Civic Salvos: What Is .vs. What Is Possible

We’re stuck!

With all of the options out there to act on our ideals, we are mostly still just looking at 75 different ways we can react.  Media and advocacy groups daily describe things that are going terribly wrong, which means most of us are lingering in the realm of what is.   We look at things from the point of view of the status quo, then decide what choices we have.  This can be a grim way to operate.

Another way to look at the world is through the lens of what would be ideal.  Then we can begin to negotiate between the two, not just pushing against things we don’t like, but picturing what would make our lives better, and working methodically toward them.  This is a more effective, powerful position to take, so I am mystified by why I don’t see more of it.

That is why I want to celebrate three of our city’s movement builders who are taking the time to craft a better world, strategizing for substantial, meaningful change.

  1. Take Back your Time starts with the question, “What do we need to live happy, healthy, satisfying lives?”  The conclusion they come to is that most of us need more time for ourselves.  This doesn’t seem like much, but in a culture where people humblebrag that they can’t get enough sleep because they are so busy, many people do not consider less work to be an impressive aspiration.  Take Back your Time begs to differ.  Here’s why we need more time.  Sleep is not a luxury.  Having time to cook real meals from scratch is not a luxury.  Spending time with your kids is not a luxury.  And taking time off is not a luxury.  No matter who you are or what you do, we are social animals and we need to be with each other. We need to make the space in our minds and lives for growth, change, love, exploration, art, and a million other things that make us and keep us human.  Take Back your Time strives to achieve this.
  2. Working Washington sprung from the rib of a union.  Like other unions, Service Employees International Union was fighting a losing battle for decades.  Systematic union busting was working.  Membership was declining.  But SEIU is different.  They have a unique, visionary style. They engage in the usual ways of supporting their members, both negotiating with employers and helping to elect those who have the best interests of their members in mind.  This is what collective power is all about.  But they realized that to see more success, they were going to have to change the context of workers’ lives from the outside, and fight for a fair economy.  Working Washington started with a listening campaign. They knocked on 10,000 doors in the South Seattle area and heard working people’s stories.  What they found out was that SeaTac, the airport run by the Port of Seattle, which ostensibly works for us, was the source of poverty wage jobs—jobs that not so long ago had provided a good living to families in the area.  That changed when the airlines subverted all collective bargaining had achieved, and subcontracted everything—baggage, fueling, concessions.  Those contracts went to the lowest bidding companies.  It was a race to the bottom for thousands.  People were struggling to support their families, working two or three jobs, but still unable to escape poverty.  So Working Washington first supported the workers in another attempt at bargaining.  Cutting to the chase, the Port, Alaska Airlines, and the subcontractors all failed to negotiate, so the workers took their plight to the people with a visionary suggestion—people should be able to earn a living wage.  The voters in the City of SeaTac won a historic $15 an hour minimum wage, showing that it is possible.  At the same time, fast food workers sparked a movement in Seattle, winning the support of the City Council and the mayor.  They won because they weren’t afraid to picture the world as it should be, and fight for that vision.
  3. Backbone Campaign is a national organization based on Vashon Island.  Full disclosure: I’m serve as their board president.  That is how I happen to know that they have begun the process of picturing what our area would look like with a robust rail transportation system. One way to derail (heh heh) the “jobs” argument for coal export through Washington is to invest in strategic rail transportation upgrades.  Solutionary Rail envisions a revitalized, 21st century, sustainable, electrified rail system.  Rather than posing a threat to world climate, as rail does using diesel and potentially carrying more fossil fuels, Solutionary Rail demonstrates how to meet transportation needs with vast reductions in carbon emissions.  First, Electrify rail lines in the Northwest.  Worldwide, about 50 percent of freight rail ton-miles are powered by electricity.  This is energy efficient and a green job producer.  Second, increase investment in rail infrastructure and track maintenance. Third, leverage electrification to build renewable generation such as wind farms, as well as transmission lines to deliver electricity. Fourth, move freight and passengers from roads to rail, which uses the rail lines to capacity, severely constricting room for coal and oil transport.  Sustainable rail networks will provide a resilient foundation for locally-based economic activities that create wealth, stable employment, and prosperous communities.

These are real proposals created by serious people.  The difference between them and much of the progressive left is that they offer something concrete to work on, instead of business as usual within the realm of what is, which more often than not leaves us grappling with impotent rage.  Rather, these organizations and initiatives give us, the people, something to move toward, and a better future to look forward to.  If these stories have a take-home message, it is this:  Next time you are feeling beaten down by the news, or by emails from an advocacy organization, spend some time looking for the rare few who paint a vivid picture of the world that is possible, instead of bickering over the world that is.

Sandra Vanderven is a Community Organizer and Board President of the Backbone Campaign.

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