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March 18, 2007

Interview with Eric de Place of Sightline Institute

Sightline Institute is trying to fill a huge gap in the Northwest - that of broad-based progressive think tank.  Sightline is the new name for the bigger-than-just-an-environmental organization that was formerly called the Northwest Environmental Watch.  The organization was founded in 1993 by Alan Durning, formerly a senior researcher at Worldwatch Institute in D.C.  Like many of us, he wanted to come back to the Northwest.  He later chronicled that move in his book, "This Place on Earth", which is now free as a PDF file on the Sightline website.

So he brought along the idea to establish a mini-Worldwatch Institute that covered the PNW.  Here's Worldwatch's mission from their website:

Independent research for an environmentally sustainable and socially just society.

The organization that would become Sightline found that they kept doing more than that but were still seen as primarily a watchdog agency, knee-deep in policy and well, boring.  But they were doing so much more.  Heck, they work on reproductive rights.  Who knew?  And for them, sustainability includes economic justice.  They felt like they'd outgrown both their name and their original mission.  So, about a year and half ago, they went through a re-invention process.  According to Eric de Place, Research Director at Sightline, the organization decided they want to "change the art of what is possible".  They want to look at the long-term fixes for the region, including how potential fixes impact the environment.

Here's their new tagline:

Sightline is Cascadia's sustainability think tank. We create tools to help you build a better Northwest.

Sounds good.  I thought I'd find out how they were doing on that.   

I talked to Eric as a result of an interview I did with Dean Nielsen here a couple of weeks ago.  Dean and I were discussing the state of the progressive movement here in Washington State and Dean had commented on the lack of well-rounded progressive think tanks here, organizations that could counter the sustained policy and communications impact of the Discover Institute, the Evergreen Freedom Foundation and a couple other smaller local think tanks on the right.  When I asked Dean who was building an infrastructure here, he said that Sightline was moving to fill that gap and it would take a while to see if they are able to do that. 

The interview is over the fold.

Interview with Eric de Place About Sightline Institute

What prompted you to make these changes in your organization?

EdP:  The name Northwest Environmental Watch was not a good indicator of what the organization did by that time.  People thought we did environmental work and only environmental work.  We had always worked on sustainability issues but for us that included working on reproductive rights and economic justice, for example.  Name a problem.  We dealt with it.  People thought we were a watchdog agenda, knee-deep in policy.  We do that, of course, but we see ourselves as a broad-based thinktank. We wanted to  change the art of what is possible.  We look at the long-term fixes for the region including how those possible fixes impact the environment.

We changed our name to make what we do more obvious to people.  At the same time we ran out the term of our 5-year plan.  As we began that process, we felt ham-strung by the name.  We realized we needed a major rethinking of who we were.  It was a fairly exhaustive process. with focus groups and surveys.  We talked to people who knew us well, as well as as those that didn't know us.

What did you want to see the organization do next?

EdP: We wanted to be more focused on how we communicate about what we do.  We are less about sustainability only and more about larger progressive issues.  Sustainability is still the heart of what we do but we want to work on a range of issues.  But it's hard to get attention on other issues.  For years we have monitored economic security in the region.  We want to help create an economy that really works for people.   

We wanted to gradually but fundamentally realign priorities.  We wanted to bring a recognition that we live in a place that is pretty unique.  We have a pretty forward looking history.  We hoped to bring a comparison between the different places within the region, sharing information from Oregon to Washington to Idaho to British Columbia. 

We pay attention to the different politics and the different policies - which ones work well, which ones work badly.  For example, Vancouver has had great success with a pedestrian focus and increasing density in the city.  It reduces congestion and increases mobility.  People are able to transport themselves in very energy-efficient ways with a lot of public transportation.  The benefits are huge.  Their reliance on fossil fuels is dramatically lower.  British Columbia has 1/3 lower fuel consumption than the rest of the northwest and better than the rest of Canada.  They have done a good job of fostering a liveable city while preserving farmlands and forests as well.  They have been very diligent at preserving the lower Fraser Valley. 

And of course, there are examples of lessons that go the other way, i.e Measure 37 in Oregon, the "property rights" initiative that passed in 2004.  Oregon had been a leader in protecting their land.  They were  duped into gutting land use and the results have been horrendous.  We can look to Oregon's experience and voters may have done just that.  Voters in Washington, California and Idaho defeated similar initiatives in 2006, Idaho's initiative by 3 to 1. 

Idaho?

EdP:  The issue in Idaho transcended party divides.  Folks were concerned about what is happening to Treasure Valley.  Plus, they like and trust their local representatives.  They seemed to say, "Why would I want to tie the hands of my local officials."  As well as being a land-use law, it was also a bill that ran against the grain of democracy. 

The initiatives in both Montana and Nevada were both thrown out by the courts.  Only Arizona passed theirs. 

Arizona, in a Democratic sweep year; Arizona, where they passed campaign finance reform?

EdP: It was a perfect storm with tons of ballot issues.  Most groups that would have been opposing it were tied up working on other issues.

So Sightline is seeing itself in an information broker position?

EdP: You might say that.  Sightline is in a postion to make the different policies and the effectiveness of those policies in various entities known. 

We also hope to become a place that articulates a shared vision of progressive values.  We want to take a vision of those values to business.

How do you define that vision?

EdP:  Sightline has three values/principles that came out of the redefinition process:  strong communities, fair markets, responsible stewardship. 

We also did a lot more.  We looked at how to concentrate resources.  We felt that our ability to communicate well was missing and we decided to make the research program focused on communication.  We've been paying attention to George Lakoff and others.  We will be doing a lot of research on framing.  We just hired a new staff member to think about how the progressive movement can tap into the underlying values of all Northwesterners.   

Where do you fit in with the other major environmental organizations, i.e. Climate Solutions and the WEC (Washington Environmental Council)?

EdP: We want to support their efforts as well as our own.  We meet a lot and have both formal and informal discussions about how those groups working on a shorter timescale can fit into the longer range focus of Sightline.  We want near-term wins as well as longer-term wins.  For example, we invested in defeating Initiative 933.  It was an opportunity not just to defeat a stupid ballot initiative but also to state why it's important to do land use planning, and why its important to support our democratic institutions.  We think we were able to reframe the debate.  It was tremendously gratifying. 

Anything else?

EdP:  There is one thing that is interesting.  We have learned a lot from understanding how the right-wing is successful, both here and nationally.  They consciously invested in the effort to spend decades coming up with forward-thinking ideas and practices.  Frank Luntz has done amazing work focusing the conservative agenda.They had a shelf full of stuff they could pull out when they got this President elected.  They were much more successful than they should have been, given how little their agenda actually appeals to folks. 
It was one of the things that stood out for us.  I mean, gee, how much more successful we could be, given we have an agenda people actually like.

That seems like a good place to end.  Thank you.

Posted by Lynn Allen on March 18, 2007 at 11:20 PM in Interviews, Policy, Strategery | Permalink

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