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Book tells how Community Building builds community

Summer Hess and Jim Sheehan collaborate to create a book about the Community Building in downtown Spokane and its venture in building community in a green space. Photos courtesy of the Community Building

By Marijke Fakasiieiki

Nestled in the block on W. Main between Division and Browne in downtown Spokane is the Community Building, a complex of six buildings owned by Jim Sheehan, who envisioned them as a hub where nonprofits work during the day, and people come for entertainment, food and night life.

To tell the story of the complex, Summer Hess compiled contributions and edited a book, One Block Revolution: 20 Years of Community Building, for the 20th anniversary of the Community Building.

In a chapter Jim wrote, "The Antidote Is Community," he turns the noun "community building" into a verb.

Formerly a public defender, he inherited an unexpected gift that made it possible to think about giving back to the community.

Considering himself a Zen Catholic—raised and educated Catholic and practicing Zen Buddhism for 30 years—he believes in the mystical arm of Christianity or any faith and is thankful for his "early encounters with Catholic mystics" for expanding his spirituality.

Guiding his core belief are "experiences of enlightenment" and awareness expressed by Catholic theologian, Thomas Merton, who speaks of all faiths emerging from the same source. From that, Jim struggled with how to engage the world around him, while honoring what he calls the "wisdom of emptiness."

He explained that he wanted to reach out and act "with courage and honesty, and to be present to what is there, to go into silence, to the place there can be no differences between people."

His first goal was to found the Center for Justice, while at the same time look for a building to "translate truth and justice into action," he writes in the book.

From that core set of beliefs and practices, finding the place was kismet. He was driving around looking at buildings and saw a building he was interested in. The owner did not want to sell, but said the owner across the street wanted to sell.

Then Jim walked across the street, talked to that owner, and they made a deal. Expansion came naturally. He bought the 35 W. Main Ave. building, then the smaller one next door, then the Saranac, the Pub, the Saranac Commons and the Main Market across the street.

Gratified that the venture has lasted 20 years, he said he had "never thought how long it would last. We just go with what we have and try to stay in the now and do what we do."

He attributed it to the dedication and commitment of the people who work or worked there, some of whom wrote chapters.

His vision included prioritizing the whole person to be involved in the community, not just work there.

"Writer Ken Wilber talks about being an integrated person, cognitive, spiritual, emotional and relational. Those things come together to make the person," said Jim

"Our buildings do that. The art gallery, movie theater, food, work and childcare, all go together to make the person complete and present all the time, even when they are working," said Jim.

"The book, like the building, began organically," Jim said. "I wanted to display aspects of the building, such as green materials, insulation, glues and water saving."

Then, Summer started working with him. As they talked about writing a book, they realized they didn't have to write it, but could create an anthology, bringing together a chorus of voices to tell the Community Building story. Chapters are written by 20 people who were or are part of the Community Building.

"I was a conduit to capture this good work. I just translated what has been done into written form," said Summer, who interviewed many people.

"It's challenging when 100 people contribute to a project bringing together complex and diverse threads to tell the story," she said.

Summer, a master of fine arts graduate from Eastern Washington University worked with Community-Minded Enterprises, then with Jim, starting in 2009 as a work study student at the Community Building.

In 2013, she took on more responsibilities as a project manager, running two professional development series, "Learn Together, Grow Together," in the Niche Co-Working Center and Mac 'n Cheese gatherings at the Saranac Pub. The Niche Center provides small nonprofits with remote office spaces with temporary offices for wifi and community. Mac 'n Cheese gatherings helped staff learn about each other's work and nurture relationships.

Because she had gotten her legs under her in Spokane when she found this place, she wondered if there were other people like that, who could be represented in the book.

The Community Building recipe comes from Jim's vision of having "constant energy on the block, not just about the 9-to-5, but continuous." He wanted a place set aside for people to physically gather with the intention of building community.

Jim believes that at the foundation of affecting social change is building strong relationships and bringing people together. Once there was a place to host different people and organizations, that would be possible.

He created a space that would host nonprofits and change makers. His priorities after finding a place and populating it with nonprofits, people and businesses, were to nurture elements of community, where people come and go, bring new ideas as the city changes and evolve as the community evolved.

"The block became a magnet for builders. One apartment building was constructed to be in proximity to the Main Market Co-op. Economic development was an offshoot of the project," said Summer.

"Initially we started telling the story with Jim's voice and at the end that didn't feel right because so much of his philosophy is about getting out of the way and letting people act," said Summer.

In addition to Jim's chapter, "The Antidote Is Community," some of the other chapters are "Beauty and Inclusion: People Centered Space" by Patsy O'Connor, "The Rise and Sunset of the Center for Justice" by Breean Beggs, and "Childcare as Social Justice" by Anita Morgan.

Jim and Summer also sought to communicate dynamics of a "green" building infrastructure, the groups that show up every day, the mix of the stewards of the space, the tenants and behind-the-scenes people who make it happen.

On the green technology and materials used in remodeling and designing the spaces, Jim said, "We have problems in different areas. The seminal issue in the world is climate change, which leads to diaspora, war and destruction. We can only do what we can do."

Aiming to have a small carbon footprint, he wanted the buildings put together "in a way that is life giving," with an aesthetic that is life giving and a system that is not destroying the earth.

Jim considered how to heat and cool space, what kind of materials to use and how to put spaces together,

Breean, former director of the Center for Justice, said that when it started, there was need for space where nonprofits could thrive.

Being in proximity, relationships formed in the Community Building as local leaders talked about what the community needed, he said. It was easier to make, coordinate and launch new plans, such as beginning smart justice initiatives and finding alternatives to a new jail.

Summer captured other examples of leaders in proximity initiating changes they had not anticipated.

The theory is that if people came together they would have good ideas to change the city.

Warrin Bazile, who is on the Community Building staff, writes in his chapter, "Building Stewardship," that he seeks to treat people in the neighborhood, including those who are down and out "just as well as the people who come to work here every day. I see every encounter as a chance to show people the love of God."

Jim said that in coming into the neighborhood and building something, it was important to connect with neighbors so they knew what the building was about and so "we knew what the neighborhood is like so we can be included in the community.

Latah Books and the Community Building are hosting a book launch party to celebrate the publication of the One-Block Revolution: 20 Years of Community Building from 5 to 8 p.m., Friday, Dec. 3, at 25-35 W. Main Ave. There will be appetizers, music, tours and conversation with neighbors and book contributors.

For information, call 232-1950 or visit

Copyright@ The Fig Tree, December, 2021