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Shawn Vestal: New book tells the many stories of the Community Building project

Rebecca Mack was working as a reporter in the late 1990s when she heard about a local public defender who’d inherited a lot of money and was going to invest it in buildings on the first western block of Main Street.

If you know this particular block these days, you might be forgiven for not understanding what it was then – a “dirty, intimidating jumble of derelict buildings and dark alleys,” as Mack puts it.

What that public defender, Jim Sheehan, intended to do at the time was start a nonprofit law firm and create a hub for other entities with a focus on addressing inequality, supporting environmental sustainability and building community.

Mack set up an interview with Sheehan on a radio show, whose producers were skeptical, to put it mildly.

“Why didn’t this lucky heir take his money and go buy a yacht or something?” was the tenor of their attitudes, Mack wrote in a new essay about the project. “There was a lot of eye-rolling in the studio.”

These days, the transformation of that block of West Main, driven by and centered around Sheehan’s six-building Community Building Campus, is so complete that the former vision sounds like ancient history. The block has become home to a constellation of nonprofits, activist groups, businesses and other enterprises built around Sheehan’s idea of fostering a healthy, just community.

A part of that vision is centered on activism and politics, but part is focused on art and beauty and food, as well – a realization of Sheehan’s belief that creating a strong community involves nourishing people in many ways.

As he put it last week, “A healthy ecosystem is really biodiverse. A healthy social system is also diverse, and that’s what we’ve tried to put together here.”

The eyes stopped rolling long ago.

A new anthology edited by Summer Hess, “One-Block Revolution: 20 Years of Community Building,” tells the story of the CBC project and its transformative effects. One of the goals of the book project is to create a template that other communities might follow.

Mack’s essay is one of 19; she works for CBC as a “jack-of-all-trades,” and she’s more than sold on what Sheehan did – investing his wealth in a way that prioritizes community and sustainable operations over profit.

“As the block evolved, it’s clear that it’s not the product of a strategic real estate investment designed to make money for investors,” Mack wrote. “Rather, it is people working together to create community.”

The story of Sheehan’s inheritance and the creation of the building is well-known, though in his essay he delves into more detail about those events and the personal philosophies that underlay his decision – including his time defending a man who was convicted, unjustly in Sheehan’s view, in a sensational murder trial, and his work over many years to get him off death row.

The book also brings to the fore stories from a wide range of people who have been a part of the community. This includes Patsy O’Connor, the architect who has designed each of the buildings with Sheehan; Austen White, who directs green-building initiatives; Warrin Bazille, the “relationship steward” of the project; and Anita Morgan, who operated a pre-school inspired by the Reggio Emilia model out of Italy. (My son attended this school.)

It includes pieces by Jim’s son, Joe Sheehan, who runs the Magic Lantern theater, and his daughter, Katy Sheehan, who leads the project’s foundation and writes about how others might create, maintain and build a legacy along similar lines as the CBC.

Hess worked for five years as Sheehan’s assistant, and now works for Measure Meant, a social impact consulting firm located in the CBC. She and Sheehan have long had the idea of a book about the CBC in mind, and over time, the anthology format emerged as the suitable format.

“It became clear there was a story here in terms of Jim, and who he is, and far beyond that,” she said. “What we’ve tried to do is show the hard work of building the community.”

In 2009, she was a graduate student in creative writing at Eastern Washington University when she encountered the block around the Community Building for a work-study position.

“I still remember my first time coming into the Saranac building and going up the stairs to the Center for Justice,” Hess said. “It had such a different vibe from anyplace else in Spokane.”

That vibe – the community-building-as-both-noun-and-a-verb vibe – was already well-established, and it continued to evolve. Many of the cultural and political changes in the city over the past two decades have their foothold there.

“This was the most dynamic block in the city, and not just for social enterprises and nonprofits,” she writes in her introduction, referring to 2013 but also capturing the current spirit of the place.

“Several other committed business owners operated eateries and unique shops. There was a constant refresh of energy on the block as students flowed in and out of bars and cafes and activists trotted back and forth from public meetings or one-on-one brainstorming sessions.”

Not every change has been a happy one, necessarily. The initial flagship of the project, the Center for Justice – which former executive director Breean Beggs, now the president of the City Council, described in its early days as a “cross between a utopia and the island of misfit lawyers” – grew into an absolutely vital institution in the city.

It took on important civil-rights and environmental cases, and its work on the Otto Zehm case was transformational in terms of moving Spokane forward on hard-fought issues of police oversight and reform.

But the center closed after an attempt to move it away from an angel-funded project – with Sheehan as the angel – toward a broad-based foundation of donors, a transition that didn’t take. The center closed in 2020. Beggs writes frankly about some of the reasons that happened, while arguing that others in the community have picked up that baton.

The book is sort of framed around the center’s 20th anniversary, though that technically came last year. In its collection of voices and collaborative spirit, it is an ideal reflection of the past – and the vision for the future – of the CBC.

“It’s about community,” Sheehan said, “and we wanted the people in the community to tell us what that meant.”

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