It started with a student’s vision. Samiksha Singh, a rising fifth grader at Bryant Montessori, wrote a story about cleaning up litter on the Hilltop for a youth writing contest sponsored by the Hilltop Action Coalition. In it, a student named Luna felt she couldn’t do anything about the litter she saw every day on her way to school in Hilltop. But one day, she decided to start picking up the trash, and sure enough, a whole community soon came out to help her. Singh’s story was published, along with several other students’ pieces, in the Hilltop Action Journal. They were invited to read at a recent coalition luncheon. But perhaps the most important outcome is that her story spawned a real-life effort: Luna’s Hilltop Cleanup Crew.
Tagging along with a group of volunteers on a hot June day, I got to see Hilltop Action Coalition (or HAC, for short) in action (or “HAC-tion,” as members fondly call it). The new clean-up crew meets two Saturdays a month to pick up litter in a neighborhood once known for its drugs and gang violence, and now transforming, but always at the heart of Tacoma.
As Samishka and her family, along with a group of dedicated volunteers, hit the clean-up trail, I learned that Samishka’s mother, Mrs. Sapna Singh, is an educator at Bryant, and Samishka’s experience attending school in the neighborhood inspired her story. Having collected several bags of trash in an hour or so, seeing the tangible result was indeed satisfying. However, I realized that this event is also a metaphor for what the Action Coalition does: responding to community visions, and turning individual voices into collective power.
As we all paused for water and snacks near Ferry Park, office coordinator Jennifer Stolle told me more about the coalition’s history. Stolle began as a volunteer at HAC following the 2016 election, when some soul-searching led her to make a career change to doing meaningful work in her community. A mother of two and veteran, Stolle began volunteering at the HAC office, and so impressed everyone that she became the first paid staff member at HAC in a while. Stolle, like the other volunteer board of directors and block leaders who make up HAC, invest countless hours into helping Hilltop residents live in the best community possible through advocacy, partnering with local agencies, and publishing the Hilltop Action Journal, which serves as the communication pulse of the area.
As a 501(c)(3) non-profit, HAC hosts meetings and a full calendar of activities to serve Hilltop’s 12,000-plus residents. For example, they are involved in the 2025 Literary Festival promoting literacy, the upcoming Hilltop Street Fair, National Night Out and so many more events that bring pride and unity to Hilltop.
On a recent visit to the HAC office on Earnest S. Brazill Street, I got to chat with William Towey, the volunteer outreach coordinator for HAC. For many years, Towey told me, Hilltop residents faced serious safety issues. The Hilltop Action Coalition was formed in the wake of the 1989 “Ash Street Shootout” by neighbors to literally reclaim their streets. While these issues are not gone (residents come into the HAC office for direct services, where they are connected with Associated Ministries and other groups), the focus of HAC has changed and expanded to deal with issues of gentrification, empowerment and helping current residents be engaged in the economic change in the area rather than being displaced by it. While Hilltop has long been a site with a lack of economic resources, it has equally been a place of grassroots change, dating back to the Civil Rights movement and before. Hearing Towey and Stolle talk about all the renewed energy HAC has gathered in recent years, one sees this grassroots spirit is alive and thriving.
By all accounts, board president Brendan Nelson has brought terrific new energy to the group. A dynamic young leader, he has brought skilled new board members to HAC, joining long-time standouts such as Tacoma icon Fletcher Jenkins. At the time of our interview, Nelson, who also serves as a minister, was in Eastern Washington with a youth group.
Towey says of Nelson: “Brendan grew up in Hilltop. He represents a younger generation of community leaders who get involved and lead through personal action.” Brendan has built a strong vision to help steward HAC and Hilltop residents in the years to come.
Despite the small size of HAC compared to the scope of problems the Hilltop area has faced – or perhaps because of this – the group brings to mind the famous quote by social reform pioneer Margaret Mead: “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.”
How can you get involved with the Hilltop Action Coalition? HAC needs and welcomes your support through your time, talents and donations. You don’t have to live in Hilltop – residents from across Tacoma are welcome provided you are committed to making a positive change. Pick up a copy of the Hilltop Action Journal. And perhaps most importantly, as William Towey notes, come to one of the monthly Area-Wide Community Meetings to get involved.
Check out this video about Hilltop Action Coalition made by local videographer Bryson Foster. You can learn more about HAC on their website and follow them on Facebook to keep up with news and events.