Just two years ago, the former school building in Madison Valley that housed Martin Luther King Jr. Elementary School for more than 30 years was vacant. The echoes of teachers speaking and writing on the blackboards in the classrooms and the joyful shouts of children from the playground were silent after the school closed in 2008.
That same building that now houses the Martin Luther King Jr. Family Arts Mentoring Enrichment (FAME) Community Center is slowly coming back to life.
The FAME center, at 3201 E. Republican St., offers “homegrown” programs, including martial arts, financial literacy, entrepreneurial development, computers and art. Upcoming events include an African-American Alzheimer’s conference on Saturday, Oct. 6, which will be the first major event at the center.
The center also leases space to tenants who are supportive of Madison Valley and the surrounding communities.
Chris Daigre, who is well known in the Seattle dance community, operates Chris Daigre Dance Fitness at the center. He’s been a part of the MLK FAME Community Center for more than a year.
“Because of the location and the mission [of the community center], there is no place in the Valley like this that can serve the community,” he said.
Daigre is also the volunteer artistic director of the youth program at the center, which serves youths from nearby public schools, the Central Area Youth Association (CAYA) and the neighboring Bush School.
“When these students come together, what is healthy about it is that they are coming from different areas and exposed to different neighborhoods and backgrounds,” Daigre said. “If you don’t integrate people who are different, then there is something wrong.”
Serving the community
Two years ago, the Madison Valley community was at odds over the building. The Bush School and the First AME Church (the parent organization of the MLK FAME Community Center, which allows the center to run independently without help), along with the Citizens for a Community Center at MLK group, were locked in a bidding battle over the property.
In a controversial decision, the Seattle School Board accepted the bid from the First AME Church for $2.4 million, which was the lowest bid for the site. The school board stated at the time that it based its decision on the church’s proposal to offer, according to Seattle Public Schools property manager Ron English, “substantial support for youth education activities, in the form of free access to the gym and auditorium and reduced rent for at least five classrooms, for 40 years.”
Nonetheless, the decision brought on a firestorm of controversy, including accusations of fraud. One of them involved the connection of then-district official Fred Stephens to the First AME Church. According to the Seattle Weekly’s report at the time, Stephens’ father was a one-time pastor at the church, and Stephens himself was active in the church. The school district denied any conflict of interest or any claims of fraud.
For the First AME Church and the Bush School, this did cause some animosity between the two neighbors.
According to Bush School communications director Mai Kaz, the school was “disappointed in the outcome, as we thought the MLK property would serve both the school and the community well.”
But the relationship between the two neighbors has since been repaired.
“The center is working to provide services for the community,” Kaz said, “and we value, in particular, their relationship with us.”
Bush students have put in a number of volunteer hours to fix up the FAME center. Last May, more than 180 students and faculty organized at the school to take on such tasks as painting, mowing the lawn, trimming bushes and fixing up the outdoor basketball court.
Jabali Stewart, Bush’s director of diversity and community building, served as a judge on a panel for regional arts congress at the center.
Bush has also extended an invitation to the MLK FAME Community Center to join the Neighbors of Bush, an organization that brings the school and neighborhood representatives together to manage issues of mutual interest such as parking and traffic management.
“Everyone is now coming together,” said Edna Daigre, volunteer coordinator at the center and founder and director of the Ewajo dance studio.
Bringing them in
However, the center still faces challenges. Many of the young people who use the center live outside of the Madison Valley, said Edna Daigre.
In the immediate vicinity around the MLK FAME center, the demographic is an older population. The center is currently working on seeking a donation of a van to transport young students there from their schools.
While there are offerings for seniors, including a meet-up group for senior women to discuss topics related to their demographic, as well as computer classes for seniors, Edna Daigre hopes to help build up that demographic for the center, adding an intergenerational element to the offerings.
Because many community members still don’t know about the center, center representatives have been working with the Greater Madison Valley Community Council and the nearby Valley School to get the word out.
The center also took part in last summer’s Bastille Day festivities.
“You have to build a certain amount of diversity that wasn’t here before,” Edna Daigre said. “Within the next year, [the center] will be very vital to the community.”