Elected officials, beacons, and blind spots / Noisy Waters Northwest

Click the graphic to access the Facebook event for the January 14, 2019 Monday Dignity Vigil at Bellingham City Hall

January 10, 2019 Dena Jensen

When I received a response email from Bellingham City Council Member Michael Lilliquist today, I had to think hard about whether or not I should publicly remark on it. It’s not like it was, in many ways, remarkable in comparison to the few other email responses I have received from him. In fact, some Bellingham City Council Members do not respond to me – ever – regarding my emails asking them to reach out and develop relationships with frontline and marginalized community members. Most of the time, I don’t even expect them to email me back. I just want them to take action.

Council Member Lilliquist’s email to me did not address the stated subject of my email to the Council Members of “uplifting climate solutions from impacted community members,” but discussed, instead, the Council Member’s own agenda for getting the City of Bellingham to adopt a revised Climate Action Plan in order to lay the foundation for lobbying and advocacy work at the state level.

I have sent about 35 emails over the course of the last year and a half, either directly, or copied to them, that have contained some element calling on our elected leaders to reach out to community members (and their advocates) who are negatively impacted by persecution and who are currently experiencing crisis – in what I consider an essential effort – to meaningfully consult with them. On the occasions Council Members have responded, they have wanted to provide me with information they have regarding some other issue related to my email. Such was the case with Council Member Lilliquist’s email to me today.

Looking back at the last year and a half, the most gratifying action, seemingly in response to my emails, of which I have been aware, has come in the form of Bellingham City Council Member Dan Hammill showing up at three Monday Dignity Vigils starting in March of 2018, to which I consistently invited both Bellingham City and Whatcom County Council Members most every week from January through April 2017. Dignity Vigils are now approaching their 100th week of community members coming together to stand together for dignity and to stand against law enforcement and federal immigration collaboration which leads to the separation of families and deportation.

I believe that Council Member Hammill’s defensive attitude got the best of him, and unfortunately he never returned after a third event. However, I did appreciate Council Member Hammill’s effort in showing up. It might not be enough to just show up and take no other actions. He might have invited criticism in some ways by doing so. But it does mean something when our elected officials show up and try as best they can.

Prior to the arrival of recently-appointed Council Member Hannah Stone on the Bellingham City Council, no other Council Members besides Council Member Hammill have ever come out with the evident purpose of attending a Dignity Vigil. I believe Council Member Stone has attended one of the vigil events. The majority of vigils have been held on the City Council’s doorstep at Bellingham City Hall, and are held apparently during Council Members’ work day lunch hour, which is similarly the lunch hour for most of the people who attend the vigils each week. In nearly two years since the first vigil, there has been no meaningful effort to engage with members of Western Washington University’s Blue Group or Community to Community Development to live up to public assurances given by some Bellingham City Council Members at their February 13, 2017 City Council meeting that they would continue to work with them to find ways to protect immigrants in our community.

And so, as I said, I had to think some about whether to say something about Council Member Lilliquist’s email to me. But in this case I feel it is a matter where a line of insensitivity to my message has been so brazenly crossed, it has to be brought to light.

My most recent email to Council Members asking them to, “reach out to develop critical relationships and work closely with all community members who are the most vulnerable,” was sent yesterday, January 11, 2019. It was in relation to a January 9, 2019 guest article written by Bellingham City Council Member April Barker and two members of 350 Bellingham that appeared in the online publication, Climate Solutions. I had been particularly struck by one of the assertions in the article about both Whatcom County and the City of Bellingham’s goals for 100% renewable energy use: “In declaring 100% renewable energy goals, we reaffirmed that our city is anti-poverty, anti-racism, and anti-inequality.”

It reminded me of aspects of the national Green New Deal (GND) package of policies being pitched to legislators (most notably by New York’s 14th Congressional District representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez) that had been pointed out in a January 9, 2019 Grist article. The article had stated “The Green New Deal is being promoted as a kind of progressive beacon of a greener America, promising jobs and social justice for all on top of a shift away from fossil fuels.”

Meanwhile, the article brought to light the fact that some members of frontline communities had issued statements saying they had never been consulted regarding the development of the Green New Deal.

Just a day after I had read that article, and around a month since members of the Climate Justice Alliance had issued a statement regarding their concerns that they and other community members most vulnerable to the effects of climate change had not been consulted, I was happy to come across a video of Congresswoman Ocasio-Cortez delivering a message that she had just had the “honor of meeting with representatives from frontline communities and the Climate Justice Alliance to figure out how we can bring Kentucky, how we can bring Native Tribes, how we can bring the South Bronx, and the direct communities impacted, into the space of leadership so they can draft and lead a Green New Deal for the United States.”

Click the graphic to access this post on the Climate Justice Alliance Facebook page

So, on Friday January 11, that’s what I wrote to the Bellingham City Council about and closed with this final paragraph:

I now look to you Council Members to, in such an essential an inspirational fashion, reach out to develop critical relationships and work closely with all community members who are the most vulnerable to the potentially devastating impacts of climate change as you pursue the goals you have set for a swift transition to renewable energy.

Here I was, presenting an example of how an elected representative had responded, after being alerted that she and others had fallen short in engaging in meaningful consultation with frontline communities, in an exemplary way. This was my 30-somethingth email that once again called on Council Members to engage with community members who have historically been persecuted or marginalized, and I had sent it coming from a perspective that had additionally been expressed by Congresswoman Ocasio-Cortez in her January 10 video message:

We are at a place where we can no longer afford for corporations and the most, you know, the most privileged in society to be drafting the solutions for the most vulnerable. We need to be able to trust that communities can govern themselves. And I’m so excited to have heard and uplift those solutions. So thank you all so much.”

Now, here was the response to my email from Council Member Lilliquist:

From: “Lilliquist, Michael W.” <mlilliquist@cob.org> 

Sent: Saturday, January 12, 2019 9:20 AM

Subject: Re: Uplifting climate solutions from impacted community members


Thanks for your letter.  In my view, much of the work on addressing carbon pollution needs to occur at higher levels of government. Cities have limited powers and authorities. Municipal goals will not be enough. We the people need to have all levels of government involved.

In particular, I am thinking about state regulation of energy supply utilities. I have testified several times before the Utilities and Transportation Commission (UTC), regarding PSE’s reliance on coal power and other fossil fuels sources, and co-written opinion pieces on the subject  I have also been talking with economists and other experts about how energy utilities operate, with an eye to moving them away from outmoded ideas and business models. The reason I bring this up is that I am working to ensure that the city’s current climate action task force not limit itself too much to what we can do locally, or as a municipality, but to also identify efforts that need to occur at the state level.  My goal, to be frank, it to lay the foundation for lobbying and advocacy work at the state level. To speak for the City to our state officials, I first need the City to adopt this point of view by some formal act. Putting it in writing, in a revised claimate action plan, is a way to do that.


Michael Lilliquist

Bellingham City Council

Representative, Ward 6


Per state law RCW 42.56, my incoming and outgoing email messages are public records and are therefore subject to public disclosure requirements.

To me, this email was irkingly offensive in its insensitivity. Even with well-meaning and hard-working representatives who appear to have a lot of promise, such dominant blind spots leave systemic racism, sexism, ableism, and classism to carry on and thrive in our community.

I won’t stop trying to get my message across. I have my own shortcomings to confront and many ways I can listen better and interact more effectively! And I won’t stop hoping that all of our local elected officials will start coming around to realize they can’t provide workable solutions that address poverty, racism, and inequality without developing ongoing and deepening relationships with those who are suffering these abuses.

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