Prove your humanity

Beaver County is going through some big changes. Shell is building a multibillion-dollar ethane cracker which will use ethane from the region’s natural gas to produce the building blocks of plastic. The plant will bring an anticipated 600 jobs to the region, but also air and water pollution.

Photo courtesy of Daniel Rossi-Keen.

Photo courtesy of Daniel Rossi-Keen.

RiverWise, a non-profit in Beaver County is bringing people together there to talk about sustainability, and what their community could look like in the future.

Daniel Rossi-Keen has been a professor of rhetoric, a bookstore owner in Aliquippa, and currently he’s the group’s executive director. He spoke with The Allegheny Front’s Kara Holsopple about how he and his organization are approaching this new phase of development.

LISTEN to their conversation

Kara Holsopple: Talk about the genesis of the organization and what those two words, river and wise, together stand for. 

Daniel Rossi-Keen: Increasingly, it became apparent to me that there are so many beautiful things happening throughout the region, but they were not really well-aligned, and they weren’t working well together. We’ve spent a long time kind of hunkered down and in this mode of managing decline. And as you know, regional and economic changes started coming our way more and more every day.

“Really we’re trying to figure out how best to manage this crazy season of change that’s coming upon us in Beaver County.”

It became apparent that we needed to think more strategically about how we were aligning our resources. So [we] started to think and strategize about the opportunities that were around us. One of the things that kept coming up, again and again, was this idea that there are these rivers here, and they’re beautiful, and they’re a central part of our identity. It seemed like we weren’t really utilizing those to their fullest capacity.

We sat and thought and talked, and we thought, ‘What would it look like to the steward that resource in a thoughtful, creative, wise sort of way?’ And we coined this title, RiverWise. We’re still trying to figure out exactly what it means, but that’s part of the process of building and growing the organization.

Holsopple: Who’s ‘we’?

Rossi-Keen:: Well, if you look at our payroll, “we” is me and a couple of half-time folks, much like an early stage entrepreneurial endeavor. If you look at us from a community standpoint, in the last year and a half, we’ve managed to work with somewhere around 300 people throughout the community – I think at last count, roughly 70 different organizations. These are nonprofits, church organizations, civic organizations, interested citizens – this growing coalition of folks who know that exciting things are happening in our region, but haven’t really figured out how to steward that. And so, yeah, it’s a ragtag bunch, a network, a growing coalition of folks.

Holsopple: The way I learned about your organization was a position paper that you released in response to the comments made by Pittsburgh Mayor Bill Peduto, who came out against additional petrochemical plants in the region beyond the Shell plant that’s already being built in Beaver County.

In the paper you’re saying we’re only hearing two very divided opinions on the petrochemical industry – either you are for the industry because of the economy, or you’re against it because of the environment and health. You’re saying the reality of the situation is more complex, and that leaders and residents have to embrace the complexity. What do you mean by that?

Rossi-Keen: I think we live in a culture that wants to put things in one camp or the other. That’s easy, that’s quick, that allows us to take a stance. And in some ways, I think it gives us a license to turn our brains off and say that we’ve decided about that.

“We’ve got to dig more deeply into those issues and get beyond either for or against it, and really do the hard work of developing healthy and creative community together.”

But it’s just insufficient for the realities that are facing Beaver County. The debate that was sparked by [Peduto’s] comments was pretty predictable. You’re pitting the environment against the economy, and it just doesn’t work out that simply in the life of a community.

These are complicated situations. There are jobs tied to them. There’s history, there’s identity tied to them. We’ve got to dig more deeply into those issues, and get beyond either for or against it, and really do the hard work of developing healthy and creative community together.

Holsopple: So what does that look like? 

Rossi-Keen: I think it looks like a lot of talking. I think it looks like a lot of listening and being willing to retreat and try again. It’s a community engagement process. It’s getting beyond a quick jab on social media, and really sitting down with folks who have different and legitimate interests.

We’re starting to articulate as a community the things that we value, the things that we want to see embodied in our community. So that means getting things down on paper, and really starting to say, here’s what we want, and here’s what we hope for.

“The challenge of leadership in the next several decades in a place like Beaver County is really a challenge for the imagination of the region.”

But it also looks like some concrete things like making and building things together. We’re involved in a number of sustainable building projects, green building projects. We’re getting ready to launch a year-long green building challenge.

These are opportunities for residents to learn together by going through a process that forces them out of a binary decision for or against, and really requires that they stand in community with folks and work through some of these challenging clashes of identity that have been built up around these issues.

Holsopple: But is that in addition to petrochemical development or instead of petrochemical development?

Rossi-Keen: In the very short term, we want to be a creative force for alternatives. We want to be able to pitch a narrative for our region that shows that there are other kinds of things that can be happening and that, of course, that’s going to happen alongside petrochemicals.

We’re not talking about things that are just going to fold up shop and go away tomorrow because we said so. We’re really trying to think of ourselves as sort of a counterbalance, as an alternative narrative to some of the things that have taken hold in our region.

I want my children, I want school kids, I want young adults, I want folks my age and older to start thinking about what could be possible in our region. I think in a lot of ways, the challenge of leadership in the next several decades in a place like Beaver County is really a challenge for the imagination of the region.

We need to start to think in terms that mirror what’s possible, not just what’s in front of us. So that’s the idea of the Global Green Design Challenge. But there’s another piece of it, which I think is really important. It’s not a Beaver County thing. It’s a global challenge. I’m trying to make in a very direct way this connection between whatever’s happening in Beaver County, and a broader set of global issues that are facing humankind.

Holsopple: Talk about this green design challenge. What kinds of projects are you talking about? 

Rossi-Keen: We’ve formed EcoDistricts as you see in Sharpsburg, Millvale, and Etna outside of Pittsburgh. We formed similar communities. So in Beaver Falls, there is an old News Tribune building that is owned by the Community Development Corporation. There’s a street that the city has agreed to shut down. Taking those two pieces of infrastructure together, we want to turn that old building and that parklet into sort of an eco-village.

In Monaca, we have a riverfront park that’s adjacent to a water treatment facility and a water pump house. We can combine those three pieces of infrastructure, then slap a micro-grid on there so they’re allowed to create their own electricity and turn it into an eco park at the confluence of our two main rivers in Beaver County.

In Aliquippa, we have a park that’s been under development for a decade or so. It’s five or six adjoining parcels next to a prominent coffee shop and courtyard. We’re going to put those all together, and try to get an open air market in there, to turn the park into another exemplar of what an ecological enclave could look like in 21st century Beaver County.

There’s a lot for designers to take a look at and to dream about.

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