Photo by Ty Swenson
Aileen Balahadia, outgoing WCCDA Director (left), and Sili Savusa, who has now taken on the same job. A farewell/welcome party was held at Greenbridge on Friday, Mar. 23

Passing the torch: White Center CDA celebrates Balahadia's tenure and Savusa's future as executive directors

Members of the White Center community, including many familiar faces from the White Center Food Bank and King County Sheriff's Office gathered in Greenbridge on March 23 to celebrate the 8-year tenure of outgoing White Center Community Development Association Executive Director Aileen Balahadia and welcome her replacement, Sili Savusa.

Aileen Balahadia
Balahadia has been with the CDA since their inception in 2004 and said lately has been a time of reflection on those eight years as executive director.

She said the organization started out with focus on building relationships with the community by setting up farmer’s markets, cars shows and “just focusing on bringing people together.”

Next was coming to the aid of small businesses in White Center, she said. “We really wanted to understand what their issues were and how we could connect them to different resources.

“How fun to see the progression of that happen and to see residents start volunteering more,” she said, “to see the business owners get active and working with the Sheriff’s Office, to get some community forums going where people were talking and debating about things like affordable housing, which was sometimes controversial, and then ultimately to start doing some real things.”

Balahadia takes pride in those real things being driven by community input, and said “Since we are a community organization it really just lived out our value about having community-driven priorities.”

Her list of memorable accomplishments includes the renovation of White Center Heights Park, CDA’s management of the Annie E. Casey Foundation Making Connections community change initiative, the launch of the White Center Promise Neighborhoods campaign, organizing work with area schools and the opening of the Unity Village affordable housing project.

As for Sili Savusa taking the reigns as executive director at CDA, Balahadia said, “It was a big decision for me to make (leaving her post)… and there was a lot of uncertainty about what was the future and how would this thing, which was like my baby, where would it go? When the board decided that Sili was the best and right candidate for the job it just made my heart so happy because I was like, ‘This is the perfect way for me to really exit, where you can get this resident leader like Sili who has the same values, has the same passion for this neighborhood and just lives this work more than I ever could – I don’t live in White Center – so that is a big deal.”

Balahadia said she is unsure of her next step in her professional life, waiting until the transition with Savusa is complete before she looks beyond. Looking for a new job “is a job in and of itself,” she said

“I want to give a big thank you (to the White Center residents) for teaching me so much about community and for just making me love family and children,” she said. “That is a life lesson that will never leave. I’m leaving, but that will never leave.”

Sili Savusa
Savusa, a long time community advocate just coming off of a four year stint as the Highline School Board director and most recently the family center coordinator for Southwest Youth and Family Services, will work with Balahadia on their transition throughout the last week of March, and takes the helm in the beginning of April.

“I have always felt like I’ve been part of CDA staff and this has been the go-to group for White Center and community in general, and I have always felt proud of an agency that is built from the community in really helping to maintain those values … of community organizing, community building, safe communities, strong schools, affordable housing – those priorities that we as a community had set forth 15 years ago when the Making Connections initiative started here.

“During my interview process it was great to be able to just speak as a resident which is everything that the CDA is about: resident leadership and being community led” she said. “There (CDA’s) support of me when I ran for school board in helping me build those relationships and putting me in contact with residents and families, I think it is their niche and it is their way of bringing the community together, to be able to build relationships with each other.”

Savusa provided a glimpse into her approach as the new CDA director: “How do we build on the history of White Center that has been here for a long time and preceded the Making Connections Initiative … and all the inclusiveness of now, (including) immigrant refugees and communities of color all integrated and now living in this community?

“I just feel really fortunate and blessed to be in this position now, to continue that work that I know Aileen has held close to her heart, and ultimately making White Center a strong place for families,” Savusa said.

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