Partner Blog Post

Two Perspectives on Painting this Conservative Town Green

Perspective One: Bart Mihailovich

Spokane’s urban environment was the gathering place this past Saturday for what might be looked back upon as one of the seminal moments in our people’s unwavering aspiration to become more sustainable and community oriented.  For it was on Spokane’s “Hip Strip” block that for one glorious sunny day we were given a place to celebrate and interact with one another - not just about the issues and problems we face but interaction through participation in solutions and engagement in caring for our place on this Earth.

Spokane’s “Earth Day: Takin’ it to the Streets”, was an all-day extravaganza made possible by a dedicated organizing committee who utilized the talents and energy of dozens of volunteers and organizations, but that first and foremost had the foresight to recognize a community’s desire to work together.

Moving away from the friendly confines of our city’s central park gathering place where it had been held in year’s past, this year’s event took place on the streets and sidewalks of West Main St., home of the Community Building (powered completely by solar energy) and the Main Market co-op, two shining examples of how far the city has come and how far it still needs to go.

At no time on Saturday did the good vibe and infectious energy seep away from the scene.  In fact there was such a strong pace set that the rest of 2010 suddenly feels more optimistic, a feeling that was all but gone from the first three months of the year.

Spokane as a city and a community has a beautiful story to tell - it’s the art of storytelling where we often lose focus.  But at Earth Day Spokane, that focus was never sharper. The dozens of organizations, and scores of community leaders and Earth stewards were able to take the concept of caring for the environment and the social issues that surround such concerns and use them as an opportunity to celebrate.

But we’re not naive, we know that after Earth Day we’re still going to have a long list of critical issues that we need to educate ourselves on and we know that there will be struggles to improve the way we live in order to do what’s best for the planet, but Saturday was about connections and relationships and that is always reason enough to celebrate.

Living in Spokane we are afforded an abundance of opportunities to enjoy our connection to the environment, but sadly not enough opportunities to enjoy our connection to the community.  And over the last year or so, far from enough opportunities to overpower the sad reality and dreary outlook gained from paying even a little bit of attention to the national political and social scene.

Which is what made our Earth Day event more important than ever.  It was our opportunity to get back to what we believe in and get back to the simple basics.   Because at its core, there’s not much psychoanalyzing needed to understand why Earth Day is important – it’s just readily apparent why it’s good and what it’s good for.  And with a simple, yet eloquent quote from Spokane Mayor Mary Verner, it was pretty easy to understand why we were there. “Walk for what you walk on,” the Mayor proclaimed in her speech to the crowd.  And so we will, we’ll go forward walking strong and walking tall.  For Saturday created great hope and optimism.  Not just affirmation that we know how to throw one helluva street fair in Spokane, but affirmation that we’re all willing to be present in the trials and tribulations together, and in turn be there to celebrate the successes with one anohter.

A great friend of the Spokane community and of Mother Earth, Brian Estes, commented before Earth Day that, “a real community is one that’s willing to be present to the whole picture and to engage in it and to allow things to be challenging.”  That’s what we learned last Saturday – we learned a little bit more about who we are and about where we’re at.  We learned that we’re not perfect and that we have problems.  But we also learned that our problems are OK to have and that by simply engaging where we’re at and learning to do better, we’re learning our potential with more clarity. As Brian Estes would say, “that’s true progress, not just fixing everything, but recognizing the  value of what we have.”
What we have is legacy and that wonderful story to tell.  We’re a community with incredible groundwork laid by people who worked hard and struggled against significant challenges.  While it may seem like it has taken forever to show, we’re in the midst of a paradigm shift because of that groundwork– and how we engage that shift will tell us a lot about where we’re going and how we’ll get there.  We wouldn’t be genuine if we didn’t stay true to our roots of conservation and for that reason alone we as a community must continue to urge this paradigm shift to happen in a way that makes sense within our existing culture.  As the always spot on Brian Estes put it, “we must make changes and grow in ways that are attentive to what Spokane is, and what Spokane isn’t.  And we must balance and honor our heritage, and know ourselves and say that we can move forward and take the opportunity to better become the community we have the potential to be.”  A big step towards realizing that potential was taken on Saturday – all we can do is hope that many more steps follow – and faster.

Perspective Two: Paul K. Haeder

We love to be boosters, to see the horizon clear and open, to consider the glass half-filled, and in some way, Spokane is like other cities that have to frame their own narratives with a lot of glory so all the inertia and the incremental change fits the modus operandi of all that baby-stepping.
Imagine that, trying to move mountains and run with the global warming message and planning for a world without ice, West Nile virus in downtown Seattle, and a world of environmental refugees at our doorstep but so hobbled by slow-to-act feet. That’s Spokane, yet on the same token Spokane is a young city, one that has lived through the disenfranchisement of its Salish people, first nations tribes that had trade routes and ceremony, who survived winters with deer meat mixed in with salmon flesh and learned camas digging and who saw the holy cathedrals of the Columbia and Spokane rivers’ falls diminish by white men and their silver salmon — as big as Romanian gymnasts — pushed out of the ecosystem. Out of their dreams.

This place is Spokan, the Salish word that means several things, all dealing with light and sun refractions. It’s a poetic device showing us how the sun hits this part of the Pacific Northwest much of the year. Literally, the word Spokane is a poetic leitmotif – “the way the sun is splashing up through the pure water off the back of brother salmon.”

Spokane made its mark through railroad spurs running the resource plunder of wood, ore and other products throughout the northern region of a new America. Spokane is both pedestrian and full of charm, broken up in a river divide, recipient of subsidized school lunches en mass , and is home to individualists and a population bifurcated between wanting a little bit of Portland and those wanting the Ozzie and Harriet myth that never was.

Voted one of the USA’s best little town for years, even the Spokesman Review daily rag had the same sort of moniker – best mid-sized daily in the country. Yet, the scandal of this place is the hard work of young people and long-in-the-tooth forest and fish people having to fight for recognition in a town of good old boy politics, a place where fast-food purveyors test market new menu items for Carl’s Junior and McDonald’s alike.

The 1970 World’s Fair here reshaped the future of Spokane, and for all intents and purposes it was a green World’s Fair. That is the hallmark of the town on one side. Movement now is toward complete streets a la new urbanism. Additionally, the river runs through it is more than a concept, more than an idea: the Spokane River is polluted but revered, and people are working to create a kayak park as well as mitigate the toxic tailings from Idaho and Montana mining.

Earth Day 2010 was successful, and the SWOT analysis isn’t necessary now; however, this city could be a test market for reinventing itself – the Inland northwest’s largest community from Seattle to Minneapolis, the Metropolitan Service Area is brimming with 300,000 people, the county at 435,000. The coniferous forests and lakes and wild areas are still here. There are incredible opportunities for recreation and green job and green economics. There is a inkling of international flavor as Canada to the north and sister cities peppered throughout the world could make Spokane move toward a sustainable community, one with permaculture and transition city components.

Less than two years ago, Spokane became a city with a government dedicated to both a climate change and peak oil combined action plan. We have colleges and universities as feeders of innovation. The stumbling block is the best little town USA label, I believe, and boosterism that fails to deliver much, and a population that is both aging and turning young. People want to stay here because of the potential for real change, a real Earth Day sort of volley into the 21st Century.

Can it be done as the State of Washington, like 13 other states, is slashing education budgets, killing extension agencies, and putting a stranglehold on young people’s futures? Maybe that part of the SWOT – Threats – will turn into Opportunities wrest control of the political arena as well as shape the cultural landscape. The Weakness is the weakness in America now, torn between hope that fossil fuel and coal and nuclear can still be our source of economic drive and those who see beyond green and LEED buildings.

Spokane is hobbled but full of Strengths in that the community is ready to reinvent itself, is ready to go beyond green washing and eco-prostitution and moving into a living world, a living city, one that encapsulates the very diversity the city for so many decades fought to embrace.

No si se puede here, in Spokane. We already had public speech banned in 1909, when 500 Wobblies were arrested for unionizing and talking. Spokane, the strangest little town in America. Or at least that’s what native sons Jess Walter and Sherman Alexie have to say.

We spoke, we traveled the long road, and we are here ready to confront the politics of fear and the nonsense of illogic. In three weeks, Robert F. Kennedy, Jr. will be here to inaugurate the newest river keeper in the country, here, in Spokane, to protect a river that is now more than a symbol, but the artery of “the movement” toward sustainability, toward Earth Justice.