I’ve spent the last six months researching exemplary sustainability projects around the Pacific Northwest. All of these projects reflect sustained grassroots efforts, multiple stakeholder engagements, and a powerful commitment to addressing diversity, equity, and inclusion, as well as environmental sustainability. These are challenging projects. They require perseverance, patience, resilience, deliberation, consensus-building, and shared leadership. They are urban and rural, place-based and long-term. It will take years, perhaps even decades before we can measure their impact and influence. I’ll name the eight that I’m writing about: Yesler Terrace Project (Seattle; see also the Yesler Community Collaborative), Puyallup Watershed Initiative (Tacoma), Living Cully (Portland), Community Conversations (Walla Walla), Blackfoot Challenge (Montana), Garden City Harvest (Missoula), the Centerpole Project (Crow Nation), and Sustainable Southeast Partnership (Tongass, Alaska). In my travels, I’ve encountered dozens more projects as worthy and inspiring as these.
On the morning after Election Day, none of these projects disappeared. The hard work continued. The community-based efforts were just as challenging and rewarding as they were the day before the election. The obstacles may be greater, especially as funding initiatives are threatened. And the communities of color, immigrant families, and all of the disenfranchised are more vigilant than ever. But everyone that I spoke to emphasized a new resolve, a compelling solidarity, and an even deeper love for their work. They expressed an openness to work even more closely together, to strengthen their ties, to reach out in new and more innovative ways.
Openness and vigilance. That’s what I felt after the election. Is it possible that the anticipatory threats we fear might present new possibilities for wisdom and action? Or that we’ll reach new levels of compassion and action? In the days following the election, every email I received, whether from distressed friends or grassroots organizations, expressed a renewed commitment and vigor, a belief in people, a desire to be more open and understanding. No one underestimated the devastating possibilities, the necessity of vigilance in the face of ignorance and prejudice, the tangible threats to communities of color and the ecosystem, the prospects of deeper divides amidst the clouds of unknowing. Gary Snyder once described nationalism as “the grinning ghost of lost community.” What a penetrating analysis of our contemporary challenge. How do we overcome the false promises, the delusional divisions, the desperate clinging to an idealized past that never really existed? The projects I’m exploring reflect a sustained commitment to local community—community extended, amplified, and found.
I still wake up at 3 a.m. and worry about Trump’s appointments. I worry about the sensibility, the values, and the image that he projects. I search for glimpses of humility, sensitivity, and care in his demeanor. I realize how trapped I’ve become in the melodrama of CNN and The New York Times, checking the news multiple times a day, just as I was obsessed with the daily election polls. These superficial narratives are epic in their grandiosity, hype, and superlatives, but utterly lacking insight and wisdom. Perhaps those obsessions are reflections of my own grinning ghosts.
The greatest danger is that we let the insipid messages of fear and division into our own hearts, and we succumb to the polarizing, attention-deficit, manufactured news of spinners, propagandists, and marketers. Is it far-fetched to say that Trump’s election is a failure of our educational system, a failure of the press, and even a failure of democracy? As Alison Deming suggests, a quarter of America’s voters is hardly a mandate. And I’m convinced that many of these voters were unhappy with their choices. Reforming education, reconnecting communities, revitalizing democracy, and restoring ecosystems are connected healing projects. We must continue to reach out, stretch ourselves, ask better questions, and listen well.
We have an incredible amount of important work to do. It starts in our classrooms and communities, in our daily conversations and ambient encounters. Nothing matters more than engaging in meaningful conversations about things that matter. We don’t have to agree. But we can listen and understand. This isn’t a naive dream. I’m well aware that there are some who won’t listen and are happily arrogant in their views. The dangers are as real as the opportunities. That’s why we must stay open and vigilant. The work continues. It always has. All four of my Jewish grandparents left Russia in fear of pogroms. They made better lives in New York City. They were open to new possibilities just as they stayed forever vigilant. One hundred and ten years later our prospects are simultaneously enhanced and diminished. There are always more lessons to be learned. And as ever, our learning begins anew. That’s what makes for successful projects and that’s how we restore our communities. The election won’t change that.
Sustainability Catalyst Fellow
Mural (and photo of mural) of bald eagle by Jake Seven. Photo of Mitchell Thomashow courtesy Mitchell Thomashow.