The decision to select a citizen of the year was difficult. Council evaluated eight nominations and because the quality of the field of candidates was so high, they selected two nominations to receive the award. Congratulations to Pastor Lina Thompson, Pastor Jenny Partch, and Grace Stiller.
Pastors Lina Thompson and Jenny Partch Recognized for Efforts to Support Housing Justice
Jenny Partch, pastor of the Highline United Methodist Church, and Lina Thompson, pastor of the Lake Burien Presbyterian Church, were nominated together for their work helping people experiencing homelessness and their community organizing efforts to support stronger rental housing policies in Burien.
“We had begun a conversation with community leaders and councilmembers about homeless shelters in Burien, but it didn’t get far,” said Partch.
Then in February 2019 weather reports showed one of the most severe snow events in recent memory was on its way. By luck, the Ecumenical Leadership Circle (ELC), a group of local church leaders, was already scheduled to have one of their regular meetings the night before the first storm was set to hit.
“We came together and asked what are we going to do. This is going to be bad. We have to do what we can to keep people alive.”Pastor Jenny Partch
Within a few days, the ELC, with the support of dozens of community volunteers, City staff, and Burien and King County Councilmembers, stood up an extreme weather shelter in the church.
“It wasn’t just the faith community—we had the leadership at that moment, but the community just came out, even those not part of a Christian faith community, to do something and make a difference. That showed us the heart of this community,” said Partch. “That’s what gave us a lot of encouragement to go after things like rental rights legislation. That gave me hope for the work we were already doing.”
Just a few months prior to the snow event, the Burien community stood up for the residents of Fox Cove Apartments, who were facing displacement because their building was being sold for redevelopment. Residents came to the Burien City Council to ask for help.
“I came to city council meeting where there were a lot of residents [asking for help],” said Thompson. “And I remember thinking ‘this is just so wrong.’”
After one of the meetings, a few members of the ELC, including Thompson and Partch, gathered in the hallway outside council chambers. They made the decision to raise money for the residents of Fox Cove Apartments. They originally raised $9,000, and asked the City of Burien to match the amount, which it did.
That experience, however, highlighted for the group that renters did not have enough protections. The ELC joined with almost a dozen other groups to form a coalition to research, learn, and advocate for better protections for renters. The coalition brought together different faith communities and a multilingual and racially diverse group of community members, including people who represented non-Christian faith communities.
“This is a unique contribution the faith community can bring,” said Thompson. “We are supposed to be compassionate and care about those being unjustly treated.”
The coalition’s advocacy helped pass a set of renter protection policies that went into effect in 2019.
“There are many individuals and organizations who did the work. Any community work that is authentic is not just one church or individual’s efforts.”Pastor Lina Thompson
“At one extreme, we are working to give housing for people who don’t have anything,” said Partch. “And then at the other end, we are keeping people in housing.”
The ELC has continued to support the Burien community during the COVID-19 pandemic. Thompson hosted a summer youth program, a youth leadership development program, and a culturally appropriate food bank in her church. Partch is hosting a shelter for women run by Catholic Community Services in her church.
Grace Stiller Recognized for Connecting Youth to Art and Nature
Grace Stiller, executive director of the local nonprofit Nature Stewards and a longtime board member and interim board president for the Burien Arts Association, was selected for her volunteer efforts promoting the arts and the environment in Burien.
“The mission of the Burien Arts Association is to enrich Burien with arts and culture,” said Stiller. “Even after our gallery closed, we were able to continue to provide programs.”
But Stiller’s first passion is the environment. She started Nature Stewards in 2008 as a way to help youth enrolled in Highline area schools complete their community service requirements through projects that connected them to the natural world.
“I believe if you are engaged with nature as a young person, you’re more apt to steward nature as an adult,” said Stiller. “Everything I do has an educational component.”Grace Stiller
Stiller and her organization Nature Stewards is also involved in the establishment and operations of two community edible gardens. The Hazel Valley Community Garden is located at Highline United Methodist Church. Stiller works with fellow citizen of the year Pastor Jenny Partch to provide edible gardening space for community members who are facing food insecurity.
Stiller and her group Nature Stewards is also working with volunteers and students to maintain a community and school garden next to New Start High School in north Burien. A portion of the garden is devoted to growing food for local food banks, growing close to 1,000 pounds of produce this summer. Volunteers also established an herb garden this past summer, which they will use to support a curriculum that teaches students to grow, harvest, and process herbs for soaps, lotions, and other uses. The students will also earn their food handler’s permit through the program. Though students are not allowed on campus while the schools are in distance learning, this program, and garden, will be waiting for them when they return.
When asked about how she connects her two passions, Stiller said, “I’d like to advocate for more art and nature to be tied together. We have art all around us. Go to a park and you will see one of the most beautiful canvases.”