A new civil rights movement is emerging in communities throughout the United States. It presents a vibrant vision and voice in contrast to the usual story of urban sprawl and concentrated poverty. Through bold regional organizing and advocacy efforts and innovative partnerships and policy reforms, new alliances are creating working models of metropolitan regional equity in inner cities, suburbs, and rural areas across the nation.
On March 20, 2008, hundreds of people filled the hall at Bannings Landing in the Los Angeles port community of Wilmington to witness the Los Angeles Harbor Commission adopt a Clean Trucks Program to reduce air pollution at the Port of Los Angeles. The program’s goals were straight-forward: replace and retrofit approximately 16,000 trucks in order to meet the 2007 federal Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) emissions standards by 2012.
Once implemented, the Clean Trucks Program—which faces stiff opposition and pending lawsuits from industry—would require trucking companies which service the Port to hire truck drivers as employees rather than relying on independent truckers. With this model of doing business, the city hopes to reduce truck emissions, create a stable workforce, and set up mechanisms for community and government accountability.
Picture this: In Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, union leaders link worker organizing rights at the Penguins’ Stadium to neighborhood demands for a grocery store and community investment fund—and score a victory. In Bayonne, New Jersey, a coalition of faith, union, and environmental leaders persuades local officials to link good jobs, affordable housing, and sustainable practices to the redevelopment process at the Military Ocean Terminal. In the Southside section of Atlanta, Georgia, long-time residents and union leaders protest the closure of a fire station in one of the city’s poorest communities and demand to be part of the budget review process to identify responsible alternatives. And the list goes on.
As America’s labor movement organizes to recover its strength in numbers, race and regionalism are central to its coalition-building needs. The movement has come to realize that suburban sprawl, with its discriminatory patterns of economic opportunity, is anti-union, and progressive smart growth is the public policy menu that goes hand-in-hand with new member organizing.
I have been a community organizer in the tradition of Saul Alinsky since 1972. I must confess that I regard my first 15 years of organizing as “cleaning the engine room of the Titanic.” Working within the most unglamorous part of the ship—the slums, the ghettos, and the barrios of America—we focused on cleaning the grease, polishing the knobs, and adjusting the nozzles. In other words, we worked on getting rid of drug houses, improving a park, and opening a health clinic, while the ship itself was being steered “right” and towards certain disaster, rendering irrelevant all of our efforts in turning communities around. To illustrate the point, I like to tell a story.
A movement for equity is blooming in America. We see evidence of this everywhere, along with signs that the public wants change. Record numbers of voters participated in the 2008 election, a campaign that on its face challenged outmoded notions about race in this country. Young people are more involved in politics than at any time since the Sixties. Diverse voices, from Catholic Charities to the United States Conference of Mayors, have endorsed comprehensive policy agendas to end poverty. Millions of people are working hard every day to ensure that all of us live in fair, inclusive, and opportunity-rich communities.
The election of Barack Obama represents a turning point in the role of race in United States politics. It proves conclusively that the United States electorate has moved past simple prejudice based on the color of a person’s skin. And it demonstrates that there is a majority coalition in favor of progressive change. This is a milestone, and it offers an outstanding opportunity to advance a new national agenda.
Unfortunately, the election in itself does very little to challenge the economic and social system that inflicts racism on vast segments of the people in this country. To make change, our movements will need to maintain consistent grassroots pressure on the new leadership. But we also need to deepen our understanding of how racial inequality is maintained. Furthermore, we need a solid theory of how and where we can redistribute opportunity so that communities of color and low-income people can gain their fair share of benefits and remedy past wrongs...
Over coffee a couple of weeks before the election, a colleague said to me: “Sure, they will let a black man be president just like they let all those black men become mayors of cities in the 70s.” At that point, cities were bankrupt, the productive sectors had fled to the suburbs, and the tax base wouldn’t recover for at least 20 years—who better to preside over the declining urban shell than someone who could be discredited, then discarded after the dirty work was done. More...
Despite Katrina causing the worst affordable housing crisis since the Civil War, the federal Housing and Urban Development Department (HUD) is spending $762 million in taxpayer funds to tear down over 4600 public housing apartments and replace them with 744 similarly subsidized units—an 82 percent reduction. HUD took over the local housing authority years ago and all decisions are made in Washington D.C. HUD plans to build an additional 1000 market rate and tax credit units, which will still result in a net loss of 2700 apartments to New Orleans. The new apartments will cost an average of over $400,000 each.Affordable housing is at a critical point along the Gulf Coast. Over 50,000 families still living in tiny FEMA trailers are being systematically forced out. Over 90,000 homeowners in Louisiana are still waiting to receive federal recovery funds from the so-called “Road Home” reconstruction fund. In New Orleans, hundreds of the estimated 12,000 homeless have taken up residence in small tents across the street from City Hall and under the I-10.