Keeping in touch: Notes from the Mayor

Mayor Lucy VinisThis blog aims to nurture our conversation and understanding of the issues before us. Every week, I will provide a weekly update on the activities in the city government, my activities as mayor, and brief reflections on progress, opportunities and challenges. You are invited to respond with reactions, insights and questions. We do this work together.

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Sep 18

September 18, 2020

Posted on September 18, 2020 at 8:58 PM by Niyah Ross

A friend pointed out to me yesterday that breathing is a common theme in all our current crises.  We wear masks to protect one another from COVID 19; we wear masks to protect ourselves from wildfire smoke; we quote George Floyd’s dying plea “I can’t breathe” in a call to listen and act on racial injustice.  And as a city this past week, we have failed to help people breathe, once again leaving our vulnerable homeless community largely unprotected.

Today is the first day of Rosh Hashana.  It is a time in the Jewish tradition for reflection on how we have failed, and a commitment to do better.  As the skies are blessedly opening today, it seems appropriate to look at the new world ahead of us, at all of our struggles, and commit to doing better collectively.

We will learn many lessons from this summer.  Let’s put that reflection and experience into action.  First, what we have done well: our firefighters and first responders have saved our lives.  They held the fire back and prevented it from moving into the dense urban core.  Eugene and Springfield are intact, and we offer our strength to help Lane County in the continuing fire battles, in our neighbors who need shelter and support, and in the long recovery and rebuilding work ahead. Our community has donated time, supplies and funds to support fire evacuees. The outpouring and compassion strengthen us all. The firefighting success was built on good planning, good preparation, good training and good leadership.

On the other hand, we have learned some hard lessons about how and where we are unprepared and ill-equipped for an emergency at this scale.  City staff have already begun to talk about building a tighter plan with the county to define roles and investments, particularly regarding the unhoused. We have done so much work to build a strategy through the TAC report; we are poised for a deeper investment this winter in strategies to shelter people from the weather – but none of that was ready or enough to protect people from the smoke.

Next week, the City Council will devote Saturday to a review of their priorities and budget challenges. This is a moment for reflection.  I have said before that we are facing four overlapping crises, homelessness, climate change, racial justice and the pandemic.  Now we add a fifth: wildfires.  The answers to all these crises align. 

As we look to the coming year, it is crucial to keep the larger vision in focus. One of my trusted advisors cautioned me that it is perilous in a crisis to do things the way you always do them.  In a crisis, you must think and act differently.  We will be in an ongoing crisis for years to come. If our goal is to build a community where everyone has housing; where everyone has opportunity and hope; where we have the resiliency to adapt to climate change, then we must stop sweating the small stuff. Details are important; disciplined preparation enables us to navigate a crisis; yet keeping our focus on the future we want to build must help us overcome our disagreements about tactics. Change isn’t just coming.  It is here.

It starts with taking a deep breath.