged with our local businesses (following “Eat in Hillman City” and “Shop Hillman City”), it added another point of contact with the shopkeepers and workers in our community.From the shopkeepers to the children, everyone seemed to dig it. Even a week later when I stopped by one of the Somalian groceries to buy a spice pack, the cashier asked me, “How was the game?”

“Great,” I replied. “Did you all enjoy it?”

His grin was telling. Yes!

Employing Refugees: Interview with Ellie McDermott

World Relief Refugee

Ellie and I were part of the same cohort in completing our Masters in International Community Development. We both shared a passion for social entrepreneurship, which Ellie now implements in her role of Employment Specialist at World Relief where she helps refugees find employment in the United States. You can contact her at Thanks so much for being willing to do this interview for A Community Entrepreneur!

1. As you help refugees find employment through your role at World Relief, you’re really developing a community of thriving, self-supportive, contributing citizens. Would you say that’s the goal of your job?  

There are many reasons why World Relief helps refugees prepare for and connect to employment. The most pressing reason is financial self-sufficiency. Refugees receive a limited amount of financial assistance during their resettlement period, so it is imperative for them to be able to support their families financially when this limited period is over.

Improving English, building a social and professional network, and gaining American work experience are other essential reasons why we help refugees find employment.

Refugees come to America to become thriving members in a new community. They come to participate, engage, and flourish. Employment is one significant method through which they can achieve this goal.

2. On the stats end, what is the number of refugees entering the US each year and where are most coming from?

The President sets a refugee admission number each year. The past few years, the President has set the maximum admission at 80,000 individuals. The primary countries that refugees are coming from are Bhutan, Burma, Iraq, and Somalia.*

3. What would you say to someone who complains that refugees are taking away jobs from unemployed Americans?

Many of the initial jobs that refugees obtain are jobs that native-born Americans do not pursue, such as entry-level hospitality and warehouse positions. In my experience, most of the refugees I have helped obtain employment have been competing with other refugees and immigrants for open positions.

4. What have been some of the most unique or surprising skill sets you’ve found refugees to possess? Have any of those skills been marketable?

Some of my clients come from urban environments; others have spent nearly their entire life living in a refugee camp with very limited opportunities. What I always remind prospective employers is that the refugee experience is incredibly diverse.

However, a privilege of my job is getting to help recently-arrived refugees identify the strengths that they bring to America. When I’m helping a newly-arrived refugee prepare their resume, sometimes it takes creative question-asking to identify the rich transferrable skills that they bring with them.

Perhaps the most impressive aspect of some of my clients’ resumes is the breadth of work they have done. There must be different perspectives of work in different cultural contexts. For example, sometimes clients will tell me that they only had one job before they came to America, say, at a bakery, but when I ask follow-up questions, I learn that they also used to fix their friends’ cars, repair air conditioners, interpret, and drive a taxi!

5. Finally, now’s your chance to dream a little. If you were to start a business with the intention of employing refugees, what would it be?

A bakery! This probably stems from my love of baking, but also would provide a variety of positions suitable for various language and skill-levels, as well as opportunities for employees to share their culture through food.

Employees with very little English could successfully perform packaging or dishwashing positions because these positions require little to no English language skills. Additionally, production workers can complete tasks such as operating mixers and slicing machines.

Employees with previous experience could work as bakers. Those with higher-level English skills could work as cashiers or baristas. As employees gain experience and increase their language skills and understanding of the company, they could move into supervisory positions.

If we were a really big operation, maintenance mechanics could maintain and repair machines. Customer service representatives would manage accounts throughout the city. Delivery drivers would deliver our delicious baked goods to grocery stores and other cafes.

Of course, in my dream, the bakery would feature baked goods and beverages from around the world and would also function as a community center that features refugee art, music, English classes, and more!

6. Anything else you’d like to share? 

Our refugee neighbors bring such a rich diversity to our communities. In my work with refugees, I have learned more about the richness of hospitality, work ethic, perseverance, and generosity. I am deeply blessed to do this work every day.

Meet a refugee! Invite them over for dinner! Learn how to cook new foods! Visit new places together and experience your community through the eyes of its newest members!

I promise, you will learn more than you could imagine.

*”Presidential Memorandum – Annual Refugee Admissions Numbers”

Rainier Valley Coffee Shop

Tin Umbrella

As a visionary, idea-generator, I cultivate so many entrepreneurial dreams that I know I will never be able to live all of them out in a lifetime. Always, I am excited to see others take off with one of these creative endeavor, whether sparked by my influence or not. Awhile ago, I suggested to my community development team that a bakery in Hillman City could achieve a number of our desired goals for the neighborhood: cultivate community among diverse residents, employ recent immigrants, introduce people from diverse ethnic backgrounds to one another’s language, food and culture. Each day of the week, a delicacy from a different community represented in the neighborhood would be featured. Neighbors would come to expect Ethiopian sweet bread on Mondays and Vietnamese rolls on Tuesday, for example. The signs would be written in at least half a dozen of the most widely spoken languages in the Rainier Valley and the bakery would intentionally employ people representing these different communities to work together and teach one another how to bake their specialties. It would also have a space for community activities, or open mikes, where singing, dancing, poetry, storytelling and the arts could be performed. Another member of my team suggested the shop sell bubble tea as well (a Bubble Tea Bakery).

Although this idea hasn’t developed beyond the dream stage, I was excited to learn that a coffee shop, the Tin Umbrella, was opening in the neighborhood that’s connecting with our Ethiopian community and creating a gathering space for residents. The founder, Joya, spent some time in Ethiopia so speaks Amaharic and is sourcing the beans from farmers she personally knows there.

Attending the Grand Opening, however, I was disappointed that the crowd present did not at all represent the diversity of the Rainier Valley. I have since learned that the opening of the Tin Umbrella, as well as the Spinnaker Bay Brewing Company a block away, are sources of controversy by longer-term residents. Many feel as if these up-and-coming enterprises mirror the gentrification that occurred in Columbia City, pushing the lower-income residents, recent immigrants and diverse ethnic communities farther out of the city to be replaced by hip, young hangouts. Talking with Joya in-person, I know she has a desire to engage and celebrate the diverse communities located here, yet her business model (delivering high-end coffee to residents by bike) appeals to a select set of residents, while alienating others.If enterprises like the Tin Umbrella really want to connect with the other communities present, they will have to make the effort and do things like:

  • Sell unroasted beans to Ethiopian residents for their coffee ceremonies (in conjunction with getting the word out and marketing them at a price residents can afford)
  • Collaborate with other businesses in Hillman City to encourage cross experimentation of customers (e.g. a punch card for getting Somalian tea at the other shops in the neighborhood as well as Tin Umbrella coffee)
  • Employ baristas, roasters and staff who represent the diversity of the neighborhood

Watching establishments such as the coffee shop and brewery unfold causes me to recognize the difficulties that surround economic growth and development in conjunction with social and COMMUNITY development.It’s a tricky balance to facilitate both and I don’t know of a lot of models that have done that well. If you know of some, please share. I would love to hear about them!

Bario Logan Bridge: Converted Cultural Divide

Bario LoganIn February I got to visit one of my dearest friends and former housemate who now lives in San Diego. After walking the Coronado beach past the ritzy, mansion-like hotel, she took me to see a very different part of the city: Bario Logan.

Hotel Coronado

Hotel Coronado

Barrio Logan is a neighborhood rich with Mexican culture. In 1967, the city of San Diego decided to build a bridge that would extend from Coronado to the Barrio. The structural supports on the Barrio Logan end just happened to tear apart Chicano Park that’s located in the heart of the neighborhood and a primary place where the community gathers, plays and lives life. The residents protested, but the bridge was built as planned.

Bario Logan Bridge

Bario Logan Bridge

Rather than suffer defeat, however, the residents got busy with their paint and creativity, converting those ugly gray concrete structures into bright, beautiful murals. Each one depicts a different aspect of Latino culture, history and resiliency.

Bario Logan Platform

Bario Logan Platform

They even built a platform stage in the center of it!

Bario Logan artArtists regularly touch up the paintings so they always look fresh and new.

In Thin Places, Jon Huckins with Rob Yackley who live nearby talk about the significance of this bridge:

“While there is still sporadic violence in this park, it is also home to some of the most brilliant and powerful graffiti art I have ever seen. The whole base of the bridge is covered in it, and it tells a story of our city that otherwise would never be seen, heard, or understood by the majority of San Diegans. A walk through the park will unveil both the history and modern story of the joy and the struggle of living in a home away from home due to oppressive circumstances.” (p. 39)

They also note that the bridge represents the power divide across class, demographics and socioeconomic, saying:

“While their story is told through the art on the bridge, the story of this neighborhood is not well understood by most. In fact, because of its reputation, most people would never drive through it, let alone offer economic support. Every day the wealthy and powerful drive right over this park and many do not even know it’s there—let alone know its significance. It is a place of poverty and displacement for those who haven’t been accepted or haven’t been able to engage with the larger population.” (p. 40)

Tools for Life: Lessons I Learned From my Carpenter Dad

Hugging DadDad gave me many tools for life, starting with the ability to form a wide array of relationships. I credit dad for being a role model of someone who connects easily with different people from varied backgrounds in an authentic way. When I was a young child, I remember him often bringing someone home unannounced to eat lunch with us. Frequently it was a guy who had been doing construction work alongside him for the day who may or may not have had his own lunch. Other times it was a street bum who had come seeking a handout from our church where dad was employed. Rather than give itinerant strangers a cash donation, our pastor would offer to pay them after a day of work. Having no lunch, the stranger would come home with dad for a bite to eat where mom would serve him just as she would any other guest.

I cannot imagine Dad ever nervous around someone due to economical differences, class or social status. Dad has built and done custom remodeling for doctors, lawyers, interior designers, dentists and other well-off professionals. He built a stage for the President once. Dad interacted with these people the same as he would with plumbers and framers. High-ranking professionals, just like everyone else, loved Dad, asked him to return, and recommended him to their friends. Sometimes they would buy my parents tickets to attend an upscale function or fundraiser with them. Dad would wear his cowboy boots with a twenty-year-old suit coat, which is what he also wore when they asked him to play music for one of the events. Dad would pull together a group of talented young people, and they would perform oldies love songs or renditions of a western swing and bluegrass numbers. Dad’s wit and humor, coupled with his common sense and artistic skills, brought him the love and respect of our community.

Thank you, Dad, for being my role-model in connecting with a community. Your example has equipped me with the tools of showing hospitality and interacting with people of a wide array of backgrounds and experiences, an essential skill when involved in community development. Happy Father’s Day! I love you!

Life Without a Laptop

Cleaning Hillman CityAfter our house got burglarized a couple of months ago [March 22], I have semi-avoided replacing my laptop to see what life could be like without it. Would I read more? Get out in my community more? Volunteer more?

In many ways, it was not a true test as I have an iPhone and could connect to it as necessary so still spent time every day browsing Facebook. I also brought home my work laptop about once a week to pay bills, file taxes and try to get through my mounds of unread emails.

The results?

The nights and weekends I lived without a laptop felt super freeing. I was more social and sometimes even went to bed earlier (say, midnight rather than 1:30 AM). I didn’t actually read much more than I did when I owned a laptop, however. Worst of all, the nights when I brought the office laptop home I turned into a frantic workaholic who never quite got the flooding inbox of emails read or bills paid. On the rare occasions when I did, I still wouldn’t have time to blog (which is why this site has gone two months without being updated).

I’ve now had a laptop for two weeks and have found that I became less dependent on it—have barely checked email, had so rarely checked my Facebook feed that I missed out on my best friend from highschool’s engagement last week, and am just now publishing this post I wrote two weeks ago. Here’s hoping that even while having a laptop again, I can pace my work out more evenly while prioritizing getting out in the neighborhood to be with people. I’ve been further inspired to live less glued to my laptop after reading Thin Places following our break-in (a book I mentioned in my last post back in March).

“As a community, we must go. We must turn off our TVs. We must shut off our computers. We must begin to spend less time inside the four walls of our church buildings.

“It is time to inhabit the places where life is being lived. In the parks. In the community centers. Under highway overpasses. In local businesses. At farmers’ markets. In the home of the single mom on your block” (p. 144).

This summer I’m looking forward to launching two Bible storytelling groups, one of which will be held in homes and the other in a park. I’m also excited about the recent initiatives of my community development team–from conducting a PhotoVoice class for children at an apartment complex to cleaning an empty lot on Earth Day to coordinating a fun walk…events in the community where real life happens!

Neighborhood Love

revitalized bus stop on other side of hill

revitalized bus stop on other side of hill

Every day on my commute to work, I walk past a group of people huddled near the base of the light rail and a bus stop. Growing up I would have learned to label as this group as “riff-raft.” Some days in the afternoon the bus stop smells like alcohol, the remains of broken wine bottles and smashed beer cans serving as self-evidence of the public consumption. People literally camp out there all day (sometimes even at night), play cards, drink, deal drugs and use the bushes as a urinal. Moving intentionally to South Seattle in order to be a part of community development initiatives, I had the glorious idea of hosting a BBQ or picnic with these folks in order to build relationships and get to know them as human beings. I knew in turn they would look out for me.

The BBQ has yet to happen, but from my daily commute we’ve grown accustomed to each other. At first I merely returned their greetings, making no eye contact. Eventually, I began to make small exchanges with some of the women. I think they appreciate being recognized as existing, as human beings who can communicate verbally. The man in the long trench coat who’s out at every hour was the first person to wish me “Happy Valentine’s” this year. That made my morning. As someone who’s love language is words of affirmation, the most priceless moment, though, was earlier this week when a woman called out, “You’re awesome!” Why, I have no idea. But it reinforced the reality that when we go somewhere expecting to give love, we receive it in greater doses back, often from surprising sources.