Dar Williams’ visit stimulated important civic conversations
Singer, songwriter and author Dar Williams spent five days last week interacting with groups of students and diverse groups of civic in Chelan, Leavenworth and Wenatchee. The theme for the week was fostering community resilience.
I think most of us sense that our communities are facing significant changes with the influx of tourists and a host of other changes in our economy. Her book focuses on what she calls “positive proximity,” the notion that living and working with people from different backgrounds, political beliefs and skills creates a sense of vitality to communities. She found that positive proximity and the building of social capital is alive and well here in our towns. We have great strengths to continue to build upon, even though we sometimes have profound disagreements about what we’re trying to accomplish and where we are going.
I thought Williams made a very astute observation when she talked about about the opposite of division being collaboration rather than unity. There are lots of issues where unity is not possible. I think North Central Washington is ahead of many other regions in terms of the sense of collaboration that already exists.
Each of our communities is facing big challenges. In Leavenworth and Chelan, there has been a lot of concern about maintaining a sense of community in the face of an economy that is highly dependent upon outside visitors.
In Leavenworth, the social service executives, business owners and other leaders found that they had significant shared interest. That may have been a surprise. The group that met is going to continue meeting to see if they can strengthen community while maintaining economic viability. Housing prices are high and traffic is a challenge for locals with all of the festivals. On the flip side, there is strong business and community support for the Farmers Market and Upper Valley MEND. A number of businesses give breaks for locals on certain days or support charities, such as the Benevolent Beers nights at Icicle Brewing. Clearly, there are positive things to build on.
Chelan is having some similar challenges with visitors. We heard from both students and civic leaders that Chelan is a place for locals eight months of the year, but from June through September, the visitors flock to the town en masse. Housing prices are skyrocketing and a high percentage of people working in shops downtown are commuting from elsewhere. This issue affects all of our communities. Sometimes visitors don’t treat the town and the people with respect, Williams learned.
Williams didn’t offer an easy solution to these issues, not surprisingly. But she was able to talk about what some other communities were doing to remind visitors of the history of the community and the people who have made important contributions. Helping them appreciate the town may help create a greater sense of respect for locals, she told them.
In Wenatchee, the conversation focused on better connecting people who represent different cultures. The Loop Trail, our Apple Blossom Festival, Pybus Public Market, schools, libraries and churches were a few of the places identified as creating opportunities for people to mix and enjoy life together.
Some of Williams’ most powerful ideas in her book and in conversations here were about treating outsiders as visitors rather than tourists and at the same time investing in experiences for locals. She noted how important the landscape is to citizens in all three communities. The connection to nature is almost mystical, she said.
One final insight is that with events and projects, finding ways to bridge those to other groups can help foster that sense of collaboration and belonging.
It is a great strength that we don’t all agree on things. That so many people are concerned about maintaining a sense of community is a great strength for us to build on. If we lose our sense of community, we will have lost what makes North Central Washington a great place to live.
These conversations need to continue. It will be up to us to craft our own solutions.