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Mayor Harrell Nominates Jenifer Chao to be Next Director of Department of Neighborhoods

Today, Seattle Mayor Bruce Harrell announced that he will appoint Jenifer Chao to serve as the next Director of the Department of Neighborhoods (DON). Chao, a community engagement leader, currently serves as the Deputy Director of Strategy and Administration in the City of Seattle’s Finance and Administrative Services. 

Working with the City of Seattle since 2009, Chao has built a reputation as a community collaborator and strong voice for equity and opportunity for youth and historically underserved communities. Chao previously served on the Department of Neighborhoods’ Outreach and Engagement team, where she focused on developing strong and trusted relationships in the Chinatown-International District (CID) through work on the CID Community Vision Workgroup and Sound Transit 3 planning. Chao also served as the Interim Director of the Office of Civil Rights’ Race and Social Justice Initiative and worked in the Human Services Department where she supported the Seattle Youth Employment Program. 

Outside of her service at the City, Chao served five years at the Seattle non-profit Neighborhood House, where she supported people looking to achieve their long-term education and employment goals. 

“The Department of Neighborhoods helps us make real on our One Seattle promise of building thriving, connected communities by engaging directly with neighbors to understand their needs and elevate solutions that improve quality of life for all,” said Mayor Harrell. “With her strong community ties and proven commitment to equity, Jenifer is the type of leader we need driving this department forward to invest in community-driven solutions, respond to the needs of underserved communities with tangible action, and build authentic relationships between City government and the neighbors we serve. I also want to thank Acting Director Sarah Morningstar for stepping up to lead the department during this time of transition.” 

“I am honored and excited to serve as the next Director of the Department of Neighborhoods,” said Chao. “In my 23 years as a public servant, 10 years in the non-profit sector and as a small business owner, and 13 years with the City, I have always served where I am called to make things better for community. As a Southeast Asian immigrant who calls Seattle home, I understand how critical it is for all communities to have access to government so everyone can thrive. I look forward to building on the work of the department to grow strong community partnerships that are grounded in trust, connected to humanity, and centered in relationships.” 

Chao’s nomination follows the selection of Greg Wong to serve as Deputy Mayor of External Relations in August 2022. Wong served as the Interim Director of DON after being appointed by Mayor Harrell in February 2022. 

“Jenifer has worked tirelessly to uplift the voices of Seattle’s diverse communities to ensure they are heard, making her the right leader for the Department of Neighborhoods,” said Deputy Mayor Wong. “I’m confident that she will strengthen the City’s relationship with community members and help us drive progress towards Mayor Harrell’s vision of an equitable, supportive, and inclusive One Seattle.” 

The Department of Neighborhoods (DON) helps the City of Seattle build diverse, thriving communities by connecting residents to each other and government services. The Department provides resources and opportunities for residents to foster community and improve their overall quality of life.  

Popular programs include the P-Patch Community Gardening Program, which serves 3,600 gardeners in 90 community-managed gardens across the City, and the Historic Preservation Program, which oversees the protection of sites and objects of historic, cultural, and social importance. The department also invests in community-led projects through the Food Equity Fund and Neighborhood Matching Fund; supports numerous boards and commissions; and engages with neighbors to strengthen relationships. 

What People Are Saying 

Kathleen Barry Johnson, Executive Director, Historic South Downtown 

“Jenifer understands that the health and vibrancy of our neighborhoods is something to be nurtured and supported as it is vital to the health of our entire city. Across all her work, Jenifer has displayed a commitment to listening to the voices of underserved communities, helping City government work better for ordinary people who may not have access to power. I believe she will harness the power of community relationships to provide meaningful support for our neighborhoods.” 

Raft Hollingsworth, Owner & CEO Hollingsworth Cannabis Company 

“Jenifer is an excellent choice for this position. She will be a champion to bridge government and community because right now there aren’t many channels for people to communicate with government and power. When she visited our farm, she really did the work to listen and understand problems at a grassroots level, and I believe her commitment to include all voices will make her a strong advocate for our communities.” 

Pradeepta Upadhyay, Executive Director for Interim CDA

“We are enthusiastic to hear about the news that Mayor Harrell has hired Jenifer Chao as the director of the Department of Neighborhoods. Our experience working with Jenifer has been only positive, as she has always listened to the neighborhood’s underrepresented voices. More importantly, Jenifer has always supported a bottom-up process in planning within our community. In her work in the Chinatown International District (CID), she helped bridge the disparate voices in our neighborhood by facilitating conversations between diverse groups. Communities like the CID, built by the labor of immigrants, people of color, and the most marginalized, need leadership that Jenifer can bring to the City, especially critical ones like the Department of Neighborhoods. Jenifer will listen and help facilitate working and thriving partnerships with City leaders to make Seattle a livable city for all. She understands the systemic racism that has harmed the lives of communities of color and will work to help repair that damage. We know she will show up and do all she can to make all communities thrive.”