Love Thy Neighborhood

Meet five volunteers who are bringing meaningful change to their beloved corners of Seattle.

Sean Conroe, founder of Alleycat Acres

Photo by Hayley Young

If you cruised down East Union toward the Central District this past summer, you may have noticed something different on the northeast corner of 22nd Avenue. Tucked between Cappy’s Boxing Gym and a gas station mini-mart were beds of verdant greens, planter boxes dripping with tomatoes, and rows of gigantic corn, squash and countless other veggies, all on the cusp of being picked.

Sean Conroe is the 28-year-old founder of Alleycat Acres, a volunteer-based farming collective that’s bringing neighbors together with fresh produce—and with each other. Since last spring, Conroe, a landscaper by day, has worked with dozens of volunteers, with funds from private donations, to develop urban farms from scratch. Since then, Conroe and fellow “alleycats” have secured 8,000 square feet of private land in the Central District and Beacon Hill, and produced an estimated 2,000 pounds of produce.

Farmable land in the city is in high demand, says Kenya Fredie, who works with Seattle’s other big community-garden nonprofit, P-Patch. The fact that Alleycat has been able to secure private land that might otherwise sit vacant is “huge,” says Fredie, who often refers eager gardeners on P-Patch’s waiting list to Alleycats.

For volunteers, the produce is free and plentiful; anything left over is delivered to local food banks via bicycle. “If everybody did this, we could put the stores out of business,” said 87-year-old Lillie Mae Graham on a recent trip to the farm on East Union. Like many of her neighbors, Graham swings by the farm about once a week during the summer to work a little, grab some corn or a few tomatoes and to chat.

Eventually, Conroe hopes to grow Alleycat by acquiring more farm spaces in Seattle, and offering community education programs about farming. “People often ask, ‘What [business] model are you using?’” says Conroe. “We’re figuring it out as we go.”

Dagmar Cronn, president of the South Park Neighborhood Association

Photo by Hayley Young

“Million-dollar view” doesn’t begin to describe what Dagmar Cronn sees from the backyard of her South Park home. Across the blue-brown waters of the Duwamish River, she has a picture-perfect view of the South Park Bridge, an aging, double-leaf bascule bridge deemed so unsafe that it has been closed to traffic since June 2010.

That’s about to change, thanks in part to Cronn’s quiet efforts. President of the South Park Neighborhood Association since 2008, Cronn played an integral role in finding funding to repair the span as part of the New South Park Bridge Coalition. “She did the sort of research and homework you’d expect of a former university professor,” says Larry Brown, legislative and political director for the aerospace machinists union who cochaired the coalition. “She was also a voice for the community and advocated for South Park and social justice at every opportunity she had.”

In fact, Cronn is a former university professor, having taught in Rochester, Michigan, after earning a Ph.D. in atmospheric chemistry from the University of Washington. Upon moving to South Park in 2007, Cronn hit the ground running as a community advocate eager to “shrink her sphere of influence” to the community around her. She started showing up at City Council meetings and signing up for work parties. She was tapped by King County Executive Dow Constantine to serve on a coalition to find ways to fill a $130 million shortfall in funds needed to replace the bridge.

Now, with the new bridge on track to be completed by mid-2013, Cronn has her plate full with a new set of projects, all aimed at helping her adopted neighborhood. “I probably get what I do through prudent persistence,” says Cronn. “None of the good ideas are mine. I just connect people, and the community sets things in motion.”


Julie Pham, chairwoman of the board of the Martin Luther King Business Association

Photo by Don Pham

Even well-seasoned Seattleites can have trouble pinpointing exactly where the Martin Luther King (MLK) corridor starts and stops. Julie Pham hopes to change that. “When people think of MLK, they think of Columbia City, but that’s only four blocks long,” says Pham, chairwoman of the board of the MLK Business Association. The Rainier Valley native is spearheading an approach to economic development that centers on cultivating a distinct identity for the four-mile-long business corridor.

Since 2009, Pham has overseen a marketing and branding overhaul that’s included everything from a new logo and overhauled website ( to an e-mail writing campaign requesting that Yelp acknowledge MLK as its own neighborhood. This past spring, she helped launch Plate of Nations, a restaurant promotion inspired by Dine Around Seattle, which brought an estimated 500 new customers to the neighborhood.

It helps that Pham, who grew up in South Seattle, learned early the value of building relationships with business owners. A trained historian with a Ph.D. from Cambridge University, Pham left academia in 2008 to work for her family’s semiweekly Vietnamese newspaper, Nguoi Viet Tay Bac (Northwest Vietnamese News), where she now serves as managing editor. In that role, she’s honed her ability to connect with both business leaders and the broader political community—and that’s been key to the MLK Business Association’s success, says board member Asari Mohamath. “She really helped us get the word out [about the neighborhood] to the rest of the city.”

With one eye on the big picture, Pham also keeps it hyperlocal. Whether it’s picking a personal dry cleaner or hiring a local designer for association projects, Pham believes supporting local business is crucial—it’s good for commerce and good for building personal relationships. “That’s the way you connect with businesses here,” says Pham, “not through e-mail or social media.”


Charles Redmond, pedestrian advocate

Photo by Hayley Young

Charles Redmond has a reputation for putting his best foot forward—literally. The community activist is committed to improving walkability in West Seattle, serving on “too any boards and committees to count,” says Tracy Record of the West Seattle Blog.

“Chas,” as he’s known around the neighborhood, is the driving force behind West Seattle’s new pedestrian-friendly “wayfinding” kiosks, developed by Feet First, a nonprofit that works to improving walkability. (Redmond serves on its board.) The kiosks—which use maps developed by Redmond—-were built to promote walking in and around West Seattle.  

A transit nerd long before biking and buses were chic, Redmond began advocating for pedestrians when he and his wife moved to the neighborhood in 2003, after years of living in Washington, D.C., where the nearest subway stop was a minute’s walk away. “When we came here, the monorail was politically on top,” recalls Redmond, so the couple found a home minutes from The Junction (downtown West Seattle), betting that a monorail would soon follow. Redmond volunteered as an advocate for the Seattle Monorail Project.

West Seattle’s monorail never panned out, but volunteering for the cause gave Redmond, a former NASA public affairs spokesman, the chance to get to know residents, business owners and politicians. He quickly moved on to his next cause: improving pedestrian walkability in his neighborhood.

Years of assessing and explaining satellite images gave Redmond an eye for analyzing maps. In 2006, Redmond applied for and secured a $4,500, grant from the City of Seattle, enough to print 20,000 pedestrian maps that were designed with help from local residents. Updated maps have been released annually since 2007.

“I don’t know of another individual who has his passion for creating alternatives for getting around,” says Patti Mullen, CEO of the West Seattle Chamber of Commerce, who has worked with Redmond on transportation projects since 2004. “I don’t know of another resident in Seattle who is as passionate about pedestrian access."


Dylan Ahearn, chair of Beacon BIKES

Photo by Dan Bennett

He may be new to Beacon Hill, but Dylan Ahearn knows the community like the back of his hand. “I’ve ridden every inch of this neighborhood,” says the 37-year-old father of two, who puts his street cred to use as the chairman of Beacon BIKES (which stands for “Better Infrastructure Keeping Everyone Safe”). The grassroots bicycle and pedestrian advocacy group is pushing for safer bike routes in a South Seattle neighborhood known for awkward intersections—which have become even busier with the opening of a new light-rail station.

Ahearn started commuting by bicycle while earning his Ph.D. in hydrology at the University of California, Davis. When he moved to Seattle in 2005, “I put my bike in the basement,” he says. “There are bike lanes and things here, but everything is designed to connect neighborhoods with get people from Beacon Hill out of Beacon Hill.”

Ahearn’s bike didn’t stay packed away for long. In 2009, he teamed up with Beacon Hill community advocate Frederica Merrell with the goal of building a neighborhood “greenway,” a residential bike path incorporated into existing residential streets. With Ahearn’s guidance—and lots of dedicated volunteers—Beacon BIKES has worked with the city to develop a network of neighborhood greenways—residential streets that emphasize cyclability and walkability between destinations such as grocery stores, libraries and schools. The most visible result of this project (slated to be completed by the end of the year) will be several bicycle boulevards on residential streets that run alongside major car corridors. Simple signage will designate the location of bike paths.

An environmental consultant and professor at Edmonds Community College, Ahearn is no stranger to thinking about the complex relationship between people and communities. His goal now is to improve safety and access for bike riders—and pedestrians—of all skill and fitness levels, including beginners and children, and especially those for whom financial, health and cultural concerns might be a deterrent. Biking is for everyone, Ahearn says, not just the superfit and the daring. “We’re not the spandex-clad folks,” jokes Ahearn, who quickly adds, “but we respect them, too.”

2016 Crosscut Courage Award Winners

2016 Crosscut Courage Award Winners

The 2016 Crosscut Courage Award winners don't walk away from difficult conversations and challenges
Back row: Honorees Richard Romero, Courage in Business, and Stephen Tan and Joey Cohn, Courage in Culture. Front row: Colleen Echohawk, Courage in Public Service, and Martha Choe, The David Brewster Lifetime Achievement Award

A trailblazing public servant who has spent decades in government and philanthropy. A banker who has given immigrants a foot in the door toward citizenship. A nonprofit leader who works to better the lot of Native Americans. And a thousands-strong community group that came together to save a beloved public radio station.

What do they all have in common? When faced with the choice between dialogue and rhetoric, between engagement and flight, they chose to stay and to talk—to struggle through difficult conversations in order to make things better for all. That’s why they’ve been selected as the winners of Crosscut’s 2016 Courage Awards.

Seattle magazine is proud to partner with online news journal Crosscut ( in recognizing these local leaders whose personal and professional dedication is making our region more vital, equitable and inclusive.

Courage in Culture Honoree
Friends of 88.5 

Last November, Pacific Lutheran University announced it was selling local National Public Radio (NPR) affiliate KPLU-FM to the University of Washington (UW). KPLU’s newsroom would be disbanded and its jazz programming absorbed into KUOW-FM. For the leaders of the 50-year-old KPLU, it would have been easy to just fold up the microphones and send the staff to look for work elsewhere: The $7 million deal was all but done, pending approval by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC).

But that didn’t happen. Instead, bowing under immense community pressure, the UW granted the station’s members a moonshot chance of matching the university’s offer and buying the station themselves. They had six months to do it.

Working under the banner of Friends of 88.5, a nonprofit created in a matter of weeks out of the vestiges of KPLU’s community advisory board, supporters and station leaders—including Joey Cohn and Stephen Tan—organized rallies across the region, including a KPLU day in Tacoma. They took to the airwaves, conscripting Audie Cornish, Quincy Jones and others to make their pitch. And they organized groups of longtime donors to provide matches of as much as $500,000.

Today, KPLU is KNKX, an independent nonprofit. The station is not totally out of the woods yet: It now needs to rebuild its reserves and find enough money just to operate. But amid a sea of dismal news about the decline of journalism, the Friends of 88.5 are a life raft.

Courage in Public Service Honoree
Colleen Echohawk

Soon after accepting the post of executive director of the Chief Seattle Club two and a half years ago, Colleen Echohawk realized that the organization had to do much more to address the multiple traumas faced by American Indian and Alaska Native people in Seattle. 

These populations suffer from a whole range of ills, from poverty to addiction to homelessness. Last year, 16 native people died while living on the streets or facing housing instability. Echohawk needed resources, but she had no experience with fundraising and found the idea of approaching groups like United Way frightening.

Today, United Way is the club’s biggest funder, and the Chief Seattle Club, a presence in the city since 1970, has become a larger force in promoting public safety and solving the crisis of homelessness. The club has added weekend hours, and the staff has grown from seven to 15, including a case manager to help with housing for the 100 members it sees daily, most of whom experience chronic homelessness. 

“She has got this way of being very positive and constructive,” says Mark Putnam at All Home Seattle, the organization coordinating homeless efforts in King County. He praises Echohawk’s ability to build strong relationships while also pushing issues, including awareness of the extreme racial disparity in homeless rates.

While Echohawk loves the many ways she has seen Seattle respond to her club members’ needs, she thinks it’s particularly hard for them to face isolation and homelessness in a city whose name honors a native leader. “This city,” she says, “is losing out on incredible people.” If Echohawk has her way, that will change.

Courage in Business Honoree
Richard Romero

For many immigrants, the path to U.S. citizenship is a difficult one. To get there, they must wait in a long line in which their nationality can determine their priority. They must learn about our system of government, memorizing more than many natural-born citizens actually know. And at the end of it all, they must hand over a hefty amount of cash.

To go from holding a green card to becoming a naturalized citizen, an individual immigrant must pay a $680 filing fee. For families, the fees can add up to thousands of dollars. That’s a tall order: As many as half of King County’s 100,000 immigrants eligible for citizenship may be impoverished, according to Seattle’s Office of Immigrant and Refugee Affairs. 

Under the leadership of CEO Richard Romero, the Seattle Metropolitan Credit Union has begun helping with this final hoop via a novel partnership with the City of Seattle that provides loans to immigrants. The city’s main role is to communicate with immigrant populations about the availability of the loans. The credit union takes care of the rest.

While there’s been lots of bluster this year about building walls and turning immigrants away at our borders, Romero’s initiative honors one of our country’s core values and lends a helping hand to those seeking a better life.

Lifetime Achievement Honoree
Martha Choe

If you spotted her on the bus in the morning, with her low-key, unassuming manner and neatly parted hair, you might not guess that Martha Choe is one of the most influential people in Washington’s recent history. But Choe has been a trailblazer for both women and people of color in Washington. 

From her terms on the Seattle City Council and work in state government to her leadership in the banking sector and global influence as the chief administrative officer of the Gates Foundation, Choe has embraced a leadership style that prioritizes compromise and getting things done over popularity and easy point scoring. 

Leadership requires both “vision and reality,” Choe said in a recent talk at the Henry M. Jackson Foundation. “Leadership involves people, not just org charts and boxes. Learn, listen and understand different perspectives.”

Choe used this approach to get Asian at-risk youth off the streets by investing in community centers. She helped revive Seattle’s downtown by reopening Pine Street to cars and bringing more than 1 million square feet of retail space to downtown Seattle between 1996 and 1998. And she spent a decade overseeing the operations of large portions of the Gates Foundation—including human resources and the hiring of staff—building the philanthropic powerhouse into its present form. 

As someone who has dedicated her lifetime to public service and steady leadership, Choe exemplifies what it means to be an involved, courageous citizen of the Pacific Northwest.