GUEST OPINION: Stop the Blame Game

By on March 29, 2016

Civil dialogue, not mudslinging, is what truly makes a community thrive.

160330GuestOpinionJACKSON HOLE, WY – There are times when I am impressed by how well we as a community disagree, which is important as we deal with tough issues—balancing a growing workforce, open spaces, economic development, and our historic “small town” feel.

Sometimes we do this well. Sometimes we don’t.

Certain comments I have heard lately feel mean-spirited, intending to stifle dialogue and silence people rather than engaging our differences to find solutions. Lately I see more finger pointing and name calling, and assumptions of ill will and hidden agendas.

As the executive director of a nonprofit, I understand that nonprofits are particularly vulnerable to harsh criticism. We are often afraid to take a stand because we do not want to risk upsetting a donor, or be accused of mission creep. That is probably why I had such a strong reaction to some of the comments recently leveled against the Jackson Hole Conservation Alliance.

The Alliance has become one of the most vocal advocates against increased commercial development, and in favor of investing in affordable housing in this valley. And speaking up is working. Our electeds are listening to the voices of our community who stand up for smart growth that focuses on housing our working people rather than increased commercial growth. This, however, is making some people angry. So they attack. I admire the Alliance’s willingness to take a stand on hard issues, and in doing so they take a lot of heat for the good of the community.

Recently the Alliance was accused of not walking the walk on workforce housing because they have never generated any housing for their employees or workers in the county. Let’s be clear—the Jackson Hole Conservation Alliance is a conservation organization, not a housing developer. The implication that the only people who have a right to advocate for affordable housing must be in a position to create affordable housing is absurd. In my role at the Community Resource Center (CRC), I advocate for affordable housing all the time, and CRC has yet to create a single affordable housing unit in this community. That does not negate our responsibility to advocate for the needs of our constituents. That is our job.

Most local nonprofits operate on a shoestring budget, struggling to compete with the private sector to attract and retain quality, professional staff. And yet, like the Alliance, at CRC we offer a living wage and health benefits, which goes a long way to ensure that our employees can afford to keep a roof over their heads. If all businesses in town did this we would be in far better shape. We have more than our fair share of nonprofits in this community, but in spite of that, our nonprofits are part of the solution, not the problem. We are not driving development or creating an influx of extremely low-wage workers.

Our nonprofits are the heart and soul of Jackson. Attacking these organizations is an attack against the very values of our community. Local nonprofits—from the Art Association and Therapeutic Riding to Teton Literacy Center and PAWS—are an expression of what really matters to our people, and it’s evidenced by where people choose to make donations. One of the most iconic events of the year in Jackson is Old Bill’s Fun Run, when the community comes out in force to support the organizations that are near and dear to their hearts. This is what makes Jackson a dynamic, thriving community.

Nonprofits operate for the common good and have a responsibility to use the resources entrusted to them to best meet their stated missions. Some wonder why the Alliance, or CRC for that matter, is involved in the housing issue at all. Recently the Alliance’s true motives were called into question, as though there is some untoward, hidden agenda. The Alliance understands that how and where this community grows has a huge impact on our wildlife and open spaces, not to mention the health and wellbeing of our people. Managing both residential and commercial growth is absolutely integral to their conservation mission, as it is to CRC’s mission of caring for our most vulnerable citizens. There are no hidden agendas here, just deep love for our community.

These kinds of comments are a weak attempt to place blame and to silence the opposition; to make villains out of well-meaning people striving to find solutions simply because their solutions don’t support your solutions. We are never all going to agree on the right approach, but we have to be able to have that conversation in a respectful and productive way, rather than pointing fingers and casting aspersions on one another. I always try to start from the position that everyone wants what is best for this community. It at least begins the conversation from a point of commonality and respect.

The solutions sit somewhere amidst all these contrary positions, and we may never get at them if we spend all our energy trying to stifle differing opinions.

If we don’t take our housing crisis seriously and work together to find real solutions, we will all pay too high a price. Businesses won’t have reliable employees. People will be forced to move long distances from town, working far from where their children attend school. Our clean air, wild animals, and open spaces will suffer as people commute longer distances from home to work. More people will engage in community life in places like Pinedale and Driggs, potentially taking our great nonprofits with them as Jackson truly becomes a resort town.

Perhaps, more than any other group, our nonprofits are committed to maintaining Jackson as a true community. So rather than blaming them for not doing enough or doing too much, let’s recognize they are the core of our community life and community values in Jackson Hole, without which we lose the very ingredient that makes us truly special. PJH

Mary Erickson is the executive director of the Community Resource Center.

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