When it comes to the retelling of visionary leaders, history has a convenient way of celebrating ideas that gained popular approval without harming too many powers-that-be.
But what about those visionaries’ other, more unpopular ideas — the ones that challenged the status quo just a little too much?
Think about the popular retelling of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Most people remember him for his “I Have a Dream” speech and his impressive fight for racial equality, but brush off his powerful anti-war views and completely forget King’s ideas for eradicating income inequality.
Imagine what our world might be like if King’s less popular ideas had become reality. Imagine if King’s vision for an “Economic and Social Bill of Rights” — promising every American the right to a job, education and safe housing — had become commonplace. What would the country be like today if King’s call for every citizen to have a basic, livable income regardless of their job status or ability to work had become standard practice?
In 1967, King had this to say about war: “A nation that continues year after year to spend more money on military defense than on programs of social uplift is approaching spiritual death.”
Where would we be if we had incorporated that idea into our national story? Just think about how we could have spent the more than $4 trillion we’ve pumped into never ending wars in the Middle East. One recent estimate from the Department of Housing and Urban Development found that there are about 600,000 homeless Americans living on the streets every night. We could buy every homeless person a $300,000 home for about five percent of what we’ve spent on those wars. King knew 40 years ago what we can’t seem to grasp today — politicians can always find money for war but can never find even a few pennies to help our most vulnerable citizens.
Recently, we were reminded that this glossing-over of visionary ideas doesn’t just happen on a national level.
Locally, we remember Nan Henriksen, Camas’ first female mayor, for ideas that, while slightly unpopular at the time, have become part of the area’s identity and helped formed a more attractive and prosperous city.
When you hear about Henriksen’s visionary ideas, you hear about her push to diversify Camas’ economy and save the city from possible ruin if the paper mill closed its doors. You hear about her efforts to save open spaces for parks and trails.
Camas is a beautiful, family friendly and thriving small city. There is no doubt that Henriksen’s visions for diversifying and “greening” Camas have paid off 100 times over.
But what about Henriksen’s untold struggles? Where would Camas be today if Henriksen’s vision for building more multi-family and affordable housing in the city limits had been realized?
Many people who work in Camas today cannot afford to actually live here. At a recent Camas City Council meeting, the idea of affordability was brought up and a council member said they’d heard only about 25 percent of Camas’ police officers could afford to live in the city they protect.
If Henriksen’s push for more affordable housing hadn’t been shot down 25 years ago, would more officers — not to mention many of Camas’ teachers, retail workers, caregivers and journalists — be able to buy a home in the city they love?
The Camas City Council is currently going through the very involved process of planning for the city’s long-term future. We hope that these political leaders take a closer look at unpopular ideas and ask themselves if bucking popular opinion — and potentially catching heat from the wealthy and powerful — might pay off for the city and its more vulnerable residents 25 years down the road.