The work of the Earth and Social Justice Committee directly aligns with all 3 of our 2021-2025 Community Health Improvement Plan’s priorities:
The Earth and Social Justice Committee is a part of the First Presbyterian Church in Cottage Grove that supports local organizations and initiatives that promote environmental and social justice. The committee has a long history of community involvement in low cost housing, mental health, immigration/refugee assistance, climate change, community health, food security, and family issues.
It has been directly involved with the start and continued support of many community organizations in Cottage Grove such as:
The Cottage Village Coalition is the product of a four-year rural pilot partnership with Square One Villages that has constructed a community of 13 affordable tiny homes for people who need long term housing in Cottage Grove.
We sat down with Bruce Kelsh, a member of the Earth and Social Justice Committee, to hear more about the committee’s work and his experience with community organizing and housing initiatives in Cottage Grove.
How did you get involved with the Earth and Social Justice Committee?
“Wendy (Bruce’s wife) and I first came to Cottage Grove in 1987 and we left in 1995. We first got involved with the First Presbyterian Church back then. We went away and worked overseas for 19 years. We came back to Cottage Grove in 2014 and plugged right back into First Presbyterian Church and this committee’s work, largely because it has always been very active in terms of addressing social issues, housing in particular.
Retirement caused me to think about where my meaning and purpose in life is. I’m still physically active and able-bodied, and able to contribute, so it seemed like a good time to do that. The Earth and Social Justice Committee has provided that opportunity to go out and contribute to the community.”
Why is this work important to you?
"After living overseas for so long and coming back to America, I looked at ‘what are the issues facing America? What are the issues facing our community?’ Housing is one of the critical issues here. Housing is very dear to me, because it stabilizes lives. If you provide housing and the other type of supports that people need, you start to see rapid changes. I think we need to educate the community about not only the importance of taking action (for the unhoused), but also the benefits of doing so: the financial savings to emergency services, the reduced police interventions, and savings in community clean-up costs. If you put that same money into people and provide transitional housing, the payback is immense. It’s also just the right thing to do to help stabilize people’s lives and their health. I think how you treat the most vulnerable in your population tells you so much about the values of a community. I think that if we want to have a healthy community, we need to raise everybody up. We need to acknowledge that while I (for example) am doing just fine, I’m fortunate. Being unhoused is not anyone’s fault; it could be any one of us on the street with just a change in circumstances.
It was really a miraculous thing that we accomplished Cottage Village. We have 13 houses, people in those houses, and a community center. The goal was always to provide stable housing that people can afford, and that was accomplished. It’s a really tremendous thing to be involved in a project where you actually accomplished something, created housing for people, and stabilized their lives.
As a society, I think we could be doing a better job at helping people out so they have a decent break at life, so that’s what we are trying do in a small way. It’s nice to be part of a vehicle for doing good.”
What do you think your community’s greatest strengths are?
"Cottage Grove is a community with a great heart, largely because of all the service organizations in town that are out doing things. It’s a town that likes to get stuff done. It’s a town that has everything from cultural to historical to educational projects going on at all times, and it all goes back to a very caring community. We have a lot of folks trying to care for those who are less fortunate, and I think that speaks highly of the community. "
How do you see the committee and Cottage Grove as a whole growing in the future?
"There’s some very intentional efforts to try to coordinate all the different organizations that are contributing within the community. There’s Be Your Best, where you get on a virtual meeting with 40 other organizations – that’s huge! United Way and the Ford Family Foundation are helping us form coalitions and partnerships and networking, and it’s working. We’re growing in that area of that community, and we’ve got some young people that are becoming facilitators. More coordinating across organizations, developing more partnerships, I see that as the future of Cottage Grove and its organizations. We work together to make these things happen. Yes, the city has the primary responsibility, but we have lots of people standing on the sidelines saying how can we help, how can we make it better - that’s what it’s going to take. If you’re connected to others, you can find where the needs are.
As far as the Earth and Social Justice Committee, part of our future role is to support transitional housing and to help find the resources for this. We know that transitional housing needs wrap around services for people to really be successful and change people’s lives. Oregon legislature recently created a law that will go into effect in another year that required cities to come up with solutions for the unhoused. So, moving forward with transitional housing, we’ll be in much more of a support role to help the city find political will to address the issue and educate the community about not only the importance of taking action but the benefits of doing so. As a committee, we are committed to helping people understand how developing the human potential of everyone in the community makes a big difference. "
Are there any barriers or obstacles for achieving this growth?
“Every group likes to have their own territory, but I think the more we see a common goal, the more we create teamwork. If we all know that the goal is to help the unhoused and create better environments in our town together, then I think people come together more and more. There are some obstacles; South Lane Mental Health doesn’t have enough counselors. That’s a big deal – ‘Where are we getting these folks to provide wrap around services? Where are we getting the funds to provide someone to manage this transitional housing? How do we make this thing work when there are some people who would like to see it not?’ Right now we have some unhoused folks living at the community center. The city has tried to provide services to them, but capacity is very limited. You need land and space to have enough units. We don’t know the exact number of unhoused people in the community, but we know there’s a crisis and we know the community needs to address it. The more we work together, the better off we’re going to be.
In terms of transitional housing, there’s always resistance – people say that the unhoused need to work, that they need to pull themselves ‘up by their bootstraps’, but when you look at the economic statistics, you can’t do that in America anymore. If you’re born poor, the odds are that you’ll stay poor. It’s a rare exception that can break loose from those kind of circumstances. So, that needs to be recognized and we need to think about, ‘how do you break these really chronic cycles that keep people in generational poverty?’
We have a lot of systems that don’t work very well that are barriers. They create tremendous disunity and political strife. I say let’s be pragmatic about it and see what works. That’s why the issue of being unhoused can be approached by saying we would save a lot of money doing this, if nothing else. These are public funds so why not use them in the smartest way possible? Yes, we are helping people and saving lives, that’s what we should be doing as a community, but there are also very practical reasons why it makes sense to do that. I think educating people, changing people’s attitudes and minds, and helping them understand a whole range of issues in a different kind of way is really important. That’s hard to do these days.”
What brings you joy?
“Seeing projects brought to fruition; seeing them come to conclusion. Every time I see Cottage Village, I’m amazed that I had the opportunity to be a part of that and that it actually happened. Through the partnership with Square One Villages and all the contributors here in Cottage Grove – we pulled this project off. For two years I sat looking at a very empty field thinking ‘are we really going to be able to do this?’ We were stalled for almost two years with our first grant from the Presbyterian Women’s Birthday Fund in our pocket waiting for more momentum to move forward. Then once it got going, the county stepped in with a grant and others contributed, then we really could start building, breaking ground, and doing everything that needed to be done. One of the things Wendy and I like about living in Cottage Grove is it’s a nice sized town in which we can make a difference. If you get involved in something, things can change, move forward, and get better for people. It’s a great joy to be able to see that happening.”
For more information about the Earth and Social Justice Committee, visit their website.