Weaving the Threads

17-2 Cover pngFrom the Editor

By B. Jesse Clarke

As RP&E enters its 21st year of publication, we bid a fond farewell to Juliet Ellis, our publisher, who has been Executive Director of Urban Habitat for the last nine years and with whom we have worked since 2005.  Each of those years has brought new developments to the journal and this year is no exception. We are changing our format from a single thematic focus for each issue of the journal to broader continuing coverage of racial and gender justice, economic justice, environmental and climate justice, and regionalism. With this expanded capacity we will be able to track the advances, setbacks, solutions, and conundrums facing our movements on the ground without the long hiatus between special issues that has sometimes left our readers asking, “When will you be doing another special issue on…?”  We will now be covering jobs, transportation, housing, and environmental health in every edition.

We are also pleased to announce that our pilot series of podcast interviews and speeches, which we launched as a 20th anniversary special (listen online at www.urbanhabitat.org/rpe/radio), will be a continuing feature. With these print and audio explorations we can continue our conversations with movement leaders and thinkers about the deep analysis and structural change needed as we move forward to face critical issues, such as: how do we align single-issue organizations, single-constituency alliances (a.k.a. identity politics), and local struggles into a force that contends for real change at a national level?

The U.S Social Forum has been a key locus where thinking and acting on this challenge has taken place in recent years. And a number of the stories in this issue were born in Detroit last summer in the course of conversations with allied media producers and grassroots organizers from around the country.

In other countries, a left political party or labor union would provide the core support for national convenings, journals, radios stations, educational institutions, and training centers, which would help develop the next generation of advocates to craft the political unity necessary to contend for power. Unfortunately, in the United States—beginning with the right wing surge of McCarthyism—left politics have suffered from a dual challenge of de-politicization of unions and fragmentation in progressive leadership

The hegemony of the two party system and business unionism have deprived left-leaning youth of entry into a base-building starting point where community power is rooted in the precinct or the workplace. Although schools and neighborhoods remain fertile ground for many movements, the transitory nature of student populations and the localized nature of community organizations have left the combined social movements relatively voiceless at the national level.

In this issue of RP&E, we explore the many ways that organizers are scaling local struggles around housing, transportation, and environmental health into networks of local, regional, national, and international action for change. From the shutting down of an incinerator in Detroit, to urban gardening in the U.S. and in Cuba, to the emerging transportation justice movement in the Bay Area, practitioners are making linkages that weave coherence into the multicolored threads of the campaigns and initiatives of progressives, radicals, queers, low income people, and communities of color in the U.S.

In traditional weaving, the warp threads stretch across the loom in straight lines while the weft thread twists through and pulls these threads into whole cloth. The challenge for the left is to become the weft thread that shoots above, below, and through the local and regional struggles to pull together the zones in which contention for power is currently taking place.

Organizing based on relationship and convergence, reciprocity and accountability, commitment to conscientization, and the development of local leadership empowered to advance its own interests—these are some of the positive trends emerging today. And despite the right wing’s apparent renewal in the mid-term elections, progressive movements are alive and growing healthily below the radar of the national political parties and national media. •

Weaving the Threads | Vol. 17, No. 2 | Fall 2010 | Credits


Editor Emeritus
Carl Anthony

Juliet Ellis

Editor & Art Director
B. Jesse Clarke

Assistant Editor
Merula Furtado

Layout & Design Assistant
Christine Joy Ferrer

Urban Habitat Board of Directors
Joe Brooks (Chair)

Romel Pascual (Vice-Chair)    
Mayor's Office, City of Los Angeles

Tamar Dorfman (Treasurer)
Policy Link

Carl Anthony
Cofounder, Urban Habitat

Malo Andre Hutson
Department of City and Regional Planning
University of California,?Berkeley

Felicia Marcus
Natural Resources Defense Council

Arnold Perkins
Alameda Public Health Department (retired)

Debra Johnson
San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency

Wade Crowfoot
Environmental Defense Fund

Organizations are listed for
identification purposes only.

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©2010 by the individual creators and Urban Habitat. For specific reprint information, queries or submissions, please email editor@urbanhabitat.org.

ISSN# 1532-2874

Race, Poverty & the Environment was first published in 1990 by Urban Habitat Program and the California Rural Legal Assistance Foundation’s Center on Race, Poverty & the Environment. In the interest of dialogue, RP&E publishes diverse views. Opinions expressed are not necessarily those of the editors, Urban Habitat, or its funders.

Weaving the Threads | Vol. 17, No. 2 | Fall 2010 | Credits

Environmental and Climate Justice

Environmental and Climate Justice

Weaving the Threads | Vol. 17, No. 2 | Fall 2010 | Credits

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"Detroit Shall Burn No More!" Incinerator Fight Heats Up

On the final day of the 2010 United States Social Forum scores of local activists and several hundred of their allies from across the country held a series of rallies targeted at the city’s municipal waste incinerator. The Social Forum had chosen Detroit because the city represents all the vast failures of corporate industrialism and immense possibilities for renewal. The closure of the incinerator four months later, temporary though it may be, showed the prescience of the Forum in its choice of target.

Given the wide range of themes discussed at the forum—from immigration to gender to militarism to media justice—and the broad set of issues facing Detroit—from evictions to utility shutoffs to unemployment rates of up to 50 percent—the focus on the waste incinerator for the forum’s closing action was significant.

As the marchers made their way through the nearly vacant neighborhoods of this once thriving metropolis, one chant evoked a complex web of memories. To locals, “Detroit shall burn no more!” brought to mind the 1967 race riots that resulted in thousands of buildings being burned, as well as the inner city arson incidents of the eighties, when property owners would burn down their unmarketable homes for insurance under cover of Devil’s Night (the night before Halloween). This time around, however, the metaphor served to connote the burning of waste and rising global temperatures.

A Fiery Symbol of Despair
A remnant of industrial development that should have been relegated to oblivion long ago, the Detroit municipal waste incinerator serves as a clear example of the ways in which emitters of point-source pollution target low-income neighborhoods and communities of color. It is also a classic target for the growing climate justice movement. Speaking at the rally, City Council Member Joanna Watson admitted that there is no more important issue facing Detroit. Indeed, the fight over the incinerator—the largest such facility in the country, owned by Covanta, the world’s largest incinerator company—is one of the most iconic environmental and social justice fights in the U.S. today.

The word “consume” means “to destroy or use up, as by fire or disease.” So, incinerators represent the very definition of toxic and unsustainable consumption. They emit more carbon dioxide (CO2) per unit of electricity than even the dirtiest coal-fired power plants and the incineration process drives a climate-changing cycle of resources extracted from the earth, processed in factories, shipped around the world, and eventually, burned. In truth, more than 90 percent of the materials disposed of in incinerators and landfills could be reused, recycled, and composted, creating both jobs and community resilience.

Like every other incinerator in existence, the Detroit facility stands squarely in the way of green jobs, vibrant communities, and environmental justice—a fact evidenced by the frontline presence of the Teamsters Union at the march and rally. The Teamsters also issued a strong statement, saying, “The facts are clear. Recycling creates six to 10 times more jobs than incinerating or landfilling. By recycling waste we can recover valuable materials and limit hazardous pollution.”

Paid to Pollute
When Detroit’s incinerator was proposed in the 1980s, it aroused strong community opposition. A group called the Evergreen Alliance organized direct actions, including blockades of the site, which led to many arrests and significant public attention. But racial tensions and the strong support enjoyed by Coleman Young, Detroit’s first black mayor, contributed to the failure of the mostly white Evergreen Alliance to block the plan. (Young’s administration, it later turned out, was riddled with corruption and the incinerator is just one piece of his troubled legacy.) The Alliance did succeed on a broader front, however, by raising early awareness that helped galvanize a national movement.

Most notably, Detroit’s incinerator came with a staggering debt load. Clean air policies enacted immediately after it was built demanded the addition of costly pollution controls. And although the city sold the facility to private investors in the early 1990s, taxpayers were saddled with the construction costs. In its 20 years of operation, the incinerator has cost Detroit taxpayers over $1.1 billion; in exchange, it generated toxic pollution causing asthma rates three times the national average.

A recent news report stated: “Detroit doesn’t just outpace the state in pollution levels. Forbes Magazine, analyzing EPA data, last year named the Detroit-Warren-Livonia area the second most toxic city in the nation, with 68 Superfund sites and 281 facilities releasing toxic chemicals.”1 The cumulative impact of this pollution is literally killing people.

Roland Wahl, a resident of the Oakland Heights section of greater Detroit, states: “We live in the most polluted zip code in the state. My doctor told me ‘this environment is killing you.’ People are selling their homes for as little as $300 to get out of [here].”

March organizer Sandra Turner-Handy, a community outreach director for the Michigan Environmental Council said, “My granddaughter attended the Go Lightly Educational Center, right near the incinerator. She got asthma and had to use her inhaler every single day. [But] from the time she left there… she has not used her inhaler once.”

Detroit Says: “Give Me Your… Wretched Refuse”
To operate efficiently, the incinerator needs to burn about 800,000 tons of trash a year; and as long as the incinerator is licensed to operate, its owners must find ways to ensure a steady supply of mixed waste, by the ton. In recent years, however, because of Detroit’s drastic drop in population—from around 1.5 million in the 1980s to about 750,000 today—the amount of trash produced in the city has declined. Consequently, the city has had to import trash from its more affluent neighbors.

Pending the incinerator’s permanent shutdown, Detroit’s inner city residents pay up to $150 a ton to import garbage from wealthier areas so that the incinerator can burn its daily quota of 2,858 tons of garbage and release its annual allowed quota of up to 2,251 tons of regulated pollutants.
Not surprisingly, the incinerator is deeply implicated in Detroit’s budget crisis as well. According to Brad van Guilder of the Detroit Ecology Center, “[The] facility has brought Detroit to its knees three times… first in 1991, when the scrubbers had to be added. [Next], when the city sold the facility to a private consortium—it was valued at $643 million, but Detroit received only $54 million. The majority of the funds were actually borrowed from the city, and had to be paid back over the next 20 years.”

The third instance is the crisis occurring right now: Detroit’s contract with the facility’s owners has expired but closing the incinerator now could cost the city more in the short-term than keeping it open. That’s because the incinerator is a Waste to Energy (WTE) facility, meaning heat from burning trash is used to generate electricity, which is sold to Detroit Edison, the local power utility, which in turn sells it to the city. Detroit Edison’s city contract stipulates that even if supply from the incinerator stops, the utility is guaranteed payment through 2024.

WTE or the Great Carbon Boondoggle
Incinerators have long been a key target of environmental justice struggles in the U.S.—with great success. Massive public opposition and community advocacy have led to a tremendous rise in alternative waste reduction practices, such as recycling and composting, over the past several decades preventing any new incinerators from being built since 1997. In response, the waste industry has taken to promoting the dubious “Waste to Energy” idea, using misleading claims about burning trash offering a “clean energy source.” Actually, it is an absurdly inefficient source of energy because incinerated waste includes a large percentage of organics.

Incineration is based on the false assumption that there is a large, nonhazardous portion of the waste stream that cannot be avoided through source-reduction and cannot be reused, recycled, or composted. In truth, most municipal waste can be recycled except for hazardous materials, such as PVC, batteries, and electronics—precisely those that are the most hazardous to burn.

“We need to get trash out of the renewable portfolio standard entirely,” says Brad van Guilder of the Ecology Center. “The Obama administration is supporting cap and trade, which will allow these facilities to continue. But if we allow for these cap and trade schemes, we’re going to continue to concentrate the dirtiest facilities in those neighborhoods that can least resist them.”

A healthier and more practical alternative would be the practice of zero waste—designing products and processes to minimize toxicity and waste and conserving and recovering all resources in a closed loop cycle. It would help to conserve three to five times more energy than is produced by waste incineration. “We know land-filling is bad and we know incineration is bad,” says Turner-Handy, who is also a founding member of Zero Waste Detroit, a coalition of environmental organizations, community groups, and individuals working to move Detroit toward recycling. “So we need to have full materials recovery. If the city wants to save money and create jobs, they need to create a materials recovery center.”

An environmental task force set up by the Detroit City Council determined that closing the incinerator would eliminate about 50 jobs, but creating a materials recovery facility would create 123 new jobs, and an additional 300 jobs would be created through recycling-based manufacturing.
However, at present Detroit recycles only about three percent of its waste stream, as opposed to Boston (15 percent), Chicago (23 percent), and San Francisco (over 70 percent)#.2 According to van Guilder, the city signed a contract committing the Department of Public Works to pick up household waste and bring it to the Greater Detroit Resource Recovery Authority, which would then bring it to the incinerator. “It basically locked out any kind of recycling,” van Guilder points out. “You would literally be fined for hiring someone to pick up your recycling.”

An End to Smokestacks Everywhere
Recycling is widely acknowledged to be the most climate-effective waste management strategy because it reduces emissions throughout the economy, not just at the waste facility (landfill or incinerator).3# Which is why Zero Waste Detroit and the other organizers of the June 26 march and rally determined to focus on “smokestacks everywhere, in the backyards of the poor,” and not merely in Detroit, according to Ananda Lee Tan, who is the U.S. and Canada coordinator for the Global Anti-Incinerator Alliance (GAIA) and works with communities worldwide to end incineration.

“To stabilize the climate we need to stop burning oil, coal, forests, crops, and waste,” says Tan. “For most eco-conscious cultures, fire is sacred—only to be used for life-support functions like cooking food and carefully maintaining ecosystems with controlled burns. We need to reconsider the use of fire in destructive processes like burning for energy.” In October 2010 the incinerator abruptly ceased operations as the owners couldn’t come to terms with the buyer for their overpriced steam heat. "This facility has never been essential to the city of Detroit. It has just been extremely costly," said van Guilder on news of the shutdown. Now that the incinerator has been taken off line, environmentalists are organizing to keep it closed and launch curbside recycling in earnest. According to van Guilder, this is not just a local issue: “Detroit’s struggle is very important to how this plays out nationally, just like the fight of the Evergreen Alliance back in the late ‘80s. They lost the fight in Detroit, but it played out in other incinerator struggles around the country.”

“Historically there are a lot of barriers to organizing different constituencies around an issue like this,” admits Tan. “The fact that frontline EJ communities and their allies from around the country were able to come together with unions to fight this incinerator shows a real shift in the political landscape.”
“Ultimately,” he adds, “it sends a signal to communities across the U.S. that not only can we shut down polluting industries in the backyards of the poor, but we can replace them with green jobs that have tangible benefits. This is a tremendous story that’s still unfolding.”

1.    http://www.mlive.com/news/detroit/index.ssf/2010/06/must-read_report_detroits_4821.html
2.    http://www.sfenvironment.org/our_sfenvironment/ press_releases.html?topic=details&ni=482
3.    USEPA, Solid Waste Management and Greenhouse Gases: A Life-Cycle Assessment of Emissions and Sinks, 3rd Edition. 2006.

Jeff Conant is an independent journalist, activist, and educator, and author of A Community Guide to Environmental Health and
A Poetics of Resistance: The Revolutionary Public Relations of the Zapatista Insurgency.

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Detroiters Find a Way Out of No Way

Former autoworker Rich Feldman began working in Detroit’s auto plants in 1970 with a belief that labor unions were the driving force of revolution in the U.S.  Like other young activists at the time, he joined the factories to organize workers after having been involved in the radical student movement of the 1960s. Today, globalization has decimated the autoworkers. (Figures from the Bureau of Labor Statistics show that in this decade alone, the number of autoworkers in Michigan has decreased from 320,000 to 109,000.)

At the old abandoned Packard plant just outside downtown Detroit, Feldman reflects: “It’s the end of the economic American dream, which was also very destructive. On one level we have to grieve, but we also have to welcome it. Now we can move on to create another kind of American dream that is based on quality of life versus a standard of living.”

Out of necessity, the people of Detroit are shaping alternatives to the urban wreckage left by the collapse of the auto industry. And new possibilities are emerging across the city: Eastside residents have transformed their neighborhood into an outdoor public art exhibit with waste materials collected from vacant lots.  Just a short drive away, a group has purchased storefronts, planted fruit trees along a few city blocks, and renamed the area “Hope District.” Elsewhere, another group has reclaimed two acres of unused and underutilized land in the city to grow produce that feeds community members. In short, the movement in Detroit is putting forth a model for creating solutions rooted in frontline communities and place-based relationships.  

Nurturing Community Leadership
The Boggs Center has been at the heart of the rebuilding process happening amidst the ruins of a deindustrialized Detroit. Founded in 1995 by friends of lifelong activists James Boggs and Grace Lee Boggs, the center supports grassroots leaders who create and implement innovative strategies for transforming communities from the ground up. In 2007, the Boggs Center and 32 endorsing organizations commemorated the 40th anniversary of Dr. Martin Luther King’s anti-war speech and the Detroit rebellion of 1967—an event that inspired the creation of the Detroit City of Hope campaign.

The campaign focuses on expanding urban gardens, connecting education to community-building, establishing cooperatives to meet local needs, and creating Peace Zones to stem violence as put forth in the article, “Love and Revolution” by Grace Lee Boggs.1 Earthworks Urban Farm, which provides produce for the Capuchin Soup Kitchen, Avalon Bakery, which employs and sells baked goods to local residents, Back Alley Bikes, which provides affordable repairs and used bikes, and the Boggs Educational Center and Live Arts Media Project, are all supported by Detroit City of Hope.

From Urban Decay to Public Art
Artist Tyree Guyton watched his neighborhood on Heidelberg Street gradually deteriorate through the deindustrialization of the 1960s and ‘70s. By the 1980s, Heidelberg Street was a neighborhood of vacant lots and abandoned homes littered with refuse. In 1986, with the help of his grandfather Sam Mackey, his former wife Karen, and neighborhood children, Guyton began cleaning up trash from vacant lots in the area, which led to the creation of the now famous Heidelberg Project, an outdoor art project made entirely from collected waste materials.

Nowadays, Guyton’s neighborhood block contains an assortment of brightly colored houses and outdoor art sculptures made entirely from car tires, telephones, old shoes, plastic bottles, auto parts, store carts, television sets, metal barrels, and other discarded items. Even so, Guyton’s “Dotty Wotty House” stands out on Heidelberg Street with its bright polka dotted exterior representing the diversity and unity of all people.

In 1991 and again in 1999, the city demolished parts of the Heidelberg Project but neighborhood residents fought back with a successful civil lawsuit asserting their First Amendment rights of “political speech.” So, the Heidelberg Project continues to evolve artistically and provide arts education programs to neighborhood youth. And art installations, such as “Building Bridges One Step At a Time” and “Meet Me Halfway,” assert the transformation process currently underway in Heidelberg and throughout Detroit.

Revitalization through Reimagination
Within walking distance from the Boggs Center, decorated billboards occupy a corner lot in the Hope District. But instead of the usual product advertisements, these makeshift billboards publicize the thoughts, aspirations, and concerns of local residents facing mass unemployment and home foreclosures. The idea is a brainchild of Lillie Wimberley and her son Mike Wimberley, longtime residents and founders of the group, The Friends of Detroit and Tri-County. Local residents are encouraged to use the signposts as part of the neighborhood’s community engagement and revitalization project. Reimagining a better future plays a vital role in the efforts to rise above the grinding poverty and despair of the Hope District.
 The Friends of Detroit and Tri-County purchased neglected commercial storefronts and residential properties to create long-term job opportunities and affordable housing in the area. Residents have established Peace Zones—public spaces for conflict resolution and alternative pathways to violence—where mediators, rather than police, are called in to help resolve disputes among neighbors and families. Produce harvested from the community gardens is used to feed the neighborhood. (Future plans include making jams and other value-added products from harvested fruit.) Weekly classes provide residents an opportunity to acquire training in community entrepreneurship, computer skills, culinary arts, sewing, and craft-making. The courses are intended to spur the creation of cooperatives that can produce local goods for local needs.

“[The neighborhood needs] more people involved in what we do around here,” says one middle-aged resident working on turning over the soil for a vegetable garden one humid afternoon in the Hope District. “Me, here by myself, doing this everyday—I can use some help. What we need is more volunteers because we don’t have the money.”

He himself plants the garden every year to help people in the community, he says. “They’re welcome to come and get what they want out of the garden. I’m just staying busy… just trying to keep up the neighborhood.”

Generating Food from Fallow Land
One glaring impact of deindustrialization has been the disappearance of grocery stores from the neighborhoods. Since the economic decline there has been an exodus of supermarkets and grocery retailers away from the city to the more lucrative suburbs. No national grocery chain currently operates within the city limits, which makes access to healthy fresh food difficult for Detroit’s predominantly African American residents.

Over half of the city’s population has to travel twice as far to get to a grocery store than to a fast food outlet or convenience store, according to a study by Mari Gallagher, a Chicago-based researcher whose focus is “food deserts”—areas without grocery stores and other healthy food resources. Consequently, there has been an urban agricultural movement underway in Detroit. Empty lots and unused land throughout the city are being reclaimed for growing vegetables and fruits to feed city residents. One of Detroit’s biggest urban farms is the D-Town Farm, a two-acre site established in 2006 by the Detroit Black Community Food Security Network. Chairman Malik Yakini described D-Town Farm as a “community self-determination project” on Democracy Now. “We’re showing how unused and underutilized land in the city of Detroit can be put to productive use both to create greater access to fresh produce [and] to mobilize people to work on their own behalf.”

 The farm incorporates fruit and vegetable plots, beehives, composting, and a hoop greenhouse for year-round food production. It uses sustainable and organic farming methods to grow produce that is sold at local farmers’ markets, food cooperatives, and to restaurants. Jackie Hunt, D-Town’s assistant farm manager, views the site as part of a citywide collective effort. “It’s not like our organization can grow enough produce to feed everybody in Detroit,” she observes, “but we can start a movement that will get people interested in providing produce for themselves.” 

At present, there are close to 900 urban gardens and farms in Detroit, and the urban agriculture movement continues to expand, according to the Detroit Agricultural Network. “Things need to be done,” says Hunt, “and it seems that when you start, people just help. Spirits get moved. Events happen.”
Where Hope Stays Alive
And so, Detroit’s long-term residents are transforming the city’s desolation into new opportunities. Hope stays alive in Detroit through small organizations cultivating place-based relationships to meet people’s needs and create a profound sense of community. Autoworker Rich Feldman, who now serves on the board of the Boggs Center, finds his inspiration these days in the growing number of community groups working together in Detroit. “It’s all about the relationships,” he says excitedly. “Relationships of hope come from the people we work with and the people we dream with.”

1.    In These Times, July 30, 2009. www.inthesetimes.org/article/4686/love_and_revolution/

Jose Flores is a freelance journalist and works at the Movement Strategy Center. He has previously worked as a reporter for Pacifica Radio, producing news segments and features for KPFK in Los Angeles and KPFA in Berkeley.

Weaving the Threads | Vol. 17, No. 2 | Fall 2010 | Credits

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Connecting Struggles Across Issues and Borders

The roots of the environmental justice movement lie in an archetypical struggle between low-income communities of color and industrial polluters—refineries, incinerators, landfills, and dirty ports, to name a few. In the last few years, leaders of this movement have worked ardently to infuse an environmental politic into racial and economic justice campaigns and to underscore local control of common resources and community-based solutions to social and ecological ills.[1]

Now the fruits of this labor are becoming evident. What was seen as isolated pockets of noxious industrial impacts are now being viewed as symptoms of larger phenomena that create other social inequities. People are connecting the impacts of toxic industry to other injustices, such as forced migration and poverty jobs, and coming together to address these multiple crises.   

On a hot July afternoon in Detroit last summer, over 300 movement organizers from across the United States gathered to plot a course for ecological justice as part of the U.S. Social Forum. “We come from environmental justice communities who have been on the frontlines of the effects of polluting industries like waste incineration. But [we] also come from economic justice struggles... and immigrant [communities that] understand the connection between land and life,” said Michelle Mascarenhas-Swan, strategy initiatives director for Movement Generation based in Oakland, California.

The gathering was an important moment in cohering movements across different sectors in the United States to deal with the root causes of all struggles. Foremost on everyone’s mind was the connection between environmental health, forced migrations, and the recent Gulf Oil disaster. What do the three things have in common? The economy.

Pitching Jobs against Lives
The tradeoff facing working class communities between environmental and ecological health and sub-par jobs has become starker in this recession.Panelist Roland Wall pointed out that he lives in the most polluted zip code in America, but the concerns of Detroit residents have been routinely brushed aside by city and state officials because jobs are considered more important than health. Recounting his experience in Louisiana right after Katrina, he noted that the air force base had people from Mexico, Nicaragua, and other places that were part of the guest worker program, doing cleanup without masks. “They were putting up blue tarps on roofs for Halliburton—which charged $1800 a piece for the tarps—and being paid less than minimum wage.” Jose Brava of the Just Transitions Alliance in San Diego pointed out that having an incinerator is not the same as having a job. “You can paint the incinerator as green as you want, but it will never be a green process.”

Environmental Devastation Forces Migration
The worsening environment in Mexico has resulted in the dislocation of vast numbers of people who are forced to take actions and jobs that are, in effect, life-threatening. Addressing the interrelationship between environmental and social justice movements, Carlos Marentes from the Border Agricultural Workers Project, said:  

“When we began to organize [migrant farm workers], the farmers were our enemies. [They were] the ones exploiting us and paying us low salaries. We also saw American consumers as [our enemies] demanding cheap food… But over the years we started to learn how the agricultural system works. We learned that the farmers, the producers, the consumers, all of us were victims of the North American commercial agricultural system.”
The industrial agricultural system of production in the United States is based on the exploitation of migrant farm workers in the fields and the displacement of small producers off their land. Its purpose is to create profits and wealth that is concentrated in a few hands. Two hundred corporations control the food system of the world, of which a third are U.S. based.

“Today, eight out of 10 farm workers in the U.S. are from Mexico,” Marentes pointed out. “Campesinos displaced from their communities, who are forced to cross the border, to risk their lives in order to survive.”

The program director for the Gulf Coast Fellowship for Community Transformation, Colette Pichon Battle agreed that the debate about immigration is really a debate about displacement. And it is not just an issue for the global south.[2]

“After a painful five years people have just rebuilt and started [to] come back... now we’re being displaced again,” she said. “It’s happening in the Gulf Coast because of oil, because of industry. It’s time for us to stand up and stop what is happening.”

Livelihoods vs. Environmental Disasters
The recent BP oil spill highlights how negligent business practices can cause massive shocks to people’s jobs and loss of life. There has been a wetland loss the size of Rhode Island in the Gulf with wetlands being destroyed by development and fossil fuel exploration even before the BP disaster.

According to Jon Hueng, a youth organizer in the Gulf’s Vietnamese community, 80 percent of the 40,000 Vietnamese Americans living in the area used to survive by fishing, which they have not been able to do since the oil spill.

“BP pays up to $500 per month, which is not enough when you have families to feed, boat loans to repay, and housing debt,” Hueng said. “There is also a serious problem of risk to mental health, including depression and suicides [among] people who can’t work anymore.”

Jamie Billiot, a representative of the 17,000 indigenous members of the United Houma Nation who have lived and fished in the marshes of Louisiana for many generations, said: “We are forced to work for BP and ExxonMobil. We have to force these companies to take responsibility for the damage they are doing.”

There is little doubt that the many years of dredging in the wetlands by the oil industry has made Louisiana vulnerable to hurricanes, says Battle. “These storms—Katrina, Rita, Gustav, Ike—that hit us all in the last five years caused so much damage because wetlands have been absolutely decimated.”

Marentes gave voice to the real challenge facing the Gulf and the movement at large when he said: “To deal with climate change, we need to deal with the system. It’s not only about imposing million dollar fines or putting CEOs in jail. We should do that, but it will not bring back the oil rig workers who died or the life that has disappeared in the Gulf because of this tragedy. We need to replace [the entire] destructive system because our lives are in danger and Mother Earth cannot take it anymore.”

A Call to Coordinated Action
Alejandro Villamar of the Mexican Network for Action against Free Trade made a strong argument for transnational solidarity in the wake of cooperative international agreements like NAFTA that have no enforceable labor or environmental statutes. It has become quite clear that free trade agreements have caused grave deterioration of the environment, of communities, and their health all across Mexico, especially in rural and industrial areas.

“My brothers and sisters in Detroit sometimes complain about the dirty jobs that were exported,” said Villamar. “Back home, we complain about the dirty jobs and exploitative labor practices that were brought to us! What is becoming incredibly clear is that we need international solidarity from the south to the north in direct response to this faulty model that is wreaking havoc.”

The first step toward a cross-issue and cross-border approach was taken in Detroit when leaders collectively planned mobilizations against Arizona’s SB 1070, actions to commemorate the fifth anniversary of Hurricane Katrina, and strategies to push proposals on ecological justice from last April’s Climate Conference in Cochabamba, Bolivia. But they also emphasized the need to empower locals to have more control over their environmental and economic destinies. “If you give the land back to land-based people, they will fix the problems,” observed Jamie Biliat, executive director of the Dulac Community Center.

Since the meeting in July, communities have been crossing borders and issue lines to stand together in solidarity. Folks from the Gulf Coast participated in an immigration action in Arizona to show that the struggle against big oil is the same as the struggle to allow people to move freely. With climate talks in Cancun planned for this December, various groups are committed to building a grassroots cross-issue analysis of what needs to be done to compel the U.S. government to radically change its fossil fuel-based economy and start paying its ecological debt.
“Resistance is key, but resilience is also key,” says Mascarenhas-Swan. “We want to build communities that can work in cooperation with one another, restore our relationship to place, and shift out of this me-based way of living.”

Virali Gokaldas is a writer, radio producer, and business consultant focused on ecologically sustainable economic development.

1.    See RP&E Journal, Fall 2009, “Building Community Control in a Shifting Climate.”
2.    “Gulf activists say: Corporations must pay for environmental damage.” Workers World, July 15, 2010.

Weaving the Threads | Vol. 17, No. 2 | Fall 2010 | Credits

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"We need international solidarity from the south to the north in direct response to this faulty model that is wreaking havoc.” – Alejandro Villamar

Young Activists Revitalize EJ Movement

On an Eco-bus tour of Detroit during the 2010 U.S. Social Forum, 17-year-old Janice Nyamakye strives to capture everything with her video camera: the tour guide’s comments, the city sights, as well as the ‘sites’—a dirty incinerator, salt mining operations, and power plants—all located in low-income communities of color. The tour informs Nyamakye’s own work in environmental remediation back home in Worcester, Massachusetts where she has been involved with Toxic Soil Busters (TSB) for the past four years.

As an organization, TSB effects improvements in the lives and environments of urban youth by employing them to first test local soil for lead levels, then remediate and redesign affected environments as needed. “We are a youth-led cooperative business,” says Nyamakye proudly. “The youth do everything.” As a videographer, she uses media to connect different EJ communities and amplify the message of youth working for environmental justice. From California to Massachusetts, groups like TSB, Grind for the Green (G4G), and Third Eye Unlimited are using new outreach methods to successfully reach a new generation of information-seeking cyberkids. And increasingly, youth interested in acting for environmental change are finding outlets through national organizations like It’s Getting Hot In Here (itsgettinghotinhere.org) and SustainUs: US Youth for Sustainable Development (sustainus.org).

The Kids are in Charge
A Gallup Poll conducted this year shows that the U.S. population’s concern for the environment has hit a 20-year low. But you wouldn’t know it from the level of interest and activity among youth-focused and youth-led environmental organizations around the country. According to WireTap Magazine, more than 600 youth-led community organizations are creating green jobs, removing toxic waste, combating corporate pollution, and getting the message out on environmental issues affecting them.

At TSB, there is minimal adult involvement as Nyamakye and 16 other youth do everything, from fundraising and accounts management, to interviewing new recruits, to creating and launching marketing materials, to providing lead testing and remediation services.
Since 2005, TSB has cleaned 36 properties using phyto-remediation, a process whereby lead-absorbing plants are grown in contaminated soil and removed after a certain period, effectively ridding the soil of its lead. In 2006, TSB was honored for its work by the city of Worcester with the mayor declaring June 20, Toxic Soil Busters Day. TSB also weighs in on other local youth organizing efforts.

“We are part of the Save our Pools Coalition, a team of people that have come together to get Worcester neighborhood pools open,” explains Nyamakye. TSB uses Facebook, YouTube, print, and television to amplify its environmental work, educate the public on youth-related issues, encourage more youth activism, and make tangible to them their power to improve their environment.

Social Media, Hip-Hop Help Rally Youth
Like TSB, Oakland-based G4G also uses a range of online and offline media to tap youth and adults. With a commitment to moving youth of color from the margins to the epicenter of the environmental movement in a culturally relevant way, G4G convenes hip hop and other musical events—entirely coordinated by youth staff—using Facebook, Twitter, blogs, and printed leaflets.

A typical G4G event may include an enticing line-up of local talent and known performers like Talib Kweli and Dead Prez with their socially conscious lyrics, alongside bike-powered machine displays, local food, aquaponics demonstrations, and information on environmental resources to address current challenges. “We put on events that aren’t billed as green and use hip-hop culture as a carrot to get a different segment of young people in the room,” says Zakiya Harris, founder and executive director of G4G. “Once there, we give them a lot of other information. So if they’re not already in the youth empowerment field, our events are one way for them to engage.”

Founded in 2007, G4G follows five strategies for developing the youth workforce on its team: reconnection to the earth, eco literacy, leadership development, new media, and cultural relevancy. It is a way to ensure that the environmental justice movement includes youth of color and is rooted in inspiring solutions.

“Though communities of color may care about the environment, they are often dealing with meeting their basic needs,” points out Harris. “Pressing issues like Oscar Grant and survival issues like food accessibility take precedence over melting ice caps. But when you talk about health using innovative ways rooted in our own indigenous legacy [and] new media, young people get it.” Ozone, the outreach director for G4G, works with four other youth members handling logistics and doing research, marketing, and outreach. Their focus is to ensure that their peers attend G4G’s solar-powered youth hip-hop festival. “Everyone is interested in a free concert in their community,” says Ozone. “And once there, they learn.”
In addition to Facebook and Twitter, G4G members rely on text messaging and blogs at their own and partner websites, such as GetFresh.net, to do outreach.

In Bits and Bytes, the Movement Grows
In a world where computers are essential tools, Internet searches outnumber library visits, and cell phones are indispensible, the youth naturally are motivated not only to integrate media-making into their work but to push the media boundaries.

Ben Gilbarg is a hip hop artist who runs Third Eye Unlimited, a youth media group in New Bedford, Massachusetts that has evolved from YouTube music video production to documentary and DVD creation. Third Eye’s mission is to teach young people to develop their own rhymes and tell their own stories. More recently, the organization has started focusing on the environment and environmental justice issues using hip hop.
In 2008, Third Eye earned its ecological media stripes with the hip hop hit “Green Anthem,” which highlights climate change and the need for green jobs. After Van Jones showcased it at the Good Jobs are Green Jobs Conference in Washington, D.C., people all over the country started using it, according to Gilbarg.

Since then, Third Eye has created a documentary on climate change and global warming—by young people, for young people. “We hit the right frequency with young people by creating something cool and savvy, something they can feel,” says Gilbarg. The documentary has been used in assembly presentations throughout southeastern Massachusetts, with up to 1,000 kids at a time. The overwhelmingly positive feedback has prompted Third Eye to produce and distribute a video for educators that includes climate change and green economy teaching tools.

In the course of amplifying environmental concerns, organizations like Third Eye are creating friendly environments where youth have outlets to record their music, organize and perform at events, and carry out environmental work.

Harnessing Youth Power for EJ
From Oakland to Detroit to Worcester, youth-led organizations are empowering the environmental justice movement. These organizations are promising in their ability to motivate audiences that the environmental movement has thus far been unable to reach. By integrating youth into campaigns as producers, creators, and changemakers instead of consumers, bystanders, and audiences, they are harnessing the power of media and the ability of younger generations to adapt quickly and utilize technological advances efficiently.

Youth like Nyamakye are at the forefront of this budding movement. Her narrative about the work done by youth in cleaning up Worcester, Massachusetts provides a stark contrast to Detroit’s overwhelming dirty facilities.“Youth can do anything,” says Nyamakye. “As long as you’re motivated, you can do anything you put your mind to.”

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Transforming the Land-- One Garden at a Time

Raheem Payton used to think nothing of littering streets until he discovered his community garden. Now he is angry that he and his friends ever did such a thing. “I’m an advocate for putting your trash in the right place now,” he says, “and I try to keep my friends on the straight path, too.” Payton discovered his calling earlier than other youths through a program called Literacy for Environmental Justice (LEJ) in the Bayview district of San Francisco. Founded in 1998 by a coalition of youth, educators, and community leaders, LEJ addresses the ecological and health concerns of Bayview-Hunters Point and surrounding communities of southeast San Francisco.

The project that Payton participates in operates a native plants nursery at a former dumpsite near Candlestick Park. The garden is the primary supplier of plant stock to two major restoration projects in San Francisco—Candlestick Point State Recreation Area and Heron’s Head Park.
Payton works three hours a day in the garden transplanting starter plants into larger pots to be taken to one of the restorations sites. Already, the 18-year-old is hooked on gardening.

“I want to major in landscape architecture [and] design gardens to encourage cities to be healthier and better looking,” he says. Community organizer for Green Action, Marie Harrison says, “These children are gaining knowledge that is quite valuable. If there ever was a disaster these children would know exactly how to sustain themselves.”

Food Security with a Local Twist
The community gardening initiative has also been a real boon to other South San Francisco neighborhoods like Visitacion Valley that have no grocery store, hence no access to fresh produce. Rather than wait for city officials to do something about it, this community of 20,000 took matters in their own hands and created one of the largest urban farming plots in the city.

“We have hundreds of thousands of [plots] in this city,” says Patrick Rump, Bay Youth Program Manager for LEJ. “It’s really important that we hold on to our native plants and transform the land into something we can be proud of.”

Rump specializes in environmental education in a program that is part of an initiative to save California’s state parks. Over the last six years, Rump and his youth group have helped create a plant nursery that is home to over 50 species of native plants, including coyote grass and purple needle grass. Contrary to popular belief, plants and grasslands give out more oxygen than trees and help the environment. “Climate change is threatening food security,” says Rump. “We are part of a group of people who want to change this situation.” So, the program grows vegetables and fruits, which are given to local residents on a first-come, first-served basis.

Eating locally produced food reduces fuel consumption, carbon dioxide emissions, and a variety of other negative environmental consequences associated with the transportation of food,” says David Seaborg, evolutionary biologist and founder of the World Rainforest Fund. In the U.S., a meal travels about 13,000 miles on average before reaching your plate, according to the Iowa State University Center for Sustainable Agriculture.

Amidst the Pollution, the Best Tasting Fruit
Bayview-Hunters Point has a number of environmental concerns. It is home to over 80 percent of San Francisco’s waste, it is a superfund site, and it has two major freeways running through, which exposes residents to serious air pollution. Now it has its own community garden.
“The kids really benefit from these gardens first hand because they can take the vegetables home to their parents and cook them,” says Jackie Williams, head of the community garden at the Alice Griffith Public Housing project in Bayview.

Eighteen-year-old Victoria Bryant who works in the garden is convinced that the fruits they grow there are a lot tastier than the ones she gets at the grocery store. The children are also paid to help in tending to the garden where they grow cabbage, collard greens, squash, cucumbers and strawberries among other things. Williams helps the children understand all about harvesting and replanting with seeds from the harvest, so the seeds don’t have to be purchased each time. “The best thing about the garden is the people that I work with,” says Bryant. “It’s somewhere I can go to relax and also get educated and be a leader.”

A 2009 report on community gardens by the Local Government Commission in California said that gardening is a recommended form of moderate physical activity. Community gardens can encourage more active lifestyles by providing children and adults the opportunity to do physical work outdoors.

“To see something grow is extremely important in an urban community like ours,” says Sophie Maxwell of the San Francisco Board of Supervisors. “It’s a wonderful way to connect people with the earth.”

The absence of grocery stores in the southeast sector of San Francisco forces people there to travel to other parts of the city to buy groceries, which results in less money being circulated within their own community. Furthermore, the convenience stores in low-income areas sell fresh food at higher prices than chain stores like Safeway or Albertsons. A single banana—selling at 67 cents per pound elsewhere—may cost 75 cents at a local liquor store.

“I think the community garden initiatives open a door to help the Bayview community’s food access issues,” says Pandora Thomas of Grind for the Green, a hip-hop music project by the Global Exchange. “Gardening was a way of life for our ancestors and this is a great way to connect with our history as well.” 

Crystal Carter is an independent journalist based in the Bay Area. She is currently working on a documentary film about the politics that surround a superfund site's redevelopment in the Bayview-Hunter's Point district. Find more of her work at www.popscampaign.blogspot.com. 

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Urban Agriculture in Cuba

What will it mean to our oil-steeped economy when we run out of cheap oil? Will it mean the ruined warlike world of Mad Max or the peaceful post-industrial tribalism of Ursula LeGuin? Is there a model for a modern urban post cheap oil society? How, for example, will schools and hospitals provide nutritious meals when there is not enough fuel to haul produce to urban markets. The answer is urban cooperative farming.
Utopian though it may sound, the idea is actually Cuban. Cubans are actively using urban gardening—an after-work hobby—to help them shed an oil-dependent plantation economy and create long-term sustainability.

Building a Post–Plantation Cuba
The small island nation of Cuba has been exploited in the world economy since Christopher Columbus stopped by in 1492, beginning a process of extermination for the native populations and sowing the seeds of a plantation economy based on slave labor. For most of the last 500 years, Cubans have grown sugar, coffee, and tobacco for foreign markets: first Spain, then the U.S. and the Soviet Union.

During the 1980s, Cuban ecologists started talking about sustainable development using environmentally sound techniques to become self-sufficient in food. Although few changes were actually made in that decade, some fundamental concepts of organic agriculture and integrated pest management were studied.

Cuban farming was based on Soviet-style megafarms and U.S. agribusiness. Massive quantities of Soviet petroleum products were used to operate tractors, make chemical fertilizers and pesticides, and fuel trucks to bring agricultural products from distant farms into the city. Cuba exported sugar and imported food. When the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, the Cuban economy collapsed with it.  Gross domestic product fell by half and oil imports by 80 percent. Without subsidized Soviet oil and petroleum products, the cities faced a food and transportation crisis. Even though Cuba maintained basic food rationing so that no one would go without, calorie and protein intake fell below minimum levels as defined by the United Nations.

Scrambling to feed themselves and their families, some began planting food in vacant lots. Many early gardens failed for lack of knowledge, but the grow-your-own idea took hold. Through trial and error, ecologists and agronomists began establishing organoponicos, the distinctive raised bed organic gardens of Cuban urban agriculture today. Harvard ecologist Richard Levins, who worked with the Cubans in the 1980s, says “The rest of us [the ecologists] saw it as a process of converting ecologists-by-necessity into ecologists-by-conviction.”

Organoponicos can be as small as the vacant lot used by a three-family coop in Pinar del Rio, or as large as the 26 acres used by the 150-member Vivero Alamar in the Havana suburbs. Countrywide, there are more than 7,000 organoponicos, and their number is growing. Havana, with 2.5 million people, has more than 200 gardens, plus thousands of backyards and rooftops where people grow leaf vegetables, tomatoes, herbs, and even wine grapes.

Historically, farming has meant hard labor but in Cuba it was primarily forced, underpaid labor on someone else’s land. The new Cuban farms, in contrast, are mostly cooperatives managed by their members who may work equally hard but make about three times the national average wage and are considered valuable contributors to Cuban society.

Entertaining Insects in Havana
“Del cantero a su mesa!” (From the garden bed to your table!) proclaims a sign at the 44th Street organoponico in Havana’s Playa municipio or burrough. The garden, whose concrete raised beds take up about half a city block, was started in 1992 in an old parking lot. All produce from the garden not contracted to go to institutional kitchens is sold on site at the punta de venta on the day it is picked. Eighty percent of all profits goes to the eight-member collective that tends the garden, 15 percent goes to the state, and five percent into a capital reserve. Collective members—consisting of three production workers, three salespersons, an agronomist who serves as collective director, and a biologist—earn about 1000 Cuban pesos each, which is about three times the average monthly wage.

Every aspect of the 44th Street urban farm is designed to be integrated and sustainable. Collective members closely follow recommendations laid down in an agriculture manual jointly produced by the United Nations and Cuba. For instance, sorghum is grown all along the periphery of the garden as a trap for bugs who will munch on that instead of the leafy vegetables. “It keeps the insects entertained!” says agronomist Roberto Perez Sanchez. The collective also does companion planting—the practice of planting in bands of different colors to confuse the insects—with basil and marigold, or onions and garlic serving as insect repellents at the edges of the beds.

The soil is enriched with worm compost. The worms process vegetable leavings and manure from the oxen and mules that have almost completely replaced mechanized labor. Like most of Cuba, the organoponicos get water from a well on site. The water is magnetized to remove minerals that would build up in the beds, and its quality checked regularly by state inspectors who also ensure that the water table is not falling.

The collective makes a production plan each November for the primary crops of lettuce, bok choy, spinach, radish, green onion, garlic, chives, arugula, green bean, carrot, watercress, celery, and parsley. They also grow smaller quantities of broccoli and have an experimental bed of Argentine green bean that looks like a snap pea on steroids. Some medicinal plants, such as aloe vera, chamomile, marjoram, mint, and chicory are also raised.

In addition, the 44th Street garden is a CREE (Centro de Reproduccion de Entomopatogenos y Entomofagos), i.e. a production facility for a biological insect control called trychoderma used against nematodes, which attack the roots of plants like lettuce. They sell it to retail customers and to the state for distribution to other gardens.

Farming Cuban Style: Science Plus Decentralization
In Cuba, farming has gone from being the labor of an underpaid migratory worker class to becoming a skilled craft that provides steady work, thanks to the new model of coop agriculture that emphasizes practices like inter-cropping (planting beans between banana trees, for example) to insure against weather disasters and  mono-crop diseases. The results have been outstanding with farms producing as many as five crops a year on well-amended soil. Cuban food production now meets international standards for food security and the acceptable minimum standard for calories and protein.

The Global Footprint Network has defined three fundamental measures of development: long life, access to education/literacy, and access to income. By these standards, Cuba is a developed country with a life expectancy of 77 years, a literacy rate of 97 percent, and a per capita income of about $10,000. What’s more, a 2007 report by the Global Footprint Network found Cuba to be the only country on the planet with both, a reasonable standard of living and a sustainable ecological footprint.

In contrast, the standard of living in the U.S. can only be sustained with the resources of five-and-a-half planets, and many third world nations with sustainable lifestyles have vast numbers of poor, illiterate, and sick peasants and slum dwellers.

The development of urban agriculture is part of a set of innovations in the Cuban economy to become more decentralized and more varied. Gone are the days when sugar exports were the biggest item in Cuba’s balance of payments. These days Cuba trades its doctors for Venezuelan oil, and imports from China and Vietnam, as well as Europe and Latin America. It was a founding member of ALBA, the Latin American common market.
So, what would happen if the U.S. ended its blockade and oil, fertilizers, and pesticides again became available? Probably nothing. The general opinion is that organic agriculture gives better food and farming coops are creating hundreds of thousands of good jobs. Who would want to go back to the old ways?

Como en Havana?
By the measures of a consumer society, Cuba is poor—housing is crowded and consumer goods are scarce and expensive. But to communities suffering from unemployment, poor health care, poor nutrition, and schools that track students into prisons or the military, the Cuban lifestyle looks very good. Everyone in Cuba has access to high quality free education and medical care, cheap transportation, and a basic food ration supplemented by organic produce grown wherever people live.

Urban agriculture in the U.S.—although moving into mainstream awareness as more and more people renounce the unsustainable “U.S. way of life”—is still largely the province of volunteers and nonprofit organizations who create community, school, and prison gardens. But an article in Fortune magazine earlier this year entitled, “Can Farming Save Detroit?” featured a money manager who smells profit in growing food on abandoned land in Detroit.

Whether U.S. urban agriculture becomes yet another source of profit for venture capitalists or a resource for community self-determination remains a key political question for the coming years. If we believe the slogan at last summer’s Social Forum in Detroit—“Another world is possible; another U.S. is necessary”—we should take our lessons in sustainability from Cuba.

Mickey Ellinger and Scott Braley are a writer/photographer team from Oakland who often work for social justice and nonprofit organizations. Ellinger is a journalist and fiction writer (www.mickeyellinger.com). Braley is a freelance photographer and a member of the Bay Area Press Photographers Association and the American Society of Media Photographers (www.scottbraley.com). 

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Racial and Gender Justice

Racial and Gender Justice

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Women Re-energize the Movement: Panel Discussion

As part of RP&E’s 20th anniversary commemoration, we decided to review the origins of key social movements over the past few decades and their trajectories into the future. The ensuing panel discussion with three generations of women activists looks at the intersection of race and class with gender, and how women’s participation in social justice movements has (or has not) empowered women workers, especially working class women of color and immigrant women.

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Aileen Clarke Hernandez is a union organizer and civil rights activist. In 1964, she became the first (and at that time, only) woman member of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC). She is a past president of the National Organization of Women (NOW) and the State Chair Emeritus of the California Women’s Agenda (CAWA). She is a founder of Black Women Stirring the Waters and Chair of the Coalition for Economic Equity, which advocates for increased government contracting opportunities for women- and minority-owned businesses.
Catherine Tactaquin is the executive director and a co-founder of the National Network for Immigrant and Refugee Rights. Her commitment to immigrant rights is motivated by her experience as the U.S.-born daughter of immigrant farm workers from the Philippines. She was involved for many years in grassroots organizing and advocacy in the Filipino community on issues of discrimination and foreign policy.
Juliet Ellis is executive director of Urban Habitat, an organization that builds power in low-income communities and communities of color by combining education, advocacy, research, and coalition-building to advance environmental, economic, and social justice in the Bay Area. She is also a member of the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission.

B. Jesse Clarke: How do you see feminism and what does it actually mean to you?
Aileen Clarke Hernandez: I would say “feminism” now has a much better reputation than it did some time back. It was very difficult to get women of color involved in the women’s movement in those early days when it was led by women who were middle class and white, for the most part. The women who started NOW—it happened at a conference about equal pay—were all appointed by the governors of their states. These women were not working class and it was very difficult to even find women of color there. So, if you were black or Latina or Filipina, you just didn’t join the women’s movement as identified by NOW. But there were also other women’s movements going on at the time.

Clarke: Catherine, how did you intersect with the ideas of feminism and that social stream of thought as you entered your work life?
   Catherine Tactaquin: I was glad to hear Aileen’s description. As a young woman of color coming into political awareness at a certain period, I certainly did not identify with any significant feminist movement. In the political organizing that I was interested in at the time—among the Filipino community—it didn’t really have an impact. I was much more drawn to identifying with strong women leaders in the Philippines who were fighting the dictatorship. Many of them were exiled here and played a leading role in building a movement among Filipinos—raising awareness around foreign policy and the role of the United States in what was going on in the Philippines. I think I rejected a lot of the leadership from the mainstream feminist movement as I saw it as not being interested in what I was doing.

Clarke: Can you talk about how you are incorporating a gender lens into your work?
Ellis: We need to apply a gender lens that is organization-wide and not take a piecemeal approach. At Urban Habitat, initially we would convene low-income women of color around transportation issues and get support from foundations focused on funding gender-specific programs. But we have also worked closely with the women over the years to infuse a gender analysis into all of the work that we do. So, it’s not just the so-called “women’s issues” that we focus on but issues of investment that really address social and gender equity.

Urban Habitat has a mission to build power in low-income communities and communities of color. To that end, we’ve created a Boards and Commissions Leadership Institute that is looking to recruit, train, and place progressive and low-income people of color on local and regional boards and commissions. We are trying to move to a place where it’s not just about getting a seat at the table but where we really are the decision makers.
 Women of color oftentimes will focus on the lower-level commissions—the ones that are more advisory and have less money, like the Commission on the Status of Women or the Human Rights Commission—as opposed to a planning commission…

Hernandez: Where the real power is.
Ellis: Yes, and where the real money is. We are trying to push women to think beyond the Status of Women and think about the redevelopment commission, for example. This challenge says a lot about our own internal doubts as women.

Clarke: Aileen, could talk a little about your experience of being the only woman on the EEOC and how that power (or lack of it) actually plays out?
Hernandez: There was a real pressure to make women visible in society and all we had were pieces of law that made the difference. We had the Equal Pay Act of 1963, the Division of Fair Employment Practices established by the California Legislature in 1959, and Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 [which said that women could get jobs anywhere that they had the ability to do the work.] Nobody thought that sex would be included in that law. It was put in at the very last minute and many people laughed about it because women simply were invisible. They were not in the places you expect to see them now.

When I came to California, there was one woman from here in Congress and one woman on the San Francisco Board of Supervisors. That was it. Women weren’t sure where they needed to go with this or what the law was about or what feminism really meant. They thought they had to choose one thing or the other. The good thing about NOW and the feminist movement growing at that point was that we pushed legislation that tried to get equal pay for women on a national level.

When I first started at the EEOC, women were found in about five occupations. They were elementary school teachers—not high school or college, just elementary school teachers. They could work in retail shops (like department stores). Or in the garment industry. Or they could take up nursing or secretarial work. That was it. The change is significant now. Women are in almost every kind of occupation you can think of—though not anywhere near 50 percent. And the changes on the political level have been dramatic. In the current state election you’re looking at women fighting women.

Clarke: Catherine, among the key issues affecting poor and working class women—especially as we look at the immigrant struggle, which is in a particularly frightening place right now—what do you consider the most important political struggles of this century to bring justice for women?
Tactaquin: Among social justice and anti-racist organizing institutions, we can clearly see the leadership of a lot of strong women. But there is some unevenness. Within some organizations, I am aware of gender dynamics that play out in terms of paid staff positions and boards of directors. Within the immigrant rights movement, we have a proud history of women throughout—as founders and leaders. And increasingly, we see the presence of women leaders who have emerged out of organizing and come into their own—building new institutions and leading them.

We have just launched a project called Raising Women’s Voices for Immigrant Justice to help support immigrant women on the ground. Our partners at the Ms. Foundation have been really good over the years about supporting the development of this type of work. There’s a big divide between the broader women’s movement and the immigrant women’s movement, which identifies with and is aware of the human rights crisis in the United States—such as, what is happening along the border and the impact on immigrant women and families. For a women’s movement to not recognize that, I think, is really a crime.

In our project we want to help cultivate the distinct leadership of immigrant women, but we also want to build from the ground up. Create more of a synergy between immigrant women, other women of color, and the broader women’s movement. That’s going to have a profound effect on how we address issues of immigration and race and all the controversies present now or around the corner. A more integrated movement can play a big role in beating back the hate that we see on the ground. For us, part of a growing core mission is to help shift the debate on immigration to a consensus that enforcement is in fact necessary.

Clarke: One obvious but rarely acknowledged fact is that a majority of the population of the United States and of the world is women and people of color. If they were acting in concert, it would be very difficult for them to lose an election anywhere. How do you see capitalism structuring us into the kind of fragmentation that disables the popular movements from taking the power of their true majority status?
Hernandez: I think we have made a major change in identifying the problems and are no longer just speaking about African Americans. We now recognize that we are all going through the same thing. We’ve lived in such a segregated environment—whether it’s race or ethnicity or class—for such a long time. But now we’re coming together. People are working not just for their “group,” but are involved in wider issues in the society. I think men are coming into it now, too. They are beginning to understand that it’s not about any one group but about injustice in society against a wide range of people. Because we come from a capitalist approach where the rich are supposed to get everything and the poor are supposed to work to help the rich get richer, we have to keep saying, “This is not the way it’s going to be any more. We have other issues going.”

Tactaquin: I think it is important to recognize that we do function within a system that has developed structures designed to preserve power based on a certain premise. Those of us in the social justice movement have to create new democratic vehicles that are going to impact those structures and seriously challenge them. We see it now in trying to change policies within Congress. It’s insane that we continue to support policies that we know are wrong, but not challenging them is part of a preservation of certain political power.

I’m concerned about the fact that a lot of organizations are locked into 501(c)(3) formats that can preserve the ongoing systems of power. We have to be very thoughtful and at the same time aggressive about building more independent structures that can bring together the diverse and cross-sectional entities that we need, to make serious challenges. I don’t see that happening with our 501(c)(3)s.

Clarke: Are there any specific examples of prototypes of successful alternative institutions that are developing this kind of modern approach?
Tactaquin: I think a lot of what we are trying to build on the ground is a part of that. The concern is whether we are just replicating what exists and not attempting to break new ground. I’m a big believer in building institutions. It’s not enough to have mass movements like the U.S. Social Forum, as wonderful as it was. To really make a difference, the proposals, the organizing have to reside in entities that can garner participation and lead democratically. So, to the extent that we can support organizations of farmworker women or the new Domestic Workers’ Union in New York and the National Domestic Workers’ Union Alliance, we should do it.

We also work at the international level with domestic workers and unions in Colombia and Europe. It’s great to see that beginning to happen. But even those organizations are going to face limitations unless we find some way to bring them together on a more independent basis that’s not locked into chasing foundation support.

Hernandez: It’s complicated. And if you look just at the political end of it? We know that the process of  politics is terrible. Even the people that we are supporting are just raising money, pouring millions and millions of dollars into a campaign, without any concept of what they are going to do once they get in there. Politics should not have to cost you money to get into it.

Clarke: As new immigrant worker organizations emerge—that are not necessarily tied to previous movements—as domestic workers and women organize at different levels of political capacity, do you see any kind of sign that people are taking their own economic power seriously?
Tactaquin: I think the labor movement, despite its floundering on the immigration issue, is so essential. It is one of the few vehicles of power that we have. As big as those immigration demonstrations were in 2006, they did not immediately produce political power. The way this country is going now, it’s not going to result in political power for us for some time. So, we need to mobilize our allies: the labor movement, the broader civil rights movement, the African American community, the women’s movement, and the peace and justice movement. We also need to mobilize our allies among international unions, which share the drive to build sustainable economic power and job creation in their own countries because it affects migration. All of this is very much related and we need to have a movement that understands and can function on all those levels.

But we don’t always want to be “an immigrant rights movement” with allies. We need to be fighting with a strategy that reflects all of our interests. The National Network has always viewed itself as part of a broader social and economic justice movement and we try to raise awareness about that with our membership. We are not quite there yet but that’s the kind of entity we’re looking to build.

Hernandez: We also recognize now that we have to bring some of this back to a local level because you can’t have meetings all the time in Washington, D.C., or across the world. Where you live is a place where you should also exercise power. I’m hoping that what we get out of this is people reaching out within their own communities and making the cities in which they live. We are all suffering from the effects of climate change right now and we recognize that we have no control over the problem internationally. But we can deal with it where we are.
Also, we have a lot more people who are poor than very rich. It’s time to recognize that these numbers are very important. It’s not just money. It’s the numbers of people who reach the conclusion that we have to make certain changes.

Clarke: Juliet, do you have some final comments?
Ellis: I love the recommendation to look locally because that’s where you can do the prototyping and figure out strategies that work. What we found from doing work in San Francisco is that it’s about getting to know and understand how the unions actually work and figure out how to talk about race and class and gender. I think local is the way to scale up this work one community at a time to get to the type of aggregate change that we’re talking about. 

B. Jesse Clarke is the editor of Race, Poverty & the Environment. Preeti Shekar and Lisa Dettmer provided recording and editorial assistance for this interview.


Weaving the Threads | Vol. 17, No. 2 | Fall 2010 | Credits

Pull Quote TEXT ONLY for featured stories in image slider: 
It’s not enough to have mass movements.... To really make a difference, the proposals, the organizing have to reside in entities that can garner participation and lead democratically."

Complete Transcript

Aileen Clarke Hernandez is a union organizer and civil right activist from New York. With the passage of the national Civil Rights Act of 1964, she was appointed as the only woman member of the new United States Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. Frustrated with the limited power of the civil rights agency, she resigned after eighteen months as a Commissioner, returned to San Francisco and founded her own urban consulting firm in 1967. The firm works with major American companies, governmental agencies, and community-based organizations on a wide variety of issues facing cities such as housing, employment, education, sustainable development and transportation. She is the State Chair Emeritus of the California Women’s Agenda (CAWA), a network of 600+ organizations serving women and girls; the Coordinator for Black Women Stirring the Waters; and Chair of the Coalition for Economic Equity, which advocates for increased government contracting opportunities for businesses owned by women and minorities. She was the second national president of the National Organization for Women (NOW).  

Catherine Tactaquin is Executive Director and a co-founder of the National Network for Immigrant and Refugee Rights. Her commitment to immigrant rights was initially motivated by her own experience as the U.S.-born daughter of an immigrant farmworker from the Philippines. Before joining the National Network, she was involved for many years in grassroots organizing and advocacy in the Filipino community on issues of discrimination and foreign policy. Catherine helped to found Migrant Rights International in 1994, and is a member of its Steering Committee. She is a former recipient of the Bannerman Fellowship, an award recognizing outstanding activists of color.

Juliet Ellis is Executive Director of Urban Habitat, an organization that builds power in low-income communities and communities of color by combining education, advocacy, research and coalition building to advance environmental, economic and social justice in the Bay Area. Prior to that she was the Associate Program Officer for Neighborhood and Community Development at The San Francisco Foundation where she was responsible for all aspects of grantmaking, in the areas of workforce development, housing, homelessness, economic development, community development, and neighborhood planning. Juliet has served on numerous regional and local boards and committees, including the Oakland Homeless and Low-Income Taskforce, the Ella Baker Center for Human Rights the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission, the Boards and Steering Committee of Transform, the White House Environment and Climate Taskforce, and several others.



Jesse Clarke: Good morning, everyone! I'm Jesse Clarke, editor of "Race, Poverty and the Environment." And I'd like to welcome you to Radio RP&E and to the KPFA studios, where we're being produced by the "Women's Magazine" of KPFA with assistance from the National Radio Project, and particularly thank Lisa Andrew, our bard today. Our program today, we have three special guests, and they're going to be discussing the role of gender and women's participation in the social justice 00:30 movements. And how the work of each of these leaders has enabled and empowered women workers, the U.S. economy, particularly working class women and other marginalized communities of women in the United States including immigrant women and working women of color. And each of our guest, you know, comes from a different generation of women's activists and we're looking back, as it's the 20th anniversary of RP&E, at some of the 01:00 origins of  the social movements over the past few decades, and their trajectories into the future. And particularly we're looking at how race and class analysis works with gender analysis to really provide a base for liberating the people of this society.


So, our guests today. We have with us from California, since 1951, she tells us: Aileen Clarke Hernandez, who's a union organizer, a civil rights activist from New York, but been here since '51. 01:30 She, upon the passage of the Civil Rights Act from 1964 became the first and only woman member of the United States Employment Opportunity Committee--Equal Opportunity Employment Commission. And she spent some time working in that format, ran into some blockades and some frustrations, which I hope she'll be talking about a little bit in this interview, and went on to move into her own consulting business, since 1967, which she continues  02:00 to run. And she's the second National President for the National Organization of Women, and she's also the State Chair Emeritus of the California Women's Agenda. And the founder of Black Women Stirring the Waters, which sounds very interesting. Thanks for coming, Aileen.


Aileen Clarke Hernandez: You're very welcome! I'm delighted to be here.


Clarke: We're also joined by Catherine Tactaquin, who is the executive director of the National Network for Immigrant and 02:30 Refugee Rights. And her commitment to immigrant rights was initially motivated by her own experience as a U.S. born daughter of immigrant workers from the Philippines. And before she was at the National Network, she spent many years doing grassroots organizing in the Filipino community, and she's now the executive director of the National Network of Immigrant and Refugee Rights. And thanks again, Catherine, for joining us.


Catherine Tactaquin: Thank you.


Clarke: And we also are joined by Juliet 03:00 Ellis, executive director of Urban Habitat. And it's an organization that builds power in low-income communities and communities of color by combining education, advocacy and research to advance environmental and economic justice in the Bay Area. And she's also currently a member of the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission. And it's an interesting set of connections as we have these people going into these commissions, and doing their best to shift their political agendas. 03:30 And sometimes we have some interesting challenges in that dimension, so I'm hoping we'll get some conversation about how moving into these political positions really shifts our work in today's context. So, thanks for joining us again.


So looking at the bigger picture of the women's movement, there's sort of an ideological and ideational basis for it, which is feminism 04:00. And Aileen, having started organizing in 1951 in California, or perhaps maybe even quite a bit before that, there might not have been an obvious lead to find movement as the people in the 60s looked at it. But obviously women's suffrage and the struggle for equal rights in the United States, ongoing process. And maybe you can just talk a little bit about your perspective on, you know, how you see feminism and what does it actually mean to you?


Hernandez: Well, we're sort of doing this on a very interesting day 04:30, because August 26th is the 90th anniversary of women getting [to] vote in the United States. And I would say the word "feminism" at this stage, has a much better reputation than it had some time back. Because it was very difficult, particularly to try to get women of color involved in the women's movement in those early days. It was mostly a movement that was led by women who were middle class 05:00 and white, for the most part. And it happened in a very strange way. It happened at a conference, and the conference that we're talking about was a conference that dealt with the fact that there were people who were concerned about women moving past just having equal pay, because that had occurred in 1963, just a few days before--a few years before then. And the women who were there happened to be 05:30 there because they were all appointed by some governor in some state that they came from.


So you were dealing with a whole lot of women who for the most part were not women who were working class women. And so it was very difficult in the beginning to even find a few women of color there. And not to be identified was what everybody who was a minority said at that time. If you were a black or a Latino or a Filipino, or what, you just didn't join the women's movement 06:00, as identified by NOW. And people just don't recall that there were other parts of the women's movement going on at the very same time, but NOW was a very different organization.


Clarke: I don't know if Juliet or Catherine, you want to talk about how you actually see the ideas of feminism and the sort of social stream of thought, as you intersected with it, entering into your own work life 06:30?


Tactaquin: Well, I was glad to hear Aileen's description. And I think as a young woman coming into political awareness at a certain period, I certainly did not identify with really I think significant feminist movement, that did shake up a lot of things in a very good way. But I think as a young woman of color, and in the political organizing that I 07:00 was interested in doing, in the Filipino community at the time, it didn't really I think have much impact on me. And I was actually much more drawn to identifying with some strong women leaders, for example, that I came into contact with, for example, who were leaders in the Philippines, in the movement there who were fighting the dictatorship. Many of them came to the United States, were exiled here, and played a very leading role 07:30 in building a movement among Filipino nationals and Filipino Americans, like myself, and raising awareness around foreign policy or on what was going on in the Philippines, the role of the United States.


Those were the leaders that I looked to. And I probably, when I look back on it, I think I rejected a lot of the leadership from the mainstream feminist movement, as I saw it as not being really relevant and interested in what I was doing.


Clarke: Interesting 08:00. And coming in maybe another...


Ellis: Generation, exactly.


Clarke: ...20 years later. How did it look from your perspective, Juliet?


Ellis: What's interesting is that at the university level was interesting in kind of women's studies and those types of classes, but also extremely interested in environmental justice courses that were offered, for example, at San Francisco State. And would get individual books myself, just because I was interested in learning 08:30, et cetera. But what I find around the work, kind of the social justice work, is that all of my colleagues and peers that were women, and most of them were women of color, many of us identified either as feminists or just didn't talk about the work in that way, yet we all had mentors that were women of color that were in leadership positions and that were making amazing differences in the work 09:00.


And it wasn't until I became executive director at Urban Habitat at the age of 29 that it really struck me on a personal basis of what the differences to lead as a woman and as a woman of color for an organization. And both in the interactions that I would have with male employees and staff people that were all made of color. But even the way that they interacted with me, and their expectations of if 09:30 you didn't lead in a certain way which I would say often times almost are stereotypical male ways, of hogging up all the space and slamming the door and, "When I'm mad, you're going to know it," and da-da-da, like and using my power because I have it and intimidation. Like if you didn't operate in that way, that it was a constant battle because of the push-back of who is actually leading? Am I in this position?


And it was really interesting, and I think it's taken a while just to be able to kind of embrace my own leadership 10:00 style as a woman, and that it is different then kind of what you imagine stereotypically of kind of more male leadership. But that there's space for that and that there is kind of greatness around being a leader that's grounded in your own values, and et cetera.


Hernandez: It's very interesting that you say that. Because I came from Civil Rights movement, that's where I got into the women's movement, from the Civil Rights movement. And actually I was a graduate of Howard University 10:30, and did my first picketing in Washington, D.C., which was totally segregated in those days. No blacks could go anywhere in Washington. There were no restaurants you went to or no places that you could actually go to a movie and sit in the seat that you chose: you went to the seat that they put you in at that stage. And I think that whole period of my life was never seeing women in any positions of authority, but, and knowing that there were lots of women who 11:00 had done a lot of things.


Washington is a strange city in many ways, and I'm sure a lot of people will agree with me on that. But in those days, there were very many, very outstanding women. Mary Church Terrell, for example, was very active in those days, and she also helped to found the Women's International League for Peace and Freedom, and she sued the government and finally wound up getting their changes on it. She sued the restaurants in Washington, D.C. 11:30 And my role model was a woman by the name of Pauli Murray. And Pauli Murray was a graduate of Howard, she was at the Howard University law school, at that point. I was still I think a sophomore in those days. And she was so different from anybody I had ever met before because she knew exactly what she wanted to do. She had fought discrimination all of her life, both as a woman and as a person who was black, and 12:00 Pauli was the one that really got me going. In addition to my professor at Howard University, when I decided to take political science instead of education; came into the room and saw me alone in this room of 40 people, all the rest were men. And said, "If you are not ready to work very hard in this class, I want you to leave now, and take home economics."


So it was a whole different atmosphere in those days that you had to go through. 12:30 And you always were trying to prove yourself as you went along, in those days, because nobody else was around to do it for you.


Clarke: Yeah, I'm interested. If you could talk more about both the personal experience of sexism and discrimination, and the challenges around that, and also in the larger picture reflect on how sexism and discrimination are functioning in today's society and how that structurally is playing out, in terms of the feminisation of poverty and the role of economics in women's 13:00 lives? I don't know who to jump to next. Just some of the other experiences you've had directly of sexism and discrimination, but also looking at that larger picture?


Tactaquin: Well, I think, for myself. First of all, I grew up in a family with three brothers. We were a poor farmworker family, my mother worked in the fields. I think for a lot of poor working class people, in terms of gender roles, some of that begins to break down. On a certain level, a lot of it gets played out economically. 13:30 And both parents, Mom and Dad have to work for family survival. But at that point there clearly is a stop, and I, growing up, was very aware of certain, of gender roles within my family. But because I was the only girl, on the one hand I was treated in a special way. On the other hand, I had to speak up for myself. And so I learned to deal with male counterparts 14:00, just on the basis of that family experience.


But as I grew older, when I began to do organizing, directly out of college some of my first tasks that I took up had to do with employment discrimination in the Filipino community. And they were with Filipino women who were being chastised and harassed at work for speaking Tagalog at the workplace. 14:30 They felt they were being harassed specifically, not only because they were Filipino, but because they were women. And there was a stereotype about Filipino women who could be intimidated, so they were singularly being targeted for this kind of harassment. So from day one, I think it was in a lot of ways sometimes very difficult to--you know, when you dissect issues--to separate out those specific roles and why this is happening,15:00 and we found in most cases that it's an interplay of all of those elements.


And in the case of the work that I was doing in the Filipino community where we had a major increase in immigrants at that time, it was always the interplay, especially of immigration status and race, but gender definitely entered into the picture. And as I was doing some workplace organizing in San Francisco, 15:30 and it was clearly I think played out along those lines, but I think in an interesting way when you're talking about people of color. I felt that the gender discrimination was actually much more defined than it was, say, just in application to say white women, that it was much stronger. And so I thought that was interesting, although for me, kind of the leading denominators really had to do more with race and immigration status. 16:00


In the course of the work, I think because I had the benefit of working with organizations that were, as political as social justice organizations, were very aware of gender roles, specifically addressed issues of sexism within our movement and within the organization. In a way, I felt I really benefited from that experience 16:30. But I think also because of that, and we saw that in a fairly [insular way], at the same time, I think we probably did not pay as much attention to issues--looking at things through a gender lens as perhaps we could have. Because we were so concentrated on looking at questions of race and immigration status. That's beginning to shift I think certainly in our work, and I can talk about that more. But as we're looking at how 17:00 immigration enforcement, for example, impacts immigrants, there are distinct ways in which immigrant women are being affected, and there are distinct ways because of that that there's a certain impact that's happening on immigrant families and communities.


So as it has evolved, that gender lens I think is becoming more and more important for us to incorporate into our work.


Ellis: And what 17:30 I would add. I mean, I think it's interesting to think about how do you incorporate a gender lens into your work that is organization-wide, versus in a more piecemeal approach. And I know, for Urban Habitat initially, for example, that we would convene low-income women of color around transportation issues, and we would get support from foundations like the Women's Foundation that were really at that time, and this was years ago, much 18:00 more focused on funding kind of gender specific programs. And so it has to be like: what's the impact? And it has to be all women, for example, that you are dealing with.


And we had worked really closely with them over the years, the Women's Foundation and within our own organization, to be able to think more about--that work is extremely important, but it's also important to push the organization to be able to think about how do you infuse a gender analysis into all of the work that you're doing? 18:30 So it's not just the tables that are all women, but it the--when I'm sitting with the Bay Area Council and we're talking about kind of issues of investment and triple bottom-line initiatives, and how do you really address social equity, that we're able to talk about gender in those [forums] as well.


And the other thing I would add, just thinking about Urban Habitat's work, which has struck me over the last couple of years as we've had more conversations around gender--our organization has a mission to 19:00 really built power in low-income communities and communities of color. We've created a Boards and Commissions Leadership Institute program that is looking to recruit, train, and place progressive people of color and low-income people onto local and regional boards and commissions, with the idea that we really are the decision makers, and it's not just about getting a seat at the table, but feeling comfortable enough and really believing that we can be decision makers for everyone.


And as women of color have 19:30 come through this program that we've created, it's been extremely interesting to even have these conversations about how they think about themselves as leaders and what they think is possible for themselves. And so often times women will come through into the [cohort], and as they identify which commissions they want to target, it's the lower-level commissions, it will be commissions that are more advisory, have less money; it would be like the Status on Women or the Human Rights Commission versus a planning commission, these other 20:00 commissions.


Hernandez: Where the real power is.


Ellis: Where the real power is, where the real money is, where, that are higher visibility. And so within the organization and through this program, we've been really going back and forth about, like we will interview these women and be like, "Oh, my gosh! The Status on Women commission is important?" But you have all of these other amazing skill sets, we want to put you on the redevelopment commission--we want to work for that type of, kind of higher visibility target. But I think it says a lot about our own internal doubt 20:30 that I think women bring to the table often.


Clarke: Aileen, maybe you could talk a little bit about your experience on the Equal Opportunity Commission? And being one of the first, and how that power and lack of it actually plays out in those situations?


Hernandez: Yeah, I think that's very interesting. Because I was describing earlier a little bit about how this came about. And because we had this commission on the status of women across the country, the people who founded the early days of NOW 21:00, there were many other organizations incidentally that were feminist organizations, so I don't want anybody to think that NOW is the only one on the list, it wasn't. But what you had then was a real pressure to make women visible: they were not visible in the society. And what we had were pieces of law that made the difference.


We had the Equal Pay Act in 1963 and the, well, Fair Employment Practice Commission in California much earlier 21:30, in '59. But on the national level, we finally got Title 7, in a very strange way. Nobody thought that we were going to have sex in that law, and it got put in at the very last minute, so it was strange to everybody. And in fact, many people laughed over the fact that it was put into the law. They thought it was such a funny situation to do this. But when you really looked at it, what you saw was that women were simply invisible 22:00. They were not in the places that you would expect now, and you certainly do see them now. But they weren't there. We had hardly a handful of women in the Congress in those days.


When I came to California, there was one woman from California who went to Congress. That's all. And the San Francisco Board of Supervisors had one woman on, and then that was it. So what it took time to do was to get to the point that you were 22:30 raising, Juliet. And that is that women really weren't sure where they needed to go with this, and they weren't sure what the whole law was about. And then what feminism really meant--they knew about the law, but they didn't know what feminism meant. And it was like you have to choose: I have to go for one thing or the other.


The interesting thing for me was that I came to the Fair Employment Practice Commission first, in California, and then the Equal Employment Opportunity commission 23:00, because of my union work. I decided not to keep going to school, and I was lucky enough to have the International Ladies' Garment Workers' Union create an intern program, in which I went. I was sitting at the New York University, in the library, trying to do a paper. And I got tired and I looked at a magazine and I started reading it, and the magazine had an ad in it. And it said, "Are you an oddball? Would you like a job that doesn't pay a lot 23:30 of money, but gives you lots of positive feelings about what the society ought to be doing?" I said, "They're talking to me."


And I answered the ad and it turned out to be David Dubinsky at the International Ladies' Garment Workers' Union, founding this organization to get young people into his union. Because there weren't very many in those days. And the women particularly, although the union had huge numbers of women, 24:00 they were not in leadership. There was an executive committee that had maybe 15 or 16 people on it--there was one woman on that executive committee, in a union that was at least 60 percent female. So it wasn't anywhere that women were being seen. And that issue I think was very important. You had to begin to understand what it was like to be a garment worker: in Washington, D.C., in New York, in California 24:30. All of them were what they thought women should be doing. You could be a garment worker, but you couldn't be in any other union, you weren't going to be in any of the other unions that were around in those days. And you also could not get women into almost anything that we absolutely expect them to be in now. You just couldn't. They just couldn't see that happening, and they were treated very differently when they were in those positions.


For a long time, I was the only woman 25:00 in a whole bunch of men. Every time I went somewhere, it was only men and me, and that was it. And you got a little bit of a funny sort of approach: you got them being very gentlemanly to you. Or them saying, "Well, if you want to get along here, you're going to have to be like the boys." I wasn't about to be like one of the boys. My parents are from Jamaica, they would not of wanted that at all. And you learn a different way of operating in the society, as a result 25:30. The good part about what happened with NOW coming in at that point, the feminist movement growing at that point, was we did have a piece of legislation that did try to get equal pay for women on a national level. The second thing was Title 7 came in and said you couldn't discriminate, that women could get jobs anywhere that they had the ability to do the job. That was a big difference.


When we first started at the EEOC, women were in about five 26:00 occupations across the country. They could be an elementary school teacher, not a high school teacher, not a college teacher, but an elementary school teacher. They could work in a shop, meaning that they would be in a department store. They could also be in the garment unions. And that was about it, except, nursing. So you had nursing, secretarial work and that. That was it. The change is significant now 26:30. There are women in almost every kind of occupation you can think of now, and the changes on the political level have been dramatic. You start from one and now we have a lot of women in the state of California. Not anywhere near 50 percent, but there are a lot more than there were when there was only one.


And we are seeing more and more women going forward. If you look at the state election right now, you're looking at women fighting women in these positions. 27:00 And so this is a change that we now are beginning to recognize.


Clarke: I think in talking with Rinku in the last issue of the magazine, we talked a little about how the dynamics in racial justice organizing have shifted, as African Americans and other people of color have moved into leadership positions. And sort of the terrain of the struggle has shifted to some extent from simply getting, as Juliet said, into the conversation or at the table, 27:30 but into the decision making realm.


Hernandez: Exactly.


Clarke: And I'm curious, Catherine, if you could talk a little bit about what you see really as the--I mean, the struggle of the 1960s was to change the [dujour] segregation, both on a racial level and to lesser extent, but eventually moving into a wider spectrum of issues on the sex level. But looking today at women, poor women, working class women, where are the key issues and how, especially as we look at the immigrant struggle, which is 28:00 in a particularly crucial and very frightening place right now. How do you see the most important political struggles today, in this century, to bring justice into the calculation that will actually shift some of the current struggles, particularly for women?


Tactaquin: Well, I think among social justice organizing, anti-racist organizing, I think clearly we see the leadership 28:30 of a lot of strong women in those institutions. And I know there is some unevenness. And within some organizations, I am aware of dynamics gender, dynamics that play out in terms of paid staff positions and in boards of directors and so forth. So some of that is still there 29:00. Within the immigrant rights movement, I think we have seen over--I mean, our organization, we'll celebrate our 25th anniversary this next year--I think we have proudly a history of leading women in the organization throughout: as founders, as leaders of the organization itself. And increasingly, though, what certainly has changed is the presence 29:30 of women leaders on the ground, that have emerged out of organizing, and have kind of come into their own: building new institutions, leading those.


And we laugh a lot at times when we will call a national summit or a national meeting, and out of a small meeting of 30 people, 25 will be women. Not out of any designation, but these are the people who come forward. 30:00 We laugh a lot about who is the backbone, who is doing the work? And it's obvious that women play out a lot of those roles, and it's clear that women play particular functional roles within the movement--I think are often the glue that holds organizations together, that keep things moving. But also certainly our part of the decision making and 30:30 recognized leadership. Some of the things that we certainly are looking at though, are how we can really support and develop that leadership. Because, especially within the immigrant rights movement, we don't think there's a strong sense of even those leaders, immigrant women leaders, identifying as women leaders and being self-conscious about what that means as a woman, and also 31:00 what it means I think as mentors to younger women. And how, what are some of the challenges that play out in the movement?


We have a project we're calling Raising Women's Voices for Immigrant Justice in the National Network, which we've just launched. And our partners at MISS Foundation have been I think really good over the years, supporting the development of this type of work. But in which we want to help support immigrant women on the ground, and we have a number of 31:30 organizations that are focused, that have built by our organizations of immigrant women, but there's a big divide in terms of the broader women's movement and how that women's movement identifies and is aware of the human rights crisis in the United States that does affect immigrant women. So what is happening to immigrant women along the border, for example. Everyone has heard about how horrible it is 32:00. I don't think they're aware of how significant the impact is on immigrant women and families.


And if, as a women's movement, to not recognize that, I think is really a crime. So in our project we want to help cultivate the distinct leadership of immigrant women, but we also want to build from the ground up. Not just at the top level, but from the ground up 32:30. More of a synergy, a relationship between immigrant women, other women of color, and the broader women's movement. And I think that's going to have a profound effect on how we address issues of immigration and race, and all of the controversies that we know are present now and are around the corner. I think that movement, a more integrated movement, can play a big role in beating back the hate that we see 33:00 on the ground. So for us, that's actually a very--I think right now it's in a project, but it's really part of I think a growing core mission to help shift the debate on immigration to a break, a consensus that immigration enforcement, for example, is OK and in fact it is necessary.


Women's voices, immigrant women, women of color, the broader women's movement I think can really play a significant role in breaking that down 33:30.


Clarke: Yeah. And if some of you want to address the kind of isolation of women's issues, which for quite a period of time were tied to reproductive rights or other kind of--often, women and children were kind of the category into which all of women's issues were kind of bagged. And as you talked about, moving into arenas of actual power. Some of the tensions and process 34:00 that are going on between the well-educated people who have the opportunity to serve in the leadership positions--you can have a Hilary Clinton and a Margaret Thatcher, and you can have a major political leadership that are women. But it doesn't in any way imply that they're feminists or that they're rooted in the communities from which the bulk of women's experience is actually going on.


So, if you can talk a little bit about the class dimensions of the conflicts within the women's movement and how 34:30 some accountability process can be developed between the women that are brought into leadership positions, I think Catherine was talking about building some of these institutions. What are some of the institutions of accountability that are developing or that you're working on to try to build that kind of sustained solidarity that can actually survive those tensions?


Hernandez: Well, I think feminists, for example, have made a big difference 35:00 on an international level. Because one of the things that occurred was we had this whole series of international conferences that were held every 10 years, and they got a chance to see women of color in other countries that they went to. They saw them in situations where they recognized that those women had a very different life than the ones that they had seen before. I think a lot of what we would call the traditional feminists, the early feminists, 35:30 learned a lot in that process in those conferences that they went to, and the women that they saw, and saw what those women were doing in many of the countries that they had never been to before. And learning that women were taking on much of the role of being the leaders, because they did all of the work that was going on in those countries while the men were at war for such a long period of time.


So those are some of the things that occurred. And the other thing is 36:00 coming back home then, I always thought that it was just going to get transferred, so that when they got back home they would see that in the United States as well. But somehow we didn't get to that point of view. So it's very important for us to see now women coming up from what we would call the low-income level, into leadership, tremendous leadership in so many ways, and being really strong about standing on issues that were very difficult. And we've all learned a lot. When we started 36:30 out with the reproductive rights issues, women of color taught women who were white why you had to look more than just at saying that you had the right to have an abortion. They wanted to say: we also want to have the right of not to have our bodies changed because people don't want us to have babies, because we're poor. So they...


Clarke: Sterilization issues, yeah.


Hernandez: Exactly. They brought a new dimension in, and people learned 37:00--that you couldn't just deal from one level, you had to look at what was happening to women across the board. So I think the women of color, who were not always in the organizations that we recognize, they were in their own organizations and they came together, they changed the dimension of the women's movement tremendously, and made it work a lot more differently in the United States, as well as in the countries that they chose to go and visit and to be part of.

Clarke: Juliet. [delete chatter]

Ellis:  it's great, Cathy, to hear about the solidarity program and how you're thinking about scaling it up, even at a national level. Because, I mean, it seems like it should be happening and it should be happening organically, of which women across class and across race are able to see the connection between the issues. And just from a personal 38:00 basis of what those experiences are like. Because I don't think that there are characteristics that tend to be gender based. Like when you talk about women being the glue within their organization, or often times they're the ones that are making things happen. I mean, they're often the types of roles we play within out own households as well.


And that whether it's talking about things that are happening on the border that are so horrific and that have such impact on 38:30 immigrant women, you would think that women who are not even having that personal experience know what it's like to feel threatened, know what it's like to feel at risk because we're smaller, know what it's like to feel as you're walking to [a bar]. I mean, like all of these things are common experiences, but it's almost as if, and I think it can often times be based on class, is that you end up compartmentalizing that, and you just operate. And so that you don't go down to the core 39:00 of--yes, as a woman, there is a solidarity across all of these issues, because we are treated differently and have different experiences, just based on gender.


So it's interesting, as you guys are thinking about, organizationally, how you, and I think it builds off of Aileen's point of you get exposed to things and you assume that it is going to have a real difference, because it should. And then, how do you make sure that that happens?


Clarke: On a structural level, in terms of women and people of color, the obvious but rarely 39:30 acknowledged fact is the majority of the United States population, the majority of the world population is women and people of color. It's sort of a ridiculous, obvious fact. But you can still hear people calling people of color "minorities," you can still hear people kind of invisiblizing women. And sort of denying the obvious fact that if women and people of color were acting in concert, it would be very difficult for them to lose an election anywhere, if there was a 40:00 consciousness like that.


And I'm wondering how you see capitalism and the ways in which we're sort of structured into this individual and isolated set of particulars, playing into this kind of fragmentation, and disabling the popular movements ability to actually take the power of their true majority status. Because essentially, it's a majoritarian movement. It's not some minority that's trying to take power, it's really the majority 40:30.


Hernandez: One of the things I think we have to recognize now is that we have made a major change in identifying with what the problems, quote, "are." And what it is now is we are no longer just speaking about African Americans. We are now reaching out in so many ways because we recognize that we are all going through the same thing, and that's a significant change. Even now as we talk about education around the issues with feminism 41:00 and racism and all the rest, we have very little information out there that people can really reach out and touch. We lived in such a segregated environment, for such a long time. Whether it is race or ethnicity, or whether it is class, we're all in little pockets. But we're coming together for a whole lot of reasons at this stage and people are now working not just for their "group," quote, unquote, like women who maybe have started out 41:30 about women are now involved in wider issues in the society.


And I think men are coming into those things now too. They are beginning to understand that it's not about any one group, it's about the injustice in the society, in so many ways, against a wide range of people. So I think that's a plus that's coming out of it. It hasn't been easy, because we have segregated the society. As I told you, Washington, D.C. was totally segregated, 42:00 and there were lots of other places. I came from New York, but New York has segregation as well--there was no question about it. And we are now breaking those walls down. We're starting to understand that we are in one community and that community needs to have everybody's talent and everybody's ability to make the changes that are necessary.


Because we come from the capitalist approach, the rich are the ones who are supposed to get everything, and the poor are the ones 42:30 who are all supposed to be working to get the rich as much money as they can as well. So we have to keep looking at that and saying, "This is not the way it's going to go any more. We've got other issues going."


Clarke: Catherine?


Tactaquin: Well, I was going to say I think recognizing that we do function within a system that has developed structures that have been designed to preserve power, and power based on a certain premise 43:00--who controls that powers, who has access to that power--I think for those of us in the social justice movement, we base a lot of challenges to create new vehicles for us to function that are going to be democratic and that are going to help to impact those structures more. And I think seriously challenge them. And that won't be easy, and, I mean, as it has been, tremendous push-back. 43:30 We see that now just in trying to change policies within Congress. I mean, the structures that we're going up against, the politics that play out to preserve those structures. We see it every day.


It's insane that we continue to support policies that we know are wrong, but backing them or not challenging them is all a part of a preservation of certain political 44:00 power. And I think within the movement, I think we're greatly challenged in terms of the institutions that we need to build. I'm concerned about the fact that a lot of organizations right now are locked into 501(c)(3) formats that I think actually can preserve the ongoing systems of power--they are part of that power make-up, they are part of that system--and that 44:30 status can continue to relegate us I think to powerless beings. So I think we, on another level, have to be very thoughtful and at the same time aggressive about building more independent structures that can bring together really the diverse and broad I think kind of cross-sectoral, ground-up 45:00 inclusive entities that we are going to need if we're really going to make serious challenges.


I don't see that kind of happening from our 501(c)(3)'s. We're doing our best and we're doing all of this integration, we're speaking from a gender lens, we're speaking from a racial justice lens. But frankly, I think we continue to be locked into a system that we're trying to break down.


Clarke: Just to follow-up: you mentioned earlier that you were talking about building alternative women's institutions and institutions that would meet these new--45:30 is there any specific examples of prototypes of successful elements where you think you've started to build such institutions, and that they are developing kind of this [modern tone]?


Tactaquin: Well, I think what we're doing, and I think a lot of us in the organizations that we try to build on the ground are a part of that. The concern is whether then we also just kind of replicate what is existing, and we're not attempting to break new ground. So on the one hand, I'm a big believer in building institutions. I think people have to be organized 46:00, it's not enough to have the mass movements. It's not enough to have the U.S. Social Forum, as wonderful as that was. But for that to make a difference, really make a difference, it has to, the proposals, the organizing has to reside in entities that can garner participation, that can democratically lead. So I think to the extent that we can support organizations of farmworker women, or that we support 46:30 like this new entity Domestic Workers' Union in New York and the new National Domestic Workers' Union Alliance, which is not gender based, but because it's organizing domestic workers it's primarily being built of and by women.


And it's part of an international movement. We also do work at the international level and work with domestic workers, organizations and unions in [Columbia] and Europe. It's great to see that beginning to happen. That's part of it. But even those organizations 47:00 I think are going to face limitations unless we find some way to bring them together on a more independent basis, that's not locked into chasing foundation support, for one.


Ellis: Well and, I mean, I think that the challenges are so huge and it's so institutional and it's so systemic, that the question of, because even if you look at who is, like when you talk about the policies. Like policies are getting passed that we know are completely the 47:30 wrong policies, yet, I mean, it's all about like who are the lobbyists and which elected officials are getting paid by what, and that they have this long-term ambition themselves. And even the folks that were organizing are not voting in their own self-interest and most of them are not even registered to vote. But there is this--it's so many different levels of complexity with regards to kind of what are the right strategies to get the fundamental breaks that we actually need, 48:00 that in some ways I feel like we're a long way from being able to--because I feel like we still have trouble, even being able to articulate.


Is it a mass movement? Is it that we are able to say people of color and women are the majority, yet most folks are still calling themselves a minority when they talk about themselves? It's just so multi-layered that, I feel like that's what keeps me up at night as far as trying to even be able to figure out what is 48:30 the right entry point. And that conflict between: you have to build an institution that is strong and able to have impact, which requires chasing the money. Yet that, are also the handcuffs that allow you to actually move in a different way that might be the right way to get the fundamental change we're trying to achieve. So, it's complicated.


Hernandez: It's complicated. And if you look just at the political end of it? We know that the processes right now 49:00 and the politics are terrible. But even the people that we are supporting in many of these ways are just raising money all over the place, and we are getting people running for office who are just pouring millions and millions of dollars into a campaign, without any concept, as you listen to what they are going to do once they get in there, you know they should not be in office. Because they're not going to be doing any of these things that we talk about in social justice. 49:30 But they are coming in and pouring millions of dollars. And even during the Obama campaign last time, although the money was raised in many ways from a lot of people giving small amounts, it shouldn't be that way at all. You know, politics should not have to cost you money to get into it.


Clarke: Well, we're getting close to the end of the time. And I did want to ask you just a little bit about where you would see, heading into the future. If you look at women's economic power as they have 50:00 become so critical to the U.S. economy, if you look at immigrant economic power as immigrants are so critical to the U.S. economy, if you look at the places where the economic organization of the country is dependent on workers, and how that can be mobilized to win the political victories that are needed. There was a period when union leadership did challenge certain things, they accepted certain gains for the working class and stopped challenging some of the political structures.


Now 50:30 as new immigrant worker organizations are emerging that are not necessarily tied to the previous generation of union movement, as the domestic workers are organizing, as you see women organizing in different levels of political capacity, are you seeing any kind of hopes or directions that people their own economic power seriously? Strikes have always been a very effective tactic, different kinds of boycotts, and interventions in the economic life of the country. 51:00 Any promise happening in the immigrant's movement? One of the things I was most impressed about in the May Day march several years ago here in San Francisco was that it was the first people of color led demonstration, that was a majority people of color, that took over the streets of San Francisco and stopped work for a day.


And you had this, that was a day in which if were in San Francisco, you knew that this is really what is keeping our society together. And 51:30 if you're seeing any kind of trends or hopes in terms of building those kinds of sources of power, [in your work]? Catherine?


Tactaquin: Well, I think there's a recognition that our movements, we have to break down the silos, we can't go it alone. And I think that is something that was, for example, good about the U.S. Social Forum, for example, this passed June. It seems so long ago now. 52:00 Was that I felt that there were really conscious efforts to break down the silos, and a recognition that our movements really have to work together, and objectively we do share interests. We need to build towards a common agenda. So I think that kind of sentiment and sense is really growing and it's becoming more embedded in organizations. Finding the way to do that, and here, for women, I think it's so important that women 52:30 are part of this process at all levels, not just the glue that holds the organizations together, not just doing the work on the ground, those functional roles, but also the big thinkers and the strategizers.


I think there's a lot more and those doors need to be more open I think to women, to people of color, who are looking--we have to think on scale. We have to look at some of those broader strategies. I think the labor movement 53:00, as floundering as it has been, I know in terms of the work on immigration, it is so essential, it is one of the few sources of actual power, and I'll use that is [some] limited context, but it is one of the few vehicles of power that we have. As big as those multi-million people demonstrations were in 2006, they were predominantly immigrant, I would say they were predominantly undocumented--they didn't 53:30 immediately produce political power.


And as the structures are and as our policies are and the way this country is going now, it's not going to result in political power for some time. We know it has that potential. Who we consider our allies from an immigrant rights point of view: certainly the labor movement, I think the broader civil rights movement, certainly the African American community, the women's movement, 54:00 the peace and justice movement. We have an interest in peace around the world--what do we think is driving a lot migration, internationally? Of course it is civil conflict, it's war. We share with international unions the drive to build sustainable economic power, job creation in other countries--we know that affects migration. All of that is very much related and we need to have a movement that understands that and can 54:30 function on all of those levels.


I don't want to always be an immigrant rights movement with our allies: I think we need to be one movement. And we need to be fighting with a strategy that reflects all of our interests. So the National Network has always viewed itself as part of a broader social economic justice movement. What we try to do with our membership is to raise awareness about that connection and bring it to be a part of that, but we also have to be part of building that broader entity. It's not quite, it's not there yet 55:00. Where do they fit in, where do we fit in? But that's the kind of entity that I think we're looking for.


Hernandez: I also...


Clarke: Aileen, closing comments? We're going to wrap up.


Hernandez: I also think that we recognize now that we have to bring some of this back to a local approach, because you can't have meetings all of the time in Washington, D.C., or across the world. You have to say that where you live is a place where you should also exercise power. So I'm hoping that what we are going to get out of this is people 55:30 reaching out in their own communities, and making the cities in which they live and the countrysides in which they are. We are all suffering from the problems of the weather right now and we recognize that we have no control of that internationally. We have to do it where we are, where the problems are going on.


So I'm beginning to see a little bit of people coming together, out of all these different movements that are out there, 56:00 and saying, "We have common ground. We have common ground that we all have to work on." Because we have no control over what is going to happen, unless we can come together and change. We can't change the weather, but we can change the way in which we respond to it. And we can make sure that we're not just looking at the very rich people and what happen to their houses when there is something going on, but we have to look at what's happening to the people who really make up this country.


We have a lot more people who are poor than we have who are very, very rich 56:30, and it's time to recognize that numbers, also, is an important part of growth of this organization. It's not just money. It's the numbers of people who reach that conclusion that we have to make those changes.


Clarke: Juliet, you have some final comments?


Ellis: So, quickly. So I love the recommendation to look locally, because I think that to me that's where you can do the prototyping and actually figure out strategies that work 57:00. So whether it is forging relationships with labor--what we found doing work in San Francisco is it's really getting to know and understand how these unions actually work and how do we talk about race and class, how do we talk about gender, how do we better understand what their self-interests are and have them understand what our self-interests are to be able to forge these new types of relationships, that seem obvious? But then when you get to the rubber-hits-the-road, it's hard to kind of prioritize and figure out how to work together.


So, excited about kind of where this conversation 57:30 has gone, because for us I think local is a way to be able to scale up this work, it's one community at a time to get the type of aggregate kind of new change that we're talking about.


Clarke: Well, thanks again. I'm really delighted to have been joined by Aileen Clarke Hernandez and Catherine Tactaquin and Juliet Ellis for today's show. And I want to thank again Lisa Dettmer from "Women's Magazine" and the National Radio Project for helping us host this show 58:00. Thank you.



Audio icon 16.womenroundtable8-26.mp326.57 MB

Beyond Gay Marriage

“I absolutely think housing for poor, homeless, and low-income queer folks is a huge issue for us, as is doing anti-violence work...” —Kenyon Farrow,

Editors note: The June 26, 2015 Supreme Court decision to legalize same-sex marriage in all 50 States shifts the terms of the debate about where the gay rights movement should be putting organizing energy and money. This 2010 article and podcast by Lisa Dettmer looks beyond the issue of gay marriage and examines how homophobia intersects with racism and classism and suggest new directions for gay rights rooted in the history of queer liberation politics.

By Lisa Dettmer

Over the last five years, same-sex marriage has been a predominant issue in the lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) community. Fights for same-sex marriage rights have succeeded in a few states, leading some to believe that the gay community is winning its battle for acceptance. But many in the LGBT movements for social justice question whether gay marriage is really the most critical issue for their communities.

This is a particularly pointed question in California where pro-gay marriage groups spent over $43 million to oppose Proposition 8, which outlawed same-sex marriage, despite the fact that domestic partnership in California provides almost the same benefits that same-sex marriage would.

A recent study done at Hunter College shows that the majority of LGBT people actually consider economic discrimination to be the No. 1 issue in their lives. And Lisa Duggan, New York University professor of social and cultural analysis has pointed out that queer white men are the most likely to be coupled whereas black lesbians are the least likely to be coupled, thus demonstrating that marriage will benefit gay white men more than queer women of color.

So, why has gay marriage become such a key issue for the LGBT community?

LGBT Trends: Economic and Cultural
Dean Spade, an assistant professor of law at Seattle University, suggests that the way the gay community came to prioritize marriage reflects a broader shift in politics away from an approach that looks at larger structural issues.

“In the social movements of the ‘60s and ‘70s, there were a lot of questions being asked about what oppression is and how to solve it. People were thinking about how policing, in general, impacts black communities in the U.S., and the ways in which militarism is a part of U.S. imperialism abroad, and how that reflects in the domestic arena... As movements professionalize and upper class people take the reins and set the agenda, a shift happens towards an individual rights framework.”

Duggan believes that the focus on the individual and the family come from a similar economic root.
“The kind of social supports that were put in place between the ‘30s and the ‘70s have eroded since the ‘80s,” she observes. “If you have fewer services and fewer benefits provided by your employment and fewer services provided by the state, the slack gets taken up by private households. All these costs, as they’re cut away from the state and corporations [get] moved to the private household. There’s a strong ideological push to make family, marriage, and the private household the proper, moral place to do this kind of social support.”

But most people are unaware of this connection between gay marriage and economic issues

Priya Kandaswamy, an assistant professor of women’s studies at Portland State University, argues that government policies that punish single mothers and promote a heterosexual two-parent family were enacted to control the lives of people of color in particular, and are part of a larger political and structural shift that the mainstream gay movement is unconsciously incorporating into its politics.

“In the mid ‘90s, when the U.S. welfare system was dramatically reorganized, the image of single, black mothers with bad family values was frequently invoked to justify cutting assistance to working class people in this country. So, when the same-sex marriage movement takes up this same language of ‘good families are two-parent families,’ i.e. families that have a certain kind of economic status, they are implicitly reinforcing our assumptions about what it means to be in a single-parent family or a family that is not as economically well off.”

These government policies, Kandaswamy argues, were similar to the Christian right ideology, which “constantly invokes the idea of marriage as foundational to the family and to the nation. It’s striking when gays and lesbians start to use the same language and says a lot about who they are trying to appeal to.”


Race and Class in the LGBT movement
Some believe that it is the race and class divisions within the LGBT movement that lead to single issue policies like gay marriage.
“The landscape of LGBT organizations is pretty polarized,” says Duggan. “There are national organizations—basically structured around private fundraising—which have prioritized marriage equality. They don’t have constituencies, they’re not grassroots, they don’t mobilize. And, they tend to be dominated by prosperous white people. Many grassroots organizations, usually locally based, have a different structure and different politics.”

“In New York City, queer groups predominantly made up of people of color, such as the Audre Lorde Project, Queers for Economic Justice, and FIERCE, tend to prioritize around poverty, racism, immigration, health care, retirement, and violence on the street,” Duggan observes.

Health and Housing Loses to Marriage
Critics of the gay marriage movement believe that it has taken funding away from other critical needs for queer people. Leslie Ewing, who worked from 2004-08 at San Francisco’s Lyon-Martin Health Care, the only freestanding community clinic in California providing health care specifically to trans, lesbian, and bisexual women, notes that she was often unable to get funding for issues affecting poor lesbians and transpeople from those same funders who were more than happy to fund gay marriage. “As a queer community, we have to look at issues that affect all of us, not just some of us,” she argues, “and not just issues that are lucrative for fundraising."

Brian Bassinger, executive director of the San Francisco AIDS Housing Coalition, which works with homeless and low-income people with AIDS, claims that “the gay marriage movement took the air out of the AIDS movement, as well as the funding. While we as a community were fighting for gay marriage, the Governor decimated the state’s Office of AIDS!”

When Bassinger heard that $43 million were spent on Proposition 8, which he feels was “such a narrow agenda for such a small part of the population,” he was livid because “at the same time, they were cutting $85 million in HIV/AIDS care in the state of California. They eliminated funding for housing, including residential care facilities for the chronically ill.” But the response in the LGBT community was negligible.

Bassinger and his partner are both HIV positive and on disability funding. If they were to get married they would lose their SSI and SSDI benefits. And his situation is not uncommon.

“The majority of people with HIV and AIDS in San Francisco are living in extreme poverty,” says Bassinger. “There’s this mythology that gay men are wealthy. The reality is that gay men living in poverty are twice the national average. We are poor. And poor people see marriage equality as a middle class and upper class issue.”

Tommi Avicolli Mecca, a long time queer activist who now works in housing rights in San Francisco, argues “If we as a movement are not going to be fighting for housing and jobs, food, and basic essentials like health care, then I’m not sure what we stand for as a movement.”

“According to a study done by the National Lesbian and Gay Task Force in conjunction with the National Coalition of Homelessness, 45-50 percent of homeless youth in America are queer or trans,” Mecca points out. “In San Francisco, the number is considered to be about 30 percent. Now, those numbers are way above what is considered the percentage of queers in the population, i.e. 10 percent. And that’s scary. I think that that should be a wake-up call for our movement, but it hasn’t been.”

Making the LGBT Tent Bigger
Spade is not convinced that the mainstream LGBT movement is really concerned about the survival and basic needs of queer and trans people in California. “If they were,” he argues, “their top priority would have been to deal with the violence against queer and trans people, immigration detention in California, and the massive criminal punishment system in California.”

“As the racial wealth divide grows in the United States,” he continues, “you’ll have an agenda that’s going to benefit the people with the most privilege. And the vast majority of the people are certain to be left in the same or a worse position because they don’t even have solidarity with other people in their community anymore!”

Kenyon Farrow, executive director of Queers for Economic Justice, a grassroots group in New York City, believes that the queer community ought to be focusing on issues that would go a long way towards protecting the lives of queer and transgender folks. “I absolutely think housing for poor, homeless, and low-income queer folks is a huge issue for us, as is doing anti-violence work,” he says. “HIV/AIDS is still a huge issue and [perhaps] more broadly, the question of what the healthcare reform package means to the LGBT community.”

Kandaswamy believes that if mainstream lesbian and gay organizations are interested in working towards racial justice, they need to take on issues like the criminal justice system. “They should think about the fact that people of color—including queer people of color—are incarcerated at incredibly high rates in this country,” she says. “They need to think about racist immigration policies and racial disparities in economic security in this country. Racial justice is not about bringing a few people into an organization to represent the interests of queer people of color. It’s about being willing to do political work that betters the lives of queer people of color in all dimensions of their lives.”

The consensus among marriage equality critics seems to be that if we had taken the $43 million spent on the failed Prop 8 effort and really invested it in a broader LGBT social justice movement, we could have sustained a change for all kinds of vulnerable people—such as, preventing new HIV infections among young African Americans.  

Fighting Homophobia Is not Enough
Some argue that although gay marriage does not benefit many in the LGBT community, focusing on it has reduced homophobia for all queers. But as Joseph DeFilippis, former executive director of Queers for Economic Justice points out,  “When homophobia is your only target, its removal will only benefit people for whom it was the sole issue. If you’re homeless and a person of color, or a person of color who is an immigrant and queer, getting rid of homophobia doesn’t change the immigration battles you face, or the racism you have to contend with, or your struggle to pay for your apartment!”

To DeFilippis, the focus on gay marriage isn’t just a difference of opinion but the result of an underlying racism, which he believes can take many forms. “Sometimes you’re aware of being racist but most times you’re not,” he says, adding that institutional racism is much more potent. “What it means is that you are completely ignoring certain people’s lives, their issues, their agendas, and taking money away from what affects their lives.”

One can only hope that some day we will have an open dialogue about what the agenda should be for all LGBT people. And when it happens, one hopes that the voices of the poor, the disabled, the feminists, and the queers of color will be heard, so that we end up with an agenda that is more reflective of the progressive politics that ignited the Stonewall riots and led to the modern gay liberation movement—a movement that seems very far from where we are today.

Lisa Dettmer is a producer of the Women’s Magazine radio program at KPFA in Berkeley, California. This article is based on a radio documentary produced by Lisa Dettmer and Elena Botkin-Levy. Listen to the full length documentary using the player at the top of the page or by downloading the mp3. A special thanks to the Astraea Foundation and Making Contact at the National Radio Project for their financial support in making this documentary possible. 


Weaving the Threads | Vol. 17, No. 2 | Fall 2010 | Credits

To order the print edition of "The Weaving the Threads Issue" use the back issues page. To download or view a pdf of this article use the link in the lower left below.

8- Strategies for Change: 

Domestic Workers: “Organizing with Love”

Great organizing campaigns are like great love affairs. You begin to see life through a different lens. You change in unexpected ways. You lose sleep, but you also feel boundless energy. You develop new relationships and new interests. Your skin becomes more open to the world around you. Life feels different, and it’s almost like you’ve been reborn. And, most importantly, you begin to feel things that you previously couldn’t have even imagined are possible. Like great love affairs, great campaigns provide us with an opportunity for transformation. They connect us to our deeper purpose and to the commonalities we share, even in the face of tremendous differences. They highlight our interdependence and they help us to see the potential that our relationships have to create real change in our lives and in the world around us.”—Ai-jen Poo, Domestic Workers United. From Organizing with Love: Lessons from the New York Domestic Workers Bill of Rights Campaign.

The Domestic Workers Bill of Rights, which took effect in November 2010, is a massive and unprecedented win for the new labor movement—and it is a model for the way organizers and lawmakers alike must begin to think about workers’ rights in the 21st century economy.

The New York law guarantees nannies, housekeepers, and home health aides weekly time off and subjects employers to state law for minimum-wage violations and sexual harassment. These are all basic rights that traditional, full-time employees have long enjoyed, but that a broad swath of workers who are not protected by labor laws have never seen. In August, the California State Assembly passed a resolution recognizing similar labor standards for domestic workers, rights that lawmakers will likely codify as state law next year. Organizers in other states are working to generate more such victories.

The amazing New York win, spearheaded by Domestic Workers United (DWU) and the New York Domestic Workers Justice Coalition, has received its fair share of congratulations. But this is more than a moving story of downtrodden women confronting the system. Over the longterm, DWU’s approach to labor rights should shape the larger, national project of designing a new economy that doesn’t slowly kill off its workers.

DWU is not a union, but rather what’s called a “workers’ center.” These small and scrappy but rapidly maturing collectives have formed the last line of defense for primarily workers of color who are excluded, either deliberately or by default, from U.S. labor protections. DWU’s ability to raise public consciousness about such exclusions, its innovative organizing of thousands of dispersed workers who have thousands of disparate employers, and the issues it will confront in implementing the new law raise critical questions for all economic justice activists.

Gov. Paterson’s press secretary drew a bold analogy on signing day, calling the Domestic Workers Bill of Rights the governor’s own version of the Emancipation Proclamation. That boast sounds exaggerated, but the current work life of domestic workers is in fact deeply rooted in post-Civil War racial politics. Expanding Domestic Workers Rights from New York to California



©2009 Beatriz Herrera Expanding Domestic Workers Rights from New York to California

The California Domestic Worker Coalition is hoping to replicate the success of New York’s Domestic Worker Bill with a bill of its own in 2011. The Coalition, made up of Bay Area groups, such as Mujeres Unidas Y Activas, POWER (People Organized to Win Employment Rights), La Colectiva de Mujeres of La Raza Centro Legal, Filipino Advocates for Justice, as well as the Grayton Day Labor Program, and Southern California groups like the Pilipino Worker Center, Coalition for Humane Immigrant Rights of Los Angeles (CHIRLA), and Instituto de Educación Popular del Sur de California (IDEPSCA), is working on a bill that would expand worker protections to domestic workers and improve working conditions for low-income women of color who clean homes and take care of children and the elderly.

In 2009, the Coalition brought over 100 domestic workers together to create a list of demands for protections already available to other workers, such as overtime pay, Cal/OSHA safety standards, and worker’s compensation. And some that are unique to domestic workers, such as the right to at least five hours of uninterrupted sleep and the right to cook one’s own food. “My employer would give me food that was five days old. She told me I had to eat it because she didn’t want to waste it,” said Anali Padilla of POWER, highlighting the fact that the fight for domestic worker rights is often a struggle for basic respect and human dignity.

In 2010, the Coalition created and lobbied for a Domestic Worker Resolution, a non-binding document requiring legislators in Sacramento to vote on whether they agreed that the domestic work industry was exploitative and that legislative changes to the industry were necessary. Thanks to the support of Assembly members Tom Ammiano and Manuel Perez, the resolution passed on August 23 with a 21-13 vote. To celebrate this victory, the Coalition organized a press conference on the very day that the New York Domestic Worker Bill of Rights was signed into law.  On both coasts, domestic workers rallied, cried, and cheered to celebrate their growing movement.  After all, a victory for domestic workers is a victory for workers, women, immigrants, and people of color everywhere!

Meg Whitman made headlines by exploiting domestic workers in her very own home. However newly elected Governor Jerry Brown has the opportunity to fight the exploitation of this vulnerable workerforce. In this political moment, and with leadership from hundreds of domestic workers across the state, the California Domestic Worker Coalition is hoping the climate is right for its very own Domestic Worker Bill to become law in 2011.  There are many needed allies in this struggle. Will you join us?

To sign up for campaign alerts visit: www.nationaldomesticworkeralliance.org/campaigns/ca-domestic-workers-bill-of-rights.

Beatriz Herrera is an organizer for the Women Worker’s Project at POWER (People Organized to Win Employment Rights). 

The Roosevelt administration passed many enduring economic reforms in the 1930’s, including the Social Security Act and the National Labor Relations Act. The latter made it easier for workers to form unions and bargain collectively with their employers. Domestic and farmworkers, however, were explicitly excluded from both laws, a deal that allowed Roosevelt to gather the votes of Southern White congress members, among others. At the time, 95 percent of domestic workers were Black women in the South. Most agricultural workers were Black, Filipino, or Mexican.

While Roosevelt’s labor protections have expanded over time (farmworkers were included in 1966), the combination of formal exclusion and practical non-enforcement still leaves millions of workers on their own. Most Americans likely don’t know the broad swath of workers who aren’t protected by labor laws. They include, for instance, workers who are considered independent contractors (such as taxi drivers and home daycare providers) and people working for tips (restaurant servers and runners haven’t seen their federal minimum wage rise in 20 years). Workers who receive public benefits through workfare programs, immigrant workers (day laborers, guest workers) and workers in right-to-work states are all excluded from varying sets of rights, either deliberately or by the lack of enforcement. Formerly incarcerated workers, unlike any others in the labor market, are subject to background checks when they apply for jobs, regardless of the severity of their conviction or the amount of time that has lapsed.
Moreover, these workers have long been abandoned by unions that lack either the interest or the capacity to organize them. But for some years, workers’ centers like Domestic Workers United and their sister organizations have been stepping into that void—and often winning substantial changes. The Restaurant Opportunities Center of New York, (http://www.rocny.org/)  has improved labor conditions in some of the city’s biggest restaurant chains, replicating many elements of union contracts, even though they are not a union.

DWU started organizing 10 years ago. Having won the landmark New York law, they will now focus on making sure it is enforceable, by changing regulations, such as those that govern how workers file complaints, so that their employers can’t retaliate. DWU will also advise the state Department of Labor on educating workers and employers about the new law, and will do its own outreach through workers and through an alliance with Jews for Racial and Economic Justice.

While workers’ centers like DWU can play a critical role in fixing the labor economy, they have been hamstrung by the fact that they cannot collectively bargain and cannot collect union dues from an organized workplace. “The traditional collective bargaining framework poses a challenge because of how the industry is set up,” says DWU organizer Priscillia Gonzalez. “There’s no central work site, and no common employer. Also, there is this dynamic that because the work takes place in someone’s home, the people who are hiring don’t see themselves as employers.”

It’s also becoming a more broadly relevant question every day. As our economy continues shifting toward service and information industries, more and more formerly middle-class and White workers have seen their jobs similarly “contingentized” as domestic workers and day laborers. As employers load up on temporary, subcontracted, and part-time workers rather than full-time employees, they avoid paying into Social Security and providing unemployment insurance, health coverage, and workers’ compensation. They can even avoid providing vacation or sick days.

“Labor laws aren’t sufficient anymore to protect the rights of workers, whether in the minimum standards or the rules of the NLRA,” said Ai-jen Poo, a co-founder of DWU who is now directing the National Domestic Workers Alliance. “There were flaws and holes because so many people were excluded. But even for those workers [labor laws] were meant to protect, they’re failing because the economy has changed so much.”
People of color and women certainly remain over-represented in this category. Those employed by temp agencies, for example, are more likely than traditional workers to be Black or Latino. But the job sectors that have been heavily contingentized in the past 20 years range from professors, editors, and writers to tugboat operators and museum guards.

The question of how to adjust to these economic arrangements has to concern traditional labor unions as well as workers’ centers. A number of unions helped DWU win in New York. The doorman’s union was particularly active, in large part because doormen in luxury apartment buildings have plenty of opportunities to witness first hand the abuse of domestic workers. Nonetheless, unions have an outdated organizing model, even when they are progressive on racial and gender matters. They go into a large workplace with a single employer, organize it, win an election, and bargain for a new contract. As such workplaces disintegrate, however, unions have been slow to adjust and quick to lose members. Unlike workers in other countries, for instance, when American workers lose their jobs, they also lose their union memberships.

Nor is there any real trans-nationalism in American unions even though the U.S. workforce is increasingly foreign-born with strong global ties, including dependent family members. By contrast, DWU and the national alliance have worked with the International Labor Organization to produce a convention on the rights of the domestic worker and build, for the first time, global standards governing the industry.
“The experience of domestic workers challenges the framework we’re used to for labor law,” said Poo. “Maybe instead of talking about minimum wage, we need a floor wage. Or instead of inclusion in existing labor law, we need new laws.” If we’re going to develop a vision for protecting workers in the 21st century, it is far more likely to emerge from the people on the margins of the American labor movement than from those at its traditional center. The New York victory is a welcome, hopeful start.

Rinku Sen is the president and executive director of the Applied Research Center (ARC) and publisher of ColorLines magazine, where this article was originally published.


Weaving the Threads | Vol. 17, No. 2 | Fall 2010 | Credits

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Expanding Domestic Workers Rights from New York to California

The California Domestic Worker Coalition is hoping to replicate the success of New York’s Domestic Worker Bill with a bill of its own in 2011.

The Coalition, made up of Bay Area groups, such as Mujeres Unidas Y Activas, POWER (People Organized to Win Employment Rights), La Colectiva de Mujeres of La Raza Centro Legal, Filipino Advocates for Justice, as well as the Grayton Day Labor Program, and Southern California groups like the Pilipino Worker Center, Coalition for Humane Immigrant Rights of Los Angeles (CHIRLA), and Instituto de Educación Popular del Sur de California (IDEPSCA), is working on a bill that would expand worker protections to domestic workers and improve working conditions for low-income women of color who clean homes and take care of children and the elderly.

In 2009, the Coalition brought over 100 domestic workers together to create a list of demands for protections already available to other workers, such as overtime pay, Cal/OSHA safety standards, and worker’s compensation. And some that are unique to domestic workers, such as the right to at least five hours of uninterrupted sleep and the right to cook one’s own food. “My employer would give me food that was five days old. She told me I had to eat it because she didn’t want to waste it,” said Anali Padilla of POWER, highlighting the fact that the fight for domestic worker rights is often a struggle for basic respect and human dignity.

In 2010, the Coalition created and lobbied for a Domestic Worker Resolution, a non-binding document requiring legislators in Sacramento to vote on whether they agreed that the domestic work industry was exploitative and that legislative changes to the industry were necessary. Thanks to the support of Assembly members Tom Ammiano and Manuel Perez, the resolution passed on August 23 with a 21-13 vote. To celebrate this victory, the Coalition organized a press conference on the very day that the New York Domestic Worker Bill of Rights was signed into law.  On both coasts, domestic workers rallied, cried, and cheered to celebrate their growing movement.  After all, a victory for domestic workers is a victory for workers, women, immigrants, and people of color everywhere!

Meg Whitman made headlines by exploiting domestic workers in her very own home. However newly elected Governor Jerry Brown has the opportunity to fight the exploitation of this vulnerable workerforce. In this political moment, and with leadership from hundreds of domestic workers across the state, the California Domestic Worker Coalition is hoping the climate is right for its very own Domestic Worker Bill to become law in 2011.  There are many needed allies in this struggle. Will you join us?

To sign up for campaign alerts visit: www.nationaldomesticworkeralliance.org/campaigns/ca-domestic-workers-bill-of-rights.

Beatriz Herrera is an organizer for the Women Worker’s Project at POWER (People Organized to Win Employment Rights).


Weaving the Threads | Vol. 17, No. 2 | Fall 2010 | Credits

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Federal Raids Against Immigrants on the Rise

By David Bacon

While the criminalization of undocumented people in Arizona continues to draw headlines, the actual punishment of workers because of their immigration status has become an increasingly bitter fact of life across the country. The number of workplace raids carried out by the Obama administration is staggering. Tens, maybe even hundreds of thousands of workers have been fired for not having papers. According to public records obtained by Syracuse University, the latest available data from the Justice Department show that criminal immigration enforcement by the two largest investigative agencies within the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) has increased to levels comparable to the highest seen during the Bush Administration.[1]

In a recent action the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) pressured one of San Francisco’s major building service companies, ABM, into firing hundreds of its own workers. Some 475 janitors have been told that unless they can show legal immigration status, they will lose their jobs in the near future.

ABM has been a union company for decades, and many of the workers have been there for years. “They’ve been working in this industry for 15, 20, some as many as 27 years in the buildings downtown,” says Olga Miranda, president of Service Employees Local 87.  “They’ve built homes.  They’ve provided for their families.  They’ve sent their kids to college.  They’re not new workers.  They didn’t just get here a year ago.”

Those workers are now faced with an agonizing dilemma.  Should they turn themselves in to Homeland Security, who might charge them with providing a bad Social Security number to their employer, and even hold them for deportation?  For workers with families, homes, and deep roots in a community, it’s not possible to just walk away and disappear. “I have a lot of members who are single mothers whose children were born here,” Miranda says.  “I have a member whose child has leukemia. What are they supposed to do?  Leave their children here and go back to Mexico and wait?  And wait for what?”

Miranda’s question reflects not just the dilemma facing individual workers, but of 12 million undocumented people living in the United States.  Since 2005, successive Congressmen, Senators, and administrations have dangled the prospect of gaining legal status in front of those who lack it. In exchange, their various schemes for immigration reform have proposed huge new guest worker programs, and a big increase in exactly the kind of enforcement directed at 475 San Francisco janitors.

Rhetoric vs. Policy
President Obama condemned Arizona’s law that tries to make being undocumented a state crime, saying it would “undermine basic notions of fairness that we cherish as Americans.”  But then he called for legislation with guest worker programs and increased enforcement.



What Do We Want?

First, we want legalization, giving 12 million people residence rights and green cards, so they can live like normal human beings. We do not want immigration used as a cheap labor supply system, with workers paying off recruiters, and once here, frightened that they will be deported if they lose their jobs.

We need to get rid of the laws that make immigrants criminals and working a crime. No more detention centers, no more ankle bracelets, no more firings and no-match letters, and no more raids. We need equality and rights. All people in our communities should have the same rights and status.
We have to make sure that those who say they advocate for immigrants are not really advocating for low wages. That the decision-makers of Washington, D.C. will not plunge families in Mexico, El Salvador, or Colombia into poverty, or force a new generation of workers to leave home and go through the doors of furniture factories and laundries, office buildings and packing plants, onto construction sites, or into the gardens and nurseries of the rich.

Families in Mexico, Guatemala, El Salvador, or the Philippines deserve a decent life, too. They have a right to survive, a right to not migrate. To make that right a reality, they need jobs and productive farms, good schools and healthcare. Our government must stop negotiating trade agreements like NAFTA and CAFTA, and instead prohibit the use of trade and economic policy that causes poverty and displacement.
Those people who do choose to come here to work deserve the same things that every other worker has. We all have the same rights, and the same needs—jobs, schools, medical care, a decent place to live, and the right to walk the streets or drive our cars without fear.

Major changes in immigration policy are not possible if we do not fight at the same time for these other basic needs: jobs, education, housing, healthcare, justice. But these are things that everyone needs, not just immigrants. And if we fight together, we can stop raids, and at the same time create a more just society for everyone—immigrant and non-immigrant alike. Is this possible?

In 1955, at the height of the cold war, braceros and farm workers did not think change would ever come. Growers had all the power and farm workers none. Ten years later we had a new immigration law protecting families and the bracero program was over. A new union for farm workers was on strike in Delano.

We can have an immigration system that respects human rights. We can stop deportations. We can win security for working families on both sides of our borders.
Yes, it’s possible. Si se puede! 


While the country is no closer to legalization of the undocumented than it was 10 years ago, the enforcement provisions of the comprehensive immigration reform proposals have already been implemented on the ground.  The Bush administration conducted a high-profile series of raids in which it sent heavily armed agents into meatpacking plants and factories, holding workers for deportation, and sending hundreds to federal prison for using bad Social Security numbers.  It set up a new Federal court in Tucson, Arizona, called Operation Streamline, where dozens of people are sentenced to prison every day for walking across the border.

After Obama was elected President, immigration authorities said they would follow a softer policy, using an electronic system to find undocumented people in workplaces.  People working with bad Social Security numbers would be fired.  As a result, last September, 2000 seamstresses in the Los Angeles garment factory of American Apparel were fired, followed by a month later by 1200 janitors working for ABM in Minneapolis. In November, over 100 janitors working for Seattle Building Maintenance lost their jobs.

Ironically, the Bush administration proposed a regulation that would have required employers to fire any worker who provided an employer with a Social Security number that did not match the SSA database.  That regulation was then stopped in court by unions, the ACLU, and the National Immigration Law Center.  The new administration, however, is implementing what amounts to the same requirement, with the same consequence of thousands of fired workers.  Meanwhile, the Operation Streamline court is still in session every day in Arizona.

 “Homeland Security is going after employers that are union,” Miranda charges.  “They’re going after employers that give benefits and are paying above the average.”  While American Apparel had no union, it paid better than most Los Angeles garment sweatshops.  Minneapolis janitors belong to SEIU Local 26, Seattle janitors to Local 6 and San Francisco janitors to Local 87.

President Obama says sanctions enforcement targets employers “who are using illegal workers in order to drive down wages—and oftentimes mistreat those workers.”  An ICE Worksite Enforcement Advisory claims “unscrupulous employers are likely to pay illegal workers substandard wages or force them to endure intolerable working conditions.”

Curing intolerable conditions by firing or deporting workers who endure them doesn’t help the workers or change the conditions, however.  And despite Obama’s notion that sanctions enforcement will punish those employers who exploit immigrants, at American Apparel and ABM the employers were rewarded for cooperation by being immunized from prosecution.  Javier Murillo, president of SEIU Local 26, says, “The promise made during the audit is that if the company cooperates and complies, they won’t be fined.  So this kind of enforcement really only hurts workers.”

ICE director John Morton says the agency is auditing the records of 1,654 companies nationwide.  “What kind of economic recovery goes with firing thousands of workers?” Miranda asks.  “Why don’t they target employers who are not paying taxes, who are not obeying safety or labor laws?”

Union leaders like Miranda see a conflict between the rhetoric used by the President and other Washington, D.C. politicians and lobbyists in condemning the Arizona law, and the immigration proposals they make in Congress.  “There’s a huge contradiction here,” she says.   “You can’t tell one state that what they’re doing is criminalizing people, and at the same time go after employers paying more than a living wage and the workers who have fought for that wage.”

Renee Saucedo, attorney for La Raza Centro Legal and former director of the San Francisco Day Labor Program, is even more critical.  “Those bills in Congress, which are presented as ones that will help some people get legal status, will actually make things much worse,” she charges.  “We’ll see many more firings like the janitors here, and more punishments for people who are just working and trying to support their families.”
Increasingly, however, the Washington proposals have even less promise of legalization and more emphasis on punishment.  The newest Democratic Party scheme virtually abandons the legalization program promised by the “bipartisan” Schumer/Graham proposal, saying that heavy enforcement at the border and in the workplace must come before any consideration of giving 12 million people legal status.

“We have to look at the whole picture,” Saucedo urges.  “So long as we have trade agreements like NAFTA that create poverty in countries like Mexico, people will continue to come here, no matter how many walls we build.  Instead of turning people into guest workers, as these bills in Washington would do, while firing and even jailing those who don’t have papers, we need to help people get legal status, and repeal the laws that are making work a crime.”

1.    http://trac.syr.edu/immigration/reports/233/

David Bacon is a freelance writer and photographer. For more articles and photos see http://dbacon.igc.org.


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Structural Racism and Leadership

The election of our first African American president has sparked debate over how far we have come as a nation on issues of race. Some suggest that we are in a post-racial society, but this assumption has not been supported by recent census statistics. While one in seven people in the U.S. are now living in poverty,[1] statistics show that African Americans and Latinos have fared worse during the recession.

In a recent article in the Huffington Post, Angela Glover Blackwell, founder and chief executive officer of PolicyLink points out, if you look deeper at the data, the story of who has actually been “hit hardest” is clear:

  • More than one in four Blacks and Hispanics live below the poverty line.
  • Hispanics saw the biggest jump in poverty (2.1 percent).
  • Biggest drop in real income was among Blacks and non-citizens (4.4 percent and 4.5 percent, respectively).[2]

This discussion naturally raises questions about the role of leadership development programs to address the racial divide in this country. Many such programs in the nonprofit sector have extended their reach and recruited more people of color, but more could be done. A deliberate approach to diversifying leadership programs would do much to mitigate the history of exclusion that has kept people of color underrepresented in leadership positions in the public and private sectors and also help level the playing field by providing them with new skills and resources and access to influential networks.

Using Diversity to Defy Stereotypes
A recent report by the Leadership Learning Community (LLC) and other thought leaders in the leadership development and racial equity fields, “How to Develop and Support Leadership that Contributes to Racial Justice,”3 acknowledges the importance of diversity and inclusion in the field of leadership and suggests that leadership programs could play a bigger role in helping to address racial divides in education, health, and individual well-being. In fact, the authors suggest that without a comprehensive rethinking of the way leadership programs recruit, support, and educate people of color and help them understand the systems that perpetuate racial disparities, the programs can actually reinforce patterns of racial inequality.
To understand how that can happen, it is important to first examine an underlying assumption many of us hold about leadership and its origin. Most people, asked to give a positive example of leadership, will describe a person. It is because we think of leadership as the behavior and/or skills of an individual exerting influence over others. This way of thinking is strongly influenced by a belief that every individual is responsible for his or her individual circumstance and that opportunities and recognition are conferred based on individual merit. These ideas have been embedded in our thinking by the dominant culture in the U.S.—a culture that does not acknowledge the experiences of vast numbers of people who have been systematically denied access to opportunities by virtue of their race.

Common Pitfalls of Leadership Programs
The report points out a number of ways in which the culture of individualism influences leadership development trainings, leading to a perpetuation of racial disparities.

The popular misconception that leadership is conferred upon individuals based on merit overlooks the well-documented fact that life opportunities in the U.S.—such as, attending high-performing schools, having access to well-paying jobs, and living in safe areas—are affected by race. Such beliefs implicitly or explicitly attribute the underrepresentation of people of color in leadership positions to a lack of ability rather than of opportunity. Leadership programs pride themselves on finding “rising stars” but fail to recognize that those stars often rise owing to many privileges that are not equally distributed in our society. Recruiting those who have not had access to status-conferring institutions or are not connected to established networks requires more deliberate strategies on the part of the programs.

A commonly held belief that given the same support and resources, all participants in a leadership program will have the same opportunity to advance themselves and their work fails to understand that some people come into the program with a definite leg up. They have attended better schools, are tied into influential networks, are less saddled with student loans, have health benefits, and have easy access to transportation. Few programs recognize that some participants may need different levels of support—such as, financial resources, links to new networks, and health care—to mitigate the lack of access to life opportunities that they experienced prior to entering the program.

The “individual as leader” is only one leadership model and is based on values closely associated with the dominant culture in the U.S. A number of people exercise more collaborative and collective models of leadership that are not valued or rewarded, which sometimes renders the leadership of women and people of color invisible. Often, the leadership values of love, equity, justice, and community, which are critical to leadership success for people of color, are not supported within the dominant leadership models.

A focus on individuals fails to understand the strength of racial and social identity in contributing positively to leadership. Racial identity creates a shared experience that opens up dialogue about common frustrations and aspirations from which, collective leadership action often emerges.
Emphasis on changing individual behaviors is important but will not eliminate racism. The Applied Research Center reports that while incidents of individual racism have declined, structural racism is on the rise.4 In other words, the dominant policies, culture, and institutions in this country produce disparities that increase differences in life opportunities based on race and we need to address them first in order to eliminate the underlying causes that perpetuate racial inequalities. Individuals working in isolation cannot realize this scale of change.

Guidelines to Overcoming Common Pitfalls
The report also has recommendations on leadership development approaches that could help overcome some of the common pitfalls and improve racial equity:

1. Make racial justice an integral part of the program. In a survey of 122 leadership programs, less than half incorporated an understanding of structural racism into their program.5 In order to address the growing economic gap and disparities, leadership programs and participants must understand how the system produces and perpetuates differences in opportunities along racial lines. To begin with, programs must commit to: (a) talking openly about race and power; (b) bringing a systems approach to change; (c) being responsible for racial justice outcomes, i.e. closing achievement gaps, not just improving performance; and (d) providing tools and resources for understanding the racial impact of their leadership work.
2. Promote inclusive models of collective leadership. Connecting those in leadership in a collective process is consistent with the history and values of many people of color. It is also critically important when working at many levels to challenge the complex system of policies, cultural attitudes, and institutional practices that produce and perpetuate racial inequality.

This report is just a beginning. A small number of leadership programs, especially those run by people of color, have been an inspiration for much of the learning in this report. Some of the programs currently taking a more inclusive approach include:

Racial Justice Leadership Initiative (RJLI)
    Launched by the Applied Research Center in 2002, RJLI provides participants with practical tools and tips to sharpen their analysis, skills, and strategies for addressing structural racism. Unlike “diversity trainings,” which primarily focus on interpersonal relations and cultural awareness, the racial justice trainings focus on systemic racial inequality. The trainings not only equip leaders with the consciousness to recognize and challenge racism, but also with the skills to develop proactive proposals, messages, alliances, and strategies to advance racial equity.
Leadership Development in Interethnic Relations (LDIR)
    The LDIR program makes racial justice an explicit and active commitment. The program trains participants in leadership skills that support structural equality and community-building. LDIR creates an environment that promotes open conversations about race and helps participants understand their own racial identity. This affects how they conduct community work and gives them more confidence to address issues of race.
The recent census report should serve as a wakeup call for those in the leadership field. As more leadership programs move towards inclusive and collective leadership models, programs and participants will be able to play a greater role in helping to overcome racial inequalities.

Deborah Meehan is the founder and executive director of the Leadership Learning Community (LLC). She serves as a board member of the International Leadership Association and the Blue Cross Blue Shield Foundation of Minnesota. She has conducted field research, evaluated leadership programs, and developed leadership network strategies.


Weaving the Threads | Vol. 17, No. 2 | Fall 2010 | Credits

Transportation Justice

Transportation Justice


Weaving the Threads | Vol. 17, No. 2 | Fall 2010 | Credits

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AC Transit Riders Fight for their Right to Ride, 55 Years after Montgomery

By Bob Allen and Marcy Rein

Fifty-five years to the month after the start of the Montgomery bus boycott, people of color can sit wherever they want on the bus—when and if one arrives. Bus operators all over the country are slashing routes in response to deepening deficits. This loss of service denies people who depend on transit their civil rights in deep, daily, grinding, unmistakable ways.

Bus riders in Oakland and throughout western Alameda and Contra Costa Counties have lost nearly 15 percent of their AC Transit routes in 2010. Deeper cuts were forestalled by the drivers’ union, Amalgamated Transit Union (ATU) Local 192, which refused to agree to a new contract unless the agency postponed further service reductions for at least three months. Now it looks like those cuts will be back on the table in January, and riders and drivers plan to protest at the Dec. 15 AC Transit meeting.

“We are the heart throb of this city,” AC Transit driver Lorenzo Jacobs said, speaking at a May 2010 public hearing against the cuts. “When you start cutting service, you’re cutting opportunities out there for people who are doing whatever they’re doing in their lives. When you cut lines, you’re affecting people’s lives, their everyday lives,” he said.

The service cuts directly impact Oakland youth, who need AC Transit to get to school because the district doesn’t run yellow school buses; they hurt seniors and people with disabilities who can’t drive, and low-income families who can’t afford cars. Lack of mobility cuts off opportunities for work and education, enforces inequality and persistent segregation. African-Americans and Latinos are far less likely than whites to own cars. Nationally, around 62 percent of city bus riders are African American and Latino. Nearly 80 percent of AC Transit riders are people of color.

Bus riders and their allies who take on this 21st century civil rights fight confront institutional obstacles at every turn. In their efforts to protect and expand service, they contend with financing policies and decision-making structures that are stacked against them, and they lack access to the courts to seek redress. And few political leaders champion the needs of transit riders in general and bus riders in particular.

Funding priorities from the federal government on down shortchange bus riders while favoring drivers and rail passengers. Eighty percent of federal transportation funding goes to highways, and only 20 percent goes to transit. Virtually all of the $500 billion in the Federal Surface Transportation Authorization goes to capital costs versus supporting day-to-day operations of buses.

On a regional level, the San Francisco Bay Area’s Metropolitan Transportation Commission (MTC) privileges costly expansions over core urban operations. It consistently slights bus operators in favor of rail services such as CalTrain and BART that have a much higher proportion of white and wealthier riders. While AC Transit was looking at a $56 million deficit, the MTC was working hard to help BART find an additional $70 million to build the Oakland Airport Connector (OAC) tram project. That $70 million was needed to replace federal stimulus funds BART lost by failing to follow proper civil rights guidelines when they approved the OAC.

The structure of the MTC itself disenfranchises city-dwellers and people of color. The 19-member commission controls transportation planning and funding for nine counties in the Bay Area. Because each county gets two seats at most, residents in large urban counties--like Santa Clara, which includes the 930,000-person city of San Jose--get far less representation than smaller and less diverse counties like Napa, with its 135,000 people.

Challenging the unfair distribution of transportation resources in court has been much harder since a 2001 Supreme Court decision barred individuals from filing lawsuits over transportation policies that have discriminatory impacts on the basis of race, color or national origin. By taking away the “private right to action,” the Alexander v. Sandoval decision deprived transit activists of a legal tool that has played a key part in civil rights cases.

After more than a year, the movement centered in Montgomery won the legal end to Alabama’s segregation laws. Today’s transportation justice advocates are pushing for civil rights in transit on many levels. Riders and drivers have joined forces to try save bus service in dozens of cities around the country, as they are doing in the East Bay. These efforts should gain fresh energy with the inauguration of the new national leadership of the ATU, which represents bus drivers in many U.S. cities.

A Bay Area coalition of civil rights, faith-based, community and environmental groups is pursuing legal challenges to discriminatory funding. The non-profit law firm Public Advocates filed the administrative complaint on behalf of Urban Habitat, TransForm and Genesis that cost BART the stimulus funds for the OAC. In a follow-up complaint, they have charged MTC with failing to ensure that agencies and programs it funds are respecting civil rights. In addition, Public Advocates has filed a class action suit against MTC’s funding practices, which is pending before the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals.

Undaunted by the hostile climate in the new Congress, the new national coalition called “Transit Riders for Public Transportation” (TRPT) aims to flip federal transit funding priorities and secure legislation restoring individuals’ right to sue over discriminatory transit policies. TRPT draws together grassroots groups from all over the country who put transportation central to the fight for civil rights, recognizing that low-income communities and communities of color will remain trapped in second-class status until the transportation system serves everyone equally.

Bob Allen is the Transportation Justice Program Director at Urban Habitat. Marcy Rein is a freelance writer and frequent contributor to Race, Poverty & the Environment.

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San Francisco Bay Area Transit Justice Movement Emerges

Pedestrians and bicyclists fight for space on Oakland streets designed for diesel trucks in former industrial areas that are now among the few affordable places to live. Massive concrete structures jut out like exposed bones in a city where once-bustling African-American cultural and economic centers have been repeatedly destroyed by giant transportation projects.

One such project, the West Oakland aboveground Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) track built in the 1970s, loomed over jazz clubs that were forced to close when the constant noise of trains drowned out the music. The 7th Street corridor—once the stroll for legendary local blues heroes—is now a desolate strip in the shadow of the BART overpass.

Soon, East Oakland residents may see the Oakland Airport Connector (OAC)—a driverless, cable-pulled shuttle atop an elevated track—looming over their neighborhood. Designed by an Austrian architectural engineering firm known for its aerial ski lifts, the three-mile Connector would whisk passengers from the Oakland Coliseum BART station to the Oakland Airport parking lot.
Maxine Oliver-Benson shakes her head in disbelief over the price of the project—$484 million. “I won’t ever use it for anything—the majority of people in my community won’t ever use it,” says the activist and 19-year resident of East Oakland, staring moodily at the throngs of people heading to a game at the Oakland Coliseum on the overhead walkway that connects the BART station to the arena.

“They won’t ever have to set foot on the ground here, now not even to get to the airport,” she sighs. Oliver-Benson lives off the Hegenberger Corridor near the Oakland Coliseum—a neighborhood with relatively high rates of black home ownership that has been predominantly African-American since 1947. She and others in her homeowners’ association have been closely following the OAC project and do not approve of it. They are not alone in their opposition.

A coalition of civil rights, faith-based, and environmental groups (Urban Habitat, TransForm, Genesis, and Public Advocates) filed a civil rights complaint with the Federal Transit Administration (FTA), contending that the project had been planned without due regard for its effect on the surrounding neighborhoods, largely populated by low-income people of color. The FTA upheld the complaint causing the Metropolitan Transportation Commission to redirect $70 million in federal stimulus money to all Bay Area Transit operators. Opponents had also challenged the BART Board of Directors for failing to consider alternatives to the elevated tram and for glossing over the financial and technical risks of the project.
Despite it all, BART’s directors voted 7-to-1 to move forward with the project on September 16. Thirty years of BART’s dreaming and scheming came to fruition on October 20, 2010 when the OAC project broke ground.


Transit Funding Fight Goes National

Following a decade-long campaign, Chicago’s Little Village Environmental Justice Organization (LVEJO) has won funding to rehabilitate a vital train line and run it on weekends again. But attempts to reverse cuts to bus services across the city’s south and west sides have failed, prompting activists to take their fight for increased funding to the national level. “We saw that our local struggle to restore service to the Little Village community would not be successful if we did not push Congress to pitch in their fair share of funding and ensure that it is distributed equitably,” said Michael Pitula of LVEJO. The feeling was pervasive enough to prompt the Labor/Community Strategy Center of Los Angeles to convene “Transit Riders for Public Transportation” (TRPT) in 2009. The national coalition of transportation justice groups aims to change federal funding priorities and regain the “private right of action” to enforce the Department of Transportation’s civil rights regulations. More

History of the Connector
From the Coliseum BART station, it’s a straight shot down Hegenberger Road to the Oakland Airport. Since 1986, the airport has contracted with a private company to run AirBART, a bus shuttle service. An estimated nine percent of airport users take the shuttle, according to BART. Travel time ranges from 12 to 30 minutes, depending on traffic and passengers must pay the $3 one-way fare in exact change.

It is an imperfect system and there has been no shortage of ideas for better connections. Feasibility studies and proposals have cycled through city council meetings and newspaper headlines since 1973, even before AirBART. In 2000, Alameda County voters passed a sales tax that provided partial funding for a connector. Early projections assumed the train would reach 45 mph, be capable of carrying up to 32,000 passengers a day and have two stops, thus boosting business along Hegenberger Road. The estimated cost of the entire project was $130 million—less than a third of the current price tag—but BART was unable to come up with the rest of the money, despite reaching out to private investors.

In 2008, while anticipating the release of federal stimulus funds for transportation projects, the various agencies behind the OAC realized that they would never be able to afford the proposed system, so they made some adjustments behind closed doors, according to John Knox White, program director at TransForm, a transportation and land-use advocacy group.
BART got rid of the two stops along Hegenberger Road, replaced the previously proposed technology with a cheaper untested overhead cable system that would run at 23 mph, and lowered the number of expected riders to 4,300 per day. The projected fare is between $4.50 and $6 one-way, and the trip would take 16-19 minutes, including walk time to the airport terminals.

TransForm proposed an alternative—RapidBART—a high-speed bus with signal prioritization down Hegenberger and bypass jump lanes at traffic stoplights that would cost between $45 and $60 million. BART said that it reviewed the proposal but disagreed that RapidBART could deliver passengers to the airport on time more reliably than the OAC. In fact, BART spokesman Linton Johnson called the proposal “a great deal of hype with very little substance.” But e-mails obtained by TransForm under a Public Records Act request, reveal that Tom Dunscombe, BART’s OAC project manager, wrote to four different paid consultants on May 8, 2009, asking for help in undermining the proposal. “Any information you can provide to put holes in this would be appreciated... we have some worried Board members and I need to easily discredit this ‘paper’,” he wrote.

Hijacking the Stimulus
When the federal stimulus package was released, BART and the Metropolitan Transportation Commission (MTC) worked out an elaborate plan that involved swapping funds from other projects and pools of money to finance the OAC, along with $70 million in stimulus money. The scheme immediately drew the ire of community advocates like Urban Habitat and Genesis, who considered it a discriminatory use of funds. They mobilized hundreds of people to MTC hearings, which prompted the MTC to make a contingency plan to allocate the $70 million to Bay Area transit operators if other OAC funding fell through.

Although BART maintained that the OAC plan met federal civil rights requirements, the advocates thought otherwise. Urban Habitat first notified MTC in July 2009 that BART had not conducted an adequate equity analysis showing how the connector plan would impact low-income people and communities of color. In September 2009, when BART refused to show evidence of compliance, the coalition filed an administrative complaint against BART with the Federal Transit Administration’s  Office of Civil Rights. The complaint charged BART with a violation of Title VI of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, which requires federal grant recipients to ensure non-discrimination in the spending of federal funds. The OAC had little to offer its neighbors, the complaint asserted, and would siphon funds from badly needed bus service and from BART’s own core system.


San Francisco Riders and Workers Unite for M.O.R.E. Public Transit

San Francisco Riders and Workers Unite for M.O.R.E. Public Transit<br />The MUNI Operators and Riders Expanding Public Transit (M.O.R.E.) coalition has united transit riders, workers, and anti-war activists in response to the devastating cuts to San Francisco’s MUNI service in 2010. M.O.R.E. is demanding that elected officials and MUNI management “chop from the top” and “tax the rich” rather than deepen the attack on public employees and public services.<br />“If there are going to be cuts to MUNI, they need to come from the $60 million worth of work orders and bloated management salaries. The bus drivers didn’t cause this problem. The campaign against them is a racist anti-worker distraction,” said Frank Lara, a M.O.R.E. leader and an organizer with the ANSWER coalition, one of about a dozen groups represented in the coalition. Other organizations in the coalition include Transport Workers Union Local 250A (TWU 250A) representing MUNI drivers, People Organized to Win Employment Rights (POWER), the Chinese Progressive Association, Urban Habitat, and Senior Action Network. More

From “Back of the Bus” to “No Bus”
The effects of segregation, white flight, and capital abandonment of the 1960s and ‘70s can be seen and felt at any bus stop in East or West Oakland where AC Transit bus riders—over 80 percent, people of color and over 30 percent, surviving on less than $25,000 a year—crane their necks, searching the city’s wide, flat streets for buses that are known for being late, or not arriving at all.

Sixty-three-year-old West Oakland resident Annie McKinzie is used to waiting for the bus these days. She stopped driving after corneaplasty to correct her vision in both eyes. Three times a week, she embarks on a two- to four-hour trip on AC Transit to run errands downtown and at the mall, pay her bills at Costco, and pick up her prescription eye drops. Until just a few months ago, McKinzie was able to hop on the No. 14 bus a block away from her home and travel the 1.7 miles to downtown Oakland in less than 15 minutes. But AC Transit cut service by over seven percent in March and almost eight percent in October and the No. 14 line fell victim to these cuts.

A retired administrative assistant from an insurance company, McKinzie is now an activist with the Alliance of Californians for Community Empowerment (ACCE) and has been attending AC Transit meetings since last year. She takes notes on her bus journeys, documenting the effects of the recent service cuts. Recently, she was appalled to see seniors laden with grocery bags struggling to the new No. 26 bus stop six blocks away from its old location in front of the Pak ’n Save in East Oakland. She spoke up about it at an AC Transit meeting and “they put the 26 line back up right across the street from the Pak ’n Save,” she says, looking pleased.

Overall, however, AC Transit service has sunk to its lowest levels in 30 years and the agency, facing a $56 million deficit, has raised fares and reduced service to its lowest level in 30 years. The deficit reflects an unequal distribution of public transit funds that favors white and higher-income rail riders and discriminates against low-income and “minority” bus riders like McKinzie. A 2006 passenger survey by the MTC found that almost half (46 percent) of BART riders are white and fewer than 13 percent have incomes below $25,000. That is in contrast to the ridership on AC Transit buses, which cover 13 cities in Alameda and Contra Costa Counties, from Fremont through Oakland to Richmond.
Of the 10 transit providers in the Bay Area, AC Transit serves the largest percentage of passengers of color (over 80 percent) and the smallest percentage of white passengers. But the MTC provides subsidies of $6.14 per transit trip for BART and only $2.78 per trip for AC Transit (based on data from 1998-2005). The MTC’s $13 billion, 25-year transit expansion program dedicates 94 percent of the project costs to rail, while buses receive only four percent.







AC Transit Riders
Demand a Fair Shake

“They [the MTC and CTC] came up with $70 million for a little bitty trip to the airport—so they can come up with money for AC Transit!” yelled Karen Smulevitz of United Seniors of Oakland and Alameda County into her bullhorn over the street sounds of downtown Oakland. “Do you need that airport tram?”
“No!” yelled the crowd.
“Do you need the buses fixed and running?”
“Yes!” they responded, louder still.
The rally on November 9 involved a growing coalition of East Bay organizations—Building Opportunities for Self Sufficiency (BOSS), Genesis, Public Advocates, Urban Habitat, and Alliance of Californians for Community Empowerment (ACCE)—working to meet the needs of folks who use public transit for basic survival. The newest member of this coalition is an emerging alliance of the East Bay’s bus riders organized by ACCE and assisted by groups already engaged in transportation work. Over the past seven months, ACCE has signed up 300 dues-paying members and gathered an additional 1,375 supporters. More


Transportation justice advocates suggest realigning transit funding priorities to support transit in the urban core. This would mean retaining and expanding bus lines but cutting back expansions that mostly benefit better-off and predominantly suburban riders. The civil rights complaint filed against the OAC is a step toward this goal.



Win Some, Lose Some
The federal government responded to the complaint against the OAC with “unheard of” speed, according to Bob Allen, director of the transportation justice program at Urban Habitat. Within a couple of months of filing the complaint, the FTA pulled the $70 million stimulus money from the OAC project. The MTC then voted to fall back on its contingency plan and divide the $70 million among the 10 Bay Area transit operators, which were looking at service cuts, fare hikes, and layoffs to cover their budget deficits. It was a big boost to the transit agencies and helped preserve their services in the face of the recession and reduced funding from other sources.

Even so, the OAC project was far from dead as BART and the MTC hustled to put together a new funding package.
“Whenever we have a proposal for a youth bus pass, or for a regional low-income pass, as we did a couple of years ago, we always hear, ‘If we had more operating funding we could do it!’” Allen says, looking annoyed. “But when it comes to something like the Oakland Airport Connector, they can lose $70 million in February and by June they’ve gone to the California Transit Commission and other sources, looked around, and identified funds. They’ve gone to extraordinary lengths to cobble together federal money, to work with the Port of Oakland, and with the state to swap money out from highway projects. They’re even willing to tap fare money to subsidize the project.”

At their July 22 meeting, BART directors faced a packed room buzzing with anxious conversation as they prepared to vote on whether to accept the new funding package. They looked far from fazed by accusations of civil rights violations and Board President James Fang railed against the federal government for “coming in and being Big Brother… unfairly and unjustly taking our $70 million.”

Good Faith not Good Enough for Jobs
Director Carole Ward Allen, who represented the BART district where the OAC is to be built, implored the Board to support the project in order to create jobs. “We talk about 18 percent unemployment,” she said, “but in my district it’s almost 90 percent in some areas. We’re holding extensive meetings. Over 20 years we’ve been trying to push this OAC. The citizens totally supported this project and we now need to move on.”
On Ward Allen’s heels there came a crush of representatives from churches and crime prevention groups, building trade unions, and investors, including the Port of Oakland, the Oakland Airport, and Doppelmayr, the contractor that designed the latest version of the OAC. They spoke passionately albeit ambiguously about the necessity to create jobs and drive economic growth in Oakland.

But not all organized labor supported the OAC and the jobs may not be as plentiful as labor hoped, or as available to local residents. The Service Employees International Union, BART’s own station agents represented by Amalgamated Transit Union  (ATU) Local 1555, as well as ATU Local 192, which represents 1,750 AC Transit workers, strongly opposed the project, calling it a waste of resources. They said that jobs could be better created by expanding and funding bus service and preserving the current transit systems throughout the Bay Area.

 While the existing pot of operating funds is being drained by expensive expansions and everyday service and driver’s jobs are being slashed, AC transit management is trying to blame union workers for the ballooning deficit. “It’s another [occasion] where a public entity has pitted unions against unions,” said ATU Local 192 President Claudia Hudson, reflecting on the situation. “I’m in the biggest labor fight of my life.”







MTC Feels the Heat on Civil Rights Title VI Compliance

The Metropolitan Transportation Commission (MTC) is facing new scrutiny of its civil rights practices stemming from its role in the Oakland Airport Connector (OAC) project. As the federally mandated planning organization for the San Francisco Bay Area, the MTC approves all new transportation projects and allocates federal, state, and local funding for new and existing services. Hence, it is responsible for ensuring that the agencies and projects it funds comply with federal civil rights laws. Although the MTC denies any such responsibility, the Federal Transit Administration (FTA) disagrees and has launched an investigation following a complaint filed last June by Public Advocates on behalf of Urban Habitat and Genesis. “FTA remains concerned that we found BART, a sub-recipient of MTC, out of compliance in 2009,” wrote FTA’s Civil Rights Director Cheryl Hershey to MTC Executive Director Steve Heminger last August. “The fact suggests to us that MTC has not adequately ensured BART’s Title VI compliance… and that raises the possibility that other sub-recipients of MTC may be out of compliance.” In 2005, MTC faced civil rights challenges over its own direct funding decisions when Public Advocates filed a federal class action suit charging it with discrimination for consistently prioritizing projects that serve white, higher-income rail riders over AC Transit, which mostly serves low-income bus riders of color (Darensburg v. MTC). In 2009, a federal district judge ruled that MTC’s practices did have a discriminatory effect on minority bus riders but refused to overturn the funding decisions. The case is now before the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals. More

BART representatives have said publicly that the OAC will create anywhere from 2,500 to 5,000 jobs. But not all of these are local jobs, John Knox White points out. “A good chunk of the manufacturing for the Connector will be done out of the country, out of the state, or out of the area,” he says. And the Project Stabilization Agreement only commits BART to a “good faith effort” to hire Oakland residents for the project.



“They say God is in the details,” says Mahasin Abdul-Salaam, co-chair of the Transportation Task Force at Genesis. “In terms of benefits and workforce levels, we found no mandate [for] a certain amount of jobs. ‘Good faith effort’ is a non-commitment to whatever those equity numbers would need to be.”

Fang acknowledged the financial risks inherent to the project. “We are going to get jobs with this vote. But after the jobs are gone, BART will be paying the bills,” he said, noting that the projections for predicted fare revenues were based on a 40 to 65 percent increase in ridership over the next 35 years. But he quickly put his doubts aside saying, “Oakland has a can-do attitude. We’re hoping—big hope, blind hope moving forward!”
City councilmember and longtime OAC proponent Larry Reid told the directors, “I think your staff has heard from my community. A community that has long been denied the resources it needs. I will go outside and get on my knees and pray.”

Oliver-Benson scoffs at the claims that BART staff engaged in community outreach on the project. They held five meetings this year, she says, and all of them after they had been accused of civil rights violations. “The meetings were supposed to be for District 7 residents to give approval,” she says, taking a deep breath. “But they’re going forward no matter what we do. I just believe that we are talking to brick walls when it comes to the airport connector.”

Legacy of Cuts
The OAC groundbreaking ceremony brought out a galaxy of elected officials—Congresswoman Barbara Lee, Oakland Mayor Ron Dellums, and State Assembly members Nancy Skinner (D-Berkeley/Richmond) and Sandre Swanson (D-Oakland)—along with directors from BART and the MTC, labor leaders, and honchos from the Chamber of Commerce. Speaker after speaker congratulated everyone for pulling together and persevering to make the OAC—a “long-term legacy project,” according to Fang—come true.

Abdul Salaam, however, sees something else when she reflects on the development of the project: namely, community interests that were not aligned and different concepts of equity at work. “The people backing the OAC... were never into fair participation,” she observes. “In these times of class disparity, in these economic conditions, to spend $500 million on a project that will serve 4000 people a day, while an entire agency like AC Transit is biting the dust is just immoral. During the civil rights era, issues had to do with being able to access transportation on an equal status. Today the question is—will we even have that public transportation?”

Marcy Rein is a freelance writer based in Richmond, California and works with Urban Habitat’s transportation justice program as a communications consultant. Puck Lo is a graduate student at the University of California Berkeley School of Journalism. She was RP&E’s 2010 summer intern. Reginald James contributed reporting to this story.


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During the civil rights era, issues had to do with being able to access transportation on an equal status. Today the question is—will we even have that public transportation?”

AC Transit Riders Demand a Fair Shake

“They [the MTC and CTC] came up with $70 million for a little bitty trip to the airport—so they can come up with money for AC Transit!” yelled Karen Smulevitz of United Seniors of Oakland and Alameda County into her bullhorn over the street sounds of downtown Oakland. “Do you need that airport tram?” “No!” yelled the crowd. “Do you need the buses fixed and running?” “Yes!” they responded, louder still.

The rally on November 9 involved a growing coalition of East Bay organizations—Building Opportunities for Self Sufficiency (BOSS), Genesis, Public Advocates, Urban Habitat, and Alliance of Californians for Community Empowerment (ACCE)—working to meet the needs of folks who use public transit for basic survival. The newest member of this coalition is an emerging alliance of the East Bay’s bus riders organized by ACCE and assisted by groups already engaged in transportation work. Over the past seven months, ACCE has signed up 300 dues-paying members and gathered an additional 1,375 supporters. Bus riders have begun meeting regularly to develop a set of demands, which focus on protecting services and keeping fares affordable.

“None of us can afford to see services cut,” said Kit Vaq, who moved to the Bay Area from Fresno. “I don’t want to see Oakland turn into another Fresno—buses running once every hour or 30 minutes. That just won’t do.” But AC Transit—the Bay Area’s largest bus system with a ridership that is 80 percent low-income and 60 percent transit-dependent—has reduced its services by 30 percent over the last 30 years. And with a current deficit of $56 million, it has cut services an additional 15 percent in 2010. Simultaneously, Caltrain and BART, which primarily serve wealthier, whiter areas, have more than doubled their service, and billions have been spent on highways. In other words, those who can afford to drive have seen their access to essentials and opportunities expand, while AC Transit riders have lost access to critical destinations. Participants at the rally testified to the harm done by transit cuts by writing their problems on a large board: “Can’t get to school—#54 cut” or “Can’t see family—#NL cut.” 

ACCE member Janet Mack recounted how she has to leave her Oakland home at 5:45 a.m. on weekends to get to her job in Alameda on time because AC Transit cut #62 on weekends and she has to walk to the #51 stop. “The other day it was raining when I went to work and my feet were wet all day... Some of these officials should ride the bus some time so they can see what it’s really like out there!” said Mack. The central demand of the rally was that local, regional, and federal elected officials take responsibility and stop the cuts to AC Transit. Richmond Mayor Gayle McLaughlin and Alameda County Supervisor Nate Miley attended the rally, while County Supervisor Keith Carson and California Assembly member Nancy Skinner sent representatives. All signed a pledge that they would do anything within their power to fight continuing service cuts and fare increases. The coalition plans to call other officials to account in the coming months. —MR

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MTC Feels the Heat on Civil Rights Title VI Compliance

The Metropolitan Transportation Commission (MTC) is facing new scrutiny of its civil rights practices stemming from its role in the Oakland Airport Connector (OAC) project. As the federally mandated planning organization for the San Francisco Bay Area, the MTC approves all new transportation projects and allocates federal, state, and local funding for new and existing services. Hence, it is responsible for ensuring that the agencies and projects it funds comply with federal civil rights laws. Although the MTC denies any such responsibility, the Federal Transit Administration (FTA) disagrees and has launched an investigation following a complaint filed last June by Public Advocates on behalf of Urban Habitat and Genesis.

“FTA remains concerned that we found BART, a sub-recipient of MTC, out of compliance in 2009,” wrote FTA’s Civil Rights Director Cheryl Hershey to MTC Executive Director Steve Heminger last August. “The fact suggests to us that MTC has not adequately ensured BART’s Title VI compliance… and that raises the possibility that other sub-recipients of MTC may be out of compliance.”

In 2005, MTC faced civil rights challenges over its own direct funding decisions when Public Advocates filed a federal class action suit charging it with discrimination for consistently prioritizing projects that serve white, higher-income rail riders over AC Transit, which mostly serves low-income bus riders of color (Darensburg v. MTC). In 2009, a federal district judge ruled that MTC’s practices did have a discriminatory effect on minority bus riders but refused to overturn the funding decisions. The case is now before the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals.

MTC’s skewed funding priorities reflect its undemocratic structure, says Bob Allen, who heads Urban Habitat’s transportation justice program. The 19-member commission is composed of county and city representatives, plus representatives from regional, state, and federal agencies. Each of the Bay Area’s nine counties gets one seat—including the smaller, suburban, and less diverse counties of Marin, Napa, Solano, and Sonoma. Alameda, Contra Costa, Santa Clara, San Mateo, and San Francisco each get one additional seat to represent all their major cities. So, in effect, Santa Clara County, which includes San Jose with a population of around 930,000, and Alameda County with an African-American population of around 194,000, each have just one representative more than Napa County with its total population of 135,000.

To make matters worse, commissioners tend to be local politicians who are more responsive to their electorate than to the interests of the greater region, says Allen. “If we’re serious about fighting sprawl and  for fairness in our transportation policy, the region has to spend more money on inner-core urban transit systems to make them run effectively. We’re really skeptical that it can happen with this power imbalance.” Strong FTA enforcement of Title VI complaints would help transportation justice advocates as they work for fairness at all levels of the planning process.

 “The same principle that requires MTC to monitor and ensure Title VI compliance by transit operators also requires it to ensure compliance by county transportation agencies that play a major role in the planning process,” says Richard Marcantonio, managing attorney at Public Advocates. “Looking forward, the implications of the Title VI complaint could be big, not just here, but in other regions [where] metropolitan planning organizations are folding in the decisions of local agencies that have not been vetted for compliance.”—MR

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San Francisco Riders and Workers Unite for M.O.R.E. Public Transit

The MUNI Operators and Riders Expanding Public Transit (M.O.R.E.) coalition has united transit riders, workers, and anti-war activists in response to the devastating cuts to San Francisco’s MUNI service in 2010. M.O.R.E. is demanding that elected officials and MUNI management “chop from the top” and “tax the rich” rather than deepen the attack on public employees and public services.

“If there are going to be cuts to MUNI, they need to come from the $60 million worth of work orders and bloated management salaries. The bus drivers didn’t cause this problem. The campaign against them is a racist anti-worker distraction,” said Frank Lara, a M.O.R.E. leader and an organizer with the ANSWER coalition, one of about a dozen groups represented in the coalition. Other organizations in the coalition include Transport Workers Union Local 250A (TWU 250A) representing MUNI drivers, People Organized to Win Employment Rights (POWER), the Chinese Progressive Association, Urban Habitat, and Senior Action Network.

As M.O.R.E. has grown, it has moved beyond the struggle to maintain and expand MUNI service to addressing broader issues that impact riders and drivers. It has been a leading opponent of the “saturation raids” conducted on MUNI buses by armed San Francisco police officers. Although characterized by MUNI management as attempts to enforce fare payment, the raids have resulted in systematic harassment of immigrants and alleged deportations.

Michelle Xiong, a leader in the Chinese Progressive Association who has seen police targeting the Chinatown bus lines says, “I’m scared to go on the bus now if my bus transfer is even close to the expiration time because the police have been so strict and it’s very intimidating since I don’t speak English fluently.”

M.O.R.E. also opposed Proposition G, which it described as a “political ploy that tries to put the blame of declining public services on the backs of working families.” The measure, which passed with 65 percent of the vote, forces TWU 250A to renegotiate many of its work rules and imposes an arbitration requirement stacked against the union.

“[Prop. G makes] drivers seem like the only reason why Muni doesn’t perform better,” Local 250 President Irwin Lum told Streetsblog. He pointed to bloated executive salaries at the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency (over $300,000 for CEO Nat Ford, for example) as well as mismanagement that has allowed other city departments to siphon off almost $62 million of MUNI’s funding (www.sfexaminer.com/local/Munis-outside-costs-assailed-84308187.html).

M.O.R.E.’s newest campaign is focused on providing every child and youth in San Francisco with a free MUNI transit pass. With it, M.O.R.E. hopes to broaden its membership and raise awareness of transportation justice issues among groups that don’t focus on public transit but whose members and communities rely on MUNI to get to essential services. (To join the struggle for transportation justice in San Francisco and the Youth Bus campaign, visit http://morepublictransit.net) —MR

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Transit Funding Fight Goes National

Following a decade-long campaign, Chicago’s Little Village Environmental Justice Organization (LVEJO) has won funding to rehabilitate a vital train line and run it on weekends again. But attempts to reverse cuts to bus services across the city’s south and west sides have failed, prompting activists to take their fight for increased funding to the national level.

“We saw that our local struggle to restore service to the Little Village community would not be successful if we did not push Congress to pitch in their fair share of funding and ensure that it is distributed equitably,” said Michael Pitula of LVEJO.

 The feeling was pervasive enough to prompt the Labor/Community Strategy Center of Los Angeles to convene “Transit Riders for Public Transportation” (TRPT) in 2009. The national coalition of transportation justice groups aims to change federal funding priorities and regain the “private right of action” to enforce the Department of Transportation’s civil rights regulations.

Since the 1950s, every six years Congress has taken up a Federal Surface Transportation Authorization that heavily favors roads over public transit.
“We want to flip that,” says Francisca Porchas of the Strategy Center, which houses the Los Angeles Bus Riders Union (LA BRU). “We need to reduce greenhouse gases 80-90 percent in the next 30 years and we can’t have a bill that gives 80 percent of $500 billion to highways and freeways.”
Moreover, the 20 percent allocated to public transit is restricted to new capital projects rather than to maintenance, labor costs, and repairs. Now Congressman Russ Carnahan (D-MO) has authored a bill (H.R. 2746), which would allow a larger percentage of federal funds to be available for operating transit.

“Everybody’s talking about this bill as the next big shift in transportation policy [since] the Interstate Highway Act of the 50s,” said James Burke of WEACT in Harlem, New York. “Now we need Congress and the Obama administration to support the operations in our system and improve civil rights policies.”

TRPT is also advancing a bill that would restore “private right of action,” to enforce Department of Transportation regulation Title VI. The LA BRU exercised this right in its groundbreaking civil rights suit against the Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Authority. But a 2001 Supreme Court decision (Alexander v. Sandoval) took away an individual’s right to take legal action when transportation policies have discriminatory impacts on the basis of race, color, or national origin. Since then, individuals have only been able to file administrative complaints with federal agencies or sue for intentional discrimination, which is much harder to prove than “discriminatory impact.”

The defeat of House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee chair Jim Oberstar (D-MN) in the midterm election bodes ill for TRPT’s efforts. And the new Republican Committee Chair, John Mica of Florida has already said that an increase in the federal gasoline tax, the primary revenue source for previous federal transportation bills, is “off the table.”

“Given that the last mid-term Republican wave resulted in Congress cutting funding for public transit, and the strong likelihood that Tea Party members will resist any civil rights legislation, our need for a national movement is greater than ever,” says Bob Allen of Urban Habitat. —MR and PL

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The Urban Bike Movement: Peace Rides to Scraper Bikes

In July 24, 2010, an estimated 300 cyclists took to the streets for the third annual Bikes 4 Life Peace Ride. The approximately 10-mile circuit took the riders through the streets of Oakland—around Lake Merritt, down International Blvd, past the Fruitvale BART station (where a candlelight vigil was held for Oscar Grant), and back to West Oakland. As the cavalcade passed through neighborhoods people cheered and motorists honked. The Peace Ride illustrated some of the best qualities of what has become known as the urban bike movement. It’s one thing to get on a bicycle and go for a ride, and quite another to share that experience with a large group of people from diverse ethnic, social, and economic backgrounds. There is strength in numbers and a palpable power in hundreds of cyclists essentially reclaiming public space while raising awareness about transportation, public safety, social justice, non-violence, and environmental issues.

From Organic Revolution to Critical Mass
The Urban Bike Movement began in San Francisco in 1993 after five cyclists had been struck and killed by motorists in one month. A small group of riders organized a memorial ride, which soon became a monthly occurrence. As word got around, more cyclists began showing up every month. Soon the number had grown to 500—large enough to draw the attention of CNN, which aired a segment about the “bike messenger protest.” The following month, almost 1,000 riders showed up.

Within a year the rides, which came to be known as the Critical Mass, were emulated in Chicago, Manhattan, Washington, D.C., London, Paris, and Copenhagen. Today, “there’s a Critical Mass in pretty much every major city around the world that has urban biking issues,” says Brian Drayton, a veteran “biketivist.”

In San Francisco, the city tried to shut down the movement a number of times, says Drayton. “[Until] they realized that it wasn’t organized by any one person. It was just an organic thing… there had never been a movement that had no central organizing body, and they couldn’t figure out how to corral us.”

Eventually, San Francisco politicians relented and Critical Mass became a political movement, spinning off several groups concerned with a variety of issues. Drayton co-founded Ground Zero, a cycling-oriented nonprofit that works with homeless kids in the Mission District. Cycles of Change and the San Francisco Bike Coalition were started to address public safety and access issues at a policy level. Similar biketivist movements in the East Bay resulted in Berkeley, Oakland, Emeryville, and Richmond embracing bicycle-friendly urban planning that included bike parking, street striping, dedicated cyclist paths, and low-traffic “bicycle boulevards.”

The East Bay now has a 20-mile loop of bicycle trails that is virtually auto-free, linking the Bay Trail from Emeryville to Richmond, with the Ohlone Trail through the Greenway, which attaches to Berkeley’s bicycle boulevards and to Oakland. Future plans to open up the Bay Bridge to cyclists will eventually connect the East Bay to San Francisco—without the expense (and pollution) associated with public transportation and vehicular traffic.
In 2009, Drayton launched another nonprofit, Richmond Spokes, which combines biking with urban youth development. Mobility is a major issue for urban and inner-city youth, Drayton says, one which affects their perception and worldview. “Richmond is really unique because it’s contained by freeways and railroad tracks,” he points out. “You have kids that are actually stuck in their neighborhood because of the violence... also because of geographic barriers.”

Without access to transportation, inner-city youth do not get to experience other communities, other cultural events. Yet, something as simple as riding a bicycle can actually get them out of their situations. “Bikes,” Drayton emphasizes, “save kids’ lives.”

Riding for Peace and Justice
Tony Coleman, founder of Bikes 4 Life and a longtime community organizer, started the Peace Rides in 2008 when he noticed more young people of color cycling—not just the fixed-gear hipsters, the bike commuters, the fitness folks, and the triathletes who generally constitute the cyclist population.
Nonviolence is a prominent theme of the Peace Rides but not the only one. “Poverty is violence and we want to stop that,” says Coleman. Moreover, urban cyclists see themselves as contributing to reducing pollution. Also, the Peace Rides engage folks who, according to Coleman, “may not have thought about being political, but wanted to come out for a ride.”

In January 2010, Coleman opened the B4L shop in West Oakland, which serves neighborhood residents by selling affordable, quality used bikes and offering repair services. Alongside the typical array of bikes and bike paraphernalia, B4L displays a distinct hip-hop flavor and a strong commitment to justice as reflected in the posters from activist campaigns dating back a decade, plus a colorful, spray-painted tapestry of Oscar Grant’s face hanging from the rafters.

With the food justice-oriented Revolution Café next door, B4L has become a hub for networking around progressive causes and has helped to build unity in the community, according to Coleman. “We’re actually creating jobs. We actually have a green business!” he points out.

Richmond Spokes also has created green jobs for youth, providing bike valet services for public events in Richmond and Oakland. “We have legislation in Oakland where if you’re having an event which has more than 5,000 people, bicycle parking is mandatory,” Drayton explains. This fall, he hopes to open a retail and repair shop furthering Richmond Spokes’ mission of teaching youth entrepreneurship, bike safety, and eco-sustainability.

As the Urban Bike Movement’s momentum grows, so does solidarity between organizations—and a sense of community empowerment. “[The movement] allows individuals to share common space and build communities using the limited resources that we have—our bikes,” says Jenna Burton, founder of Red Bike & Green, an Oakland-based Afrocentric cyclist collective established in 2008 (current membership is about 150). “Bikes have become the vehicle through which we are able to actively address issues of health, environment, and economic disparities that affect our communities... the Urban Bike Movement is one of the few spaces where you will see intergenerational fellowship; the end result is a very uplifting and beneficial experience.”

Scraper Bikes: A Movement of Their Own
A less overtly political but equally uplifting branch of the bicycle movement is the Scraper Bike phenomenon—a brainchild of 21-year-old Tyrone “Baybe Champ” Stevenson, a budding entrepreneur and hip-hop artist.

Scraper Bikes—defined by the Urban Dictionary as “a customized bicycle featuring oversized wheels, foil-encased spokes, and a spray-painted frame”— have become tremendously popular among youth in the streets of East Oakland, where Stevenson leads rides with up to 40 kids at a time.
The Scraper Bikes movement, which has been developing for almost a decade, came out of a desire to avoid the cycle of drugs, crime, and violence plaguing the ghetto, as well as a need for youth to create something that’s their own, according to Stevenson. “Bicycling,” he adds, “is healthy, it keep[s] the environment clean, and it’s exercise. At the same time, you could be riding around in style, get some music going on it.”
This unique form of transportation has also attracted considerable attention outside the ‘hood because of a YouTube video by Stevenson’s rap group Trunk Boiz that has gone viral. Now people from as far away as Japan and Australia are reportedly making their own Scraper Bikes. Media attention has come from the likes of the Huffington Post, NPR, and The Ride, a cycling magazine from the U.K. Also, the Original Scraper Bike (OSB) team has exhibited at D.I.Y. extravaganza Maker Faire over the past two years.

Stevenson calls Scraper Bikes a lifestyle as well as a way to teach life skills. OSB team members must adhere to certain strict criteria—among them, maintaining a minimum 3.0 GPA and following safety guidelines. Oakland’s Parks and Recreation department is working with Stevenson to hold workshops around public safety, in addition to hosting block parties with Roots & Branches, a youth-centric nonprofit that uses hip-hop culture to promote positive social change.

According to Nicholas Basta, founder of Roots & Branches, Scraper Bikes are “making bicycling cool for young people.” By customizing their wheels and tricking-out their rides, urban youth from eight to twentysomething are literally taking transportation issues into their own hands. Or as the Trunk Boiz put it: My scraper bike go hard/I don’t need no car.

Eric K. Arnold is a freelance writer and photographer. He has been documenting hip-hop and youth movements since 1994.


Weaving the Threads | Vol. 17, No. 2 | Fall 2010 | Credits

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Scraper Bike Music Videoby Trunk Boiz


Youth Activist “Knowledge is Born” leads School-to-Prison Pipeline protest, April 2009.  ©2009 Abdul Aziz/ Haymarket Books



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Floodlines: Preserving Public Housing in New Orleans

Among the roughly 15,000 people gathered in Detroit for the U.S. Social Forum (USSF) this year were some 250 grassroots activists and organizers from New Orleans. They were seeking insight from activists in Detroit—the other U.S. city with the largest percentage of empty or unlivable housing—albeit the Rust Belt took several decades to achieve what Hurricane Katrina did overnight.

Of all the housing issues that New Orleans faced following Katrina, the battle over public housing developments stands out for its blatant bigotry and unfairness. Not long after Katrina, politicians, developers, and planners began talking about tearing down all the remaining public housing in New Orleans because, as Baton Rouge Congressman Richard Baker gloated, they had “finally cleaned up public housing in New Orleans! We couldn’t do it, but God did.”[1] In truth, a lot of the public housing had made it through the storm in solid condition and with a few repairs could have been used for many years to come. But the decision-makers had their own agenda and chose to follow their prejudices and stereotypes with city council president Oliver Thomas (who later went to prison for a corruption scandal involving bribes related to a city contract for a parking lot) stating, “There’s just been a lot of pampering, and at some point you have to say, ‘No, no, no, no, no’!.. We don’t need soap opera watchers right now.”[2]

Nadine Jarmon, the appointed chief of the Housing Authority of New Orleans (HANO), seconded Thomas’ opinions. If “they don’t express a willingness to work, or they don’t have a training background, or they weren’t working before Katrina, then [we’re] making a decision to pass over those people,” she declared.3 Meanwhile, thousands of undamaged housing units sat empty six months after the hurricane as homeless New Orleanians and those whose homes had been damaged and had nowhere to go faced eviction from FEMA hotels and trailers. Quick to blame the victims, Thomas, Jarmon and their supporters did not even make exceptions for the elderly, injured, and disabled.

Effects of Race and Class on Public Housing
The attack on public housing residents was based, without a doubt, on race, class, and gender. And at a certain point, the attacks crystallized into an outright support for eugenics when Representative John LaBruzzo of Metairie proposed tubal ligation and vasectomies for public housing residents and people receiving government aid. “What I’m really studying is any and all possibilities that we can reduce the number of people that are going from generational welfare to generational welfare,” he told a Times-Picayune reporter.4 While LaBruzzo’s proposals may have been too extreme even for the right-wing Republicans in the Louisiana legislature, his comments reflect the attitude held by many toward poor residents.

“LaBruzzo talks about poverty as though it were an infectious disease rather than a condition people are condemned to by Louisiana’s lack of investment in education, employment, affordable housing, and quality health care programs, services, and resources,” countered members of the Women’s Health & Justice Initiative (WHJI).

Before the evacuation, more than 14,000 families in New Orleans were receiving some form of housing assistance from HANO. Over 9,000 families were in Section 8 housing and of the 7,700 public housing apartments, 5,146 units were occupied—the rest being vacant, supposedly awaiting repairs and refurbishment. Most of the occupied units were in the so-called Big Four developments:  Lafitte, B. W. Cooper, St. Bernard, and C. J. Peete. Although large, these developments were not like the anonymous housing towers of Chicago or New York. They were  two- and three-story houses with porches and balconies set among pedestrian walkways, courtyards, and in the case of Lafitte, large oak trees.
Following Katrina, the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) announced a plan to tear down almost all the remaining units in the Big Four—over 4,500 apartments—and build 800 new units, only a fraction of which would be set aside for former residents. The battle had begun, and the city would never be the same again.

During a demonstration at the St. Bernard development in April 2006, former resident Pamela Mahogany expressed surprise at the city’s sudden concern over unlivable conditions. “We’ve been having mold, mildew, and backed-up sewers for years,” she said. “I’ve been here 42 years and it’s been a hazard the whole time. They never cared before!” Furthermore, as a working nurse, Mahogany busts the myth about public housing residents being inveterate “soap opera watchers.”

In the months following the demonstration, many former residents of the Big Four—some of whom had returned from exile in Houston—and activists who wanted to stand in solidarity, moved into some of the allegedly unlivable homes. Occupants of Lafitte and St. Bernard developments were quickly arrested but at other locations, they remained for months—even without electricity, as in the C. J. Peete complex.

A Masterplan Aided by a Hurricane
The effort to tear down the city’s public housing was part of a national trend that had begun in 2000. In eight years, HUD demolished 100,000 units of housing but rebuilt only 40,000 of them.5 In New Orleans, public housing had been under threat for decades, facing declining services and demonization by the media.

Prior to Hurricane Katrina, the big housing fight in the city had been over the fate of the St. Thomas development in the Tenth Ward. Built in 1937 and expanded in 1952, it was originally one of several “White-only” developments integrated by the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Many White families moved to the suburbs in response to integration and soon after, the federal government began to cut funding for maintenance and to evict people for having too much income. By the time developers got involved with St. Thomas, HUD had been undermining the community for nearly 20 years by leaving apartments empty—up to 50 percent of St. Thomas was vacant—which destroyed the sense of community and created a vicious cycle of bad living conditions. This approach reflected the policies of successive administrations since the 1980s and bolstered the case for tearing down all public housing.

Of course, if the government had taken half the money it would spend on tearing down St. Thomas and invested it in repairs, maintenance, and supporting community organizations like Black Men United, the development could have become a model community.

“HOPE VI [the federal program to transform public housing] is a joke!” says  Kool Black, one of the founders of Black Men United for Change, an organization active in the St. Thomas housing development. “This country is getting out of the public accommodation business. Look at health care; look at charter schools. Public education was developed for White people initially. In the ‘60s, people of color [were] integrated [into] the system, and it became time for the government to get out of that service. The country is downsizing public responsibility.”

The St. Thomas neighborhood has since been renamed River Garden and is, according to lawyer Bill Quigley, a collection of “cute gingerbread pastel houses.” The redeveloped area has some housing—only a small percentage was reserved for former residents—several vacant lots, and a Wal-Mart. Some of those kicked out no doubt moved into non-subsidized housing. But it’s likely that most former residents were shifted to Section 8 apartments, moved in with relatives, or ended up homeless. “How many of the 1,510 families who used to live in St. Thomas have been allowed back in?” asks Quigley. “About a hundred. [And some of those] families have had to force their way in through litigation by the Greater New Orleans Fair Housing Action Center.”[6]

Elitism, Not Profit Is Motivator
Activists who came to New Orleans after Katrina often assumed that affordable housing was being torn down because there was money to be made. That high-priced condos, luxury hotels, and boutiques would be built in its place, as had happened in other major cities, from San Francisco’s Bayview to Chicago’s Cabrini-Green to New York City’s Lower East Side. But New Orleans’ housing market has never been that robust. The Lower Ninth Ward was not likely to be turned into a golf course or condominiums. The truth is, the elites simply did not want poor people back in the city because they were seen as criminals and parasites. And this attitude was not limited to White elites.

The final city council vote to tear down public housing was unanimous, with no apparent dissent from any council members. Cynthia Hedge Morrell and Cynthia Willard Lewis, the two Black city council members who between them represented the devastated neighborhoods of the Lower Ninth Ward, New Orleans East, and Gentilly had for a long time been reliable opponents of all affordable housing—public, Section 8, and low-income—in their districts. It’s a popular position among their base of middle class and wealthier Black voters. James Carter, a more progressive Black city council member representing the French Quarter, Treme, and the West Bank neighborhood of Algiers had seemed more open to arguments on behalf of former residents but in the end, offered no dissent.

From the day St. Thomas was evacuated, everybody—politicians, business leaders, and the daily paper—were united in calling for an end to big housing developments. Most White residents and a significant percentage of the Black community of New Orleans wanted to see public housing destroyed as well.

And suddenly, advocates who believe in decent, affordable housing for all, found themselves in a difficult position. For decades, political attacks on public housing had succeeded in halting most repairs and upkeep, making the housing less desirable. So when the demolition orders came, advocates had to choose between defending the people’s right to less than livable housing or accepting its destruction. Demolition proponents used this conundrum to their advantage, often recruiting tenants to make public statements about the unlivable conditions and the need to demolish and rebuild. But the truth is, however substandard the public housing, it is still preferable to homelessness.

Sound Strategies Bring Few Victories
In the two-and-a-half years following Hurricane Katrina, the public housing campaign used many tactics, from protests to lawsuits to direct action. Several organizations in the city worked on the issue, each with specific goals and approaches, but all of them utilized direct action elements, which often entailed former residents moving back into their sealed-off homes, and all secured some real victories.

One early victory involved the Lower Ninth Ward, which housing activists saved from mass demolition with a combination of legal action and physical occupation of a house near the levee break. “In January 2006, they were going to bulldoze the entire neighborhood,” said Kali Akuno of the Malcolm X grassroots movement. “But Ishmael Muhammed and the Praxis Project brought a lawsuit, the Common Ground people moved into a house in the neighborhood and ACORN [distributed] placards in the neighborhood saying ‘No Bulldozing.’ The placards got attention on TV. People were saying, ‘I didn’t know my house was in danger until I saw that story on TV.’” The fact that people still live in Iberville (though it continues to be under threat of demolition) stands as another important victory of these efforts. Located just outside the French Quarter on prime real estate near the high ground of the Mississippi, Iberville is in a neighborhood that once housed Storyville—an early twentieth-century red light district believed to be the birthplace of jazz.

In Akuno’s opinion, although the work to preserve public housing was strategically solid, organizing among the poorest and the displaced was a serious problem. “Understand what this displacement has meant,” he says. “We have 100,000 less people now. It’s hard to sustain actions like this while much of your base is in Houston.”

Over the years, however, the tide has turned some, bringing support for public housing from surprising quarters, such as New York Times architecture critic Nicolai Ouroussoff, who spoke out against the demolition. Singling out the Lafitte development, he wrote:
“In its rush to demolish the apartment complexes—and replace them with the kind of generic mixed-income suburban community so favored by Washington bureaucrats—[HUD] demonstrates great insensitivity to both the displaced tenants and the urban fabric of this city…
“In arguing to save the buildings, preservationists point to the human scale of the apartment complexes, whose pitched slate roofs, elegant brickwork and low-rise construction reflect a subtle understanding of the city’s historical context without slavishly mimicking it.
“Tellingly, neither housing agency has closely examined alternatives to demolition, like renovating some buildings in the complexes and replacing others…”[7]

In the U.S. Congress, Representative Maxine Waters led House Bill 1227, “The Gulf Coast Hurricane Housing Recovery Act of 2007,” which would have saved much of the housing or at least provided one-for-one replacement. But the bill was killed in Senate, largely due to the opposition of Louisiana senators David Vitter and Mary Landrieu.

Deceit, Subterfuge Win the Day
The public relations battle was intense, with HANO stating that it was cheaper to tear down the developments than to rebuild even though their internal documents told a different story. As attorney Quigley pointed out:
The Housing Authority’s own documents show that Lafitte could be repaired for $20 million, even completely overhauled for $85 million, while the estimate for demolition and rebuilding many fewer units will cost over $100 million. St. Bernard could be repaired for $41 million, substantially modernized for $130 million, while demolition and rebuilding less units will cost $197 million. B.W. Cooper could be substantially renovated for $135 million, compared to $221 million to demolish and rebuild fewer units. Their own insurance company reported that it would take less than $5,000 each to repair the C.J. Peete apartments.[8]

“It’s clear that HUD and HANO have been routinely and regularly lying to the public,” Quigley told a reporter. “The discussions that they’ve had internally and with each other are completely different from what they’ve been saying publicly.”[9]

Quigley and civil rights attorney Tracie Washington were aided in their efforts by the Advancement Project, a national legal project, and others in New Orleans and outside. They succeeded in winning delays, buying time for activists to organize, but in the end, all legal strategies were exhausted. There were solidarity protests at HUD offices around the United States and White activists from the Anti-Racist Working Group and Catalyst Project chained themselves to the offices of HANO.

After decades of struggle, the future of New Orleans public housing came down to a meeting at city hall, just before Christmas 2007. Despite low expectations, activists found the events of the day traumatic. Supporters of public housing were for the most part denied a chance to speak and most were not even allowed in the building. Those who insisted on speaking were tasered and arrested. But ultimately, it all came to naught. The council voted unanimously to demolish the housing and within weeks, several public housing developments across the city were torn down.

Meanwhile, homelessness was on the rise. An estimated 11,000 or almost five percent of the city’s population was believed to have been rendered homeless.10 A new homeless-led group—Homeless Pride—set up camp across from city hall, serving as a daily reminder to the city’s politicians of the consequences of their policies. But the mayor’s office just closed the park. When Homeless Pride set up a new encampment under a highway overpass a few blocks away, officials worked with UNITY for the Homeless, the city’s main homeless advocacy alliance, to place the people in temporary housing. Although this brought immediate relief to those people, it also served to silence the larger debate about systemic solutions.

1.    Charles Babington, “Some GOP Legislators Hit Jarring Notes in Addressing Katrina,” Washington Post, September 10, 2005. www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2005/09/09/AR2005090901930.html.
2.    Editorial, “No Welcome Mat?” Gambit Weekly, February 28, 2006. www.bestofnew    orleans.com/gyrobase/Content?oid=oid%3A35721.
3.    Ibid.
4.    Mark Waller, “LaBruzzo: Sterilization plan fights poverty,” Times-Picayune, September 24, 2008.
5.    Katy Reckdahl, “Critics question whether new New Orleans public housing will meet needs,” Times-Picayune, December 08, 2008.
6.    Deon Roberts, “Developer, public housing advocate engage in e-battle,” New Orleans CityBusiness, January 2, 2007. www.neworleanscitybusiness.com/print.cfm?recid=8051.
7.    Nicolai Ouroussoff, “History vs. Homogeneity in New Orleans Housing Fight,” New York Times, February 22, 2007. www.nytimes.com/2007/02/22/arts/design/22hous.html.
8.    Bill Quigley, “Tale of Two Sisters,” CommonDreams,  December 28, 2006.
9.    Katy Reckdahl, “Like A Ton of Bricks,” Gambit Weekly, October 24, 2006.
10.    Source: UNITY for the Homeless.

Jordan Flaherty is a journalist and community organizer based in New Orleans and an editor of Left Turn magazine, a national publication dedicated to covering social movements. This article is adapted from his book Floodlines: Community and Resistance from Katrina to the Jena Six published by Haymarket Books, Chicago, Illinois, 2010. www.haymarketbooks.org. 


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Public Housing Residents Fight for their Homes

Charlotte Delgado is on a tear. “They have run public housing into the ground until it is so bad they cannot begin to fix it,” she tells her audience at the U.S. Social Forum. Delgado wound up in HUD multifamily subsidized housing after being diagnosed with cancer 25 years ago. She beat the disease seven times and now serves as vice president/west of the National Alliance of HUD Tenants (NAHT). From her toes to her carefully rolled blonde “do,” Delgado exudes indignation. “What they intend to do is give it to the banks, let the banks fix it up and rent it out—and in a maximum of 30 years, they can get out of the [public housing] program!” she says, stabbing the air with her finger.

“I live in Sacramento, eight blocks from the state capitol and my building was the first in the state taken over by a for-profit in 1998,” Delgado continues. “My rent went from $595 to $825 overnight. And out of the 103 families who lived in my complex, there are only 29 of us left.”
The supply of housing for low and very low income families in the U.S. is melting away, even as people lose jobs to the recession and homes to foreclosure. (Unemployment and foreclosure rates are even higher in communities of color.) The damage from decades of official neglect of the housing stock is piling up and still-solid structures will soon become unlivable if nothing is done to repair them.

Government contracts with landlords are expiring, as in Delgado’s case, which lets owners put tens of thousands of units back on the private market and out of the price range of low-income families. Plus, a new Obama administration proposal threatens to privatize the country’s remaining stock of government-owned housing. Faced with escalating threats, public housing residents are using every tool at their disposal—from lawsuits and lobbying to mobilization and direct action—to keep their homes.

Families Call the Projects Home
About six million families in the U.S. live in some form of social housing—2.3 million in developments that follow the original New Deal model of government-owned buildings operated by local housing authorities, and the rest in subsidized housing under 13 different federal programs. Since President Richard Nixon declared a construction moratorium in 1973, the government has been contracting with private developers and property owners who agree to keep housing affordable for a specific period of time in return for subsidies.

Since the mid 1990s, the U.S. has lost 150,000 units of government-owned housing.1 Some have fallen to demolition under HOPE VI and other projects that promised newer and better mixed-income housing.2 Others have been lost to “disposition,” when local housing authorities decided to dispose of their housing stock by selling it to private owners. (Atlanta and San Diego have completely eliminated their public housing stock.)

The loss of public housing scatters people who have deep roots in a place, tatters the social fabric, and shatters community, according to a 2010 report entitled “We Call These Projects Home,” by the national Right to the City Alliance (RTTC).3 To produce it RTTC drew on the voices and expertise of public housing residents to inform the analysis and ended up with a picture that defies the media-fed stereotype. (See box  on page 48.)
“Our research shows that public housing is and always has been a vital and necessary option for low-income communities of color. Overall, residents believe that public housing provides a strong sense of community and want to see public policies that strengthen rather than dismantle it,” wrote RTTC’s HUD workgroup.

More than 70 percent of public housing residents are people of color. “For sure, racism is always there. Lots of people feel it,” says Anne Washington, an activist with Community Voices Heard in New York City. She has lived in General Grant Housing on Broadway near 125th Street for 22 years and raised her children there.
“People have this negative stereotype about public housing, even friends of my kids, my daughter-in-law... People think of us as drug addicts, drug pushers, prostitutes. Most of the people in this building work. They have families. They stay here because it’s affordable,” Washington says.

LIFFT Wins Landmark Agreement
In Miami, Fla., the Scott-Carver public housing project was no worse than other poor neighborhoods, says Yvonne Stratford, a former resident and activist with the Miami Workers Center. “We had lots of generations there—grandparents and great-grandparents. We had a big yard, people sat on their porches, barbecued… That housing stood for 54 years and would’ve lasted another 54. The buildings were made of concrete. People used to run to the projects in a hurricane because they were safer.”

But starting in 2003, Scott-Carver was crushed by the wrecking ball after the Miami-Dade Housing Authority got a HOPE VI grant. For the 850 units torn down and the 1100 people scattered, the Housing Authority was only going to offer 50 units of replacement housing on the site. Former Scott-Carver residents worked with LIFFT (Low Income Families Fighting Together), a project of the Miami Workers Center, to fight for one-to-one replacement and their right to return. They lobbied the Miami City Council and Dade County Commission and sat in at the HUD office. In 2007, they occupied the last standing Scott-Carver building and launched the “Find Our People” campaign. By putting up an eight-foot board around the building and putting out the word, they succeeded in tracking down 400 of the 600 former Scott-Carver residents that the local HUD office had “lost.” People simply came by and wrote names, addresses, and numbers on the board—with crosses next to the names of those who had died.

After a 10-year campaign, LIFFT won an agreement from the city to make public housing available for all the displaced residents—177 to move back on site and others to go into subsidized housing being built in the neighborhood. The activists’ challenge now is to remain in contact with the displaced residents and ensure that the housing authority follows through on its promise. “We wrote signs that say ‘We’re watching you!’ and put them on the gate where they’re supposed to be building,” says Stratford.

Miami razed Scott-Carver before the real estate bubble burst. “This was a time when Liberty City was one of the ground zeros for gentrification,” says Tony Romano, former organizing director for the Workers Center. “You had these hawks, these investors from all over the country turn to real estate, buy stuff up, and start flipping it.”

As cities become desirable living space and white flight reverses, building owners see the chance to profit from opting out of their affordable housing agreements. At a U.S. Social Forum workshop, Judy Montanez, an NAHT Board member and co-chair of the tenants’ association at Castleton Park—a mixed-income subsidized apartment house on Staten Island, New York—told the audience, “My building faces the Statue of Liberty. It’s convenient, it has waterfront views…All of a sudden in 2003, we have new management [saying] they want to opt out of their Section 8 contract. They wanted to sell to Lawrence Gluck, who’s known for predatory equity. He wants to turn public housing into luxury properties.”

Montanez and another tenant hooked up with housing coalitions in the city and began asking questions. They found a clause in the National Housing Act that requires buildings with insured mortgages, such as Castleton Park, to remain affordable unless they can prove that there is no need for affordable housing in the community. So, with the help of Legal Aid, they sued HUD to enforce the federal law. They talked to local and state politicians and to their congressman. They brought busloads of people to rally in front of HUD’s office. In 2007, HUD agreed to enforce the law. The owners appealed twice and lost, but the case is still in court awaiting a final appeal.

Montanez credits the tenants’ association—which they built and sustained—for their success. “It’s a lot of work,” she says, “but you have to become knowledgeable.” Lots of tenants will need to learn quickly.

PETRA Points to Privatization
Around 260,000 federally subsidized units are in buildings whose HUD-subsidized 40-year mortgages expire by 2013, according to NAHT Executive Director Michael Kane. Since 1995, at least that many units have been lost to expiring contracts while another 100,000 have been lost to foreclosure.
The Obama Administration’s proposal for the “Preservation, Enhancement, and Transformation of Rental Assistance” (PETRA) widens the path to privatization that was opened when the federal government started contracting with private companies. The proposal appears to put both housing stock and residents at risk.

PETRA would allow housing authorities to convert all their stock to privately owned subsidized housing and mortgage the properties to pay for repairs. In its current form the proposal fails to provide Federal Housing Administration (FHA) insurance on the mortgages and makes no provision for keeping the housing under public control should the owner default, thus raising the specter of a foreclosure crisis in public housing. Moreover, PETRA does not guarantee that subsidized units will remain permanently affordable.

“When they only require a 20- to 30-year use agreement for private developers, then give them the option to pull out, that is not permanent affordability,” Montanez says. “What happened to the concept of public housing? You won’t have it any more if you offer it to private developers and private financing.”

Even when affordable, market-based subsidized housing is less stable and secure for residents. They must search for housing, hope to find landlords who will take vouchers, hope to meet the screening criteria. They have to come up with deposits and utility payments, often a hardship for very low-income people. And under some programs, landlords are free to terminate voucher holders after a year.

And since it merges the rules and funding for all 13 housing programs, PETRA could replace the stronger rights afforded to public housing residents with the weaker safeguards available to people in subsidized housing.

HUD Breaks Promise, Congress Avoids Decision
In December 2009, HUD officials began meeting with a group of public housing residents to get their input on PETRA, according to Erik Crawford, president of the Davidson/Site 166 Residents’ Association in New York. HUD promised to bring the final proposal to the group before giving it to Congress, but when the residents reconvened in April they found that the bill had been submitted the day before.

A preliminary hearing before the Housing and Community Opportunity Subcommittee of the House Financial Services Committee at the end of May drew storms of criticism. According to DeAngelo Bester, the housing justice campaign coordinator for National People’s Action, Congress is unlikely to take action on anything so controversial before mid-terms, which throws the future of public housing into the uncharted waters of the next Congress.
National People’s Action organized meetings between HUD staff and public housing residents in several cities this fall and in Crawford’s opinion, the organizing, education, and strong recommendations have made a big difference so far.

“But we need to speak with a unified voice,” he adds. “Someone’s going to get hurt if we don’t get together.”
Back at the U.S. Social Forum, Delgado hit the same note: “The private owners believe they have enough clout to kill any bill they object to, but for every owner there are tenants and we should be speaking. United we stand, divided we’re homeless.”

1.    Western Regional Advocacy Project 2010 update: “Without Housing” http://www.wraphome.org/index.php/campaigns/without-housing
2.    Tracy, James. “Hope VI Mixed-Income Housing Projects Displace Poor People.” RP&E. Spring 2010. http://urbanhabitat.org/node/1811
3.    www.righttothecity.org/we-call-these-projects-home.html

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Right Wing Ballot Strategies Hit Cities

San Diego has become ground zero for the newly energized right wing attack on progressive policies. Right wing politicians and far right industry associations mounted several anti-union ballot measures this year and have pledged to continue the fight in the 2012 elections. Their goal is to make San Diego the first city in the country to repeal a Living Wage Ordinance and outlaw Project Labor Agreements (PLA), as well as effective local hire programs.

State ballot initiatives have always been part of the right’s political strategy. Each year progressives battle anti-tax initiatives (the so-called TABOR or Taxpayers Bill of Rights), environmental rollbacks, anti-labor and anti-immigrant policies, and other conservative wedge issues. But the attack on cities is a new and troubling feature of the right wing backlash and San Diego is the first phase of a conservative action to roll back and repeal pro-labor and progressive gains in California cities.

The Fight to Reclaim San Diego
Once the home of the John Birch Society, San Diego has long been known as a conservative city. In his book, While America Aged, Roger Lowenstein says: “[San Diego] was not historically a union town like New York. San Diego was Republican to the core—home terrain to both Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan. (Reagan, who made a point of ending each of his campaigns in San Diego, called it his ‘lucky city’).”
But in the last two decades labor, community, and environmental coalitions have made important changes to the political landscape in San Diego with significant new progressive policies, many of them first of their kind in the nation, such as: (1) An inclusionary housing law for affordable housing with aggressive in lieu fees; (2) A ban on the use of the toxic pesticide methyl bromide in low-income communities; (3) A living wage ordinance and a Community Benefits Agreement for the largest private development downtown; (4) Strict design guidelines on big-box stores, plus community and economic benefits assessments on community plan amendments; (5) An economic prosperity element within the city’s General Plan, which ties land-use decisions to self-sufficiency jobs; (6) A stringent ordinance applicable to all city contracts that sets up a legislative hearing process for addressing irresponsible contractors; (7) An expansion of the living wage law to cover low-wage construction maintenance.
In response, right-wing think tanks, anti-union contractors, industry associations, and political operatives have launched a series of local ballot initiatives that aim to roll back progressive gains and weaken the labor movement, creating new strategies for conservative and anti-union organizations to use in cities across the country.

A New Kind of Assault on Progressive Policy
Perhaps the most dangerous aspect of the new right wing agenda is that it seeks to make it harder to establish or reinstate progressive policies in the future by amending city charters. Examples include:

  •  A 2006 charter amendment encouraging privatization in San Diego.
  •  San Diego’s “Strong Mayor” amendments of 2008 and 2010 shifting power from city council members elected by district to a mayor elected  citywide where developers and the wealthy have the advantage.
  • A charter ban on Project Labor Agreements (PLAs)—the first in the nation—in Chula Vista, the second largest city in San Diego county with a population demographic that is quickly turning majority Hispanic.

Charters adopted by Vista and Oceanside—two large cities in San Diego county—enable them to contract for public works without paying prevailing wages, or having union agreements. (On the ballot this November is a similar charter amendment for San Diego county.)
Expensive ballot measures rather than grassroots power that wins votes on the city council are the only means to undo the damage done by the charter amendments. “If they win here, they will have momentum going into other fights in California,” says Mark Ayers, president of the national Building and Construction Trades of the AFL-CIO. “You can rest assured that we will see the strategy replicated in short order in other states.”

Right Wing Takes Fight to Cities
Right wing strategists, such as Grover Norquist (Americans for Tax Reform) and Steven Malanga (Manhattan Institute), who have studied the growth of the progressive infrastructure, have been arguing for cities to be the next battleground for “permanent conservative political control” of America. Norquist and Malanga want to adopt a political strategy for attacking and weakening metropolitan-level constituencies that are the “key pillars” of the Democratic Party (unions, trial attorneys, ‘federally-funded’ social service providers, and academics) and form the core of “pro-government coalitions.”

According to Malanga, “The national living wage movement decided that they had little chance to achieve policy victories in Washington (under a Republican Congress) and so should turn their attention to cities and states where the political climate was more favorable.” Progressives, he claims, “...rightly figured out that they could still achieve legislative victories that would bring tens of millions of Americans under laws that could never get passed in Washington.”

 A progressive municipal agenda, which encompasses living wage laws, responsible contracting laws, local hire policies, local environmental standards, inclusionary housing policies, and big-box restrictions is clearly a serious threat to the right wing’s efforts to weaken government.
Now industry associations, such as the Chamber of Commerce, the National Federation of Independent Business, the Associated General Contractors (AGC), and Associated Builders and Contractors (ABC), have allied themselves with the fight to roll back progress at the municipal level. These organizations are also at the front-end of opposition to healthcare, environmental, workplace safety, and financial reforms at the federal level. And while Washington dithers, they have  energized their local and state chapters to focus at the municipal level.
San Diego Is Right Wing’s Ground Zero
Over the past decade, San Diego has gradually turned “blue,” causing great consternation in right wing circles, which have made it their favorite target. When Carl DeMaio came to San Diego in 2003, his think tank—the Performance Institute—was already closely connected to the national and state conservative infrastructure. He collaborated statewide with the Reason Public Policy Institute to launch a “Citizen’s Budget” for California, laying out an anti tax and antigovernment agenda that propelled Arnold Schwarzenegger towards the right. The plan outlined several constitutional reforms that would be approved by the voter under a referendum, including a Taxpayer Bill of Rights revenue limit, a modified version of the Gann Spending Limit, and an automatic balanced budget adjustment trigger when revenues fall short of expectations.  

DeMaio is now on the San Diego City Council and with his eyes on the Mayor’s seat has become the face of the San Diego Tea Party, stirring up populist anti tax sentiments. He is hooked up with the well-heeled contractors’ associations (ABC and AGC) to lead the assault on labor and progressive gains. Both associations were involved with Proposition 23, the attempt to repeal California’s global warming law.
A ballot measure that DeMaio and his supporters failed to get on this November’s ballot for lack of valid signatures has been described as “the most far-reaching effort ever to ban living wage ordinances or anything similar to them in a permanent way,” by Joel Foster of the progressive Ballot Initiative Strategy Center. The ballot measure that DeMaio and supporters have vowed to revive in 2012 aims to:

  • Repeal the city’s Living Wage Ordinance and place a prohibition in the city charter on any contract standards above the state’s minimum wage.
  • Give full authority to the Mayor (without City Council or public input) to outsource city functions, making it easier to privatize city services.
  • Outlaw Project Labor Agreements, Construction Workforce Agreements, Local Hire Agreements, and requirements for the use of apprentices on city projects or projects using city funds.
  • Neutralize Community Benefit Agreements in development deals by outlawing all of their essential features, such as living wages and local hire agreements.

Their agenda is simply to “…create minimum wage jobs with no benefits so that we can line the pockets of Mr. DeMaio’s friends in big business,” says City Councilmember Marti Emerald. “This is about maximizing profits to big contractors who are lining up at the government trough right now.”

Progressives Fight Measure for Measure
San Diego’s progressive infrastructure is gearing up to defeat the next round of initiatives in 2012 and prevent the model from spreading. “We’ve got to have bigger coalitions, larger-scale one-on-one organizing in our neighborhoods, churches, and workplaces, and a smart communications strategy,” says Tom Lemmon, business manager of the Building and Construction Trades Council of San Diego-Imperial counties.
According to San Diego’s progressive leaders, there are three fundamental tasks they have to tackle in the next two years:
1.    Expose the right-wing agenda as one that will harm the economy, close off opportunity for low income and middle class San Diegan’s, and allow neighborhoods and infrastructure to deteriorate.
2.    Advance policy campaigns that can win with a progressive agenda that is pro jobs, neighborhoods, and the environment.
3.    Create a movement with the capacity to engage tens of thousands of people and win citywide elections.
“Our success in the future will depend entirely on what we do between now and the next election,” says Lorena Gonzalez, secretary-treasurer of the San Diego-Imperial Counties Labor Council, AFL-CIO.

Donald Cohen is the co-founder and president of the Center on Policy Initiatives. He has over 25 years of experience as an organizer and trainer in strategy, policy, and organization. Murtaza H. Baxamusa has a Ph.D. in Planning from the University of Southern California and a Planning Certification from the American Planning Association. He is a member of the Urban Land Institute and serves on the board of directors of the San Diego City-County Reinvestment Taskforce.

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Social Cartography: The Art of Using Maps to Build Community Power

By Eli Moore and Catalina Garzón

It was November 2008 and eight leaders from environmental justice community organizations were scrutinizing a map of southeast San Francisco showing areas experiencing problems with diesel trucks. Hand drawn blue and red lines indicated the locations of freeways and truck routes in the neighborhood. “Why do you think these problems exist here?” asked the facilitator. The response was immediate: “Because the people who live here are poor! And the people in charge don’t listen to us.”

In recent years, mapping has increasingly become a key strategy for analyzing and communicating issues in public health, urban planning, environmental justice, and human rights. In mapping their own communities and reflecting on the maps they create, people can develop and advocate for solutions. Developments in GIS (Geographic Information Systems) and internet-based mapping, and greater accessibility of digital data sets have made mapping feasible for people with moderate resources and technical training. Also, a growing appreciation for geographic thinking and the value of looking at social and environmental problems through a geographic lens have helped, even as concepts of space and place become mainstream.

Not all mapping processes, however, are participatory and it is still rare for non-professionals affected by the issues being mapped to be involved in the decisions guiding map creation, analysis, and distribution. In the U.S., there is such an abundance of easily accessible data that asking residents to generate their own seems redundant. Yet, we believe that this type of mapping holds great potential for shifting the relationships of power that are the root cause of social and environmental injustices.

A mapping process—which includes selecting labels and symbols, choosing the scale, and layering—guided by the people most affected by the issues being mapped has the potential to develop critical consciousness and generate collective action because:

  • Participants develop their own language to describe their reality, producing terms and definitions that reflect their values.
  • Shared personal experiences enable groups to analyze patterns and identify collective experiences.
  • The role of institutions and the extent of their power in shaping collective experiences becomes more obvious.

A Tradition Older than Writing
People have been creating maps to understand their surroundings since before the invention of writing. As Margaret Wickens Pearce and Renee Pualani Louis write in Mapping Indigenous Depth of Place, “Indigenous cartographies are as diverse as indigenous cultures... Indigenous mapping may be gestural, chanted, or inscribed in stone, wood, wall, tattoo, leaf, or paper. Indigenous maps may be used to assess taxes, guide a pilgrim, connect the realms of the sacred and profane, or navigate beyond the horizon. Clearly, indigenous cartographies are process oriented as opposed to product dependent.”[1]

However, the maps that most people get acquainted with in elementary school reflect the legacy of colonization, resource extraction, and state control. Maps were instrumental in the process of making desired resources visible and people invisible for imperial bureaucracies. But today, indigenous people, such as the Nunavut of Canada, are at the forefront of using mapping to reclaim their land and resources.[2]

With the widespread use of internet-based maps and GPS units in cars and cell phones, mapping is more a part of people’s everyday experience now than ever before. Mapping by social and environmental justice organizations has also mushroomed. Some mapping involves elaborate GIS analyses, such as the opportunity mapping developed by the Kirwan Institute.[3] And interactive mapping websites allow users to choose from numerous datasets and create custom maps.4 Other online maps use a Google platform, such as the Pacific Institute’s Impacts of Sea Level Rise on the California Coast5 and the Holocaust Memorial Museum’s maps of the genocide in Sudan.[6] These developments have made mapping more relevant and powerful, but also raise questions about when and how to use its many possible forms.

Building Maps for EJ
Like most EJ issues, freight movement involves complex relationships between land use, transportation, air quality, community health, race, and wealth. Maps often help make these relationships clear. As one workshop participant pointed out, “You can talk about all the different toxins in the air, but if you’re not seeing a map of all these facilities as they really exist, you’re missing out. Mapping is a great tool for myself as an organizer, and for my active members to inform their neighbors and keep that conversation going.”

To relate to a map, we must be able to see something of ourselves in the map. If we can recognize a street corner, a park, a hospital, we can begin to place our experiences on the map. Aerial photos help because they show the unique colors and distinct shapes of buildings, streets, and other features. Our base map in workshops is a poster-sized aerial photo of the neighborhood with the streets labeled. It is ideal because at larger scales, the details get lost.

For a map to respect a group’s knowledge and experience, it must use the group’s language. What this means is that the symbols and place names should come from the group’s own discourse. Critical geographers like Jay Johnson have pointed out that Cartesian maps limit our representation of space because they demand fixed boundaries, whereas many cultures value fluid boundaries.

To understand the root causes of a collective problem, the maps must make visible the factors shaping the problem. Being able to view different data sets layered on top of each other—for example, demographics, land use, and asthma rates—helps the exploration of their relationship to each other. In one workshop focused on freight transport, the groups mapped streets with heavy truck traffic and the businesses that attracted them on a transparency placed over an aerial photo of the neighborhood. When the same transparency was overlaid on a map of the same area with land use designations, it became apparent that the problems were wherever industrially-zoned parcels were mixed in with residential parcels. The layering of community knowledge over institutional and legal boundaries can help the community move beyond the immediate problem to an exploration of its political roots.

Mapping as Community Builder
Generating a “bigger picture” understanding of how an issue impacts an entire community can help strengthen relationships between residents affected by the issue. A key challenge in mobilizing around an issue is convincing people of the value of joining others to work together.
Map-making can be a useful tool in scaling up from the individual lived experience to building a shared analysis about collective challenges. Making maps together means piecing together collective experiences, discovering patterns, and arriving at a collective understanding of the root causes of these shared experiences.

1.    American Indian Culture and Research Journal 32:3 (2008) 107-126. http://www-as.phy.ohiou.edu/Departments/Geography/bcvs/pubs/pearce_pub_01.pdf
2.    http://atlas.nrcan.gc.ca/site/english/maps/peopleandsociety/nunavut/1
3    http://4909e99d35cada63e7f757471b7243be73e53e14.gripelements.com/publications/king_county_wa_opportunity_mapping_apr_2010.pdf
4.    www.healthycityca.org
5.    http://www.pacinst.org/reports/sea_level_rise/gmap.html
6.    http://www.ushmm.org/maps/projects/darfur/

Eli Moore and Catalina Garzón are the program co-directors of the Community Strategies for Sustainability and Justice program at the Pacific Institute. 

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The San Francisco PUC: Working for the Community

The San Francisco Public Utilities Commission (SFPUC) provides water, sewage services, and municipal power to San Francisco and surrounding areas. It is also a huge job generator. When I joined the Commission in 2008, I identified three priorities: (i) achieving stronger local hire outcomes; (ii) adopting an environmental justice policy; and (iii) creating an agency-wide Community Benefits Program.

In 2002—following a bond measure approved by San Francisco voters that November—the SFPUC embarked on one of the largest water infrastructure projects at a cost of $4.6 billion dollars. The Water System Improvement Project (WSIP), which includes more than 80 projects, is working to repair, replace, and seismically upgrade deteriorating pipelines, tunnels, reservoirs, pump stations, storage tanks, and dams from San Francisco to the Central Valley by the end of 2015.

WSIP Under a Local Hire Lens
In 2008, the number of local residents being hired through WSIP fell far below the city’s goal of 50 percent. But pressure from San Francisco-based community organizations to increase the percentage of local hires—across all city agencies—has served as a catalyst and spurred a city-wide debate on how to move from showing “good faith” efforts in local hiring to requiring numerical results.

Supervisor John Avalos has introduced legislation that requires mandatory local hiring for city-funded projects. It comes at a time when the SF PUC is preparing to bring forward the $4 billion Sewer System Improvement Project for San Francisco. Unlike the WSIP, all of the work is to take place in San Francisco, which makes the issue of local hire all the more important.

Since many of the jobs on this project require skills, a key step is to increase the number of qualified residents available to fill the slots. So, the Commission has allocated over $1 million to City Build—San Francisco’s job training program—to scale up their training efforts targeted at unemployed and underemployed residents in districts, such as Bayview-Hunters Point and the Mission.

Bringing EJ to Waste Water
Historically, the SFPUC Waste Water Department has had an inconsistent relationship with Bayview-Hunters Point residents living adjacent to its sewer plant. It is the only waste water plant in San Francisco that is located across the street from people’s homes. Over the years there have been myriad complaints, including concerns about odors.

In October 2009, after working closely with the Environmental Justice (EJ) subcommittee of the Citizen’s Advisory Committee and the PUC staff, the Commission unanimously approved an EJ policy—the first of its kind for a utilities agency—which articulates the agency’s commitment to preventing and mitigating the disproportionate environmental impacts of its activities on communities. It also provides a tool for rate payers and residents to hold the agency accountable.

A Community Benefits Wrap Up

The discussion over ways to operationalize the EJ resolution resulted in the development of an agency-wide Community Benefits Program, which specifically identifies ways in which the SFPUC can support workforce development, community contractor inclusion, and environmental justice, and the promotion of sustainable practices, education, arts, and culture.

The development of the Community Benefits Program and the accompanying policy have opened up a robust dialogue about what it means to be a good neighbor among SFPUC staff, commissioners, and community members. They have also prompted the creation of an inventory of all PUC work that falls under the rubric of community benefits provision—a timely exercise that will help pilot the program for the upcoming Sewer System Improvement Project.
Although my tenure on the SFPUC only lasted two years, I was struck by the scale of impact one can have through the public sector. Applying social justice values within a policy forum is something more of us should be doing because it creates institutional change that can outlast any one commissioner or administrator and result in long-term benefits for communities.

Juliet Ellis is the former executive director of Urban Habitat. She is now the Deputy General Manager for External Affairs at the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission. To listen to Juliet Ellis on implementing local hire policies visit: www.urbanhabitat.org/sec/localhire/podcasts/ellis

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Wanted: Community Jobs Policy For San Francisco

A POWER demonstration in Bayview-Hunter’s Point. Courtesy of People Organized to Win Employment Rights (POWER).For decades, San Francisco has had a goal of using a workforce that is at least 50 percent local resident on its publicly-funded construction projects. But the city has always relied on the “good faith efforts” of contractors to deliver on this objective. Now, a report released in August of this year by Chinese for Affirmative Action and the Brightline Defense Project (“The Failure of Good Faith: Local Hiring Policy Analysis and Recommendations for San Francisco”) shows that the good faith approach has not worked.[1]  In fact, based on a survey of 5.3 million job hours, the report confirms something that community advocates have known anecdotally for years.

For the seven years since 2003, the average local hire figures on city-funded construction is less than 25 percent and actually dipped below 20 percent for 2009. Clearly, say community leaders and job advocates, it is time for San Francisco to come up with a Community Jobs Policy.

The term “Community Jobs Policy” is a new one, but the concept embraces some of the distinctive characteristics of the local hiring debate in San Francisco. While perhaps the most basic aim of local hiring is to keep local dollars circulating within the local economy, the push for reform in San Francisco is driven to a large extent by a desire to break up persistent cycles of poverty by targeting specific underserved and underemployed communities for career-building blue collar and green collar job opportunities. This call for a Community Jobs Policy comes loudest from southeast San Francisco, which includes the Bayview-Hunters Point community.

Community Hiring: a Dream Deferred
In many ways, a true community-driven local hiring policy would be the realization of a dream deferred for Bayview-Hunters Point. In 1972, the San Francisco Building and Construction Trades Council, the San Francisco Contractors’ Association, and the Bayview-Hunters Point community signed a Memorandum of Agreement (MOA), which states that 50 percent of the workers in each trade on public works projects in the Bayview will be local residents. That MOA is often circulated at community meetings. Community leaders Espanola Jackson, Oscar James, and others who were involved in the Model Cities Program that led to the historic 1972 agreement, make sure that every public discussion about jobs in the city’s southeast sector—where unemployment runs well over 20 percent and closer to 50 percent among African Americans—acknowledges the jobs commitment made nearly 40 years ago.

Guaranteed access to apprenticeship is a critical theme at these meetings, as union apprenticeship programs are the best way to develop the skills required to excel in a construction career. A Community Jobs Policy would ensure that community members have those opportunities and community apprentices and journey level workers have jobs on San Francisco’s public works projects. The 1972 MOA also dictates that local hire must be measured by trade and not by overall project hours, as opportunities for disadvantaged communities have historically been concentrated in the lowest-paying trades, with representation in the higher-paying skilled trades proving elusive.

As San Francisco prepares to spend $27 billion on public infrastructure projects over the next 10 years, a Community Jobs Policy can be a powerful tool to rebuild a Bayview-Hunters Point middle class that has steadily eroded since the phased shutdown of the Hunters Point Shipyard began in the 1970s. Such a Policy would create expanded home ownership opportunities, increase spending in local commerce, improve educational facilities, and build stronger community ties.

Local Hire Concerns Create Cross-town Coalitions
Concerns over local hire have brought together community groups from Bayview-Hunters Point and Visitacion Valley with groups from Chinatown, the Mission, and South of Market.

On the day that the “Good Faith” report was released, organizations representing African-American workers, such as the Southeast Jobs Coalition and the Osiris Coalition from the southeast came together with Chinese for Affirmative Action and the Chinese Progressive Association, PODER from the Mission, and the Filipino Community Center from the Excelsior district, to stand together in calling for change. Such a cross-town coalition working to advance local hiring suggests a common understanding that there is enough potential work in San Francisco to lift all boats.

There is also consensus among these organizations about the three fundamental aspects that a Community Jobs Policy must encompass: (1) Local Hiring: city-funded jobs for San Francisco residents within all construction trades; (2) Community Hiring: guaranteed opportunities for the city’s most disproportionately underserved and underrepresented neighborhoods; (3) Project Area Hiring: priority for residents on development projects in their neighborhood.

A successful Community Jobs Policy should also promote worker mobility within the city and the Bay Area to help apprentices advance to journey level status.

Call for Legislation Mandating Local Hire
The need for economic development where there is economic disparity binds San Francisco’s low-income communities and communities of color. Good union jobs with strong wages and benefits, and safe working conditions in trades that provide honorable and exciting work must be targeted as part of San Francisco’s overall community development strategy.

In October 2010, San Francisco Supervisor John Avalos introduced legislation that would mandate—rather than promote through good faith efforts—local hiring. [2] Avalos’ legislation builds on a series of local hiring reforms advanced by his colleagues Supervisors Ross Mirkarimi and Sophie Maxwell, and presents the possibility of a city-wide change that mirrors the consensus of communities across the city.

And to ensure a renewed community-labor partnership in San Francisco, any new policy must encourage local hiring of union members alongside a new generation of community apprentices.

Joshua Arce is the executive director of Brightline Defense Project, a San Francisco-based civil rights advocacy non-profit focused on environmental justice and green workforce development. Utuma Belfrey is a journey-level member of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers and currently sits on the San Francisco Hunters Point Shipyard Citizens’ Advisory Committee.


1.    www.brightlinedefense.org/files/The_Failure_of_Good_Faith-CAA_and_Brightline.pdf
2.    http://articles.sfgate.com/2010-10-20/bay-area/24143323_1_projects-proposal-construction-jobs

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Moving the Movement

Moving the Movement


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Radical Visions, Possible Worlds

Scott Kurashige: We’re going to start with our panelists giving us their sense of how they see the world today and the core concepts we need—to make sense of the challenges we confront.
Grace Lee Boggs: I had the great privilege of coming to Detroit in 1953. And I have lived through Detroit becoming the national and international symbol of the miracles of industrialization, to becoming a national and international symbol of the devastation of industrialization.Today, you see here a symbol of a new kind of society. A society where the gulf between the industrial and the [agrarian] epoch are being resolved. Not because anyone thought it would be desirable, but because living at the expense of the earth, living at the expense of other people, has brought us to the edge of disaster. And it’s that time on the clock of the universe where we face an evolution to a higher humanity, or the devastation and extinction of all life on earth.

Grace Lee Boggs
Born in 1915 to Chinese immigrants, Boggs received her Ph.D. in Philosophy in 1940 and spent the next seven decades of her life as a movement activist, mostly in Detroit. Four of those decades were spent in partnership with James Boggs, an African American auto worker and organizer, developing theories of Black Power and a new American revolution. At the age of 95, Boggs remains an active member of the Boggs Center to Nurture Community Leadership founded in the 1990s by friends of Grace and Jimmy, and in Detroit, City of Hope. Her forthcoming is entitled The Next American Revolution: Radical Wisdom from a Movement Elder (co-authored with Scott Kurashige).
Immanuel Wallerstein

One of the most influential thinkers and writers of our time, Wallerstein is a senior research scholar at Yale University. He is renowned worldwide for his groundbreaking multivolume study of the modern world system, which is an interpretation of the global history of capitalism. Countless scholars have modeled their entire careers on Wallerstein’s world systems analysis. A prolific and widely translated writer, his book Utopistics; Historical Choices of the Twenty-first Century grapples with many of the same themes presented in this discussion.

Immanuel Wallerstein: The way I approach this is to say that everybody lives in historical systems and historical systems do not go on forever. We’re living in one that we call capitalism, or the capitalist world economy, or the modern world system. It came into existence about 500 years ago. But systems don’t go on forever. They move slowly away from equilibrium until they get too far away. That’s where the modern world system is today. [It] has entered into its structural crisis. It’s not coming to an end just because lots of people are oppressed and don’t like it. That’s been true for a very long time. What’s new is that the system doesn’t provide the possibilities in its own terms to work, [i.e.] an endless accumulation of capital.

In a structural crisis, the alternatives are not only for those who are oppressed but also for the people who oppress us. They, too, see that the system is coming to an end. They, too, have to worry about what comes next. And that’s the long-term struggle that we’re in today. It’s a struggle in which there are two fundamental sides—not about preserving the present system, but about what will replace it.

When a system gets so far from equilibrium that it just doesn’t work anymore; when there’s nothing that can push it back to equilibrium; that’s when the so-called “free will factor” comes in and every little action on our part helps to determine the end—the end that we don’t know. That’s important to underline. We don’t know who’s going to win the struggle of the next 20 to 50 years to replace the present system. But it will depend on us. Because who wins is a matter of the addition of everybody’s effort, at every moment, in every part of the world. And the other side, they got a lot going for them. They got money, guns, intelligence, and power. They are not going to give up easily. But it doesn’t mean that they can’t be beaten.
That’s where we are. In the middle of a big struggle about how to replace the present awful system in which we live, with one that’s better. That’s why we say another world is possible. I underline the word possible. It’s possible, it’s not certain.

Boggs: That’s really important... to understand the difference between possible and necessary. When I became a radical many years ago, I wanted certainty. I wanted necessity. And I embraced Marxism for that reason. I’m not an anti-Marxist, but we need to look at ourselves and understand that what we’re talking about is uncertainty. Revolution is a new beginning. It’s not to prove that our analysis was correct.

Immanuel says in The End of the World As We Know It, “In uncertainty there is hope.” That is such a fundamental concept to understand… the difference between the possible and the necessary. To know that there is much more hope, much more need for making choices in the possible rather than in the necessary. The feudal system came to an end because they could no longer cope with their reality. It’s what’s happening in the Gulf and in the White House and with the shareholders of BP. One [thing] people [should] get out of this conversation is [that] there is a way in which history, philosophy, [and] theory help you understand reality and what should be done with it.

Kurashige: What is specific about capitalism that we need to understand if we are to make sense of what the system represents and how we must transcend it?

Wallerstein: Capitalism is a system that is based on the idea that there should be an endless accumulation of capital. You accumulate capital, in order to accumulate capital, in order to accumulate capital. You’re on this treadmill. And it depends on something called growth. Growth per se is not a plus or a minus. The capitalist system has the consequence of exploitation, hierarchy, and polarization. There has been an enormous polarization over the last 500 years, particularly in the last 50. It’s incredible, the degree of polarization—the gap between the less than one percent, the 20 percent who do reasonably well, and the 80 percent who don’t do reasonably well in the world.

In the indigenous movements of the Americas, they talk a lot about buen vivir, to live well. To live well is not necessarily to endlessly consume. It is indeed to make some kind of rational arrangement with the world—of the possibilities of fulfilling one’s self individually and collectively. That requires restraint, as well as growth. That’s the kind of system that hopefully, we want to create.

You have to work out a strategy that combines a very short run, immediate attempt to solve people’s needs. And a medium run strategy for transforming the system. I think of the very short run as one of minimizing the pain. It can be done in a thousand different ways. Some of it requires government action, some requires popular action. It doesn’t transform the world, but it meets people’s needs. There will be some new system emerging. At some point, it will crystallize.

Boggs: I want you—theoreticians or intellectuals or activists—to think about change very personally, in the way that people, for example, have changed in Detroit. In the 1970s and ‘80s, all you could see were vacant lots. Abandoned houses. Rot. Blight.

Then, some African American women who had lived in the South saw these vacant lots as places where you could grow food to meet a basic need. And they didn’t see it only in terms of belly hunger. They saw urban kids growing up without a sense of process, without a sense of time. And they thought urban agriculture would be a means for cultural change in young people. That’s how the Urban Agricultural Movement developed—out of that reality and the very human needs of people.

Wallerstein: One of the fundamental aspects of capitalism as a system is the commodification of everything. You want to turn all activities into activities done for a profit, in order that there be growth in the capital accumulation. Actually, commodification hasn’t been all that easy for capitalism. Up to about 50 years ago, there were lots of things that weren’t commodified. Water, by and large, was not commodified. Hospitals weren’t commodified. In an earlier period universities weren’t commodified. This mad rush in the last 30 to 50 years to commodify more and more of these things [is an attempt] to find a last bit of growth.

One of the things we can do, even in the short run, is to try to de-commodify. In part, to stop this madness. But also to test the alternative possibilities of what will work in a more decommodified world. We don’t really know how it all could work. We’ve got to experiment. That’s something we can do in the short run as part of the process of trying to make the transition from where we are now, into this other world, which is possible.

Boggs: This resistance to commodification is a human resistance. It’s not something that comes out of a book or a theory. All over the world, with the globalization of poverty, people are resisting the commodification of all our relationships. They are resisting the commodification of our environment, of our communities. That’s why you’re here. We are creating a new movement for re-humanization, for radical revolution values.
I don’t know how many of you have read Martin Luther King’s speech against the Vietnam War with the understanding that what he’s talking about is how we have been dehumanized by materialism. We have been dehumanized by consumerism. To understand the extent to which that has happened since World War II, you really need to talk about systems in the abstract and know how we become part of the systems.

The movement that we’re engaged in is not only a transformation of institutions but a transformation of ourselves. When you think of the movements of the ‘60s, too often we think in terms of particular identities—Blacks or Latinos or Asian Americans or women. But they were all part of a search for a new human identity. And that’s what we’re engaged in. When you think that way, when you understand why movements are created, or new systems are created... that shapes what you do with your time. You have to understand it. It’s not something you know just because you’re born a human. You have to be able to think philosophically and historically. So many of you here are young people in universities trying to figure out what you should do with your mind. Does your mind have a role?

Kurashige: Grace, you’ve written a lot about how we have to seek revolution, not as a one-time event that solves everything, but a protracted process. And that everything we do is about creating the new relations that go into a social transformation. Could you speak more about what is most important about new concepts of revolution?

Boggs: Most people still have in their minds a hierarchical concept of revolution that came out of the insurrection of 1917. And they haven’t thought enough about what’s happened since: How those who capture the state become prisoners of the state. And we, as radicals, haven’t seriously discussed and internalized the changing concepts of revolution. How we are in a period where we must see ourselves not as capturing the state, but as developing the ideas that will replace the ideas of the system. Because the ruling class rules not only through force but through its cultural hegemony. So, as intellectuals we have a really serious challenge.

How do we create the new ideas? How do we create alternatives? How do we get beyond our oppositional thinking? And all the anger that is involved in oppositional thinking? How do we really understand that revolution is a new beginning? Not only in terms of our economic systems and how we make our living, but in how we think and become more human.

Each revolution is an advance in our concept of what it means to be human. Back in 1917, they couldn’t but think in a hierarchical way. In the White House, they can’t help thinking in a hierarchical way. They think that the way to solve the educational crisis is to have more testing. They are not able to think of a non-hierarchical way of doing education that will make us all full participants in creating and governing our world.
I think, if we come out of this U.S. Social Forum with one thing, it should be to feel enormously challenged. To become more theoretical, as well as more practical. More imaginative.

I did a translation of Marx’s Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts many, many years ago. And I was able to identify with this young man. I know the things that you want when you’re young.

Marx wrote a marvelous passage in The Communist Manifesto, which I love and quote all the time: “Constant revolutionizing of production, uninterrupted disturbance of all social conditions, everlasting uncertainty and agitation distinguish the bourgeois epoch from all earlier ones... All that is solid melts into air, all that is holy is profaned, and man/woman is at last compelled to face with sober senses, his real conditions of life, and his relations with his kind.”

Scott Kurashige is an activist with several organizations in Detroit and a professor of U.S. history and ethnic studies at the University of Michigan. This panel discussion was edited by Renee Yeng Geesler of KPFA’s First Voice Media/Apex. Recording assistance Clif Ross.

Weaving the Threads | Vol. 17, No. 2 | Fall 2010 | Credits

Transformative Organizing

The history of organizing in the United States has always mirrored the politics of the country, with three major approaches driving social change: 1) Right-wing organizing as reflected in the Klu Klux Klan, the White Citizens’ Council, the Minuteman vigilantes, and the Tea Party Movement; 2) Pragmatic organizing, which fights for specific reforms in the interest of working people but is limited in scope and characterized by anti-Left ideology, at times making implicit deals with the U.S. Empire; 3) Left-wing organizing as characterized by militant opposition to racism, war, and the abuses of Empire, strategized by people who self-identify as revolutionary, radical, liberal, and progressive, also called “transformative organizing.”

Transformative Organizing, Now!
With the “Tea Party” rising in popularity and the Obama/Clinton administration busy pursuing the Empire’s objectives abroad, there is an urgent need for the Left to organize and generate a new movement rooted in a creative, anti-racist, anti-imperialist politics among working class communities of color. The most effective framework for doing this is transformative organizing because: it is in revolutionary opposition to the power structures of colonialism, patriarchy, white supremacy, and capitalism in its current form, which is imperialism; it actually transforms the consciousness of people who participate in the process; and it empowers organizers to stand up to the Right, reach out to people, and take on the system.

A Brief History of Transformative Organizing
The tradition of transformative organizing in the United States began with the indigenous resistance to European genocidal conquest and the early slave rebellions in Virginia. It continued with the Abolitionists and the Radical Republicans who constitutionally outlawed slavery and built the Reconstruction government after the Civil War. In the first part of the 20th century it took the form of the Industrial Workers of the World, the Anti-Imperialist League, the radical wing of the suffragettes, the Niagara Movement, the Back to Africa Movement, the Black and labor movements under the aegis of the U.S. Communist Party, and the (worldwide) anti-fascist front of the 1930s and ‘40s.

An anti-Left backlash following World War II (often called the McCarthy period and associated with the House Un-American Activities Committee) broke up communist-led unions and conducted witch hunts against radicals, such as W.E.B. DuBois and Paul Robeson. But at the peak of this reactionary period in the 1950s there was a resurgence of transformative organizing that would later be called the Two Decades of the Sixties, characterized by the defeat of the French by Vietnam in 1954, the Montgomery Bus Boycott of 1955, the 1955 Bandung Conference in Indonesia (a precursor to the Non-Aligned Summit of 1961), and the defeat of the United States in Vietnam in 1975.

During the heyday of the multiracial New Left movement, the word “organizer” was synonymous with Black militant, anti-war, pro-socialist, and anti-imperialist politics. Use of the term “liberation” by the women’s and gay liberation movements was inspired by the revolutionary spirit of the Vietnamese National Liberation Front.

As Clayborne Carson explains in his book, In Struggle: SNCC and the Black Awakening of the 1960s, the young civil rights workers began calling themselves “revolutionaries” to distinguish themselves from the less militant, more accommodationist forces allied with gradualism, the civil rights establishment, and the Democratic Party. This distinction evolved into solidarity with African revolutions, opposition to the Vietnam war, and a variety of urban rebellions and mass strikes by Black workers.

By the time of the U.S. invasion of Cambodia, students all over were closing down universities in opposition to the war. Organizationally, it had involved  building the Student Non-violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), the Third World Women’s Alliance, the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE), the Students for a Democratic Society (SDS), the Black Panther Party, the Brown Berets, the American Indian Movement, the Puerto Rican Young Lords, the La Raza Unida Party, the Red Guards, the National Welfare Rights Organization, and the Indochina Peace Campaign. By the end of the ‘70s, there was a movement for Third World communism in the U.S. allied with national liberation movements around the world.
The massive following for the Left’s initiatives formed a significant threat to the system and there was a ferocious counterrevolution—White backlash against organizations and social movements on the Left—which took the form of intense government repression through an explicit counter-insurgency program, COINTELPRO. And since 1980, successive presidencies have set about aggressively dismantling the social welfare state and attacking, besides other nations, the environment, unions, Blacks, Latino immigrants, and women.

The State of Transformative Organizing Today

By 1980 the movement, although victorious in ending the Vietnam War and gaining civil rights, was spent and exhausted, partly owing to the imprisonment and assassination of its leadership. This decline in power was only exacerbated by the self-inflicted wounds of sectarian attacks within the Left. The crises of socialism in China and the Soviet Union further accelerated political disorientation, causing the fervor of transformative organizing to wane.

Within this vacuum emerged Saul Alinsky’s self-proclaimed “pragmatic/realistic” approach to organizing. Although militant and often effective in winning important reforms for working people, it set unnecessarily narrow objectives, limited by its own ideology. Some advocates were explicitly anti-Left, but justified their narrow economic fights in the name of “non-ideological” organizing for “the community.” They rarely acknowledged that all organizing is ideological or that their “pragmatism” often relied upon close ideological ties to the Democratic Party, trade union bureaucracies, and powerful church hierarchies.

Both transformative organizing and pragmatic organizing fight for just and immediate demands, such as more low-income housing, better funding for schools, and higher wages for public sector workers. But in choosing not to frame campaigns within fundamental structural challenges to racism, police brutality, imperialist wars, and the battle for LGBTQ, immigrant, and basic democratic rights, the “pragmatists” isolate themselves from their community’s need for deep social transformation. Indeed, with its aggressive anti-Left ideology, pragmatic organizing often conciliates with Empire-building.

It is important, however, to understand that the difference between pragmatic and transformative approaches is strategic, not moral. The Labor/Community Strategy Center’s assessments of a situation concerning its work in Los Angeles often coincide with those of the “pragmatists,” even if their constraints sometimes make it difficult for them to take a stand, or they disapprove of the Center’s tactics. But both have a strong base in the Black and Latino working class, and fight together on ballot initiatives that attack immigrants and communities of color. Still, in the interest of building a movement for long-term structural change in the U.S., the differences of strategy need to be addressed.

Since the 1980s, movement veterans and many young people have resisted the “pragmatic” move to the Right and worked instead to carry out effective radical, Left, and revolutionary politics as they organize in low-income communities and college campuses. Today, the pendulum continues to swing left as many dedicated organizers start questioning the limits of the pragmatic approach. The U.S. Social Forum is a reflection of the reassertion of anti-racist, anti-imperialist politics. Its slogan “Another World Is Possible; Another U.S. Is Necessary,” represents tens of thousands of working class people, communities of color, immigrants, G.I.s, and students who are rejecting the trap of pragmatism in favor of transformative organizing.

Transformative Organizing on the Ground
The Labor/Community Strategy Center has tried to follow Transformative Organizing Theory in its work since its founding in 1989. It has organized domestic, hotel, and garment workers, security guards, high school students in low-income working class communities of color, and bus riders in Los Angeles to transform the power structures and policies of racism, patriarchy, and capitalism.

In its flagship project—the Bus Riders Union (BRU)—the Center engaged tens of thousands of L.A.’s bus riders—predominantly immigrants, people of color, and women with an average annual income of $12,000—with on-the-bus organizing. The conversations were grounded in immediate demands for low fares and a first class clean-fuel bus system, but within an anti-racist, anti-imperialist framework.

Grassroots Global Justice Alliance/La Alianza Popular para la Justicia Global (GGJ) is made up of over 60 organizations (including the Strategy Center) that bring transformative organizing into the political life of low-income, working class communities of color, while emphasizing its inter-connectedness with an international movement for global justice. At a time when the menace of neo-fascism is before us, GGJ is helping to generate a broader theoretical and strategic framework for movement-building, which strengthens forces on the Left and encourages challenges to the Empire and all it represents.

The Tenets of Transformative Organizing
The theory of transformative organizing is based on the foundations of class consciousness, political leadership, and revolutionary organization as laid out below:
1. Transformative organizing seeks radical social change through the strategy of building an international united front to challenge the U.S. Empire.
The U.S. is a structurally racist, imperialist power. Driven by the need to relentlessly expand—a characteristic of advanced capitalism—it operates to control the economies, governments, and peoples of every nation, especially in Asia, Africa, and Latin America. Transformative organizing strategy can help build a worldwide countermovement.
2. The transformative organizer is a conscious agent of change, a revolutionary educator with a plan to intervene in and make history.
A critical goal of the ruling classes—those who own and control the means of production, consumption, education, and defense—is to achieve political loyalty and voluntary obedience from those they dominate. When they succeed, many exploited and oppressed people come to accept the established relationships of class, race, and gender, believing that they are part of some moral master plan. So, the social change they seek is tacitly limited within the rules of the dominant system. The transformative organizer acts as a revolutionary educator with a plan to intervene in and make history.
3. Transformative organizing requires the leadership of society’s most exploited, oppressed, and strategically placed classes and races.
Although transformative organizing generates social movements that involve members from all classes of society—including the most privileged—given the specific history of the United States as a settler state built on genocide, slavery, stolen lands, and stolen peoples, certain radical organized forces have proven to be the most successful leaders of the resistance.
4. Transformative organizing is produced by transformative organizations. From the first days of colonization of the Americas and the first moments of the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade, there have been spontaneous and organized forms of resistance. Throughout U.S. history, many transformative organizations have fought for radical objectives against the U.S. Empire.
5. Transformative organizing becomes truly transformative in the course of battle.
An organization’s success is ultimately judged by its capacity to take on powerful corporate and government forces, put forth radical demands, and wage long-term battles. Transformative organizers and organizations build their reputation on high visibility campaigns that fight for and often win important structural changes and improvements in the lives of real people.
6. Transformative organizing transforms the organizers.
A fundamental premise of transformative organizing is that social being creates social consciousness. As a person changes from observer to activist to organizer, their consciousness changes. In fighting the company that has not paid their wages, defending neighbors who are being deported, organizing coworkers in the sweatshops and fields for better pay and longer breaks, fighting sexual harassment in the workplace and police harassment at school, they often experience monumental changes in their consciousness.
7.  Transformative organizing requires a transformative political program.
Transformative organizing is best understood by its concrete demands that force the system to make radical structural changes. Throughout history, only transformative demands have motivated the strongest social movements with the greatest mass participation, militancy, and duration.

Eric Mann is director of the Labor/Community Strategy Center in Los Angeles. This article is adapted from The 7 Components of Transformative Organizing Theory, published by Frontlines Press, www.frontlinespress.com. See the video of the presentations at the United States Social Forum.

Weaving the Threads | Vol. 17, No. 2 | Fall 2010 | Credits

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What's Wrong with our Social Justice Movements?

A United Methodist pastor and civil rights leader, James Lawson was a counterpart of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. He helped coordinate the Freedom Rides in 1961 and the Meredith March in 1966, and as pastor of Centenary Methodist Church in Memphis, Tenn., played a major role in the sanitation workers’ strike of 1968. As a young college student, Lawson was exposed to Gandhi’s teachings on nonviolence through his association with the Fellowship of Reconciliation (FOR), America’s oldest pacifist organization. Now retired, he continues to teach nonviolence and fight for the rights of the oppressed.

Andrew Stelzer: I think a lot of people would say that since the 1960s, or perhaps the early 1970s, we haven’t really seen a massive effective mobilization that worked on any issue. Do you think that’s true?

Lawson: Yes. The peace movement has failed. I would say that mobilizations at the Democratic or Republican conventions (in which I have participated) in Seattle, and some of the anti-Iraq War mobilizations have failed. What is needed is a protracted struggle—organizing around non-violent assessment and focusing on a target—with maybe a decade or two of intense activity that does not depend upon Congressional legislation, but rather forces upon a city or nation the agenda of justice and truth.

Stelzer: Sounds like one suggestion is to force local governments rather than the national government to respond. What other tactics are missing?
Lawson: I think all action has to be local action. Local action can become national action if it strikes the ethos of the American people in such a fashion that it will be imitated in many other centers of movement.

Stelzer: You don’t think there is a modern day equivalent of the Civil Rights Movement?
Lawson: Not at all. There’s no modern day equivalent.

Stelzer: What do you say to those who claim that the Immigrant Rights Movement or the Gay Rights Movement are the equivalents?
Lawson: The Gay Rights Movement is mostly about getting laws passed. It is not a movement where tens of thousands of people in the street are demanding change [through] an agenda that they put in the nation’s mind. They’re doing much more lobbying behind the scenes, trying to stop some elections, which they have not done successfully. It’s not a non-violent movement and it’s not been that effective, in my judgment.

Stelzer: Do you think these movements are not effective because they aren’t trying? Or they just haven’t found the right strategy—or are refusing to see it?
Lawson: I don’t think they have the right strategy. In the first instance, they’re not working from a non-violent perspective and methodology. Secondly, they’re not taking the time to assess what they need to be doing or what needs to be corrected [before] settling on a single issue and working on it. Thirdly, they’re not mobilizing in terms of a mass direct action that dramatizes the issue and helps to change the public mind.

I think there is far more action today than we had in 1953 or 1955 or 1959. But more action over a greater numbers of issues has failed. One, because of the lack of serious study and commitment, including a serious study of the freedom movement of the Southeast and it’s non-violence and Gandhian methodology. Second, because even some of the activist-leaders have not been persuaded that there is a connection between, for example, racism and sexism.

Racism, sexism, violence, and plantation capitalism are interrelated to each other. That’s the principle of convergence. In the movement, Dr. King suggested this. There was a gradual awareness that you had issues of racism; issues of structural poverty, which is what slavery was; and the issue of militarization of the nation. He sensed that all three of these had to be dismantled in order for a new democratic society of justice and truth to emerge.
All through American history, there has been an inability on the part of all sorts of reformers to see the connection between the reforms they want—say, labor unions and racism, or sexism and the violence of society. They’ve not been able to see the interlocking—to see them as parallel systems of denial and oppression for some people. Therefore, they cannot [be] resolved separately. Any effective work against racism is going to also dismantle sexism. And effective work [against both] will dismantle the structural as well as the spiritual forms of violence.

Stelzer: The poor people’s campaign that Dr. King was working on when he was killed, is that an example of convergence? Had that convergence happened already, or was it beginning to happen at that point?
Lawson: He was very clearly trying to get the Peace Movement to see that the issue of poverty and economic deprivation is connected to the issue of justice, which is connected to the issue of peace. This emerging convergence that he recognized, that many of us recognized in the movement, was [in] the beginning stages. Although, I have to say that I made some of those connections as early as 1958 in my workshops for the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), and other groups around the Southeast.

Stelzer: What is plantation capitalism?
Lawson: Capitalism in the United States began essentially with the taking of the land from the Indians and was compounded by 250 years of plantation slavery [which treated] the worker as a commodity and not as a human being. It solidified racism and made it a system. Plantation capitalism, therefore, is the repetition of those [ideas] in terms of business, workers, profits, and the use of capital.

Over the last 20 years, more than 50 percent of the new jobs that Republicans and Democrats have bragged about have been poverty jobs. We applaud, among other things, a surplus labor force because it keeps wages down. Now workers cannot sustain themselves or their families, therefore [they cannot] be that influential in their neighborhoods about their own environment, [just like in] the 250 years of slavery.

The Wall Street Journal insists that a major goal for the economy is to help people become billionaires and millionaires. In order to gather that wealth quickly or even over a 10-year period, you must fight to see that the workers are not sharing in the benefits of their labor. That is plantation capitalism.
When you allow wealth to accumulate in such a way that you drive out family-owned businesses and farms and produce these huge corporations that in many ways are unmanageable but dictate the notion that the major purpose for our cooperation is turning a profit, you have plantation capitalism.
Now, I differ tremendously [with that idea]. I think, for example, my medical dollar should provide a good living for all the people connected with the practice of medicine—the doctors, the nurses, the paramedical people, the lab techs, even the janitors who scrub the floors. But I do not believe that my health dollar should be used to make millionaires [of] a family that uses venture capital to buy up hospitals.

I don’t mind folks who become very affluent in various ways in our economy, but I do mind where that’s [done] at the expense of the folk who do the labor. Our society is in trouble because we have a whole lot of work that we need to do: on the infrastructure, on the clean up of the environment, the turning of empty lots into gardens, the turning of empty buildings into useful enterprises (including housing for the community). But I think that the bosses of our society are deliberately excluding that kind of work from being done because they are bound to the notion that work essential for society’s well being ought to be under the rubric of profit for entrepreneurs.

Stelzer: One of the things Dr. King had been talking about was sit-ins around hospitals until everyone got care. If he hadn’t been assassinated, do you think some of these battles we are fighting today could have been won 30 or 40 years ago?
Lawson: The politics of assassination in the 1960s changed our country forever. I have no doubt that the King assassination was agreed to and planned by major agencies of local and federal government, including probably, military intelligence. I suspect that the other assassinations [also] have some of the same footprints, but I’ve not studied them like I’ve studied and investigated the King assassination. When a society produces young men like John Kennedy, Robert Kennedy, Medgar Evers, Malcolm X, and Martin Luther King—who I do not say were perfect products of humanity but were people emerging in their humanity, their vision, [and] their ability to work with society for creative life—when a nation allows such people to be killed off, you do more damage to your nation than you can even imagine. Those assassinations meant that the movement of which King had become a symbol—direct action on the part of the people, people withdrawing their consent from racism and violence, and people organizing themselves to put a justice or a freedom agenda in the White House, in congress, or in the governor’s mansion—that movement got shortchanged and did not have the opportunity to develop into maturity and into the next generation.

It’s very clear that all five of these men were learning a great deal about themselves and about their nation. Malcolm X is the most dramatic example of that. The two Kennedys had no idea about the meanness in our society—the poverty that was structural—before they emerged nationally. King, Evers, and Malcolm X had learned a great deal about how to move for change. This meant that on the one side you had folks who were appointed or elected to office, and on the other, folks who were coming out of grassroots mass mobilization and action. A perfect combination for serious change in a nation. [But] all of that was destroyed or prohibited and the good work that had been done to create those five men was aborted. Now it has to be done over again because obviously, we have a leadership crisis.

Stelzer: Are there any movements now in 2010 that inspire you or give you hope?
Lawson: The movement for the 21st century has not yet taken shape. There may be creative activity and creative groups coming together at the local level that will, one day, be the foundation of the 21st century non-violent movement for the United States. But it is not now in place.

Stelzer: You are a proponent of non-violence. But here in Mexico, you’ve heard some say that their heroes are guerilla armies, or folks who participated in armed revolutions that led to the liberation of their people. Even in the United States, there are stories of armed slave rebellions where people achieved some semblance of freedom. How do you respond to people who point to examples like that?

Lawson: My great grandfather was a slave. Anyone who pretends that there were successful slave revolts is quite mistaken. There were lots of them, no doubt. But the two best known examples—Denmark Vesey’s rebellion in South Carolina in 1822 and Nat Turner’s rebellion in Virginia in 1831—did not succeed. And the leadership and many innocent people in Virginia and South Carolina were wiped out.

Meanwhile, the underground railroad was far more successful in getting people out from under slavery. That’s how my own great grandfather got out. Also, the revolt of people like Frederick Douglass who as a boy, against the law, learned how to read; or of Owen Brown, who became an accountant on his plantation in South Carolina; or the people who, in contradiction to the wishes of the master, honed their skills so that they could leave or acquired skills that would benefit them in the long run—that was a far greater revolt. It did more to free slaves than any of the violent revolts. Then there are the slaves who said, “I’m not going to let this master convince me I’m less than a human being!” That was another form of revolt. I think there is today a revision of the black experience that could be insidious. I think it’s quite wrong.

To my knowledge, there’s only one [example of] guerilla warfare in Latin America that produced serious change, and that was Fidel Castro. I mean, look at Colombia. The units have been fighting for 50 years, and it’s the people who suffer—from the oligarchy and American militarism as well as from the so-called guerilla units.

After the revolution Castro fundamentally changed his perspective to a non-violent one. He said, “I’m going to eradicate racism and segregation and infant mortality and illiteracy. We’re going to help people go to work in the fields, whereby they can make a living.” The only handicap [for] Castro has been the antagonism and the overt acts of invasion and assault by the United States government. Cuba would be a model for the whole world were it not for the U.S.

Stelzer: What does that say? That violent revolution is okay if you have a really good leader who sticks to his values?
Lawson: No, I don’t think so. It says that even if you have a military revolution that overthrows a tyrant, to be effective, you must turn to developing a nation that is whole—by dismantling injustices, educating people. What has too often happened with guerilla warfare is that it becomes an obsession, a pathology that no longer has any merit for healing the human condition. That’s the danger of certain kinds of action. It can become so addictive that humans lose control of themselves and are diseased.

Stelzer: You seem to be saying “violence is never okay,” but “in this one case it turned out okay.”
Lawson: No, I’m saying something more than that. Folks who have these notions about the efficacy of violence can only point to Castro. But one could say that maybe Castro’s violence is what triggered America’s violence. I’m not justifying American violence. I am saying that people who want a better world had better look at the role of violence—behavioral, organized, and systemic—and recognize that in the last 100 years, maybe with the exception of World War II, violence has been the leading enemy of justice and peace in the world. It not only devastates in all sorts of ways, it has also deprived civilian human enterprises of the resources needed to solve problems.

Andrew Stelzer is a producer for Making Contact, a national radio show based in Oakland, California where he produced the radio show on which this article is based. He can be reached at www.andrewstelzer.com

Weaving the Threads | Vol. 17, No. 2 | Fall 2010 | Credits

RP&E Release Party: December 15, 6 pm

17-2 Cover pngYou're Invited!
Race, Poverty & the Environment Release Party


Wednesday, December 15, 2010 @ 6:00 p.m.

Pacific Coast Brewing Company

906 Washington St. @ 10th St.

Oakland, California.

We'll provide an array of appetizing appetizers. Drink, eat, mingle, and receive a free copy of the latest issue of RP&E, the national journal for social and environmental justice. All ages invited (under 21 okay) and wheelchair accessible.

This issue features stories from a broad spectrum of justice movements from across the United States. In addition to sharing views with RP&E writers on these issues, we invite you to welcome back fellow reporters and activists returning from the UN negotiations on climate in Cancun with the latest news on the international climate justice movement.

Please R.S.V.P. to rsvp@urbanhabitat.org or for more information call (510) 839-9510 ext 303