You call that courage?!

Editor's Note: This essay is part of an occasional series on courage that will run in advance of Crosscut's first annual "Courage Awards" ceremony on October 31st.

Just after I landed at Crosscut last summer, one of my board members suggested that we commence an annual award based on a brand attribute of our news site: courage. As an online news site in the brave new world of nonprofit journalism, we need opportunities to bring together our readers, donors and the subjects of our reporting – political, cultural and business leaders.

The idea came from Rita Brogan, a Municipal League director and founder of PRR, a marketing communications firm in Seattle.

I wrote in my announcement of the Courage Awards that too often we bemoan the lack of courage today, casting our eyes back a few generations to when Dan Evans, Scoop Jackson and others led our region. Northwest business and cultural leaders of the past became international icons. Yet I have always had a sneaking suspicion that there are acts of courage, large and small, seen and unseen, throughout the Northwest. As journalists, we have to sniff out those courageous acts just as we sniff out those of cowardice or — all too often — those politically correct acts of “Seattle Nice.”

The announcement of the Crosscut Courage Awards has been met with a mix of enthusiasm, cynicism and puzzled bemusement. Enthusiastic nominations have arrived at editors’ desks, and publishing a list of nominees has generated even more names. Along with the many nominations we've received, have come questions about our definition of courage. This has led to some soul-searching. What is courage?

Webster defines courage as mental or moral strength to venture, persevere and withstand danger, fear or difficulty. Personally, I believe a person displays courage when he or she faces personal risk, but pursues a principle for the greater good anyway.

Courage seems, at times in the Northwest, to be in the eyes of the beholder.

For example, was state Senator Rodney Tom courageous to broker a coalition of Republicans and Democrats in this past legislative session? He was nominated, yet neither Republican nor Democratic hard-liners seem to accept him.

Was state Rep. Maureen Walsh, a Republican from a conservative area of southeastern Washington state, courageous to speak out in support of marriage equality? Liberals loved the act, but many conservatives didn’t and both question her true political stripes.

Is Tim Eyman courageous to absorb the downright hatred of Seattle liberals as he pursues a core value that is important to many but not all? (Lower taxes and less government.) Or is he merely a political operative with a job to do?

John F. Kennedy, a young Senator when he wrote "Profiles in Courage," said, “Perhaps if the American people more fully comprehended the terrible pressures which discourage acts of political courage, which drive a Senator to abandon or subdue his conscience, then they might be less critical of those who take the easier road — and more appreciative of those still able to follow the path of courage.”

I cringe when I hear people use the word courage loosely. How often have you heard a colleague or a competitor called courageous, and wondered, 'Really?' 

Just this week I heard a car commercial boast about its engineers “courageous thinking.” Nah, I don’t think so.

Very often courageous means willing to take a stand. This YouTube video has become popular among management consultants who want to make the point that courageous leadership is more about being the first follower.

I agree, with everything except the word courageous. Following and supporting a great idea, even when it’s unpopular or uncomfortable, is important. It shows confidence and could be called brave or even bold. But I am not sure it qualifies as courageous.

For me the difference between bold, brave leadership and courageous leadership is what’s at stake. In this case, not much is at stake for the leaders of the 'dance movement.' But imagine if Bashar al-Assad’s snipers were on the other side of the fence or jail was the penalty for dancing. That would be courageous. The image of a lone Chinese man facing down tanks in Tiananmen Square comes to mind quickly.

Courage, with its potential to alter a life, is something deeper.

Writing for this month’s Columbia Journalism Review, freelance journalist Francesca Borri tells the story of reporting from Syria, “sleeping in this rebel base, under mortar fire, on a mattress on the ground, with yellow water that gave me typhoid.” Her bed cost $50 per night and a car $250 per day. She is paid $70 per story.

There are more examples close to home. Nuns who have dedicated their lives to their church and its teachings stand up to Seattle’s Archbishop Peter Sartain, whom the Vatican has asked to “reform” the Conference of Women Religious. .

Tacoma Mayor Marilyn Strickland showed political courage, in my view, by speaking up about the need for public charter schools in this state. Some will lash out against her stance, but Mayor Strickland believes that high-performing charter schools like KIPP, YES and many other charter management organizations help poor students graduate and succeed beyond high school. They have proven this in states nationwide – where some traditional public schools have failed for generations. 

Seattle’s Amanda Knox writes in her new memoir that when the first verdict was read in the courtroom, she was gripping the hand of a lawyer, “the one who had told me again and again over all these months, ‘Courage, Amanda, we need you to have courage. We will do the rest.’”

Not all acts of courage are well-publicized. Special needs children muster courage each and every day just to get through the slights and slanders they often face and frequently overcome.

That’s what these awards are about — spreading hope and encouraging courage in the face of risk and challenge.

When I was a boy in Ponca City, Oklahoma, my mom used to take me to an imposing statue entitled, “The Pioneer Woman.” It served as a constant reminder that we were a pioneering people, which is certainly true of the Northwest. Lewis and Clark, with the help of Sacajawea, were our region’s pioneers, possessed of undaunted courage. As Stephen Ambrose wrote, they had “a firmness and perseverance of purpose, which nothing but impossibilities could divert from its direction.”

Do you know someone in the Northwest who deserves to be recognized for their courage in public service, culture or business? Crosscut is accepting nominations until August 9th. Please send yours to CourageAwards@crosscut.com. Please include your nominee's name, organization (if applicable) and a paragraph describing what makes them courageous.

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