Some parting thoughts on the man who made the Center for Justice a force to be reckoned with in Spokane.
(May 30, 2010) As many of you know, last Friday was Breean Beggs’s last day at the Center for Justice. He was working our issues right up to the end, and I happened to sort of crash into his last meeting here on the block. At least I think it was his last meeting.
I can’t possibly do justice to that stretch of Breean’s life in which he worked here, but I know a couple things about him that matter. At least they matter to me.
The first is, I wouldn’t be here at CFJ but for him. I mean, who the hell decides that it would be a good idea to have an aging, iconoclastic investigative reporter on staff at a small, non-profit law firm? But it was his call and, so far as a I can tell, not everybody saw the rampant genius in that move.
I did. Working at the Center for Justice the past two years has been a remarkable tonic in my life, primarily because it has given me an opportunity to get to know and work alongside some of the best people I’ve ever met, and deeply enjoy the honor of helping them tell their stories. It’s pretty rich on that level and, without Breean, I’d probably be filing wire stories in Federal Way, or some other godforsaken place.
It’s great to be smart and espouse good values. But so often in life what makes the difference is pure heart: the will to be at your very best under adverse circumstances. Breean has that special quality.
I started working with the Center for Justice in 1999, just as it was opening its doors and exploring what it could and would do. In 2001, I became a client when it became clear that my reporting on the River Park Square fiasco would require extensive litigation–both against the federal government and the City of Spokane–to get records that were illegally being withheld from me. It was a legal siege that lasted several years. So Breean and I have had a very intense working relationship almost from the day he came to work at the Center, nearly six and a half years ago. I’d like to tell you what that’s been like but, sorry, it’s all attorney/client privilege, I can’t share a thing.
Okay, just kidding. I’m waiving my privilege and am happy to disclose that part of what’s special about Breean is that he has the gentle capacity to give you as much rope as you’d like in order to tie yourself up in knots. Then he comes in, with a wry smile, like a parent on a field trip, to help you untangle yourself. It would go something like this:
“Yes, that’s very well expressed on your part, and I feel your pain and appreciate the moral outrage you’re expressing to me. But now here’s what the law is.”
And so on.
Happily, I’m one of the CFJ clients who got to the promised land. Without Breean’s and Jim Sheehan’s support I wouldn’t have made it to the Washington Supreme Court in 2005 where we won a unanimous ruling in an important open government case.
What I’ve learned about being in the trenches with Breean is that the remarkable and unusual calm he exudes tends to mask what a deeply competitive person he is. I mean that as a compliment. It’s great to be smart and espouse good values. But so often in life what makes the difference is pure heart: the will to be at your very best under adverse circumstances. Breean has that special quality. To be sure, the public face of Breean Beggs is not one of an angry man. He laughs more than he shouts. But there’s a remarkable passion for justice in Breean that’s genuine, and it makes all the difference.
If that’s the best thing about him, the next best thing is his vision. In simplest terms, Breean put into play Jim Sheehan’s ambitions that this non-profit law firm could not just help needy individuals experience justice, but that it could challenge traditional power centers in an opportunistic and thoughtful way. And it has.
People who are new to Spokane get to see a city that, in many ways, is remarkably more progressive and cosmopolitan than it was a generation ago. But what both Jim and Breean have understood about Spokane is that the traditional powers in our community do not naturally lean toward justice and inclusiveness. On these core issues they need to be constantly challenged and confronted in order for change to occur. Otherwise things stay the same, or they get worse.
Breean’s deep understanding of these dynamics and his commitment to taking them on has been pivotal. He gave himself the title “Chief Catalyst,” and he lived up to those expectations. Under his leadership the Center truly altered (for the better) the way Spokane works.
Which is not to say that he, or we, are done. It won’t be easy for the Center to fill his shoes. But part of the beauty of the Center for Justice is that Jim Sheehan has created an environment for all kinds of people and ideas to flourish, and I don’t think people should to lose sleep over whether we’ll continue to make a difference in our community.
As for Breean, I’m hardly alone in wishing him well for the next chapters in his life. I’ve so enjoyed his energy and level of engagement which, many times, has meant asking him to weigh in late at night on thorny pieces I’ve been working on for this web site. He’s encouraged me when I’ve done well, and he’s been unfailingly helpful to me when I’ve struggled. Moreover, I can’t remember a single discussion or argument with him where we ended in a place that wasn’t better than where we started.
We should all have such people in our lives.