Emily Articulated

Precedent and change

By Emily Erickson
Reader Columnist

Exactly four years ago I was packing up my old silver Subaru, a vehicle I had purchased as soon as I set my heart on moving to the mountains — which only lasted five months of actual mountain driving — and prepared to move out West. Two weeks later, I’d navigated my way through several mountain resort towns and more than a few snowdrifts piled over Interstate 80, and finally had my “Long Bridge moment,” when the snowstorm hanging above Sandpoint blew away.

Emily Erickson.

Four years is not a long time, really, especially when gauged against community “lifers” who don’t consider anyone a local until decades have gone by. But it is enough time to witness change; changes in both our surroundings and the people and community within them. It’s enough time to watch our trajectory and wonder about the direction of its future. 

Four years are enough temporal space for one-way streets to transform into two lanes, for grassy fields to be paved into tidy suburban neighborhoods, for businesses to open and close, for rent and homes to rise in price, for protesters to line the bridge, and for masks to shift the way we see and understand one another.

Changes in culture and community can feel like passive things; like something we float around inside, hoping that when we pop up, it’s in a place that resembles where we started.

But, in considering change as something that happens to us, we disregard an important facet of our collective agency: precedent.

The things we do and the things we take a clear stance on influence the course of our change and the trajectory of our shifting community. In this, “setting a precedent” can be thought of as the act of establishing a standard or setting the stage for the future, even if those actions don’t have immediate repercussions.

Setting precedents can happen at the individual level, but often have significant impact when implemented within our institutions. 

When Tom Chasse, president and CEO of Schweitzer Mountain Resort, wrote a letter to the community taking a firm and clear stance on mask-wearing for the protection of his staff and in order to keep the mountain open, he was setting a precedent.

He wrote, “Due to an overwhelming lack of compliance with our mask policies and social distancing … I have made the decision that we will not be offering twilight skiing over the MLK holiday weekend. I will not continue to tolerate the verbal abuse that has been directed toward our staff as they have attempted to enforce our safety requirements.

“We hope this ‘pause’ in our twilight skiing operation will provide our staff a much-needed break from the constant struggle of trying to operate safely during the pandemic as well as a reminder to our guests of our commitment to our safety protocols.”

More than these words having an immediate effect on our ability to twilight ski, they had the power to establish that we’re the type of community that acknowledges COVID-19, setting a precedent that it is our collective duty to protect one another in hard times.

When some of the biggest cities in our nation skirted their bureaucratic red tape to paint the streets with the words “Black Lives Matter,” they were doing more than closing down a block’s worth of traffic — they were setting a precedent that, sometimes, some things are more nuanced than what we can capture in city codes and established they were the types of cities prepared to acknowledge injustice.

When we dissolved into fights about sidewalk chalk art, we too were setting a precedent about what and who we would tolerate.

Precedents have the power to signal to outsiders the type of community we are, and the type of fabric newcomers will be a part of when they move here. They have an ability to remind us that change isn’t an entirely passive thing, and that we have the agency to steer our trajectory through firm stances and clear actions. 

When our city and community leaders decide that precedent is important; that barriers can be put up against corrosive aspects of change and taken down in front of positive contributions, we can reclaim some control of where we are headed.

We can do so much more than ride the wave of change or tumble around within it. We can carve out our course through intentionality and, maybe, recognize our surroundings when we land onshore.

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