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Tough Love

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By: Neal Keny-Guyer, CEO of Mercy Corps

It’s easy to praise Oregon on her 150th birthday. Our state is gorgeous and livable, a national leader in the art and science of what makes a region work.

Yes, Oregon asks a lot of us. Where else is civic duty so celebrated and public planning so exhaustively scrutinized? Yet we know that the choices we make directly affect our own daily lives, and those of our children and grandchildren. And so we make them carefully.

Our civic dues are a fair price for the privilege of living on this beautiful land. Our forebears made some wise decisions so that we can live as we do, and we owe them a debt of gratitude even as we carry on the work they began.

It is easy to praise Oregon.

Oregon has been a wonderful home for Mercy Corps for 30 years. That’s why we have chosen to stay here, to invest in Oregon, to build our new headquarters here.

Here we draw strength from a community whose people are a model of engaged, connected citizenry. In a recent study, the Portland metro area ranked #2 nationally in volunteerism. Even during the current downturn, the number of people giving their time to help others hasn’t wavered. And the metro area ranked first among states in the volunteerism of our young people – the so-called “millenials” born on or after 1982. What a testament to the willingness of our youth to walk the talk.

Oregonians were among the first to travel to New York after 9/11 and to New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina, bringing our powerful homegrown blend of concern and can-do spirit to people struggling to recover from catastrophe. Oregonians generously support Mercy Corps and other international agencies, extending their compassion to help people around the world who are applying their own grit and determination to overcome the most daunting hardship.

Yes, Oregonians seem to get it: Our lives on this precious planet are bound together by shared needs and interests. When we remember that, and work together, we can achieve remarkable things.

But I didn’t join this discussion simply to sing praises. We Oregonians prefer straight talk – and tough love, as well.

Here it is:

With all due respect, we are too self-satisfied. We too often show smug pride about the “Oregon way” – as if we already have it all figured out – that limits our capacity for greatness. We can be parochial and insular, shut off from new ideas and influences. We aren’t concerned enough about the kind of society we are becoming. And our standards should be higher.

Oregon should aim to lead the nation, or at the least be among the top ten states, in every quality-of-life metric. Right now, we’re nowhere near that.

Take unemployment. Our jobless rate – at 12.2% in June 2009, the third-worst in the country – is unacceptable. Or hunger. In the three-year period before the current recession, Oregon was ranked third in the nation for hunger and food insecurity – a dramatic increase from our ranking of 18th in the previous reporting period.

Our schools are foundering too. In reading, Oregon fourth graders ranked 40th in the nation, while eighth graders ranked 23rd. In math, Oregon fourth graders ranked 42nd and eighth graders ranked 19th. In science, Oregon fourth graders ranked 25th, while eighth graders ranked 20th. And, as reported on August 6 in The Oregonian, “the number of Portland and east metro schools that face federal sanctions for failing to meet standards has doubled, from nine in 2008 to 18 this year.”

As for income inequality, between the late 1980s and 2006, the gap between our middle 20% and our richest 20% increased more than in any other state except Connecticut. It is unacceptable that almost 17% of Oregon’s children live in poverty.

It is simply intolerable for Oregon, which has the resources, the capacity, and so many smart, progressive and good citizens, to not aim to lead.

We should be at the forefront in caring for our children. In health, education and employment. In income opportunity and sustainability. That’s how we live up to the dream of our beautiful state. That’s the real Oregon way.

We may debate the politics of getting there, even as we rally around the value of community service and of setting high standards for leadership.

When each of us makes the personal commitment to act, there’s nothing we cannot accomplish together. Will you choose one or two great local organizations to volunteer with? What if every single Oregonian volunteered? We would have a cadre of 3.8 million people working to better our state. Wow. Now that’s an unstoppable force.

As for Mercy Corps, our local affiliate, Mercy Corps Northwest, works with low-income entrepreneurs here in the Pacific Northwest. Just like people around the world who are trying to build a better life for their families, our neighbors here – many of them minorities or immigrants – just need an opportunity to get ahead. We offer a hand up so they can apply their own ideas and energy to start a business and create a brighter future for their children.

Mercy Corps welcomes Oregonians and visitors alike into our new Action Center in Old Town Portland, after it opens on October 9. There you’ll learn more ways you can help people in your community – and your world.

I’d love to hear your thoughts. What cause or issue or organization is closest to your heart? What’s the connection to your own life? Are you passionate to help others overcome an obstacle that you yourself faced? How are you going to make that happen?

There has never been a better – or a more urgent – time to build a stronger Oregon. Let’s get going now, so that in 2059 this sesquicentennial will be remembered as the turning point, the time when Oregonians stood up and said: “Enough. Too many people are lagging behind. We can do better. And I’m going to help.”

An African proverb says, “The best time to plant a tree is 20 years ago. The next best time is today.”

Oregonians, let’s get planting!

Neal Keny-Guyer, CEO of Mercy Corps, encourages everyone to visit Mercy Corps’ new Portland Action Center (28 S.W. First Avenue, information at actioncenter.org/portland), after it opens on October 9, for ideas about engagement and service.

One Response to “Tough Love”

  1. Darlene Fletcher says:

    Right On!! Thanks, so much for a well written, Tough Love, article. I am a native Oregonian and have been in love with this state since I can remember……but there certainly are many areas that need attention. Especially our children, who are abused, hungry and neglected.
    We support Mercy Corps and hope that you continue to share your compassionate caring for many years!
    Thanks you,
    Darlene Fletcher

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