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
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
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.