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Don’t complain, participate

May 28, 2016

This past week I traveled to Spokane, WA, to testify at a public hearing on the Draft Environmental Impact Statement for the Millennium Bulk Terminals, a proposed coal export facility to be located along the Columbia River. I testified because I believe strongly that increasing coal train traffic through Montana and Washington to support a dying industry unnecessarily puts people at risk who live in areas cut off from emergency response vehicles when trains pass by–not to mention the environmental impacts of increasing fossil fuel consumption.

Hundreds of people showed up at the hearing to state their views. To the left of the hearing committee sat proponents in a sea of light-blue, sporting t-shirts with the slogan “BUILDING IT RIGHT: WASHINGTON JOBS.” I sat in the middle of the auditorium amidst a swath of red, among the opponents. Those in blue shirts advocated for the 135 new full-time jobs that would be associated with the port as well as the coal mining jobs that would be preserved in the Powder River Basin that spans the Montana-Wyoming border. Those in red shirts stood up to cite the traffic delays, rise in greenhouse gas emissions, and health hazards posed by coal dust blowing off of the uncovered trains as they rumble from coal mines to coast through countless towns and cities. One opponent held up a jar of coal dust she had gathered from areas of her town that lie along the rail lines (coal cars travel uncovered) while another pleaded for the panel to deny the permit on behalf of her asthmatic son, who suffers from the coal dust.

While those of us on either side of the aisle held differing opinions on the proposed project, we had one important characteristic in common: we cared enough to stand up and speak. We took the time to analyze and opine on an issue of concern to ourselves and our families, engaging in an important public process.

One of the major criticisms I maintain about our political institutions does not have to do with flawed processes or officials but with ordinary people. Most folks seem to have forgotten that we are part of the establishment in this country–we have an important part to play, but we rarely play it.  We allow ourselves to believe that our voice doesn’t matter, that it won’t be heard, but that simply isn’t true. One by one, each of the proposed coal export facilities in Washington have been denied permits thanks to all of the ordinary people who have come out by the hundreds to testify against them. Government and big business have not prevailed in this case, and they do not have to prevail in others–but it’s up to people to speak up and act on behalf of our beliefs. Griping at politicians on TV doesn’t count. We need to inform ourselves about decisions being made at the local and national levels and tell our representatives what we think about those decisions so that they can act accordingly–and they will act accordingly if they know what their constituents care about.

The problem is not with our system, it’s with our lack of engagement with our system–it’s with our “I can’t make a difference so why bother trying” attitude. That attitude is defeating our spirits and killing our country, which could very well be the vibrant democracy it was intended to be if more people stood up, took notice, and took action. It’s time we get off our laurels (and our entertainment devices) and decide to do something about the issues we care about.

We can’t wait for the next president to make change because it’s not up to him or her to do so–it’s up to us. Participating in a democracy requires more than voting at election time. It requires continued, consistent engagement with the decision-making processes that are constantly ongoing in our communities. If we simply leave that work up to our elected officials, then we can’t complain when other voices win out over our own. Special interest groups remain in constant contact with legislators, so when we don’t remain in touch, we shouldn’t be surprised when their voices win out over ours.

Instead of scrolling through your Facebook feed in your down time, browse the webpages of your elected officials; read the newspaper; listen to public radio; check out your local government websites. Find out what issues are up for vote and let your representatives know what you think about those issues. Make phone calls. Write letters. Attend hearings. Join organizations that will keep you abreast of decisions that matter to you. Be a part of the process, don’t just watch it from the sidelines and then wonder why it’s going awry.

And, lastly, respect those whose opinions differ from your own. We must do better at engaging in dialogue rather than deadlock if we hope to move our country forward. If we genuinely listen to one another with an ear for understanding and not just an ear for arguing, we can come to mutually agreeable solutions to many of our problems. We can learn from one another. Assuming the other side is ignorant is snobbish; even if others are ignoring obvious facts, it is not out of stupidity that they do so but out of genuine fear for what change will mean for them and their families. If we fail to understand that fear and come up with ways to ameliorate it, we will continue down the divisive path that is already damaging our democracy.


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