The title of this blog post admittedly sounds boring. What makes it wonderfully boring is that during all of my local liberal activism, I'd never had an hour-plus talk with someone from the Chamber of Commerce, much less two someones.
My primary connection with the Chamber has been criticizing its political positions, which lean decidedly toward the right.
So when Natalie Jasinski, the Member Services staffer, asked if I'd like to get together to chat about how I see Salem, I jumped at the chance. We met at the Beanery in downtown Salem. Natalie brought along Kate Gillem, the recently-married Director of Communications whose last name used to be Virden.
(I'm terrible at remembering names, but I'm 99% sure I talked with Kate. If not, it was her identical twin.)
As befits Chamber of Commerce staff whose job involves a lot of communicating, Natalie and Kate let me do most of the talking. Since I enjoy hearing thoughts come out of my head and into writing or speech, this was a pleasant experience for me. Having Natalie buy my 16 ounce nonfat vanilla latte added to the pleasantness.
What I mostly talked about, once we got beyond some personal chatting, was my view of local politics in Salem and how our political discourse could be improved.
I mentioned how some years ago I talked with someone who belongs to both the Salem and Monmouth-Independence Chambers of Commerce. This person told me that when she went to her first Chamber meeting in Monmouth-Independence, she asked a member about whether the Chamber endorsed political candidates.
That question got a quizzical reaction. "No, of course not," was the response. "We all work together here." Such is the difference between a small town political atmosphere and that in Salem.
Here, the Chamber of Commerce has chosen to be decidedly political, at least in recent years.
I noted that this has pluses and minuses. Since businesses obviously want to attract customers of all types, belonging to a Chamber of Commerce that has a right-wing reputation can be problematic at times, such as when the Chamber opposed an employer payroll tax that would have funded evening and weekend bus service in Salem -- which ticked off quite a few people.
I suggested that it could be both a good P.R. move for the Chamber, and a positive message for businesses considering locating in Salem, if the Chamber took the lead in trying to foster a more collaborative atmosphere in Salem. This effort wouldn't try to change political attitudes, but rather would foster ways to get people to recognize that open, honest, respectful debates can happen without demonizing the other side.
A problem with getting this sort of thing going, I said, is that Salem lacks local T.V. and radio stations that reach a high proportion of the population, as is the case in Portland and Eugene. And our local newspaper, the Statesman Journal, is basically asleep at the wheel when it comes to serious in-depth reporting on local issues.
So the Chamber of Commerce could play an out-sized role in changing our political climate for the better, since it has a good sized staff and financial resources.
It would be great, I said, for Salem to become known as a city that is bucking the trend of rampant political divisiveness that is extremely evident at the national level, and unduly evident at the state level here in Oregon.
I wasn't thinking of past-Mayor Anna Peterson's empty words of Salem being a "collaboration capital," because she didn't put those words into effect, viewing them more as "groupthink."
Not surprisingly, I brought up my own ideas along this line, which I've expressed in several blog posts as a Mingling of the Tribes.
I envisioned a community-wide ongoing effort with a goal of getting different "tribes" in Salem to understand each other better, to communicate with each other more effectively, while still feeling free to fight for what one believes in fairly, respectfully, truthfully, and vigorously.An image that came to mind is football teams eating together before a bowl game and exchanging back-slapping hugs after the game. During the game they battle. Before and after, they mingle. A time for each.
I'd love to see the Statesman Journal and Salem Weekly each get behind a Mingling of the Tribes effort. I have ideas for how this would go. But almost certainly how anybody thinks it would go isn't how it would actually go. The goal would be to spark some collegial fires in Salem and not worry overly much where or how they spread.
Web site. Facebook page. Community events. Videos. Neighborhood association presentations. And yes, an annual roast. Lots of possibilities.
I mentioned to Natalie and Kate that I really enjoyed last month's Bridging our Divide meeting in Salem, where I, a liberal atheist, ended up sitting at a table next to an ardent conservative Christian. We conversed just fine, seeing each other as people rather than labels.
An annual Mingling of the Tribes here in Salem could be highly enjoyable. And money raised would go to a broadly acceptable community charity.
I said that I see the event as more of a self-roast where people who speak would have to poke fun at themselves more than they joke about their political or cultural opposites. With enough imbibing of alcohol, and pre-ingestion of pot as desired, loosening of inhibitions would bring about a desirable vibe of What we have in common is greater than what pushes us apart.
Anyway, whether anything like this comes to pass, I enjoyed sharing ideas with Natalie and Kate. Early on Natalie asked me why I enjoy writing. I told her that it is like therapy for me, bringing what is within me out so it can be shared with others, which feels good.
Likewise, this afternoon's conversation felt good.