In the past week I’ve been to two public hearings: one for the proposed Pembina propane terminal on the Columbia, and one for community input to the Portland Police Department’s new Citizen Oversight and Advisory Board. It’s a strange format for human deliberation. When we go to these hearings to say our piece to decision-makers, we’re not set up to talk with other citizens or to make decisions together. The disconnect stuck out to me because I recently devoured nonviolence advocate Miki Kashtan’s latest book about using dialogue and collaboration as tools of change.
Public dialogues where groups with different agendas can really hear one another are much, much rarer than public “hearings”. And at both hearings I went to, there were people bursting out with audible frustration at not being heard.
In the propane terminal hearing, it was the ironworker union guys. You probably saw them if you were there: about ten young men in dusty orange t-shirts and Pembina hard hats. They were supporting the terminal, and greatly outnumbered. Occasionally calling out disagreement and union slogans, being shushed by environmentalists. They all left right after a faith leader at the mic said that everyone giving pro-terminal testimony had a financial interest, whereas the anti group had the purer motive of protecting the Earth. I think it was intended as a message to the commissioners about shared values, but the ironworkers heard it too.
The tension between “us” and the ironworkers was making me cringe more and more, so I decided to go after them. I want to tell you about the conversation I had because it underlined for me the small miracles that are possible when I choose to act as a leader, even if I am unauthorized by any worldly power.
I was nervous and wondered what to say. The words that came were “I just wanted to tell you, I don’t like the sense here that it’s environmentalists against the union, and I don’t agree with people saying you’re greedy.” (That wasn’t what was said exactly, but I figured that’s what they heard, or close to it.)
I talked for a few minutes with the leader of the group, listening to his grievances. I repeated a few times that I wish we had a better process to talk to each other and I wish we could work together. I told him people on my side want more good jobs, and he volunteered that all his guys love the outdoors. He asked who I was representing at the hearing and I said myself and my church, which interested him. He ended up taking my contact info, saying he wanted to talk more.
The elephant of class dynamics also lumbered into view. The union leader saw himself as up against retirees and “professional protestors” who he perceived as having tons of time for activism, unlike the young workers. That’s valuable information. If we want to expand our coalition and be allies to other movements, we’ve got to spot the barriers and diving lines in terms of class, race, gender and other social hierarchies. I’m grateful for this person pointing out clearly where he saw the line.
Most of all, I was surprised how easy it was to make a connection just by saying how it hurt me to see the divide between us. I hope lots of us will keep reaching out like this. Let’s not just turn out for hearings, but also create and seize opportunities to hear each other.
Anna Barnett is a Quaker from Multnomah Friends Meeting. Starting this summer she will be working at BayNVC, an organization in Oakland, CA that teaches principles and practices for dialogue and collaboration-based leadership.
The EcoFaith Recovery Beyond Fossil Fuels Organizing Team invites you to join us for our monthly Grounding for Action organizing meeting on Tuesday, April 14 at 6:00 to 9:00 p.m. Central Lutheran Church, 1820 NE 21st Ave Portland, OR 97212.
Join Christians and others of good will who are building strength to participate in the fossil fuel resistance movement and who seek spiritual grounding, shared values, common practices, and real relationships from which to act. . . and act powerfully! RSVP here.
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