A conversation about Seattle's soul
I first met Bill Grace in 1994, while covering religion for The Seattle Times. Grace founded the Center for Ethical Leadership...
— Lee Moriwaki, Seattle Times op-ed editor
Q. You once talked of the "good city" versus the "great city." Can you explain the differences?
A. The great city falls into the modern-day trap of thinking about just a singular bottom line, that which we can quantify. It might be the region's equivalent of the GNP. It might be growth. The good city is more about questions of relationships in community. It's how do people see themselves as citizens, stewards? What is the quality of relationships even when people find themselves on different sides of the equation?
Q. It does sound a little bit gauzy. How do you get people to understand what you're talking about?
A. If you're talking about the good city, then a related concept is the common good. The common good is difficult to define, yet each generation is responsible for defining it on their watch. It is actually a renewable resource in a way. The demands of the common good are different in 1776, than in post-Civil War America, and the civil-rights movement of the '50s and '60s.
Although hard to define, the common good has two aspects. The first is simply, liberty and justice for all. The question is, does America mean "all"? If liberty and justice were a campfire, some people as we speak are invited around that campfire. Other people are not. The question for our time is who is left outside of the campfire of liberty and justice on our watch?
In my judgment, people left outside of the campfire of liberty and justice are the homeless, the gay-lesbian community, and also recent immigrants, especially migrant farmworkers. I'd rather ask the question to the citizens: Who do they think is left outside the campfire of liberty and justice on their watch?
The second aspect of the common good is an additional measure of mercy and compassion for the least fortunate and the most vulnerable. A measure of a good city is, how do you treat those who are less fortunate or more vulnerable? What are we doing socially and politically to provide those groups mercy and compassion?
Q. What's being done to advance the common good in Seattle today?
A. One is an initiative to end homelessness in 10 years. They're not talking about building more shelters. They're not talking about expanding emergency responses. This group is talking about ending homelessness. The idea of ending homelessness is exactly in keeping with the common good.
Q. Your definition and examples seem to track what some people would call a progressive or Democratic agenda. Why should anybody buy into your concept of the good city when the good city seems to be tilted toward liberal politics?
A. Actually, what I'm finding is the words liberal or conservative or progressive aren't as meaningful any longer. Let's say we wanted to quench the thirst of every child on the planet. If the religious right wanted to spearhead that along with the progressive left, that would be great news. The religious right has everything necessary in its foundational beliefs to want to do that: You know, "Whatever you have done unto the least fortunate you have done unto me. " And the progressives, whatever informs them — that all men are created equal, and have the right to life, liberty and pursuit of happiness.
I'm interested in what inspires people, faith, ethics, philosophy, but I'm equally, if not more, interested in the behavior that follows inspiration; are you actually engaged in the behavior that is ending hunger, ending thirst and protecting the least fortunate?
Q. How would you define Seattle as a good city?
A. I think Seattle is a good city. Here are some things that come to mind: conversation cafes, Town Hall, and the Confluence forums. Each of these programs orvenues tries to create space for diverse people to respectfully engage on matters of the common good. Add to that list Sustainable Seattle, It's Time to Talk (race relations dialogues), and the amazing new philanthropy in the Northwest, I think there are many current efforts that add to the "goodness" of our city.
There are other movements that have gotten in our way: Tim Eymanism has given us opportunities to think individualistically and short-term, behind the closed curtain of a polling booth. His initiatives have encouraged us in the Northwest to think small and be small. Moral leadership invites just the opposite, it encourages people to be self-sacrificial for the greater good. Eyman offers temptations that so far the majority have found too hard too resist.
Q. What's wrong with people wanting to have their property taxes lowered?
A. The demands of the common good ask people to think beyond their own self-interest, to an enlightened sense of self-interest.
Q. But who defines that self-interest? Who defines that common good? It ends up being big government spenders, does it not?
A. This is a story a colleague of mine, Sharon Parks, of the Whidbey Institute, tells. When her grandparents settled in Kansas, they lived in a sod home for two years in the plains of Kansas, until two wooden structures were built. First they built the church and then they built the school. After those two wooden structures were built, people built their own homes. What that says is that investment in community and investment in the future comes before my individual self-interest. It's simply the price of civilization. We could all live separate lives out in the plains of the West, but we cluster in community for a reason. Together we are better. And when those who have more are asked to sacrifice for those who have less, that's not politics, that's civilization.
Q. Are we a good country?
A. First, I think what we have to admit is that we are no longer just a country, we are an empire. We dominate in a global sense. So the question is, what type of empire are we?
I don't know if there has ever been a moral empire. A moral empire would put the needs of the world first, beyond its national interests. If we did that, if we said our agenda for the future is to quench the thirst of every child, fill every belly, provide basic health care and housing and teach all children to read, I believe the global chorus of good will would become the best defense screen we could ever want to protect ourselves against terrorism, because the most powerful thing to do is to make your enemies your friends. There is one family on the face of our planet and it is called the human family; these are the days to step into that reality with courage.
The two responses that we've had to the horrible events of 9/11 are essentially fight and flight. We've decided that we're going to find the enemy and oppose them where they are. And we've increased security at home. I would not ask the United States to get out of the business of defending itself. What I am just suggesting is this five-point plan gets us beyond a very primitive response to having been attacked. It would be a very powerful shift for our nation to use our social, cultural, economic and military might for the least fortunate and the most vulnerable on the planet.
Q. There are concrete measurements for defining a great city. Low unemployment rate, low air pollution and number of tall buildings downtown. Are there concrete measurements for determining whether you are successful as a good city?
A. How many bridges of human understanding can you count? Where are the opportunities for people on other sides of the equation to meet in creative and courageous and compassionate environments to explore collaboration? For instance, do people have many friends who are of a different race, culture, sexual orientation or political ideology? It doesn't mean that people collapse into a singular view of things, but they know how to engage and they know how to find each other.
Q. Speaking of diversity, how do we bring red and blue America together around the idea of the common good?
A. We need a new story to bring the right and left in America together. To me, quenching the thirst of every child, filling every belly and teaching them to read is a new story. Let's be committed to the United Nations Dec-laration of Human Rights. Let's make that our No. 1 agenda. We saw recent evidence of that in the outpouring of compassion after the tsunami struck.
What love asks is, can we commit to meeting the needs of all people on the planet without a disaster? A proactive commitment to global justice, that's our new story, that we are going to take care of the least fortunate on the planet and anybody who wants to help, come onboard. That's the new story. That's the new work of the millennium.
It's actually the old story of America. Come give me your huddled masses yearning to be free. I mean, it's the Statue of Liberty and justice for all. That's our story. We need to breathe new life into it again on a global scale.
For more information on the Center for Ethical Leadership, go to www.ethicalleadership.org
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