This morning, I was perusing Facebook, as one does and I noticed that a friend had posted an announcement that Oregon Public Broadcasting was airing “Priced Out,” a documentary about Portland’s gentrification. Full disclosure, I have not watched the documentary. And it is possible that I may never be able to watch it. Because I lived through it and the experience remains a deeply emotional issue for me.
But I am not actually writing about the documentary. I am writing about a question that was asked in response to my friend’s posted announcement.
Who do they say is culpable?
The obvious answer, at least to me, is everyone and no one. Gentrification in and of itself is a deeply complex issue and academics are still struggling to come up with a working definition that conveys that. And having witnessed Portland’s transformation over 29 years with the benefit of hindsight and using my policy wonk lens, let me assure you that my response of everyone and no one is as good as it is going to get. Don’t believe me? Read this.
What I take issue with the is the question itself. Because so many of us, worldwide, get so distracted by it that we forget everything else. When all of one’s energy goes into figuring out exactly who is to blame, then there is no energy left to actually fix the problem.
Let me be absolutely clear here that I believe in culpability and adults absolutely need to take responsibility for their actions. But it cannot end there.
In my time there, Portland went from a city that rarely showed up on maps showing only the major cities on the west coast, to a darling of the New York Times to a city with a severe affordable housing crisis and all of the associated issues that come along for the ride.
We are well past the time of asking on whom yet one more set of opinions places the blame. It is time to redirect all of that energy on mitigating the issues, with an eye towards longer term change to break the cycle of displacement.
The same is true for our nation. At this point, anyone who is paying the slightest bit of attention (even as some of us try to bury our heads in the sand for moments at a time to just get a moment of peace) knows at least the first layer of those who should be held culpable for our current situation. But the systems that exist to hold those people accountable are deeply broken at the moment.
I am so tired of the circular finger pointing. I am exhausted by everyone asking who anyone else thinks is culpable. No one person made this country the dark place it has become. Just as no one person can get us back to a more stable place. The Messiah is a construct, not a person.
This is where I truly want to be deeply inspirational and get people to form a movement to bring forth change in unity. But I can’t. The rules that allowed for such movements to effect change no longer apply. I have been seriously wracking my brain to come up with some way that I, as an individual, can make that change.
Then I had what I will call a Sesame Street moment. Anyone who knows me well that I retain songs pretty much forever. And while I was typing up this post, I realized that I was singing this song in my head. A song that I have been singing since forever, maybe starting with nursery school? Clearly it was my brain trying to give me the answer while I cluelessly hummed along. The song is a line from Pirkei Avot and I have posted the text in Hebrew, transliteration and English below.
For me, it is a reminder that while our country may not be ready for fundamental change right now, that doesn’t mean that we get to expend all of our energy trying to assign blame for our current situation. We still have to do the work towards that change.
I also believe that we are the only ones who can decide how we do that. We all have different situations, skills and barriers to work with. In other words, be reasonable in your expectations of what you can sustainably do to make change. The only thing you shouldn’t be doing is nothing.
Note: Written with apologies to the many rabbis in my life. I really wasn’t trying to step on your turf.