As citizens we are a capricious lot. We expect our elected fellow citizens to oversee the municipal flow of our daily lives, be kind, invest wisely in capital projects and implement programs assuring a better future. However, elections are about egos, personalities, ideas, making things better, and lately, tribal. Results rarely meet expectations.
Some cities are able to establish a clear vision, build consensus and minimize toxicity. That is the goal. Our city appears to be running in place. We have been on the same path for years regardless of who is on staff or in elected posts. The city seems destined for prolonged mediocrity by choice. As Walt Kelly’s comic strip character Pogo would say, “we have met the enemy and he is us.”
Our city’s mediocrity continues with nobody openly caring about our changing characteristics. They seem to be afraid of the truth. Federal Way is becoming less affluent, less educated, more diverse and is not seen as a great middle class growth opportunity for family or business relocation. We need a better path for all who live and work here.
Having the words “Nationally Accredited” written on the sides of our police cars means nothing if our city is perceived as “Felony Way.” We are better than that, but we are a city that is failing its potential. Is our lack of business growth, underperforming schools, no real investment in the arts, culture, and community building, a reflection of who we are? Yes.
An example of fearing culture is the “Parks and Recreation” title on the city’s vehicles. The department’s official name, as used in the city’s budget, is “Parks, Recreation and Cultural Services.” The omission of “Cultural Services” on the city’s vehicles is clearly a statement that they are not valued.
Talking about building a better city is smart politics, but growth processes and desired outcomes are rarely explained or properly supported. Our local politicians are comfortable with “process talk” because they know that our core voting blocs fear change.
Common elements within Federal Way’s voting blocs are that they came from or currently are salt-of-the-earth working-class. Our voters are less educated based on the fact that 27 percent of our residents have a college degree. This is well below King County’s 53 percent for the same data point.
Those living here generally are less sophisticated, risk averse, lean conservative, fear being displaced economically by higher-end jobs locating here, and many are dealing with financial stress from increasing rental costs or home prices if trying to purchase.
Understanding and overcoming the concerns within those common elements is critical to repositioning Federal Way. As citizens of Federal Way, we must deal with the ‘enemy’ that Pogo identified — “us.” We don’t like change and don’t want our comfort zone challenged.
Building an arts, creativity, entrepreneurial-focused, engaged community is about challenging comfort zones, and becoming purpose driven. It is hard work, messy, time consuming, requires passion, interaction, commitment, and elected leadership open to sharing ideas, funds and control.
Our mayor and council members understand our residential base through running for office, multiple town hall meetings, problems that come to them at meetings, or chosen social media groups. They hear very little about community building and the arts, but lots about crime, streets, traffic flow, homelessness, the need for more police, and who belongs here. They hear mostly negatives.
Politicians ignore valuing the arts as a community connector because the arts are not negative, a problem, or a vocal voting bloc. Also, our corporate media tends to label the arts as elitist. This chosen anti-intellectualism knock is used, mostly by right-wing media and conservatives, to undermine independent thinking, cultural investment and supporting art in schools.
Marketing for the arts draws our attention to those who are established or up and coming talents, have a successful product, and are profitable. What gets lost in the marketing is that most of the talent and art we enjoy seeing at the highest production levels began in programs supported by local communities. Good art is home-grown. Developing talent and lifelong skills begins with local opportunities.
We have talented young artists in our schools performing music, singing, creating visual art, acting, and writing prose or poetry. Our students need our leaders to step up and be supportive in elevating our city as a community stage. There are also professional artists, authors, actors, musicians, and other creatives living in our city that choose, out of necessity, to share their talents elsewhere because Federal Way refuses to properly support the arts.
Artists get categorized as disruptors because they see things differently. They also get pushed aside by people who feel excluded or are uncomfortable with new experiences. This may be due to ignorance as well as a lack of exposure during their education and formative years. In working-class-families the arts are often seen as frivolous.
Sports and athleticism seem to always be front and center and valued. Easier to market, brand as a product, results are easy to quantify and monetize. Grasping the value of junior’s musical talent, drawing or poem is not as direct.
The economic value of art in our society gets overlooked. The National Assembly of State Art Agencies, in their current report, shared a 2019 U.S. Bureau of Economic Analysis stating that arts and cultural production accounts for $919,688,832,000 and 4.3% of the U.S. economy, contributing 5,208,494 jobs.
Yes, as citizens we are a capricious lot. We choose fear over opportunity and think community building means exclusively supporting police, public safety, and public works as our chosen priorities. However, those services do not build quality of life. We fear what we do not understand. The arts are the enablers for ‘us’ to find purpose, passion and growth.
Investing in arts and culture should never be feared. It is an investment that builds community, character, value, cooperation, inclusivity, team work, curiosity, and serves as a quality of life multiplier able to connect “us.”
Keith Livingston is a retired municipal management professional, lifelong artist and Federal Way resident. He can be reached at email@example.com.