Building Community from Conflict – By John Kitzhaber, M.D.

John Kitzhaber

“Eventually, all things merge into one, and a river runs through it. The river was cut by the world’s great flood and runs over rocks from the basement of time. On some of those rocks are timeless raindrops. Under the rocks are the words, and some of the words are theirs. I am haunted by waters”.(1)

I am haunted by waters, and by rivers. It has been so ever since I was very young. To me, rivers have served as a metaphor for life, in large part, because they both join us and divide us. There is a reason so many cities, including this one, are built on the banks of rivers. Rivers provide a source of drinking water and water for irrigation; fertile alluvial soils and inland waterways for the transport goods and people. But rivers connect us in deeper and more powerful ways.

Each river has its own timeless story, its own special history, its own geology, and its own community of creatures (both human and otherwise) that depend upon it — all drawing life, livelihood and deeper meaning from its canyon walls, and flowing waters. Rivers capture what words are incapable of expressing—the spirit and essence of who we are; of our relationship to our natural environment and to one another; something intangible yet palpable, ancient yet young and new, the sense of awe and connection we feel when deep in a canyon, especially at night with brilliant stars overhead and the murmur of distant rapids filling the air.

But rivers and the water they carry can also divide us because they generate the same kind of competing goals and aspirations that are reflected in many other issues—whether it is in seeking a more equitable and sustainable health care system, educating our children, ensuring safe communities, creating good, stable jobs, or allocating limited public resources in a way that serves the larger common good. All these issues involve the collision of legitimate economic, social and environmental values.

How we choose to relate to one another as we seek to balance these competing values will either deepen the bonds between—or tear us apart. When we look across the political landscape in our state and nation today, we see the latter—a kind of tribalism, a zero-sum politics of scarcity that always creates winners and losers and undermines community and common cause. When we look at the Deschutes River Conservancy, however— and at local watershed councils across that state—we see the former approach—an effort to find common ground; to balance these competing needs and views from a place of trust, respect, and collaboration, which in the process, builds and strengthens community. Thus, rivers and the allocation of limited water resources involves the same collision of legitimate values and offers a metaphor for—and an example of, how we can resolve conflict in the rest of our society.

Mark Twain once observed: “Whiskey is for drinking; water is for fighting over.” I generally agree with this statement—it has been my experience here in the West — with the possible exception of really good small batch bourbon. That is worth fight for … and, of course, drinking. Be that as it may, perhaps nothing better illustrates Twain’s words than the story of conflict and reconciliation in the Klamath Basin, heavily over-appropriated through a combination of irrigated land, wildlife refuges, tribal trust obligations, and ESA listings.

Although for years the competing water users in the basin were fully aware that there was no margin for drought, they continued to fight with one another, choosing to “plan” through litigation, filing some 15 lawsuits over the course of a decade. When the drought came in 2001, the entire basin was out of balance from an environmental, economic and community standpoint. The resulting conflict produced no winners—only acrimony and bitterness. Farmers lost water and livelihoods; wildlife refuges lost water and biologic function; tribes lost support for habitat improvement and land restoration; state and federal agencies lost credibility; and environmental interests lost support for the ESA and species recovery

When the headgates on the Klamath Irrigation Project were shut off by the Bureau of Reclamation in April 2001, I found myself in a meeting at the Klamath County Fairgrounds with over five angry local residents. It was a tense, highly charged and hostile environment. Schools had been closed that day so more people could attend the meeting and when we drove from the county courthouse to the fairgrounds the streets were lined with people, yelling and bouncing the car. It was the only time in all my years as governor that my security detail insisted I put on a Kevlar vest. I remember standing on a small stage in the fairground arena, feeling the anger and bitterness, the acrimony hit me like a wave—a wave of frustration, fear, and despair.

It reminded me of the recession of the early 1980s when I was practicing in the emergency room in Roseburg Oregon when unemployment in Douglas County exceeded 19%. I saw firsthand what happens proud hard-working people, to no fault of their own, can no longer put food on the table: substance abuse, domestic violence, the disintegration of families. Standing there before that crowd in Klamath Falls was one of the most painful experiences of my life… and also one of the saddest—seeing a community divided against itself, a community engulfed in conflict, a community disintegrating.

But then over the next years, something happened—something mysterious and something also very beautiful. Leaders begin to step up. Leaders began to take risks. Leaders begin to say with determination that they were going to create a different future than the one they faced a decade earlier; that the future need not be dictated by the past; that they were going put the basin back together again for their children and for the place itself. They were going to rebuild community from conflict.

That is exactly what you have done here in the Deschutes River Basin—built community from conflict. It is a powerful achievement and a powerful tool—one that we desperately need to apply on a broader scale to the many other difficult challenges that confront us as a state and a society. Why? Because today those challenges are too often being approached from a place of scarcity, partisanship, and recrimination—an approach that reflects an increasingly dysfunctional political system that is unraveling the fabric of our Oregon community.

On October 30, 2000, the late journalist Tim Russert, during his televised coverage of the presidential election, coined the term “Red States” and “Blue States” to reflect the partisan voter preferences. Unfortunately, this designation found legs and has served ever since as yet another way to artificially define and divide us. If you look at the electoral map of the United States of America what strikes you is how red it is—with only a few islands of blue along the West Coast, in the Northeast and a few patches in between. And one of those islands is Oregon, always shown as a bright patch of blue floating in a sea of red.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

But if you look at a county electoral map of Oregon, what strikes you is how red it is—even redder than that national map—with only a few islands of blue in the Northwest portion of the state.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

But here is the question: What do those colors actually tell us about one another? What do they tell us about our fears, about our hopes, our dreams, our compassion or about the strength of our communities? The answer is “not much.” Does this map suggest—and, more importantly, do any of you really believe—that people living in Eugene, in a “Blue” part of Oregon, care more or less about their children or their jobs or their environment or the safety of their communities or the stability of their families than people who live only a few miles away in a “Red” part of Oregon? The fact is that these colors are artificial distinctions that serve only partisan politics and those who seek to divide us. They do not serve or reflect the shared aspirations of Oregonians—shared aspirations which offer the only foundation on which we can rebuild the Oregon community.

I hear an ancient noise rising in Oregon.

To my ears, it is a raucous, ragged sound. I hear it when I watch parts of the local TV news when I read about some of the new initiative petitions in the newspaper when I open a piece of junk mail urging me to contribute to an “anti-something” campaign. 

It sounds like a hundred drummers with different drums, each beating their own rhythm. It sounds like the cacophony of a hundred tribes, each speaking their own tongue. It sounds like a hundred calls to battle. 

It is the growth of a politics based upon narrow concerns, rooted in the exploitation of divisions of class, cash, gender, region, religion, ethnicity, morality, and ideology; a give-no-quarter and take-no-prisoners activism that demands satisfaction and accepts no compromise.

Those are not my words. But I wish they were because they are so eloquent and so powerful. They were spoken by a close friend and political ally: the late David Frohnmayer: legislator, Oregon Attorney General and Republican candidate for governor. David called this the “New Tribalism,” which he said was “fractionizing politics; tearing apart our common mission and the potential for a hopeful future.”

David made those remarks just four years after the World Wide Web was established and at almost exactly the same time that the Internet was becoming fully commercialized. He delivered this speech ten years before the advent of Facebook, Twitter and other forms of anonymous social media, which now allowed people to attack and demonize one another without directly confronting them, without ever knowing them, without even giving them the benefit of the doubt— truly the ultimate manifestation of the New Tribalism.

How have you managed to overcome this tribalism here in the Deschutes Basin? How have you been able to move beyond partisanship and the artificial distinctions that are tearing our society and our state apart? The answer is as powerful as it is simple. You have been driven by a sense of common purpose.

My entire career in public service has been animated by one central belief—a belief has been validated over and over again—the belief that a hopeful future, an inclusive future, a bright future is the product of a common mission, of a sense of common purpose, of something larger than ourselves; of something that we are all willing to invest in and sacrifice for. Without a common mission, there can be no community and it is the lack of community that makes us susceptible to the kind of tribalism that David Frohnmayer so eloquently described a quarter-century ago.

My career in public service began exactly 40 years ago as a freshman member of the House of Representatives from Roseburg in the 1979 legislative session. And although it might be difficult to imagine if you look at what’s going on in Salem right now—or in the U.S. Congress, there was once a spirit of trust, respect, and collaboration that permeated our public institutions—especially here in Oregon. Almost every evening during the 1979 session, members of both parties, lobbyists and the press would gather at a downtown Salem watering hole called The Hindquarter to discuss the day’s issues, to enjoy each other’s company, to get to know one another as people beyond the politics and partisan labels.

Sitting at the head of the table—presiding with his carafe of rose close at hand—was usually Henny Willis the prolific political reporter for the Eugene Register Guard. You may recognize the names of some of those who, at one time or another, sat at that table: Norma Paulus, Ted Kulongoski, Roger Martin, David Frohnmayer, Mike Thorne, Vera Katz, Tony Meeker, LB Day, Bill Rutherford.

This was an era when civility prevailed in Oregon politics. We fought with each other during the election cycle—took none of it personally (and it was far less personal and mean-spirited than it is today)—and then put all that behind us when the legislature convened. In the spring, we played pick-up softball games: Republicans, Democrats, lobbyists, reporters and, sometimes, members of editorial boards. It was an era when we were Oregonians first and partisans second. We fought about a lot of things but not about the big things … we didn’t fight over transportation or education or public safety. It was a time when your handshake was your bond; when if you were going to vote against someone’s bill you walked across the floor and let them know; a time when you debated passionately during the day and raised a glass to one another at night.

Sadly, we have somehow, lost that adhesiveness … that civility and sense of common purpose. Over the years we have somehow let it slip through our fingers and we are poorer for the loss. And that loss is reflected across our political landscape today. I share this with you simply as a reminder of what we are capable of. There was nothing magic about 1979, except that we chose to be civil. We cannot turn back the clock, I know, but we can make a different set of choices for the future: partisanship is a choice and so is civility.

Our challenge here in Bend—in Portland, Pendleton, Eugene, Coos Bay and in every community across this state of ours—is to remember that we are truly all in this together, that Oregon won’t be a good place for any of us to live unless it’s a good place for all of us to live; and that we cannot build a hopeful future without joining hands in common cause.

Let me close today with one last thought. When I started practicing emergency medicine in Roseburg in 1974, I was 27 years old and just four months out of my internship and, quite honestly, a bit intimidated by my new responsibility. Although that was 45 years ago I still remember three things quite clearly. First, I remember how vulnerable the people were who came to me for medical care. They were sick or injured, frightened and asking for help. And although they didn’t know me that put their trust and, in some cases, their very lives in my hands.

The second thing I remember was that on those occasions when, in spite of all the technology I had at my disposal, I was unable to save a life, I would walk across the hall. The hall ran in from the ambulance ramp and opened on the right through big double doors into the Emergency Room with its sparkling white trauma bays and green-curtained examination rooms. On the other side of the hall was a smaller room with a few chairs and a sofa where the friends and family of those who had been brought in by ambulance waited for news of their loved ones.

Walking across the hall was an almost ritual acknowledgment of failure; and it always felt like a long, lonely hopeless journey to traverse the thirty feet of tiled floor carrying nothing but bad news and compassion to tell someone that their husband or father or daughter—who had come to me for help— was gone. And yet, this poignant intersection of compassion and human mortality is one that each and every one of us must eventually cross.

The third thing I remember is that during the many years I practiced in the ER, there was not a single instance when I checked someone’s party registration before treating them, or noticed whether Democrats bleed differently than Republicans, or wondered whether cardiovascular disease or cancer respected partisanship and political ideology. In this divided nation of ours, in this divided state, the one thing that we indisputably hold in common—and that should draw us together—is our shared mortality. We all share the same brief moment of life and, as Robert Kennedy once said, seeking “nothing but the chance to live out [our] lives in purpose and happiness, winning what satisfaction and fulfillment [we] can.”(2)

Rivers are, indeed, a metaphor for our lives and for the society in which we live and work and try to make things better for those who will follow. Rivers have much to teach us about power and humility, about connection and community—about how we are all profoundly and beautifully interconnected.

And, like each and every one of us, rivers are at the heart of an endless cycle as old as the universe and as young as the mist chased up the canyon walls by the morning sun; a flashing silver body in the roar of Sherars Falls; a spent salmon floating on its side in the deep current below Horseshoe Bend on the Rogue, gently giving itself back to the river, providing the nutrients necessary for the survival of the next generation; the naked challenge of White Horse Rapids; an osprey cutting the water like a knife and rising into the soft evening air with a shivering silver trout in its talons; vultures keeping their patient watch on a lightning struck Ponderosa Pine; an otter tracing a “V” across the glassy surface at dusk; an eddy, wood smoke at dawn; a bear in camp, the scream of a bald eagle echoing down the walls of the canyon.

My friends, we have a choice—a choice about what we want our state to be, about who we want to be, as Oregonians and as fellow human beings. It is a choice to put understanding before reaction; to put collaboration before conflict; to put reconciliation before recrimination. Reconciliation begins with each of us; it begins in the heart of each individual, animated by a desire and a choice to make our community better; and to repair the fabric of our society and of this special place we call Oregon.

(1) A River Runs Through It, Norman Mcclean
(2) Speech to the City Club of Cleveland; April 5, 1968