The Power of Love in a Post-Pandemic World – Barb Seaman (POY 53)

Barb Seaman helps a local organization in Washington state repair the social damage of the COVID-19 pandemic. Hear the inspiring story.

Barb Seaman helps a local organization in Washington state repair the social damage of the COVID-19 pandemic. Hear the inspiring story.

Episode Notes

This month, I’d like to introduce you to Barb Seaman. Barb is a high school librarian and the Assistant Executive Director at the East County Citizens’ Alliance. The E.C.C.A. or “EH-kah” for short is a nonprofit organization in Clark County, Washington. They serve the eastern Clark County area near Vancouver, Washington, and Portland, Oregon, on the southwestern tip of Washington state.

ECCA was founded during the COVID-19 pandemic in the city of Washougal. Barb will tell that story in a few minutes. The short version is that ECCA came together as a small group of volunteers, and they wanted to rebuild the local relationships that the pandemic had torn apart. They decided the best way to do that was to invite the greater Washougal community to get involved in various activities—things that didn’t involve politics or personal biases.

This idea almost sounds too simple to be effective, but ECCA has found a tremendous amount of success with it. They’ve been bringing people in Washougal back out of their homes to interact in positive ways. It’s an amazing example of love through human connection and the power that can have on a community. I think that comes through in our conversation, so let’s get to it.

Here’s my conversation with Barb Seaman, Assistant Executive Director at the East County Citizens’ Alliance in Washougal, Washington.

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Interview Transcript (Draft)

Please note: The podcast hosting provider, Pinecast, generated the transcript below. Parts have been lightly edited but it may be incomplete.

Josh: The thing I’m curious about the most is how did the E.C.C.A. get started. My impression in reading a little bit online, and what I could find was that during the COVID-19 pandemic and all the lockdowns that were associated with that, it sort of disrupted the social fabric of the community. How did the whole idea come about to start this organization?

Barb: Well, you mentioned that that was a rough time with the lockdowns. People had been at home for a long time because the society was just sort of shut down. I work at our school, and so I was able to witness firsthand the effects of the pandemic on education and how it was affecting the students, the families of the students, the people who work in a building. And then, as a result, the community, because our town is not that big, and our school district is basically the hub of our community.

And things kind of started getting ugly as the pandemic wore on and on and on. And it kind of brought out a lot of divisiveness and mistrust and misinformation about the education system and about government and about just society in general. And everybody was so unsettled.

So there was a group of us who kind of met each other online and started talking. And then we started zooming and decided that we wanted to find some way of addressing this problem of the fact that it felt like our community was sort of being torn apart. And so we talked and we brainstormed and wondered what we could do, and decided that the best thing we could do is try to find ways for people to build relationship again. We didn’t want to just come out and just attack back or just address the misinformation directly or anything like that, because people are dug in and they’re not going to just change their minds automatically. And that’s an ugly thing to have to do.

We decided that the best thing that we do is just kind of lavish love on our community and try to find ways to bring people out and get people engaged with each other again by doing things that are positive instead of negative. So we had several Zoom meetings, a core group of us, about like maybe eight or ten people.

And coincidentally, around that same time, Melanie Wilson, who’s now our executive director, was driving on. We have a state highway that goes right through our town. It’s like the main thoroughfare that gets people in and out of Washougal. And during that two year period of the pandemic, whatever agency with the state that had been responsible for keeping it clean hadn’t been out doing it. And so by two years into the pandemic, our highway was just so filthy. There was just trash everywhere on both sides of the highway.

So one day Melanie had her husband drop her off on the side of the road and pick me up in an hour. And she just walked along and just quickly filled four bags full of trash. And then she came and made a post next door or social media or something and said, I just did this. And then next thing she knows, she has people offering to come out and help her. So this kind of started our first project, our first ECCA project was we realized…

Josh: I need to jump in for a moment due to an audio issue on Barb’s end. So what Barb says next is this, “If you do something to help the community, pretty much nobody’s going to stop you and people are going to help you.” Now back to Barb.

Barb: That became our first project then, and it’s an issue that everybody in town appreciates. They can see, wow, it’s getting cleaned up. This is wonderful. It’s not a political issue. Nobody can argue against cleaning up the trash, right? And we got more and more people coming out to help and work together. And we realized that there’s a variety of people coming out to help. And we also realized that just having our main thoroughfare not be full of garbage is kind of a positive psychological effect on people who live in town. So it made us think about how everything’s connected, the small little things that we do have effects on people, and you can’t measure them jumping in again.

Josh: To repeat what Barb says, “But we know we’re going to do the right thing and people appreciate it. So we came up with a mission statement.” Here’s Barb reading that statement.

Barb: “To support and protect our community and public institutions through relationship building, education, advocacy, and volunteer initiatives that grow positive relationships and build a vibrant and healthy east county.” So you’ll see the word relationship is in there twice. And our idea is to find things for people to do that will bring people kind of out of their silos to engage with each other.

So we’ve started several projects, several community projects that are aimed at doing just that. Sure, they have like a goal, like paint a mural or plant a garden, but also they have the goal of bringing people out and getting people to mix up and getting people to meet each other whose paths wouldn’t otherwise cross. And we just feel like that is such a healthy thing for our community.

So it’s not directly like we need to combat misinformation or we need to fix this problem. It’s just we just need to get people together, get people talking to each other again and relating to each other again.

Josh: So you mentioned some of the activities that you and the other volunteers engage in. What’s the full range of things you do? Like I heard picking up litter. What are some of the other things?

Barb: Yeah, we have maybe four different categories we do. One of them is supporting education, and this is one that’s near and dear to my heart because I’m directly involved with it in my job as the boss of the library at our high school. As ECCA was forming, they were asking, what can we do to support the schools? And me, having worked through the pandemic at the school, I could tell them, well, I’m seeing that there are social effects on the students and that there are students who are struggling because of the difficulty that they encountered as they were trying to learn online. And so we decided to approach the school and offer to build a mentorship program.

And so we call it the Community School Partnership for lack of a better name. And we have about 18 mentors who come in once a week and meet with students who are struggling in some of their classes. And it’s pretty amazing to see because these are community members who are volunteering their time to come in and sit down with a young high school student. And a lot of these students, maybe they don’t have a positive adult figure in their life.

And it’s doing good in a lot of different ways. It’s helping the students a little bit more successful in their classes. It’s giving the students sort of like the experience of learning how to deal with other people who are different and a different age than them. And then it’s great for the mentors that we have. We’ve recruited these mentors to come in. There’s a variety of different kinds of people who come in, and it’s energizing for them to spend time with young people and to be able to share their skills with the young people.

Josh: So is that an after school program?

Barb: No, it actually happens during school, which is pretty unique. And it’s just fortuitous that me as working at the school and then also knowing all these wonderful people from ECCA, I’m able to sort of coordinate with that. And our admin has given me a lot of support to let me be able to do this.

So it’s just kind of like one of my jobs supporting students is to coordinate this program during school. We started out last year doing it one day a week, and this year we’re kind of expanding to add a second day. So it’s pretty neat and it’s nice for the volunteers to come in and just to have this experience of being around young people in the high school and learning how our school district is operating and sort of getting that connection.

And they’re also making friends with each other. I’ve seen people who they otherwise wouldn’t have ever met, and they’re like, on days when we had to cancel because of an icy day here in Washougal a few weeks ago. And so I had to send out a message to everybody saying, sorry, no mentoring today. But they messaged back and said, let’s still meet. Let’s go to Starbucks and get coffee together. So it’s just so wonderful to see that people are connecting because of the projects that we’re putting together. And that’s just one of them.

Some of our other categories are beautification, and we’ve done some small garden projects for the city of Washougal. And then as we were cleaning up out there on the highway, we said to the state, the DOT, we officially adopted the highway after a little while, so that’s official with the state now. And we said, how about if we plant some pollinators by the roadside to make it look prettier and also help the bees and all that stuff? That seems to be kind of like a popular thing to do these days. They said, sure. And their landscape designer worked with us, and we got several people together to plan it, to decide what kinds of plants we could plant and how we would do it and what techniques we would use to prepare the site and all of that. That was a project that brought, like 30 different people together in one way or another to help get the site prepared and plan the planting and actually do the planting. And that was a really cool one.

And then we’re also interested in providing for basic needs for people. So we’ve helped out here and there when they’ve had food drives around town with our community resource center. And the city has something called refuel, which is every Friday night, they have different groups from around the area come in and prepare a meal and then open it up. It’s sort of like a soup kitchen that happens one evening a week. And so we’ll do that every now and then.

And that’s a great thing because it gives people an opportunity to come and help this population that needs the help. And for people who aren’t like members of a church or part of the Rotary Club, they don’t really know how to get involved in doing this kind of thing. So ECCA sort of provides that opportunity for a lot of people to just come and join us. And we’ve had a nice mix of different kinds of people come and help out with that.

And then, excitingly, we have some cultural projects that we’re working on. Several of us have always loved the StoryCorps project that sometimes you hear on the radio, little snippets of them.

Josh: Yeah. On NPR.

Barb: Yeah. So we thought, well, wouldn’t it be cool to do something like that, that just focuses on the people right here in our community? So we’ve created a project called East County Voices, and we’re just starting to put it together right now, just putting the word out about this. And the idea is to get a wide range of different people from the community who love to tell their stories, give them the opportunity to come and tell their stories and talk about what’s important to them and talk about how they got here or what it was like growing up here, and the different experiences that have kind of shaped their attitudes.

And we feel like that’s a really valuable thing to do in our community because we feel strongly that people need to feel like they have a voice and people care about what they say and what their experiences are. And so, I don’t know. So many people have such interesting stories, and that’s true. You just need to take the time to listen. So that’s our project, is we’re going to invite people to come in and ask questions of each other, either with a family member or friend or coworker, and reflect on where we’re at right now. And then we’ll take little snippets of that and put them on our website and promote those, and just to encourage people to start listening to each other. So that’s a really exciting one. I’m really excited to be working on that.

Josh: I can imagine. Yeah.

Barb: And then we’re also creating a kind of a new thing, and we’re calling them, for lack of a better word, conversation tables. And we’ve invited a group of community members to come in and receive, like, a two or three hour training in how to facilitate a conversation table. And the idea is to set up in public places, like maybe at the farmers market or outside the library, various places, and just invite people to sit down and tell us what they’re thinking, how they’re feeling.

And it doesn’t have to be about politics. It can just be some kind of a prompt about what’s concerning you or what’s your greatest challenge or something along those lines. And the idea isn’t to get into a debate or to discuss hot topics or anything, but it’s basically to give people a chance to use their voice. And so we’ll have a couple of people at a table, and people can come and sit down and have coffee and cookies with us and just talk.

And we’re just there to listen and just let people, because we feel like it’s a healthy thing for people to talk it out and to discuss what they’re feeling. And I don’t feel like people have a chance to do that very often. It’s really healthy to be able to talk it through with somebody. It kind of helps you process what’s going on, and it helps you sort of make sense of how you’re feeling. So that’s a pretty exciting one. And we’re just getting ready to do that first training with community members in a few weeks, and then during the summer, we’ll be developing that project as well. So those are some of our big ones.

I didn’t tell you about the mural. That’s a project where we’re working in conjunction with the city and another local group called the Washougal Arts and Cultural Association. And we’ve said, hey, there’s this ugly bathroom building in the park. Let’s paint a mural on it. Let’s make it look nice so that the people who live in this neighborhood will feel a little bit more engaged and invested and feel like they’re valued and like their voice is heard.

So we had a big meeting at the park where we invited the neighbors to come out and tell us what’s important to them and what kind of themes they would like to see and give suggestions. And then we worked with a couple of local artists who have sort of put together these ideas into a basic design. Now it’s pretty rainy and ugly here the last few months, but as soon as the weather breaks, we’ll be going out there and inviting the community to come out and help paint.

Josh: Nice.

Barb: Yeah, that’s a fun one. And we’re just so excited to be doing these projects that are inviting the community to just come out and help. And that’s all we ask, is just come out and help and just get to know each other, and that’s it.

Josh: Wow. I’m actively having to hold my mouth from just having my jaw open like this because it really sounds like a template for what so many communities around the country are looking for. And it sounds like you’re really kind of drawing the blueprint for how to found something like this. And you described having Zoom calls or start this whole organization, maybe eight to ten people. How many volunteers are there now?

Barb: Oh, well, I mean, we have so many different projects that I guess it varies. Yeah. And that’s also part of our idea, is to do a variety of things that are going to draw out a variety of people. We’re just not shooting for just one segment of them. We want everybody to get involved, and so we’re trying to come up with something for everybody, and it’s keeping us real busy, but it’s just so rewarding to be finding opportunities to get to know our neighbors and people. It’s not a big town here.

Josh: It’s about 15,000 people, I think.

Barb: I think so somewhere around there. Yeah. My friend and I for a long time have joked about how in Washougal, there’s only one degree of know. So if you ever want to know something about a certain thing, there’s always one person in town that you can call to find out how to get in touch with that other person.

Josh: Right.

Barb: So that’s kind of like my philosophy is just, we’re just finding ways to just keep bringing people together and sort of weaving the fabric together a little bit stronger here in town.

Josh: Is there a philosophy behind. I mean, I know you read your mission statement, but is there sort of like an inspiration that drew the initial meetings? Is there something that it’s kind of founded upon? Does that make sense?

Barb: Well, that’s a good question. I think all of us, we have a steering committee that’s about eight people, and I think everybody has different reasons for being involved. It provides a different payoff for each one of us. But going back to how we all sort of met was, it was during the pandemic, and it was pretty ugly around here in Washougal, and people were concerned. You remember what it was like. We had people going to the hospital and trying to bust in and protest, and we had threats against public servants who were working in the health department. And here locally, we had a lot of contention at our school board meetings, to the point where people were coming there and threatening the school board. And it was so ugly. At one point, there was vandalism there.

And no matter how you felt about masks or vaccines or this or that, the situation was, people were concerned that our community was just being torn apart. And so that’s sort of the underlying reason why we all sort of found each other.

Josh: Yeah, I see.

Barb: Okay. Yeah.

Josh: But I guess the reason I asked that is because it sounds like the scope of the organization of ECCA has increased, I mean, quite a bit in just the last few years. So I was just curious if there was some foundation that you’re kind of building on. But it sounds like it’s just all the experiences of everybody that’s involved.

Barb: Yeah, it’s true. And it’s funny that you say the scope has expanded, because the way I look at it is the pandemic kind of just left space for us to fill. Everybody was shut down. There wasn’t a lot happening. Things that had been happening before the pandemic stopped happening. And then because of the pandemic, there are people who kind of now are craving that connection again. People need to be around people, and they need to have social interaction, and it’s kind of hard to get that fired up again.

I don’t know. Maybe it’s partly we look around and we’re like, hey, we could do this. In our community, we could do this. We could do this. And now, since Eka has formed, we’re finding that we can do these things. If we see the fact that somebody wants to build a mural, we can do it. We just have to just get started and people will join. And so I guess that’s why it feels like our scope has expanded so much. We just keep going, wow, that’s a great idea. How can we not do that?

Josh: That’s so amazing. Like I said, I hear you describing ECCA, and I’m just envious sort of for my own community. I guess that kind of leads me to the next question. Do you have a favorite story of seeing this kind of work going on in your own community in Washougal and thinking, wow, this has all been worth it? All the planning and effort and development has been worth.

Barb: I like, totally. Well, for one thing, the fact that the highways are cleaner is huge. I mean, it’s so fun to have people say, oh, that’s the group that’s cleaning up the highway, or to be out there and have people honking and waving and telling you, thank you? A couple of weeks ago, some of our people were out cleaning up, and a guy pulled over and got out of his car, and he said, I’m always driving by and seeing you guys out here cleaning. And I decided that maybe I should help. And he just stopped and just started helping.

Josh: That’s awesome.

Barb: Yeah, it was terrific. And near and dear to me is the mentorship program at the high school, because I’m sort of the coordinator and seeing some of these students who, there’s a lot of anxiety in these young students, not everybody. But there’s a lot of anxiety among this group, this young group of people. And I don’t know why. I don’t know if it’s because of the pandemic or if that just made it worse or whatever, but there are students who struggle, and sometimes the school struggles to find a way to address such a wide range of needs. So I love seeing students who are struggling coming in and finding somebody who’s actually there to help them.

And sometimes just the fact that somebody’s there to help them has a huge effect on these kids. Last year, we had a student who was really struggling. He met with a mentor once a week who helped him with his biology. And it was a situation where he, for whatever reason, he wasn’t able to do the work very well in the classroom environment. But when he was in the library working one on one, he showed her that he could do it. He showed her that he understood it. And the teacher worked with us and said, okay, I’ll give him credit for that. And that student ended up passing that class. My hunch is I don’t know if that would have happened. I don’t know if he would have passed that class if it hadn’t been for coming and getting help from somebody else once a week.

Josh: That’s so touching. Yeah.

Barb: And then also just the relationships. This past Christmas, we had a group of girls who are freshmen, and they’re not school oriented. They’re very social, and they walked in the Wednesday before Christmas with a tin full of cookies for our mentor to give him because they’ve got this social connection, and I just love seeing that.

Josh: That’s so cool. Like I said, you tell me this, and it just fills my cup. I guess I’m just so happy that it’s worked out so well for you so far. It’s really impressive.

Barb: Well, thank you so much. For me, it’s been a labor of love, and it’s been kind of like medicine for me to be busy working on these kinds of things, because I look at the news, I think about what’s happening in the world, and if I wasn’t doing this kind of thing, I would just be pacing around the house, anxious. So it’s nice to take that energy and put it into something that’s a little bit more positive.

Josh: Do you have any advice for someone that may be hearing this conversation and thinking, I would like to get more involved in my community the same way that the volunteers at ECCA are? What are some of the challenges that you face, or do you just have a bit of wisdom that you can suggest that would kind of help get the ball rolling for these folks.

Barb: Sure. Yeah. I mean, I’ve been thinking about this a lot, and we talk about it a lot, too, is the work that we’re doing is very long term and it’s hard to describe. It’s kind of implicit. We just have to keep reminding ourselves to be patient. It takes time for maybe somebody that you met on one of our events, like six months ago and you haven’t run into again yet, but maybe next week you’ll run into them and you’ll have another conversation and you’ll get to know each other a little bit better. It takes time. So we have to keep reminding ourselves, we can’t just expect us to go out and do a project and then, boom, it’s all Kumbaya here in town. It takes time. So I would say patience is a big one, checking your expectations.

And then I think that a big thing to keep remembering in this kind of work is that the effects are really hard to measure. I’ve always put a lot of thought into the fact that every little thing we do has an effect. You can smile and say hello to a student in the morning, and maybe they were having a crappy day, but maybe that one interaction just put them on a little bit of a different trajectory. And so then maybe they walked into that class with a little bit of a better attitude, and maybe things went better for the rest of the day.

I just really believe that everything that we do has an effect. So the problem with that is you can’t measure it. We can’t measure how much our psyche in town is improved by having all of that trash gone off the side of the highway. But we have to just have faith that it’s working. I guess my philosophy and my advice about the work that we do, yeah.

Josh: Those are great, because I know with the development aspect of nonprofit organizations, like applying for grants and things, it can be hard to measure the effects of where the funding goes and that sort of thing. Right. So that makes me curious, too. How do you get funding for certain things?

Barb: Well, we’re all volunteer, and most of the work doesn’t require a lot of money. So we’ve gotten a few small community building grants locally that we’ve used for various projects, but really, we don’t require a lot of money. And I think that gives us, like you mentioned, with the grants and having to measure things, that gives us the freedom to be able to do things without the deadlines or the data to show the results right away.

And I think that maybe that’s our secret sauce, is the fact that we’re able to just keep doing the work without having to account for it to anybody other than ourselves. We just have faith that the work is valuable and that it’s working. So, yeah, money is always great, but when we need money for a certain thing, like to buy seeds for our highway garden, we were able to apply for funding from a local. It’s called the Camus Washougal Community Chest. And they’re sort of like a local, you know, so they helped us pay for our seeds and then for this mural project, money for paints and supplies. So we’re working with Washougal Arts and Culture Alliance and also the city. And so all three of us are kind of working together. They’re providing a lot of the money, we’re providing a lot of the ideas and the people connections. And so it’s working that way.

So we don’t really have to do a lot of grants or any of that kind of real big fundraising, because most of it is just local volunteers pitching in together.

Josh: That’s so inspiring. I keep saying that, but it’s just touching me right here in my heart.

Where can we follow ECCA online?

Barb: Oh, well, we have a website, and it is That’s our website. And you can find information about ECCA there. We also have several blog posts that people just locally have written about our experiences being here in the. Yeah, yeah.

Josh: Okay.

Barb: And it’s linked to an email address to get in touch with us if you have any other questions or anything.

Josh: Okay, that sounds great. I know you have other things that you could have been doing on a Saturday morning, so I really appreciate your time. Thank you for talking with me, Barb.

Barb: Oh, it’s been my pleasure. It’s always fun for me to describe the kinds of work we’re doing here in East County with ECCA. So thank you for the opportunity.