Lynn Peterson's 2016 CUPA Hooding Address

The following address was given by Lynn Peterson at the 2016 College of Urban and Public Affairs graduate Hooding Ceremony at the Portland Marriott Downtown Waterfront at Friday, June 10, 2016. Peterson received the 2016 Nohad A. Toulan Urban Pioneer Award for Public Service.

I am honored to celebrate the hard work and sacrifice it took for you and for your family and friends, who all had to hear about the new thing you learned each day, but loved listening to your story because of your excitement. You heard the calling. And in Portland its not just a calling, it’s a hip way of life.

You have earned a degree from a university whose motto is to “let knowledge serve the city,” in a state with the motto, “She flies with her own wings.” The ability to chart our own course, with plenty of discussion based on the outcomes we want, not the politics of today.

While generations of PSU students have graduated and contributed to this region, this state, and this country, the skills that you have honed in these programs are not just a time-honored tradition to keeping the momentum. 

You are the people who give me hope for the future of this country. 

We as a people now face a lot of change. From scary things like old infrastructure poisoning our citizens to new breeds of bacteria to how and where we will grow our food. And on the other side of the coin, autonomous vehicles to promoting pro-active health through a better built environment to the shared economy to new methods of community engagement.

These changes have brought anxiety. Anxiety means that folks hold on to what had worked in the past to the point of failure. And when those failures happen, we tend to lose one of our greatest assets—our differing points of view, solutions, and perspectives.

These are four concepts from my time at PSU that I have relied on over and over. And I relate them to you because if you practice them every day, like muscle memory, they will become the way in which you do business. And in cases of emergency—which we will all face—you will be in a position to succeed.

Multiple vague and conflicting goals. I attribute this to Dr. Sy Adler, but perhaps it was Dr. Ethan Seltzer. What this means to me is that while each of us is tasked with one part of a larger project, we can’t maximize our micro-portion because then the system will fail. We live in a world with multiple values and they all can’t be maximized at once. Recognizing and helping citizens balance these values is our role.

Warm eyeballs. While that saying is actually from my sophomore high school English teacher, what it means is active listening; listening with the intent to learn about the person and understand the story they are telling is our role.

Place competition. Holy Cow. Place Competition. What drives every community to attempt to do great things is to attract more jobs, to build better schools, to build bigger transportation systems is place competition. Once you understand this concept, a local elected officials’ position or stand can make so much more sense. When you step back, you see that place competition drives a region or state apart. But if you dig in, you can find out what they actually need for success, which is our role.

The professional ethics of representing those in the room and those not able to be in the room. The single most important professional ethical code you must practice every day. Even when there are very loud voices in front of you, there are tens of thousands of people that you may never hear from unless you make a solid attempt. And that is our role.

How have I relied on these concepts?

I have learned that in town hall meetings with 300 or more angry people, you don’t talk, you listen. You write down with a paper and a pen what they are saying: no computers, no texting, no questions except for clarification. You read it back to them. You acknowledge their fears. And then you promise next steps based on what they said. And then you follow through. Establishing trust one step at a time.

I have learned to let go of any specific solutions for being the cheerleader for the outcome. Oh, I get my opinion on the table, believe me. And I am committed to the overall vision. But as a leader, it is important to keep the vision through the commitment to the outcomes created in partnership with community. 

I have had some challenging times and emergencies and I relied on these skills.

In 2011 the Tea Party went from a focus on national politics to local. And it became an issue of personal security to our citizens when those stating they were there as the Tea Party started attending Clackamas County Commission meetings. As the first elected Chair of the Clackamas County Commission, it was my responsibility to provide for a safe environment for democracy to play out. Approximately 60-80 Tea Party members would attend our meetings every week. Not a problem there. They would testify against everything. Not a problem there either.

However, they decided that that the only way they could be heard was to bully people testifying that they did not agree with. They would boo and shout. They were armed with posters of guns pointed at the commissioners and carried concealed weapons. 

Several times I had to shut down the meetings to bring order back to the hearing. One meeting, I had to cut off a citizen who was using foul language, personally attacking citizens in the hearing room and the commissioners. His words and actions were making the rest of the folks with him more agitated. I made the decision to shut down the meeting because he could not control himself. After 10 minutes I went and sat down next to him. I told him I would let him finish his statement if he did not personally attack anyone in the room or encourage his colleagues to shout or bully. He agreed. He spent his time testifying apologizing. 

In that moment, there was an understanding between us. Right now, those moments of understanding are less and less. Because to some people, a conversation is a sign of weakness. They consider “compromise” a dirty word. 

Yet, we cannot give up on encouraging the conversation, actively listening, and finding out what they value. 

If we don’t hang on to our active listening and problem solving, we lose civility. 

When we lose civility, we have lost our empathy.

That is not what democracy looks like.

We learned this in spades with the event in Washington while I was there with the Oso mudslide.

On March 22, 2014, the single worst slide in the history of the State of Washington occurred, 60 miles due north of Seattle. 

270 million cubic feet of mountain collapsed and moved across a small valley in less than two minutes, covering a rural subdivision of Oso located on the Stillagumish River. The mud and debris came down moving at over 60 mph and went up the other side of the valley and sloshed back down. It wiped out about 40 homes. 270 million cubic feet is equivalent to the volume of 270 Moda Centers descending into and covering the valley.

Eventually it was determined that 43 people were killed that day. But for almost two weeks it was unclear how many people were missing. For an entire year, one person remained missing. 

To give you perspective, one of the survivors told the Governor his story. He and his wife were drinking coffee in the kitchen that morning. They were reading the Saturday paper. They heard the sonic boom and then trees started flying perpendicular to the ground past the kitchen window. They were sitting not more than five feet apart and while both were caught up by the slide moving across the valley. He was spared, while she was not. 

When the slide happened, the community took matters into their hands with the immediate rescue efforts and brought out their chain saws and big equipment to help. They designed on the fly and built an emergency access road within a couple of days, again by themselves.

When it came time for the department of transportation to remove the debris from the highway and reduce a three-hour detour back to 30 minutes, we had one big problem: not all the people who were lost had been found. And we had families up and down the corridor in different stages of the grieving process. 

I decided WSDOT had to hold town meetings and let the community decide how best for us to proceed together. WSDOT engineers were having a tough time understanding why they should be slowed down by a community conversation when the Medical Examiner’s office had signed off on their methodology for removal of the debris.

We went to the people with our plans. And we listened to them vent their very real frustrations about everything from bureaucratic red tape to how they were treated by outsiders. 

We held several rounds of these meetings in a short time period. We revised plans and talked to them about the revised plans. We answered their questions the best we could and invited other agencies to attend our meetings. And then we hired them—the families and friends—as spotters on site to look for those still not found while we worked.

We showed empathy. We could not answer all their questions, but we helped them and they helped us. 

What can we do as individuals? You have these tools embedded in the framework of your brain now. 

Seek out situations where you can have a conversation that grows trust. Whether it be using corporate programs like The Speed of Trust by Stephen Covey or being trained through the Oregon Humanities program called the Conversation Project that allows people to have a tough conversation and learn they can walk away respecting each other. Or adopt The Civility Project rules for engagement and post them in your office, in your meeting rooms and in your board rooms. They are:

1. pay attention
2. listen
3. be inclusive
4. don’t gossip
5. show respect
6. be agreeable
7. apologize
8. be constructive 
9. take responsibility

When you are on the street in Portland or Eugene or Bend or Fossil, if you see a stranger that does not dress like you, walk like you or talk like you, look them in the eye and smile. That one act does something that people don’t expect anymore.  It says, "I see you. I value you."

Sheriff David Ward of Harney County was quoted as saying, "We can't continue to go on tearing each other apart due to differences of opinion. I encourage my friends and neighbors to get off Facebook and talk to each other in person. Get off your computer and get on your knees and pray for your leadership. There's no way we're going to fix this country if we're all mad at each other over everything."

Today you leave here not with the credentials, but with the drive, the tools, and the network to make sure that the communities you serve—here in Oregon or elsewhere—can fly stronger, together.

Governor Tom McCall said, “Heroes are not statues framed against a red sky. They are people who said this is my community and it's my responsibility to make it better.”

You are all my heroes. Go fly with your own wings.