Submitted by the Bellingham Regional Chamber of Commerce, written by Guy Occhiogrosso

Growing up in Louisiana, my dad had a couple go-to #dadjokes that he would unleash with unbridled abandon. One of them—and one of my favorites—showcases the sense of place of Southwest Louisiana:

Q: “What is the loneliest river in Louisiana?”
A: “Bayou Self” (annunciated as “by you self” with a Cajun dialect)

Our community and societal conflicts are of interest to me, as this role engages with so many of them. I often am perplexed at uses and interpretations of the concepts of freedom, liberty, choice and the like. It feels to me that so many of our issues are truly a tension of “me versus us” or “individualism versus community.”

Last year, I had the pleasure of interviewing Heather Flaherty as part of our 2020 Top 7 Under 40 recognition program. Heather is the executive director of the Chuckanut Health Foundation and was ultimately named the 2020 Young Professional of the Year. It was a well-deserved recognition—and serendipitous, given that we were in the midst of a pandemic, one of the worst-case scenarios in the realm of her community health work. As part of that interview, Flaherty introduced a phrase to me that I have used with the same unbridled abandon as my dad’s bayou joke: “rugged individualism.”

As a chamber of commerce, we are and always have been an “us” organization. It is in our name; you simply cannot have a chamber, a membership, or a community of just one. You cannot be in business with yourself; you need customers, vendors and stakeholders.

To have a robust community, we need each other.

“Rugged individualism.” I let that term sit with me for a while. After experiencing so much during the past 15 months, I am convinced that so many of our pain points and issues are related to this concept of rugged individualism.

Please do not read this as only a “mask versus no mask” or “vaccine versus anti-vaccine” conversation. It is bigger than the pandemic: housing, child care, homelessness, land use policy, education, religion, neighborhood preferences, law enforcement, military. Our need for each other is there in it all. Often it is nuanced, complex and layered, but it can be seen.

And yet, “choice” and “liberty” are important concepts—identifying concepts about who we are as citizens of the United States and, arguably, as humans. They are different terms that get used incorrectly and interchangeably, and yet I think each is important.

As we move forward, it is this chamber person’s wish that we value community more than we did coming into the pandemic. It is time to shed that rugged individualism; too often we treat it as something more like “strident individualism.” Instead, perhaps it is time for a “compassionate individualism” or even a “gentle individualism.”

We want a world, country and community in which people can thrive as individuals but also, collectively, together.

–Guy Occhiogrosso, President/CEO

Photo by Adi Goldstein on Unsplash

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