What is a good steward?

It depends on who you ask and how their moral compass is calibrated.

The etymology of the word steward traces back to servants who were in charge of administering all the needs and desires of a lord as it pertained to the lord’s hall.

Over time, we have changed the interpretation and use of the word. But language is a funny thing. The intention and energy behind words never really changes, when you get right down to the core.

People in positions of power, where decisions affecting the whole of humanity are made, might like to think they are being good stewards, but I have a hard time believing this to be true if they neglect the etymology of the word and do not actually SERVE. Servant-based leadership is hard to find these days, and we must remind our brothers and sisters who hold those decision making positions that their responsibility as stewards cannot be singularly focused. They serve a diverse community, with varying needs and visions for what the community should look like.

Making decisions with a singular focus (economy), to the benefit of the minority, is akin to the steward furnishing the lord’s hall with food but neglecting to furnish the service ware. It is a recipe for a disastrous meal when singlularly focused “stewardship” is applied to making policy.

If this singularly focused decision making were exercised “on occasion” it might not be a moral and ethical deficiency. When it happens consistently, one starts to wonder. And at some point, one must start calling it what it is – a rigged game.

If we consider that the decision-makers opted to look at stewardship solely from a corporatist / capitalist framework, they needed only look as far as The International Standard Organization (ISO) for a true definition of stewardship.

ISO Standard 20121, 4.4, paragraph 3.20 provides a definition for stewardship that perfectly fits the issue at hand – economic development at the Port of Tacoma.

“The responsibility for sustainable development is shared by all those whose actions affect environmental performance, economic activity, and social progress reflected as both a value and a practice by individuals, organizations, communities and competent authorities.”

In fact, there are several routes that these decision makers could have taken that would have resulted in an authentic bestowing of the title “good steward”. They took the route that industry provided them. That was their moral compass.

The ISO definition mentioned above is one way that the claim to have performed as good stewards could be graded as failed.

They have intentionally neglected their responsibility as public servants to the community at large (by their own admission) and their justification is, essentially, that they brought the dinner to the table, and so what if it’s poisoned salmon and contaminated water for generations to come (if the salmon live that long) the table is set and dinner is served. Good luck with the imminent disaster and mess – they will have served their terms.

By the definition noted above, their claim of being good stewards only adheres to the concept of stewardship as a value, but fails in applying it in practice.

They have created a disaster that will end up killing people and planet and it won’t be just one dinner service. It will be every meal, for generations to come. They have set the precedent.

Pointing to economic development as a benefit to the community is the singular claim for being good stewards. But jobs aren’t sacred. Land is. Air is. Water is. Salmon are. Human life is.

When one considers the sum total of the businesses the Port and the city have allowed to be developed, in the name of economic development, combined with the paths that they have cleared and the tracks that they have expedited,  one can see that their moral compass, calibrated by industry, not in alignment with best practices of sustainable development, creates a rigged game of policy and administration. The codes and ordinance development, the segmentation of permit processes, all allowing the bypassing of meaningful consultation with community, one can see that the game is rigged.

Another ludicrous aspect of the claim of “good stewardship” which cannot be overstated is the exclusion of sovereign nations whose lands and histories ARE Tacoma. The port and the city have continually positioned themselves to take advantage of the Puyallup Indian Tribe and continually perpetuate the continuation of centuries of genocide and ecocide on a sovereign nation who HAVE HISTORICALLY – SINCE TIME IMMEMORIAL – SET THE STANDARD FOR ECONOMIC AND ENVIRONMENTAL STEWARDSHIP.

These decision makers are following a colonial/settler model of manifest destiny, 300 years old, in their planning and economic development strategies.

Colonial/settler “stewardship” models have ALWAYS put profits over people and land.

Colonial/settler mindsets of development are, essentially, Ponzi schemes. Disagree you may, regarding that characterization, but any defense of colonial/settler economic practices best contain a very convincing explanation for the gigantic chasm between the haves and have nots. Don’t bring the red herring argument “some people don’t work hard enough” in defense of zero percent loans and 20% return on investment, with a quarterly Wall Street driven race paradigm, which is the paradigm industry has become addicted to.

Since City and Port officials refuse to recognize the Puyallup Indian Tribe or the citizens of Tacoma/Pierce County/Washington State, we have to impose ourselves into the gears and grindings of politics and public administration.

If not already in place, I suggest we demand that the city and port become ISO certified institutions. There will be significant pushback, and I think we best prepare ourselves for the flare up.

And persist.

There are standards by which we can create and maintain a sustainable city. We don’t have to allow the “titans” of Tacoma to continually get rich off the backs of our most vulnerable, both human and more-than-human. More people than I care to admit have gotten filthy rich, and maintained that wealth, at the expense of others.

A good steward cares for all the aspects of the wicked problem needing solved. A good steward thrills at the challenge and opportunity of community engagement. A good steward aligns their moral compass to the concepts of sovereignty and collaborative, reciprocal relationships.

There are good stewards among us. Let us find and elevate them so that we might find a way to a better future.

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