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Crosscut’s first annual Courage Award Winners

Credit: Photo: Hayley Young/ Seattle Magazine

At Crosscut, we believe that the Northwest has the potential to become a model for sane, sustainable 21st Century living. I’m not using “sustainable” in the tired old environmental cliché way – as important as that is. I’m talking more broadly. I’m talking about sane and sustainable as in how do we move more Northwesterners onto public transit? How do we lure affluent kids back to public schools? Infuse our civic life with the kind of smart, innovative technology and design that’s happening all around us in Puget Sound? How do we bring grace and gravity back to our political discourse? Truly embrace and take advantage of the region’s growing diversity? End homelessness? Reinvent journalism?

These are formidable tasks that require formidable leadership, and Crosscut is determined to spotlight the people and the ideas that will move us, inch by inch, towards that sane, sustainable ideal.

That kind of grand transformation demands originality and chutzpah from bold leaders who grasp the promise and the peril of this moment, this time, in ways that are prescient and practical and as multi-disciplinary as the challenges we face. Those leaders need imagination and conviction, grit, fearlessness. Courage.

These awards honor those leaders, that courage.

So let’s talk a bit about courage and the Courage Awards and our decision-making process. I’ll begin with a personal story.

One summer night when I was about 12, we heard shouting coming from the house next door. It was our neighbor, Mr. Niemus. Recently widowed and drunk he was taking his grief and anger out on his 84-year-old mother-in-law, who lived with him. I could feel my mother tensing every time he yelled. When we heard glass breaking, that was it. She leapt to her feet, stormed across the alley and started banging on Mr. Niemus’s kitchen door. When he didn’t answer, she barged her way in and scolded him like a schoolboy. Her anger was righteous and fierce — and Mr. Niemus crumpled in its face. We could hear his whimpering apologies to my mother and to his mother-in-law.

My siblings and I still talk about that kick-ass moment, when our mild-mannered mom went all Rambo on Mr. Niemus. But really, my mother’s most courageous act was the months she spent, several years later, caring for my father when he was dying of cancer. The way she showed up for him, and for us, day after day after sad day.

I thought a lot about those two brands of courage — the episodic and the persistent — as we went through the selection process for this first Crosscut Courage Award. Like my siblings and I, we tended to be wowed by the bursts. They’re so cinematic, and sexy. But as I read through the bios of the nominees I found myself moved, more and more, by the quiet, persistent courage on display.

The word “courage” comes from the French and Latin words for “heart.” Merriam Webster defines courage as “the mental or moral strength to venture, persevere and withstand danger, fear or difficulty.” To stand up for an unpopular cause. To meet resistance with resilience. To remain unbroken by threats or failure. To persist in the face of overwhelming odds.

Crosscut editors Joe Copeland, Berit Anderson and I were responsible for winnowing down the 90-plus Courage Award nominees submitted by the public and picking three winners: one in Business, one in Culture and one in the Public Service category.

And it was really, really hard. And really, really humbling. And at the end of the day really, really uplifting. Because we got to spend time reading and talking and thinking about all these amazing people and the amazing things they do. And these days, when the news is often grim and courage seems to be in such painfully short supply, I can say with confidence that courage is alive and well and well-practiced, every day, in the Pacific Northwest.

We used four criteria to vet Courage Award nominees:

  1. Did they exercise leadership for the greater good?
  2. Did they innovate despite challenges?
  3. Did they go against the grain? Did they trailblaze?
  4. Did they take a personal risk?

That last, personal risk criterion — skin in the game, if you will — was often the tiebreaker, the yardstick we’d use to help us distinguish the inspirational from the truly courageous.

That was how we chose this year’s winners: Andrew Russell, Intiman Theater’s artistic director, for Courage in Culture; Ivar’s CEO Bob Donegan for Courage in Business; University of Washington research coordinator Starcia Ague for Courage in Public Service.

From left: Crosscut Courage Award winners Starcia Ague, Andrew Russell and Bob Donegan. 

We congratulate them, and we thank them.

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