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Connect: A two-step toward activism

The most difficult time at the bar was always closing time. At the Split Rail, in Brownsville, Texas, the two-step was danced, beer was flowing and Alabama would come by and play. But at 2 a.m., the fun was over.

“This was Texas at its best, you know. People have guns in their pickups and I always worried that someone would get in a brawl,” said Carol Sebastian, newly appointed executive director of the Neighborhood Alliance. “Nothing ever happened.”

It was the early ‘80s, “around the time of John Travolta and ‘Urban Cowboy’ ” and Sebastian had a five-year plan for making her country-western bar successful. It took three years.

“Then I moved on,” Sebastian said. “It’s funny, I always forget I was a bar owner for three years. I did the whole thing, I learned how to do the two-step and I grew to really like it all. I never was into country and western before that.”

Sebastian, 63, who until recently worked as development director for the Kootenai Environmental Alliance, came to the Inland Northwest in November 2002.

“I totally got here by accident,” she said, sitting in her brick-walled office in the Saranac Building. “I came up here with my sister five summers ago to visit some cousins, and my sister started talking about moving up here.”

Sebastian and her sister both lived in Riverside, Calif., at the time – but while Sebastian has moved around a lot, her sister had called Riverside home since her high school days.

“She got there and she stayed,” Sebastian said. “When she began talking about moving up here I should have known it probably wouldn’t happen.” The two bought a house, but only Sebastian made the move.

Sebastian grew up all over the world, moving every two years or so as dictated by her dad’s military career.

“Honestly, I don’t know what my dad did for the military. We moved a lot and I loved it. It got to a point where I was looking forward to the time where we’d move again.” She lived in France, England and Guam, among other places.

When she began high school, her parents divorced and her mother settled in Riverside.

“I kept moving around,” Sebastian said, smiling. She got a biology degree from the University of Texas. She worked for Hanes “when they were putting pantyhose inside eggs” and in food service for Sheraton Hotels, which is where she discovered and developed a love of cooking.

And she taught secondary school science in Texas and California.

Today, Sebastian calls Newman Lake home, and she’s doing her best to adjust to winters.

“My first winter here was kind of dark and I was working on the house, stripping wallpaper and doing all that, thinking, ‘What on earth am I going to do here?’ But then spring came and I was like, ‘Wow – this is beautiful – I can do this.’ ”

As she moved around the country, the foundation for her environmental activism was laid by the Audubon Society – which she discovered when she was about 14 – and later the Sierra Club.

“When I started with the Kootenai Environmental Alliance, it was about two weeks before the county decided to update its subdivision ordinance, which was out of compliance. I was the only one there with land-use experience.”

The transplanted Californian was surprised by how land was regulated in Idaho compared to the crowded and totally developed counties of San Bernardino and Riverside.

“I found the land-use code vague. People just looked at me and said, ‘Well you are in Idaho now.’ ”

Instead of administrators and lawmakers just passing ordinances, Sebastian prefers to bring stakeholders together as rules are considered.

“I find that if you bring people together, you discover that they have more in common than apart from each other,” she said.

At Neighborhood Alliance, she’s looking forward to broadening the organization’s horizon to Kootenai County.

“We share resources like water – and we also share transportation issues,” Sebastian said. “The bigger picture should be shared by both counties.”


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