In this episode, we take a look at the ways Oregon is divided and the mechanisms that widen those divides. We talk with Chad Karges, founder of the High Desert Partnership; Amaury Vogel, associate executive director of the Oregon Values and Beliefs Center; and Eddie Melendrez, member of the Ontario City Council, about how Oregonians can work across differences, beliefs, and backgrounds to develop relationships and build trust.
Chad Karges is a founder of High Desert Partnership. For twenty years, he managed the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge. Chad retired from the US Fish and Wildlife Service in 2019, and he remains a member of the executive team at High Desert Partnership.
Amaury Vogel is the associate executive director of the Oregon Values and Beliefs Center (OVBC). Prior to joining OVBC, Amaury worked for Volunteers of America Oregon, providing direct service and managing programs. She has worked with vulnerable populations in a variety of settings, including early childhood education, domestic violence, and health care.
Eddie Melendrez is an artist, activist, boxing coach, youth mentor, and city councillor in Ontario, Oregon. Follow his arts and community-building work on Facebook.
Other writing and programs on state divides:
- Conversation Project: Understanding Urban/Rural Divides
- "The Struggles That Unite Us: Retiring the Myth of the Urban-Rural Divide" by Eric K. Ward
- Dear Stranger, our statewide letter-exchange program
- "Listening over Litigation" by Bruce Poinsette
- "A Remedy for Disruption" by Chelsea King
- Timber Wars podcast, Episode 7: "A Way Forward" (OPB)
Adam Davis: Welcome to The Detour, a show about people and ideas. I'm Adam Davis. Last week, we ventured into national divides by talking with David French about political, cultural, and social splits and with Emma Green about religion and democracy. Both David and Emma were concerned about national trends toward greater division but also hopeful about efforts to build cohesion, especially on the local level.
So today we're looking closer to home, and we're talking with three people who will help us understand and maybe even work on how Oregonians can recognize what and how much we share. In this episode, we take a look at the ways our state is divided and at mechanisms that widen those divides. Our guests come from different backgrounds: a Malheur Refuge Fish and Wildlife worker turned mediator, an expert on measuring values and beliefs who has lived in multiple places around the state, and a city councilor, artist, and boxer in Ontario, Oregon. All three agree that we have plenty to work on, but they also think there's a lot to be hopeful about.
But before we get to them, I wonder what you think makes us divided, if at all. And I wonder also what makes you most hopeful about our capacity to work across divides. As we get ready to dive in, I want to ask you to think about how we can move beyond limited, too-quick understanding of each other, beyond the need to be right. What does it take to suspend what we think we already know, to build trust, to develop relationships with those we think we're different from? What does it take to have a genuine open conversation? And why can that be so hard?
When thinking about this episode, one organization stood out: High Desert Partnership. High Desert Partnership is an organization based in Harney County that is in the business of finding common ground. Before an issue comes to a head, HDP tries to get people talking with each other. Those who want to be part of the solution take a seat at the table. And that table is devoted to listening, sharing ideas, and finding each other's expertise, ensuring that everyone is heard with the goal of finding an agreeable path forward. HDP focuses on Southeastern Oregon's hardest challenges: restoring forests and wetlands, mitigating wildfire, creating opportunities for youth, and growing local economies. And it takes a long view toward solving these challenges.
During the Bundy brothers' occupation of the Malheur Refuge in 2016, HDP received some attention for how their collaborative work helped Harney County weather what quickly became a nationally visible and locally wrenching storm. But HDP isn't really interested in headlines or in crisis management. They work steadily and patiently, often in the background, to get people talking with and listening to each other, to pursue collaboration instead of litigation, and to create conditions for everyone to have a say and be heard.
Along with Gary Marshall, Chad Karges founded High Desert Partnership in 2005. Chad and Gary still drive HDP as board leaders, and Brenda Smith directs a growing group of staff members. I should mention that I've been fortunate to be on the HDP board since 2020. And in that role, I've had a window into how they do tough work across divides. I wanted to ask Chad to say more about HDP's work, so we spoke by phone in March 2022.
Chad Karges: I live in Burns, Oregon. Been in Burns now for about 25 years. I've retired from the US Fish and Wildlife Service where I was the manager of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge.
I've been working on collaborative processes trying to bridge divides between people that either had failed relationships from previous interactions or had lack of interactions and had no relationships even to begin with. Trying to figure out ways to bring those diverse interests together, to come up with some creative solutions that are better suited to the time and space that we live in today.
Adam: So can I just ask, formally for a while your employer was the US Fish and Wildlife Service, but the way you described what you've been working on was working between people and with people. So how did you go from fish and wildlife work to people work? What's the relationship there?
Chad: Yeah. You know, when I got my degree in wildlife ecology I did not envision that I would be spending almost all of my time trying to figure out how to work with people and to bring people together to work with each other. And so as I was moving through my career, you know, I first started working out a lot with, you know, wildlife itself, which is what I thought I was going to be doing my entire career. But then it became very clear that you needed to figure out how to engage with those different interest groups and get them to work with each other if you were going to be able to implement anything on the ground that had a chance of being sustained over time.
Adam: And you said right at the start, you talked about failed relationships or lack of relationships. And how did you first start running into what you diagnosed or saw as failed relationships or lack of—like, how did those show up and what are some examples of those?
Chad: So in the land management arena, the symptom of failed relationships or lack of relationships is trying to solve issues primarily through litigation. And when you use that as your primary tool—and I'm not saying that some cases it's not appropriate—but when it becomes the primary tool, there's always a winner and a loser in the outcome of that. And then those feelings and thoughts get carried on into the next issue that's trying to be addressed. And it just kind of becomes self-perpetuating. And it divides people.
The failed relationships—what I saw when I first came here was people had interactions in the past—and sometimes that spanned decades—but those interactions were negative. And so they had failed relationships at that point in time, and it was really hindering them from working together to solve issues. And then in other cases, there were no relationships at all, even though there should have been or needed to be a relationship. And that was in a lot of cases where you had, you know, external stakeholders concerned about issues, and then you had the local community, and there really was no interaction between those different interest groups. And so it made it very difficult to find solutions that you could implement on the ground.
Adam: Do you feel like there are more divisions within Harney County or between Harney County and other parts of Oregon?
Chad: I don't think there's any more division in Harney County than there is in any other community. Nor do I think there's any more of a division between Harney County and Portland than there is anywhere else. You know, if there have been opportunities in the past where there has been direct interactions and those have been negative, then you need to create some type of a safe space where people work through future issues. But most likely, what I see most of the time, even here, there hasn't been any interaction in the past. And so once again, you create that mechanism, so those conversations can happen. So they do build those relationships and understanding.
In my mind, or what I see anyway, people are people no matter where they're at, and we all have certain behaviors that we tend to rely on and those seem to be pretty consistent, no matter where you look, it's just a matter of getting people to be able to interact in a safe space where they can build positive relationships.
Adam: I wonder if we could go into a really sort of tough example as a way of thinking about failed relationships, lack of relationships, and maybe differences in divides. And that is the occupation of the Malheur Refuge. I know you were there and working before, through, and after on relationships while that was happening.
Can you explain, even from this vantage point, what you saw happening that led to that, and then we'll move into how to work against it or through it. But how does something like that develop—and not even something like that—how did that happen as you understand it?
Chad: I think, and there's probably lots of different ways to look at that particular situation, but that one didn't come from the local community.
What I saw there was a symptom of what's happening at a much larger scale nationally. You had individuals that had concerns, particularly about government, and they were looking for a place where they thought that they could not only gain national attention to their concerns, but also make change.
You know, if you go to any community, there's always a few individuals in each community that have had issues in the past with the government. Well, in this particular case, what I saw was people outside the community that were wanting to move this particular agenda. They linked up with a small group of community members here that portrayed a much different picture of the community than what it really was. So they felt confident that they could move their agenda forward here. And they, you know, of course everyone knows the story of how they occupied the refuge. That generated the national attention that they were seeking, but it did not result in any change.
And I think, you know, what they weren't counting on was the level of collaboration that this particular community had been working on for some time prior to the occupation. And that I think actually enabled the communities to survive that event. If the High Desert Partnership, in my mind, had not been in place and established prior to that event, I think you would have seen the change happen in the community that that particular group is looking for, but that did not happen.
And so, like you mentioned Adam, we were working on relationships prior to the occupation, we kept working on them during the occupation, and it continued on after the occupation. So the occupation was a nice media story, but it didn't change anything in a negative way in the community.
Adam: What does it mean to work on relationships? Especially outside the limelight and outside of a crisis, like what does that mean on a day-to-day basis to work on relationships?
Chad: For me, it's a lot of one-on-one conversations. And those conversations, you know, my objective isn't to try to persuade them to think one way or another. It's more about trying to understand where they're coming from and then thinking about, okay, this is their perspective. How does that potentially align with another individual's perspective that most people would look at them as polar opposites? But where's the common ground? And in most cases, what I have found is there's a whole lot more common ground than there are differences. And so if you can set a process up that focuses on that common ground, they then start to chip away at those differences on their own, you know, through their own personal conversations—and not to say that they're ever going to totally agree, but at least they can respectfully disagree on a minority of what they need to work on.
Adam: So now I'm imagining, let's say I'm coming into a room, and I know what's going to be talked about, is, say, the diameter of timber that can be harvested or the use of rangeland and who has access to it and what they might pay for it. How do you set things up so that wherever I'm dug in, whatever opinions I have before I come in the room, I'm still open, not only to hearing someone else's opinion, but maybe moving a little bit off of what I'm carrying into the room? How do you set something like that up?
Chad: So like I said, you know, you start with those one-on-one conversations and then, you know, you have an understanding of what people's different perspectives are of an issue. I think that depends on where you're at as to how those one-on-one conversations happen.
You know, when I first started having some of the one-on-one conversations here locally, there was such a negative history between the Fish and Wildlife Service and the local community. You know, there was a lot of past hostility that had to be vented. And so you had to sit there and listen to that and let them work through that until you got to the point where they're willing to actually hear what you're talking about, and you’re starting to have a true conversation, a dialogue anyway. But once you're at that point of having that dialogue with those individuals—and it may not always, in many cases, this is not me that's having that dialogue because I'm not the right messenger. That's not who—they either have a past relationship with, in a positive way, or they respect, or whatever it may be. And so not only do you figure out who you need to be talking to, but who are the right people to talk to them?
And then the next step is how do you start bringing those individuals together, probably outside of some type of formal collaborative meeting. And so there's a lot of one-on-one conversations and relationship-building that happens between lots of different individuals before you put them in a room together to talk publicly about how they're going to work these issues out.
Adam: So I want to ask you a little bit about whether, what you're trying to do and have been trying to do on a refuge, like how does that translate to society at large? Do you see the same patterns and possibilities, on a place that's thought of as a refuge, as you might in society?
Chad: My short answer to that is absolutely. And the reason why is what I talked about earlier is when you're talking about a national wildlife refuge, what determines the success or failure on those refuges are the decisions that are made, and can they or can they not be implemented? And that is all influenced by society. And so if you can make those types of decisions on a national wildlife refuge that make positive change and you can implement and sustain, then I see no reason why you couldn't do that in other segments of society. And that's why I believe in organizations like the High Desert Partnership.
Adam: And maybe I want to ask you just a little more about the High Desert Partnership. What kind of tool is collaboration, and what do you see collaboration creating?
Chad: Well collaboration is not a crisis management tool—at least the High Desert Partnership’s form of what we call collaboration. And so if an issue has reached that point of crisis where you already have everybody's attorneys or it's already in the court system, you probably won't have the time necessary or the flexibility to have the necessary conversations to work through that issue with our form of collaboration.
Now, if you can identify an issue that's coming that's important and you can figure out in advance, are there right relationships in place, or can they be built? Do you have time to put them in place? And then can you acquire the resources you need to support some type of a collaborative conversation around that issue, then, you know, there are some possibilities that the High Desert Partnership’s form of collaboration would be successful—not to say that it fits all of those scenarios, but at least those are kind of some foundational things you need to look, along with other things, but those are kind of the foundation that you need to have in place for the HDP’s form of collaboration to be successful. And if you're able to do that, the outcome that we've always had is you don't have winners and losers anymore. You have—and it's, and I wouldn't even call it a win-win. What you have are creative solutions that this diverse group came up with that would never have been available or possible if it wasn't for them having the necessary relationships in that safe space to have the conversation in.
Adam: So you have talked many times, even in this relatively short conversation, about the importance of time. What's the horizon or the span of time that effective collaboration requires?
Chad: Repeat that last part, Adam? I couldn’t hear it.
Adam: Yeah. What's the horizon or the span of time that effective collaboration requires?
Chad: It depends, I guess, on the issue, but the way that the High Desert Partnership’s collaboration groups or conversations have evolved to, is there they're somewhat perpetual, because that group, you know, they focus on an issue or a group of issues. And in many cases, you know, you have success, but then there are still more issues. And so there's always something more to be done. It's kind of like life in general, there's always more to it. And so as things change, even if they're changing for the better, there's still more that can be done. And we haven't had a group yet that formed. And then at some point said, yeah, we're done, we’re going to disband. And so, what they have done is evolved from a very specific issue focus to a broader scale of focus, because they recognize that they need to be more balanced in their approach. And as well as they're seeing other issues that, you know, now they have a history of working together, and they can—they feel that they can solve things together, they're willing to take on other things.
The way that High Desert Partnership’s collaboration is successful is it's not about me. It's about all the people that are engaged. They are what make collaboration successful. And so I just want to leave you with that, that it's a group effort to make a collaborative outcome be successful.
Adam: As we thought about this episode, we wanted to talk with people who work across divides, but we also wanted to talk with someone who could step back, give us a sense of the larger landscape in Oregon, a sense of where people seem to agree and disagree, and what accounts for differences and commonalities.
For both of these reasons—doing the daily on-the-ground-work and stepping back to provide a larger perspective—we reached out to Amaury Vogel, the associate executive director of the Oregon Values and Beliefs Center. In this conversation, Amaury mentions a study conducted by the OVBC, which indicated that 88% of Oregonians surveyed—people on all ends of the political spectrum—believe that our state is divided. I'm going to say that again: 88% of Oregonians surveyed believe that our state is divided. We spoke to Amaury about the nature of these real and perceived Oregon divides, why efforts to bridge them are worthwhile, and how we might go about working on that.
Amaury Vogel: I would say that we aren't necessarily divided on more issues. It's just that we're more divided on the issues. There are even issues that we used to be divided on that now we're in agreement on. Like for example, homelessness used to be an urban issue, and now statewide Oregonians say that it's the most important issue that they want elected leaders to address. Or wildfires used to be seen as more of a rural issue, and now urban Oregonians care about it as much as rural Oregonians do.
Adam: Is there an issue where the degree of division among Oregonians stands out to you, or for that matter, the degree of agreement?
Amaury: I think for me, growing up in Oregon, you have this idea of urban and rural and that divide. And you hear about it from—like, I grew up mostly in urban Oregon—you hear about it from the rural side, you hear about it from the urban side. And this feeling that the other side doesn't care or understand. And what has been really surprising for me in the research that we've done at OVBC is just seeing, over and over again, people from both sides talking about the way that issues impact people on the other side and showing compassion and empathy and care for those people, which is not the message that we see in Oregon in public spaces.
For example, we did some research on greater Idaho, and going into this research, I was very nervous because I was pretty sure that either way, no matter what the results showed in any direction, everybody was going to be mad at us. But when we did that research and we got the answers back as to why people thought it was a bad idea for these counties to join Idaho, there were so many people that talked about government services that they were worried people wouldn't have access to anymore from those parts of the state. They talked about concerns about the tax revenue that marijuana has brought to those areas of the state—and Idaho, not that long ago, tried to make a constitutional amendment to their state constitution that would make marijuana illegal. So, you know, some of these rural towns that have benefited would lose that benefit.
And also this feeling that differences of opinion are important. And that even if—even people that said, I don't agree with these people, but we need to have their voice in decisions, and a diversity of opinions and viewpoints benefits our state.
Adam: So it sounds like you're trying to help Oregonians understand what fellow Oregonians believe and care about. Because that self-understanding will be useful for our state?
Amaury: Yes. Yes. It's useful for person-to-person interactions and understanding. It's useful for organizations that are helping Oregonians to understand what's most important to them, how best to communicate with them, how to be most effective in their work. Those things also are just good for our state in general and good decision-making from leadership. But that really is our goal is we want to be Oregon's panel. We're here to help Oregonians. And right now it seems like what they need the most is to remember what they have in common.
Adam: As you've been doing the research and reading the research, have you been surprised at places where there seemed to be points of tension that you wouldn't have guessed would be there?
Amaury: Well, like I said, I've been in a lot of places in the state, so I have some idea of the things that people disagree on and don't like about other people or parts of the state or ideologies or, you name it, school boards, but, yeah—and I read just like a lot of local news.
Adam: When you read local news, what feels like the biggest points of tension that you run into in this state?
Amaury: I guess what has surprised me most recently is how intense disagreements about school boards has gotten. You know, Oregonians all care about children—another thing that we're united on. What people feel like is best for kids and education is different. And because they do care about kids so much, it becomes heated. But it's gone to a completely different level lately. I worry about what that means for our future. Like what is going to happen to these kids who are struggling coming out of COVID? We're spending money on disagreements about school district policies when we should be helping these kids recover.
Adam: What do you see as the relationship between care and likelihood of agreement?
Amaury: People are definitely more likely to disagree on things that they care a lot about. Because if they care about it, with such an intensity, then they're going to have stronger ideas about, you know, how things should be done, what outcomes should be.
And so when other people have different ideas, and they also feel strongly about those ideas because they also care so much about that issue, then we just, we end up with big conflicts—which it does seem also at the same time counterintuitive, because they both care so much about this group, and that's what unites them, but they can't see that part because they're so invested in what they think is the right way to go about it.
Adam: I love what you just said about they can't see that part. They can't see the part where they agree. And instead what they see is the part where they disagree. I think the idea of the work you're engaged in is to help them see, in a way, where they agree, that understanding the level—like we care about the outdoors, we care about nature and natural resources. Do you feel like you have a sense of what helps people go from the part they disagree about to the part they might agree about?
Amaury: In my experience, having conversations with people and talking to people is the best way to, you know, build relationships and build trust so that you can come to some sort of agreement or understanding—or maybe even just like turn down the volume on that disagreement so that we can try and figure out some sort of compromise.
And I mean, compromise doesn't have to be where everybody loses, or everybody wins, or one person or the other. We can figure out how to make this work for as many people as possible. But, yeah, I guess my background is in psychology, and so I know that trust is built from person to person. And so having conversations about the things that we have in common, or even the things that we disagree about, if we can talk to each other, instead of, you know, these shouting matches that we're seeing, then I think that we have a better chance of rebuilding our relationships in the state.
Adam: I'm thinking about the fact that you've been doing this work for a little bit, and I'm wondering, has it changed how you view the world or how you view the state? Not just how you think about it, but how you feel about it.
Amaury: Yes, definitely. And I had to change how I viewed the world a lot before I got to this point too. I had very strong beliefs and values and opinions, and I was realizing that, just like in a relationship, sometimes in the argument, it doesn't matter if you win. And that we couldn’t have real change or make things better for anybody if everybody only cares about winning.
The greater Idaho research that we did was a real turning point for me, where it was like, you could see the magic of, you know, when people aren't just focused on winning, then you can see how much they care about other people in the state and care about what happens to them. Even if, you know, they don't agree with their choices or opinions.
Adam: Amaury, thank you for the work. Thanks for talking with us. I hear lots of areas to be hopeful, also areas to be concerned about. Do you feel hope and concern warring within you as you do this stuff?
Amaury: Oh yes. All the time. And, you know, even besides in all of the disagreements, even moreso in the assumptions that people make about one another. They have ideas about how they think someone from some part of the state, or from some gender or racial or ethnic group, how they're going to answer a question, and so much of the time, they're wrong. So like we were talking about, when you see somebody walking down the street, you really can't make that assumption, and it's not helping our divides by doing so.
We asked Oregonians about the Donation Land Act and whether that was fair to Native Americans. Normally people would assume that people in more liberal parts of the state, which tend to be more urban areas of the state, would be more likely to say “No, that wasn't fair.” But it turns out rural Oregonians are 10 percentage points more likely to say that the Donation Land Act was unfair to Native Americans than urban Oregonians.
Adam: Do you have a sense of what led to that difference in opinion?
Amaury: I don't know for sure. Somebody that I talked to in Central Oregon suggested—and this would make sense to me—that people in rural areas of the state are more likely to know Native Americans.
Adam: And that data point sticks out to you because it says, look, we can't make assumptions based on something like geography, and maybe actually a relationship will do more work than the other ways we tend to sort people.
Amaury: Yeah. It's likely that rural Oregonians are more likely to say no because they have relationships with these people that have had this experience.
Adam: A few weeks after my conversation with Amaury, Oregon Values and Beliefs Center released findings from a study about divides in Oregon. They found that Oregonians aren't optimistic about overcoming national or local divisions. Over 70% of us aren't sure or think it's impossible.
They asked Oregonians about their perceptions of historical policies that impacted inequality in Oregon. Most Oregonians agree that past policies like those that excluded Black Americans from homeownership and the Donation Land Act were unfair to people from communities of color. It's noteworthy that Oregonians living in rural parts of the state are more likely to say the Donation Land Act was not fair to Native Americans than those living in urban areas.
The survey also asked about democracy. Both Democrats, at 80%, and Republicans, at 76%, feel democracy is more at risk now, with three-quarters of us saying it's become worse in the past few years. If these statistics resonate with you, raise questions, spark ideas, please let us know at email@example.com.
Adam: Eddie Melendrez is an artist activist, boxer, and city councilor in Ontario, Oregon, a city of just over 11,000 people in what's called the Treasure Valley. Ontario is just on the Oregon side of the border with Idaho, not too far from Boise. We reached out to Eddie for his perspective as a younger decision-maker in a rural town that shares divides remarkably similar to those in Portland, nearly 400 miles away: serious splits on issues like homelessness, cannabis, city budget, city leadership.
Responding to why he became a city councilman, Eddie says, “If I don't do it, who will?” This honest comment felt like an important lesson to take away. There's a lot to be learned from Eddie Melendez. I hope you enjoy this conversation as much as we did.
Eddie, first, thanks for joining us. And second, can you tell us about the combination of things you're working on in Ontario?
Eddie Melendrez: I'm a mentor and a city councilman. I'm one year into the city council position—a little over one year—so just still trying to adjust and learn my role and the dynamics of city council.
Adam: Do you feel like you're becoming aware of how divides show up in the city council work you're doing?
Eddie: Yeah. I feel like I'm becoming aware as far as just the way certain people make decisions, you know. And I'm real careful before I say like, make it like a right versus wrong or anything like that.
I'm just learning everybody has their role in the community. I'm really kind of understanding that, you know, that they're just doing the best that they thought—that the citizens that elected those city council members, they're just doing what they told their constituents they were going to do.
So I kinda try not to take it to heart, you know, like too hard, if nothing goes my way. And usually I lose, like whatever I vote for on council many times, like I'm on the losing end. You know, I feel like I'm just like one vote or one of two votes.
Adam: Where do you feel like the tension comes to bear in the stuff coming in front of city council?
Eddie: There's a lot of stuff, but one of the main ones that comes to mind right now is our homelessness issue in Ontario. We have like this weird dynamic of you know, we're a rural city, but we have, I think, we have many of the problems of a bigger city, of homelessness and drug abuse and mental illness.
And then we have the marijuana that came into Ontario—I think in 2019, our first dispensary was opened up—that was bringing a bunch of money that the city deeply needed to pay off our PERS debt, which is a public retirement employee system that we were falling behind in. And because we were falling behind in those payments as a city, we had to cut the rec district, we were going to cut the library, we cut the pool. So that was always a touchy topic.
But going back to the homelessness, like I said. We have a site that was set up by a local nonprofit. And it got real touchy because they put it in right in the middle of a neighborhood, the homelessness shelter—like a tiny home shelter. And I think like 15 or 16 homes on it, tiny shelter homes. And before that, they had it on another location behind a business, and the business didn't want it there, so then they moved it to another location right next to a church.
But then the community members didn't want it there, you know, because they were saying they were afraid of crime. And it was a really tough spot to be in. We had people that were advocating for the homeless and homelessness issues that we had in Ontario, and they were really upset. Like, I mean, they were there in numbers at the city council meeting, they packed the room. And then we had the other people that pack the room that were against it.
So it was like, whatever way we decided, it was just like, you know, you're going to lose, somebody is gonna get mad. Some people get really upset, but in the end, I just decided like, well, I don't want to put these people out on the streets. That's what was going to happen. So that's why I voted the way I did.
Adam: Do you feel like you have the sense that your community is more connected than you thought before or more divided than you thought before? In other words, how has your view about the unity or the connection in your community changed since you've entered this role on the city council?
Eddie: So I think, honestly, it feels more divided.
We have a lot of issues like the marijuana issue. We have a huge—I think Ontario is like the third grossing marijuana revenue tax revenue in the state of Oregon. It’s pretty high up there, even though we're one of the smallest and poorest counties. So that was another big issue that gets people really upset because we have a lot of money, and the city council, before I came along, their goal was to pay down the PERS debt.
I just see a lot of people are really upset at the way we do things. And I think just social media kind of gives people the power to like really get on and really just, voice their opinions, but without really learning issues or coming to a city council meeting, or coming to a committee meeting, or jumping on a committee—you know, we always have committee openings. We always need people on our budget committee, our diversity committee, you know. More than complaining, what are you going to do about it? That’s what I feel like telling people. Are you going to run for city council? That's what you need to do, you know? So then you can have a say.
Adam: You talked about some of your arts work before. Am I right that you also have been doing some boxing and training people to box?
Eddie: Yeah. So I've been helping people since I came here in 2006 from California. I was, you know, I didn't know anybody. I actually grew up in Vale, Oregon, when I was a little kid, I was born in Pasco, Washington, when my family used to be in this area working in the fields.
So my first memories were in Vale, Oregon, which is outside of Ontario. And those are my first memories as a kid. And it really, I thought it was like the greatest experience. I thought I was living the greatest life! And I came back in 2006 and then, I was like, I didn't know anybody. I didn't know any community members.
So I just started looking for like the local gyms in Ontario, and I just went there and I started helping. And then one of the gym people, he knew my mom when she was a little kid. So it was like, we had the little connections where it got me into the gym, and I just started helping kids and kind of training.
That's what really opened the door for me to be somebody better, when I started coaching those kids. Because I was just a shy kid, and we were dealing with the trauma of moving to California, and I'd never adjusted. You know, I was always scared to go to school. I was just always living out of a place of like fear.
Adam: Well, it's interesting that you're talking about fear and also being a shy kid, and then you got into boxing, which is a pretty intense way to confront fear. And probably every time you step in the ring, you have to feel it. And now you've stepped into an even more visible, more public, sometimes more combative sphere that is local politics. And let me just ask, are there ways that your work in politics feels at all like what you were doing when you were boxing?
Eddie: Exactly. So what I would tell the kids all the time, I would tell them like, “Hey, you got to get comfortable with being uncomfortable when you're in the ring, you know?” And I've learned all the things that I've taught the kids—I call them my kids, right, but some are older. I have 24-year-old youth that I've known since they were like 13 on probation that were in the boxing club and all that. And then I have little eight-year-old kids. Well, I will tell him, like, “You got to get comfortable with being uncomfortable,” you know, and I'll tell him that. And then like, now I'm living it. Okay. Now all the things you taught your kids, man, you got to really live it. You know, you gotta put your money where your mouth is. So everything that I've kind of like learned is that you see things coming slowly and, you know, don't get upset. I'm just really living it, you know? So it's like more than just what I told them.
Adam: When you look within yourself to do this work in public, amid division, what do you most have to call on from within you to do it well?
Eddie: If I don't do it, then who else is going to do it? You know? And I could easily quit, but then there wouldn’t be that different perspective, in those positions, in those roles on the city council.
The other thing is, you know, I was on a diversity committee, and I made the comment—I’m the ex-officio member for the diversity committee. And I made the comment like, “Oh one day, I hope that our work on this diversity committee will trickle up to city council and the city staff. Cause I see that there's not a diverse staff or city council. And one of the other members of the committee, he gave me pushback and he says, “It's kind of hard for us to have a diverse committee and a diverse council and a diverse staff if those people don't step up. And I was like, oh, you know, he hit me with the one-two, you know? And I was like, “Oh, OK.” And then I kind of—the tension was building, you know, and then I let him finish. And then I said, “Well, you know, you're right.” You know, I said, “You're right.” Because I get frustrated when my own people as well—I can only speak for my own people, Mexican American people—I say that they don't step up enough, you know.
Because a lot of that outreach I do, like I was telling you about telling the kids, like, “What are you gonna do about it?” I've been reaching out to people in the community that I think would make good city council women or men and make good committee members. And I tell them, “You should think about joining.” You know, first I tell like, “Let's go have a coffee,” or something like that—I don’t just hit them with it—but I’m like, “You should join this committee or really think about joining the council.”
And then they always get like, “All right, like I think the main thing is that we don't want to look like we don't know what we're doing.”
And I'm like, “Well, damn. Many times I don't look like I know what I'm doing up there either. I'm learning too, right along with everybody. Like, that's part of being a public servant. Like you gotta do it. You just gotta do it. So I get really frustrated, but I got to feel like if I don't do it, who else is going to do it, you know?
And when that committee member was telling me, like, you know, I kind of gave him a brief history. I was like, “Well, you can't disregard the fact of like 300 years of discrimination and racism and things like that.” I go, “Now we're in a race and you’re expecting us to be at the same level as you, when we're in a race, but we’ve been lapped 300 times.” You know, I go, “Hey, if everything was right since like the late 60s and the 70s, where we had like the farm workers’ rights movement by the United Farm Workers, and we had the Civil Rights Movement with Martin Luther King, things like that.” So say it was equal since then, where we were allowed to vote and allowed to get equal rights in the labor force and all that. I go, “So say it's equal since then. So in the last forty years, do you expect us to be at the same level as you?”
So there's things that we're dealing with, too, as a community, with trauma and things like that. I kind of just made sure I told him that, but in the end, he's right. And that's where I get frustrated with people that don't want to step up either. You know, I'm not saying that it’s everybody's calling, but it just gets really tough.
But as far as like, going back to where it pulls at me, it's like, if I don't do it, who's going to do it? And I go, I want to break that cycle for like, even my daughter. And then those kids that are coming up behind me. I want them to see, it’s regular for you to be in a position of authority. And you could be that person too. And I want to be—make it so regular for my daughter, because my daughter is nine years old, that she just sees it. Like, I want her to just go into life and then believe that she could be whatever she wants to be, like a principal, a senator, or president of the United States, where she could, you know, where she sees her dad doing it. And that's one of the main reasons I'm doing it.
Adam: You've been in this position for, it sounds like a little over a year now. What's the best experience? Maybe not the best—Is there a single moment that stands out for you as pretty exceptional and confirming your desire to get into this public work?
Eddie: Some of the youth I talked to, right, but there was one kid that I've known since he had to be about 13 and, you know, I was telling him like, “Hell no, man. I'm quitting this, man. This ain't nothing like what I thought it was going to be, you know?” And then he was telling me like, “No, Eddie, you can't quit. You know, you can't quit.” You know, he's like, “We need people like you.”
So I—people keep telling me that. Like, we need people like you on the council. And they keep telling me that. And I'm like, well, that one moment really got me when he told me that. And I was like, “Nah, I don't know, man.” But I stayed on though. And I remember then I came back and I told him—he works at a gas station—and I told him like, “Hey, remember when you told me to keep going? You know, that's one of the reasons I kept going. You know, like I didn't step down. I didn't quit.” And, you know, he got all excited. He got all happy.
And then we got into further discussion because he's getting promoted to an assistant manager. And you know, this kid comes from like, a rough background, and he was telling me, “Oh, Eddie man. You know how tough it is. Some of these employees, they're just testing me. It’s just hard, and I don't know what to do.”
And I was like, “Well, you know, that's where you got to learn how to use your words.” You know, like he's teaching me lessons, and I'm teaching him lessons, you know? So it's like, those are the little things that I'm like, okay, I'm doing the right thing, and I keep going, you know.
The other thing is I do get a lot of people that tell me, through a message or through an email or through a letter at city council, that I'm doing good things. And they're glad I'm on city council. And they thank me for the way I vote. Like some of the things that I lose on, right? They thank me, oh, thank you for voting that way. So I do get a lot of those things that make me feel good, you know, that really kind of like, keep me going and let me know, like, okay, I'm doing the right thing, you know. But at the same time it makes me kind of sad too because I’m like, people shouldn't feel that way, you know, they shouldn’t feel like, well, we only have one that we really believe in—and they should feel like the whole council, like they should believe in the whole council, like the councilors have the best interests for the city, you know? So that kind of makes me sad too, a little—like why, why don't they, you know, discretion shouldn't just fall on Eddie, you know. They should feel like that about other councilors.
Adam: Yeah, it's interesting, the hope that they would look at a council and think they're all doing their part, even if they're representing different opinions or different groups than my own.
Also, I guess I want to note that as I was listening to you, how much you emphasize the move from force to using your words. It seems to me those two things go together. Like how are we going to work on divides? Leadership, how are we going to do that? Well, instead of being bigger or tougher, we're going to use our words. And you've talked about patience and stamina a lot as well.
And so first I want to say thank you. Just a big thanks for the commitment and the patience and using your words and sticking at it like your friend encouraged you to do. Last thing I want to ask is when you describe that picture, the hope that people will look at the city council and say, yeah, they're kind of all working on this together. What do you think would be the most important thing you could do to help people move towards that picture of all of you working together?
Eddie: There was a couple of months back where I was kind of getting frustrated where I was like taking a bunch of losses, right? And I started kind of going after one of my councilmen. Some of the ways that they were making comments—I was just getting really picky, you know, because in council, we ask for permission to speak first. You know, you don't just speak, you say, “Mr. President.” Or if it's the mayor you say, “May I speak?” And then they allow you to speak. Well, one of the council members, he was just speaking. And I was like, I kind of called him out on it. I'm like, “Well, are we allowed just to speak whenever we want to? Cause to me, honestly, I'm just waiting my turn. Like I'm waiting my turn, like everybody else. And I raised my hand, and sometimes the person on the other side gets their hand raised before you, so then you gotta wait for them, and you’re just waiting your turn.” And I was kinda getting frustrated, like, “Okay. So every time you talk, you're going to just talk?” You know, it's kinda like one of those things that you learn in kindergarten class, like I'm waiting my turn, man. Like I want to speak, you know? So I started calling him out on some of those things, like, “Are you allowed to speak right now? Or, you know, do you have to wait your turn like everybody else?” And it's like, I'm trying to tell another grown person this —he's about 60, 70 years old. And I'm trying to tell him that.
And I apologized to him later publicly because, you know, in that parks committee, I kind of called him out publicly. And then the next city council meeting, one of my, the city manager, he emailed me and we talked—we would kind of, like, talk about what's going on in the city. And then at the end, I asked him like, “Hey Adam, is there anything you think I could do better? Like, what am I doing that I need to do better?” And he called me out on that. He says, “Well, you know, just some of the ways that you're treating the councilman so-and-so.”
And I was like, you know, you’re right. You know, and I thought about it. I went home, I thought about it all night, and I was like, no, you know, he's right. Like, what I was doing was taking all my frustration out on that councilman. So in the next public city council, I apologized to him in front of everybody, because that's the only way to make it right. If I'm challenging him in a way that's not right, in front of people, I need to apologize in front of people.
Cause when they've done that to me, they'll apologize to me after city council is over. But I'm like, it doesn't feel right, because if you embarrass me or call me out in front of the city council—Facebook Live, and all that—you should apologize on Facebook Live. So I was like, if that's what I feel is right, I'm going to do that for that councilman.
Adam: Eddie, that's—it's both a great story on its own, and I think it's reflective of the way you're doing all of this. It gets back to what we were talking about before, about the difficulty of losing and how to apologize—and not just apologize, but apologize publicly. And that you even asked the person for feedback when you said, “Can you tell me what I can do better?” I just feel like there's so much in there for how we can all work to navigate the divides in our community. And I want to say a big thanks for how you're stepping up, and the way you continue to step up, and what you model. Let me ask one last thing, and that is: as you are walking out of here or walking into the next city council meeting, do you think there'll be any one question on your mind? Can you think of any question that seems to keep surfacing for you?
Eddie: Regarding, say, what I want for myself? Or regarding like what I want from the council? Or what I think I could see better? I'm not sure.
Adam: How about either the council or your community? A question related to either the council or your community that seems to keep coming up for you.
Eddie: Maybe for the community, I would feel like if they could step up more, I think that it would be better. I understand that people have work schedules, things like that. They have families. But I kind of feel like, we all have families and we all have work schedules, right? Cause that's one of the concerns I get when I try to reach out to people.
But I don't know, I think on the bigger scale, just for the community to really get involved and really see what part they could do, you know, and like what part they have to play in making our city better. Like before they, before somebody just, you know, expresses their concerns or a complaint, like really just look within first and see, like, what can you do? What can you do to make it better? Like more than just the complaint, can you offer time or to volunteer or something to be part of the city? You know, I think that's probably the main thing that I can think of right now, as far as just doing your part for the community.
Adam: What divides have you observed or been a part of in your community? Could ideas explored in this episode help you figure out ways to bridge difficult conflicts? Let us know what divides you're navigating, or anything else you want to tell us, by emailing us at firstname.lastname@example.org. Even better, join us at one of our upcoming workshops or events. Visit oregonhumanities.org to check out our calendar.
The Detour is made possible by the National Endowment for the Humanities. I'm Adam Davis. Keiren Bond is our producer. Our editor and engineer is Dave Friedlander. Our assistant producers are Alexandra Powell Bugden, Karina Briski, and Ben Waterhouse. Thanks for being with us. See you next time.