The mayor is not seeking re-election. The school superintendent has resigned. The police chief was pushed aside by the city council. The coronavirus pandemic has left us isolated. Downtown is desolate. Where and how we work is being transformed. Many essential workers are struggling mightily to keep up and pay the bills. Our infrastructure systems are inadequately maintained. First responders are overloaded and stretched thin. Campers have taken over many of our parks, greenspaces and sidewalks, preventing others from accessing them safely. Ideological and political divides are pushing us further and further into our dogmatic corners.
Herein, opportunity presents itself.
The urban theorist Richard Florida argues that cities and surrounding regions will thrive as we move beyond the pandemic, just as they have following previous calamities: “Covid-19 is a once-in-a-century catastrophe, but it also hands us a once-in-a-century opportunity to rebuild communities to be more equitable and more inclusive, as well as more livable.”
America has lifted itself from calamity before and, unexpectedly, created a more equitable and inclusive society. Robert Putnam and Shaylyn Romney Garrett document these sweeping recoveries in their new book, The Upswing: How America Came Together a Century Ago and How We Can Do It Again. They propose a return to a “we” approach to public policy, business practices, and community affairs — a new communitarian mindset, if you will, instead of the intense “I” focus that permeates American society today.
Religious leaders are making the same plea. Pope Francis, in his latest book, Let Us Dream: The Path to a Better Future, encourages new approaches to bridge our divides, focused on making the world safer, fairer, and healthier for everyone. Rabbi Jonathan Sacks in Morality: Restoring the Common Good in Divided Times traces today’s crises to the loss of a strong, broadly shared moral code and the elevation of self-interest over the common good.
From Ideological Extremes to Common Purpose
So, while Seattle’s city government is adrift, consumed by the tyranny of the urgent and ideological extremes, and, in my opinion, lacking a broadly shared overall vision for where the city is headed, let’s grab this opportunity to cast a new vision of the city we want to build for an equitable and inclusive future for everyone.
I would guess most Seattleites desire an economically and culturally vibrant city built on a foundation of excellent schools, clean energy, efficient and diverse transportation options, affordable housing, and robust arts and sports entertainment. I also believe we sincerely want to tackle two of the most persistent challenges we face – racial inequity and how best to help those living unsheltered.
So, here’s some vision casting for your consideration; hopefully, it stimulates further discussion.
Confessing Original Sins
Let’s start by being a city that openly acknowledges our nation’s original sins of slavery and the vicious slaughter and horrible treatment of Native Americans, and the persistent racism these sins birthed — real estate redlining, mass incarceration of nonviolent offenders, police violence, banking discrimination, public education that leaves so many behind, to name just a few. These racist practices and policies became woven into the fabric of our daily lives, crushing in their consequences. If we committed to honestly wrestle with this history, we would be guided by the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s warning, “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” We would give voice to those most affected by these wrongs, work to mend the damage, and make economic investments designed to build opportunity and wealth within the affected communities — a form of 21st Century reparations, if you will. We would be a city that reaches high toward racial equity and justice for all.
Focus on Children
How about a city that so loves, nourishes and invests in all of our children that they soar and push the limits of their potential? If this were our vision, we would follow the science of early child development in the all-important birth-to-five window of opportunity, making sure every child gets the strong and fair start they deserve. We’d do that by making high-quality, affordable, and accessible childcare available to working parents, so no family pays more than 7% of their household income for the childcare they need. We would provide free, high-quality, universal preschool to our three- and four-year-olds so every child enters kindergarten ready to learn, erasing the kindergarten-readiness gap that today sees one-third of all Seattle children and one-half of children of color start school already behind. Tragically, kids who start behind often stay behind, which is why it is so crucial to invest early in what works best to prepare kids for kindergarten.
And, we would erase the racial inequity that has existed in our public K-12 schools for far too long, a dysfunctional system that every year leaves behind about a quarter of our children of color when they fail to graduate from high school. Done right, these efforts would buttress the work of parents and — as the evidence clearly shows — would achieve measurable and wonderful outcomes for our kids: higher education achievement, fewer teen pregnancies, less involvement in the criminal legal system, better health and higher earning power as adults. These steps alone would transform lives and be a major step toward racial equity and lasting economic prosperity.
How about a city that continues to pursue public policies designed to strengthen economic opportunity, as we did with the higher minimum wage and paid sick-and-safe leave, while also, and importantly, honoring our small and large businesses and applauding their job creation? A city that nourishes a win-win compact between employers and employees — businesses thrive and acknowledge their employees as their most valued asset and treat them as such with excellent wages, strong benefits, and long-term retention and development plans. Too idealistic? Take a look at those local companies that have already created exemplary win-win work environments — Costco, Dick’s Drive-In Restaurants, Expedia, Nordstrom, Zillow, Alaska Air, Redfin, PCC Community Markets, to name just a few.
Justice for All
How about a city that has a criminal legal system that values the dignity and worth of every person, those engaged in criminal behavior and their victims? If this were our vision, we would be a city where our police officers worked diligently as true partners with the natural guardians who live, work, study, and play in our neighborhoods. This would be a city where law enforcement focused primarily on those offenders causing the most harm, especially crimes of violence and crimes directed against our most vulnerable residents — children, the elderly and disabled, immigrants, those experiencing homeless, and those living in poverty. A city where everyone respected and valued our police officers because of their exemplary behavior of dignity and fairness toward everyone. A city where we first and foremost sought reconciliation and restorative justice, but also held offenders accountable to protect the health and safety of all.
How about a city that recognized the oppressive harms of untreated substance abuse disorder and mental health crises and offered truly on-demand, medically-based treatment services instead of leaving people to fend for themselves wandering our streets, living unsheltered, some preying on others and causing further harms? This would be a city that stopped waiting, hoping some other level of government would step in with a solution. We would step up and act to solve this very obvious problem by providing the evidence-based help needed, starting with safe off-the-street housing, like tiny houses, rented hotel rooms, and more enhanced, 24-hour shelter. At the same time, and very importantly, we would stop ignoring, excusing or allowing ourselves to be paralyzed by the harmful criminal acts some of these same individuals commit, a tolerance that has created chaos in parts of the city and caused many to lose confidence in the city government’s ability to keep our neighborhoods safe.
Paying Attention to Basics
How about a city that carefully tended its environment and infrastructure — increasing our tree canopy, preserving open space and parks for all to enjoy, maintaining in good order our bridges, roadways, bike and pedestrian pathways, community centers and sports fields, sewer and storm systems, electrical grid, and our Tolt and Cedar clean watersheds? A city with a maintenance and repair plan rigorously followed and funded, a far less expensive approach in the long run than emergency repairs.
Moving Taxation into the 21st Century
Thinking even more boldly, how about a city that champions across the state a fair and equitable tax system to modernize Washington’s unjust, inadequate, and antiquated system that extracts a higher percentage of household income from our poorest families than it does from our wealthiest? As our local economist and nationally recognized state tax expert Dick Conway has said, “If you want to address income inequity, adopt a state income tax and eliminate all other state and local taxes.” A tax system created in the early 1900s can’t adequately, nor equitably, serve our needs today. We would be a city known for advocating tax modernization based on fairness and sensitivity to our current economic systems and practices.
Lifting Up the Common Good
How about a city that unites around the common good, works to understand different opinions, and practices the politics of inclusion and compromise without the divisive rancor and personal attacks so common today? A city that restores the “we” spirit Putnam and Garrett describe, and that Pope Francis and Rabbi Sacks have prayed for. A city where people come together to achieve shared goals, just like we’ve done in the past with the cleanup of Lake Washington in the late 1950s which stopped the discharge of 20 million gallons of raw sewage into the lake every day; the adoption of Forward Thrust in 1968 that created community centers, fire stations, swimming pools and expanded parks across the city; the Sound Transit light rail system being built now; voter approval in 2018 of the Seattle Promise free community college benefit; and the remodeling of our libraries and fire stations in recent years.
How about a city with elected officials who cared more about the effective and efficient delivery of city services — about governing — than about advancing their own political careers or scoring points with the radical fringes of our political landscape? A city where people viewed city government as consistently and effectively getting good things done for everyone. A city where we valued the common good above all else. Imagine what we could do and what it would mean.
Just imagine. A child born in Seattle immediately cared for not just by her parents, family, and neighbors, but by an economy that gives her parents time off to nurture her and quality childcare and prekindergarten services that foster her development and allows her parents to continue working. As she grows, she attends an excellent public school that works equally well for everyone, regardless of the color of their skin. She enjoys parks and playgrounds as a healthy way to meet friends and stay active. She witnesses the most vulnerable among us protected and cared for. She knows the police officers and firefighters in her neighborhood, and they know her and understand her family and their community values. As she enters the workforce as an adult, she finds many well-paying jobs to choose from at iconic Seattle businesses.
Is that too hard to imagine? I don’t believe so. Yes, sometimes Seattle’s government and political environment can feel like it’s locked in a hamster wheel, constantly moving, yet not progressing. We — you and I — can change that with a compelling vision for the future, a future based on shared values and an unwavering commitment to the evidence of what works to strengthen the common good.
This is my vision for Seattle. What’s yours?