New Political Spaces: Table of Contents

Credits

New Political Spaces | Vol. 19, No. 1 – 2012 | Credits

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New Political Spaces: Introduction

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The confluence of the Occupy movement and demographic change is shifting the public discourse about class and race and breaking ground for new political spaces. In the tumultuous months since the February 2011 takeover of Wisconsin’s Capitol, Occupy Wall Street as well as actions at stockholder meetings of banks and protests by university students and faculty have shed light on who owns our wealth and how they use it. (Baham)* The failure of the recall effort in Wisconsin emphasizes the urgency of constructing new spaces in which our majority coalitions can come together outside the constraints of corporate-dominated political parties to develop creative and effective strategies.

Faced with the dual threat of a rising majority of voters of color in many key states and mass public demonstrations against economic inequality, the system is pushing back. Supreme Court decisions ceding increased power to corporations as “persons” have in effect privatized the election process. Right-wing strategists are backing voter suppression and anti-immigrant legislation in states across the nation, seeking to fan racial animosity and redirect popular anger toward scapegoats (Keyes et al., Lewis, Kromm, Bacon).

As Governor Scott Walker explained to one of his billionaire backers, the public workers in Wisconsin got the brunt of a classic “divide and conquer” strategy—but instead of going after immigrants, gays, or women, this attack targeted workers who are one step up on the economic ladder: public sector employees.

Lessons from History
Today’s right-wing campaigns against voting rights, immigrants and women draw from an old playbook. Following the Civil War, the Reconstruction period saw numerous alliances between newly enfranchised African Americans and working-class whites. Together they brought popular administrations into power that supported universal education, better working conditions and challenges to corporate domination. (urbanhabitat.org/node/6836)

The passage of laws restricting voting rights, the withdrawal of Federal oversight and Union troops, and even the violent overthrow of African American elected officials by militias brought an end to that era.

In 1886, ten years before the infamous Plessy v. Ferguson decision that enshrined ‘separate but equal’ as the law of the land, the Supreme Court turned the Fourteenth Amendment on its head by extending personhood to corporations (Santa Clara v. Southern Pacific); thus twisting a constitutional amendment written to protect the due process rights of newly freed slaves to serve the white male property owners who controlled the railroad corporations (powell and Menendian).

Corporate dominance in the Americas did not, however, begin with that 1886 decision. Jamestown, the very first colony of what would become the United States, was established in 1607 by a corporation chartered by the king of England to exploit the New World. While the American Revolution provided “the people” with a bill of rights, it left control of the economy and the government firmly in the hands of the white male property owners who selected the representatives of “the people.”

This tension between popular democracy and economic oligarchy vibrates throughout our history. The civil rights movement of the 1960s won voting rights and anti-discrimination legislation even as Southern Senators filibustered. Activists used these tools to make huge strides in reducing poverty, increasing educational opportunity, and integrating housing over the next decade. But campaigns for full economic justice, such as the one led by Martin Luther King Jr. immediately before his assassination, were turned back.

As succeeding waves of popular participation have widened the definition of who can participate in political democracy, economic decisions have been removed from popular control and ensconced with corporate entities that are protected from the will of the majority. Corporate deregulation became the ruling principle of both the Reagan Republicans and the Clinton Democrats. Formerly public facilities, such as K-12 education, public universities, free lending libraries, and even entire downtown shopping districts, are being privatized and subjected to corporate control (Weiner, Drummond-Cole).

Back to the 21st Century
In 2010, as demographic evidence showed that the sheer numbers of African American, Latino and Asian voters had turned the tide in the 2008 elections, the Supreme Court once again stepped in. In Citizens United v. FEC, it found that corporations now enjoy not only the right to be protected from “unequal” taxation by state and local governments, but also a First Amendment right to spend as much of that tax-protected money as they choose to elect candidates to office. This grant of unlimited corporate speech is no more coincidental than the grant of personhood to corporations following the post Civil War social and economic changes.

U.S. workers, outraged at losing jobs to outsourcing, homes to foreclosure, and educational opportunity to budget cuts, now confront an unresponsive political system that is bought and paid for at nearly every level. The enclosure and privatization of formerly public spaces—including the civic auditorium in Oakland—has reduced the number of places where we can congregate in a commons (Allen-Taylor).

Even if Walker’s Democratic opponent had prevailed in Wisconsin, workers, low-income people and communities of color would still face the same dilemma: How do we build an effective movement that can win concessions from power, not just elect politicians?
For the halls of power to offer meaningful change in our economic system, we need a movement that poses an actual threat to their control of the economy and provides an alternative that meets the real needs of our communities. We need to create political spaces in which such a movement can form.

The Shape of Things to Come

Oakland’s general strike in November foreshadows what such spaces might entail. The rank and file of the unions pushed the leadership into the streets and neighbors from around the Bay swelled the crowd to over 100,000. While a one-day shutdown of the Port of Oakland had relatively little impact on the economy, it was enough to frighten the corporate establishment into a militarized crackdown and media vilification that has kept such phenomena from spreading nationwide. The virulence of the reaction reveals that this approach hit a vital nerve.

While the police currently occupy the public squares, civil resistance is taking many new creative forms. Occupy the Farm, Occupy Patriarchy, home defense against foreclosure, and building occupations indicate that other strategies are possible (Pei Wu, Arnold, Gans and Messman, Bond-Graham).

Creating new political spaces where people move outside the confines of identity politics, social service, business unionism, and politics as usual is underway.

Young activists of color now coming of age are organizing on all fronts (Martinez, Rodriguez, Hussain, Liu, Rivera, Nunez, Matthews, Tran, and Banks). Common principles and practices are emerging. While in some respects we need a “new strategy,” more fundamentally, we need to return to the oldest strategy: mobilizing the broadest possible spectrum of people to defend our common interests. At a crucial juncture in the civil rights struggle, the direct action advocates in the sit-in movement made common cause with proponents of voter registration drives (Hartford). A successful movement for change in the 21st century will need to do likewise.

Women make up 51 percent of the population and whatever forms the political spaces of the new majority take, women of color will be central. Feminist methodologies of inclusion, consensus-building and confrontation have been taken up by the next generation of student activists (Baham), and in progressive organizations across the country, women’s voices and women’s labor are shaping a new reality (Ferrer).

Understanding that the electoral system is dominated and controlled by corporate power doesn’t mean that we should abandon efforts to protect the right to vote and exercise the power we do have in that arena. Long-term trends run in our favor. As the next generation of activists comes to understand the way the game is rigged, we can unite to change the rules so that an organized new majority can bring democracy to the economic realm.

B. Jesse Clarke is the editor of Race, Poverty & the Environment.

* For references to articles that appear in this issue, author or interviewees’ last names are enclosed in parentheses

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Building Bridges Is not Enough

 Regional Equity Agenda for the Bay Area
By A.Smith, Former President and CEO, Urban Habitat

The new Eastern Span of the Oakland to San Francisco Bay Bridge, with its signature single tower and 7 billion dollar plus price tag, is rising out of the bay waters, strengthening the connection between two of the region’s core cities. But even as the Bay Area adds another legacy architectural landmark to its skyline, questions about who benefits from this and other massive public investments remind us of the challenges we face in ensuring everyone’s right to enjoy the great resources and beauty that the Bay Area has to offer.

The annual Gross Regional Product (GRP) for the Bay Area is approximately $487 billion, the third largest in the country after Los Angeles and New York. Much of that economic activity is shaped and channeled by public policy decisions by government agencies at the local, state and federal levels. For example, in addition to construction of the Bay Bridge and the new San Francisco Transbay Transit Terminal, the Metropolitan Transportation Commission (MTC) and Association of Bay Area Governments (ABAG) are currently in the process of deciding where and how $277 billion in public money will be spent over the next 28 years. These expenditures will shape everything from the frequency of bus service to the extent of suburban highway expansion.

Allocating these public investments is a highly political process. Over 7 million people live within the Bay Area’s nine counties. Within those counties are over 100 different cities, each with its own identity, demographics and political culture. Decisions about who gets what are made by a complex web of regional agencies that intersect with state and federal funding mandates and specific interests of elected officials.

Urban Habitat has been studying the formulas, analyzing the composition of decision-making bodies, and following the money trail for a decade. Based on our research, one thing we can say with absolute confidence: these investments are not being shared equitably among all the Bay Area’s population. Low-income people and communities  of color are systematically excluded from the benefits of these investments and continue to be saddled with the burdens.

It takes more than architecturally elegant bridges to overcome the divides of wealth and race that keep our communities from equal economic and political participation. We need to change the locus of power. We must have access to, and inclusion at, the decision-making tables. Communities like Richmond, East and West Oakland, Bayview-Hunters Point, East San Jose, and East Palo Alto, among others are not receiving a fair share of transportation, economic development, environmental restoration, and housing dollars. Regardless of the jurisdictional level at which these investment decisions are taking place, the key to winning a more equitable future is active participation of all of the Bay region’s peoples.

If we don’t take action, we will continue to live with the same disparities and increasing gaps between our communities. And future generations will not be able to enjoy all that the Bay Area has to offer—good jobs, affordable housing, reliable transportation, and a clean and healthy environment. More urgently than ever, we need to build the kinds of regional coalitions that can lift up the equity agenda into actionable policy in the local, regional, state, and federal arenas.

State of the Region
At Urban Habitat’s April 2012 State of the Region conference keynote speakers Mitchell J. Silver, president of the American Planning Association, and Bertha Lewis, president and founder of The Black Institute, delivered exhilarating and passionate calls to action. They spoke about the changing demographics in the United States and how to ensure that low-income people and people of color have the infrastructure and policies in place to support their success.

One thing we have learned is that the shift in the numbers is not the entire story. Becoming a so-called majority minority nation does not mean that we will be able to call the power structures, the systems and public institutions, our own. We must continue to build power for equity and sustainability or it will not matter what the racial and ethnic numbers are or how the demographics change.

Victories for the Equity Agenda
Recent victories, modest  though they may be in the face of the enormous challenges ahead, give us hope that a long-term strategy for change can make a difference. A few examples:
 

  • In 2011, Urban Habitat was the lead plaintiff in a successful suit against the city of Pleasanton, which requires the city to zone for sufficient affordable housing to meet its state-mandated housing allocation (See: urbanhabitat.org/18-2/rein). In May of this year, working with Public Advocates (our attorneys in the suit) and in coalition with Youth United for Community Action and Peninsula Interfaith Action, we recently leveraged that success in another city. The Menlo Park city council agreed to a settlement providing for: (a) the adoption of an affordable housing plan by early 2013, (b) rezoning of sites in and around downtown to promote the development of affordable housing near jobs and transit, and (c) providing local funding for nonprofit housing developers.  This is particularly important because Menlo Park (home to Facebook headquarters) is experiencing strong job growth but has very little housing for low-income people. Ending the spatial mismatch between affordable housing and employment opportunities is a key step towards achieving equity.
  • In Richmond, we reached another important milestone. The Richmond Equitable Development Initiative (REDI), of which Urban Habitat is a founding member, led a five-year campaign to revise the city’s general plan so that needs of residents will be met as the city permits building of new businesses, housing and public services. Working with community-based REDI partner groups, Urban Habitat educated and mobilized hundreds of residents to engage in the lengthy planning process. We succeeded in getting many of their core priorities embedded in the new General Plan, which puts community health at the center and sets a policy framework for developing Richmond on a more equitable basis.
  • In response to a two-year campaign aimed at free transit for all youth, the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency (SFMTA) Board of Directors voted unanimously on April 17 to make public transit free for the city’s low-income youth. The effort was organized by a broad cross-section of community groups that included People Organized to Win Employment Rights (POWER), the Chinatown Community Development Center (CCDC), the Jamestown Community Center, the San Francisco Youth Commission, the San Francisco Organizing Project, and Urban Habitat.
  • Other campaigns that are reshaping access to jobs and opportunities in the Bay Area include, a jobs policy framework for the Oakland Army Base redevelopment won by Revive Oakland; and effective implementation of San Francisco’s local hire policy, particularly for the America’s Cup race through the leadership of Brightline.

For all Californians to live up to their highest potential and for our communities to break out of the geographical and economic isolation in which they have been confined, we need a public investment strategy that puts equity at the core of the decision-making process. We need people to think locally and act regionally.

By lifting up new and under-represented voices to become strong advocates and by uniting these leaders with social justice organizations working to advance equity, we can build the powerful movement needed to win a prosperous California.

A. Smith was briefly president and chief executive officer of Urban Habitat.


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New Majority Rising

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Organizing the New Majority

Interview with Bertha Lewis

Bertha Lewis is president and founder of the New York-based action think tank, Black Institute and former president and chief organizer for the community organizing group, ACORN. A veteran organizer and powerful public speaker, Bertha has been organizing since the 1980s. The following is an excerpt from a conversation recorded for Radio RP&E on the occasion of Urban Habitat’s State of the Region where Lewis gave one of the keynote addresses to the equity advocates gathered.

B. Jesse Clarke: What does good organizing mean to you and what were the issues that first got you involved?

Bertha Lewis: Well, you know, we’re a membership organization and we organize low- and moderate-income folks. We take our issues from our members and fight on things that affect them. But the fight has to benefit our members and at the same time, move public policy.

For years, people understood that the banks put a red line around black and brown neighborhoods and you couldn’t get credit to buy and if you could, you were exploited. After the savings and loan debacle, we saw that there was something called the Community Reinvestment Act and we created programs where folks were counseled so that they really understood about buying something that they could afford. Our interest was for them to stay in their homes long-term. For years we fought to get banks to open up and actually give credit so that low-income people could buy if they were counseled. And for years we tried to sound the alarm about predatory lending and subprime mortgages because [previously] we could not get credit into our neighborhoods. Then the banks discovered, “Ah, there’s gold in them there poor people’s hills!” and the frenzy around subprime loans and predatory lending [started]. We were railing against it but, of course, who listens to us?

Sure enough, what we predicted would happen, did happen. Here’s what folks don’t tell you about the foreclosure crisis: in New York, we had a one percent default. Why? Because all of our folks were counseled and we always counsel people into buying homes and having mortgages that can withstand any hardship. But they don’t talk about folks [who were] counseled and survived the foreclosure crisis.

Clarke: When you look back at our system, what’s the thing that’s got to change? I mean, the Community Reinvestment Act was supposed to get people into homes. But it was flipped on its head to: Let’s give them a loan package they could never repay and let’s double the price of their house and get twice as much money, and then let’s take it back and sell it for a quarter of the price back to ourselves and then sell it again! It’s terrible. If you had a crooked landlord doing this on a one-on-one basis, everybody would be going, wait a minute now. You sold it first and you sold it twice, and so on.

Lewis: But that’s exactly what’s happening.

Clarke: How are we going to change that?
Lewis: Here’s where I think all things come together. Number one, the whole financial collapse came about because there was no regulation and regulations that were on the books were not enforced because it’s the free market and, you know, business needed to thrive. We had a mindset in this country that actually worshipped rich people. So, anything that benefitted making money and rich people was fine. You see this being manifest today. There really is a war on the poor. If we can exploit you, if we can pay you below minimum wage, if we can exploit your labor, then something is wrong with you, poor people. What the Right and those conservatives understand is, there are more of us than there are of them.

The rise of the Tea Party was not accidental. You’ve got to give credit where credit is due. The day after the 2008 election when the Right lost, they immediately set about organizing... and looking at the 2010 midterm elections. This is why I’m always on a “Wake up, progressives” tour, you know? Wake up, Left! Don’t sleep here because you must organize, organize, organize all the time.

ACORN had the largest voter registration operation in the country. At its height, we accounted for 25 percent of all voter registration. Karl Rove in 2004 put his sights on us because we had a minimum wage ballot initiative in Florida. We registered over a million people and moved those people to the polls based on issues; the issue of raising the minimum wage, not on a personality. Even though George Bush won that state, people who may have voted for Bush also went to the other section of the ballot and voted to raise the minimum wage. That was dangerous. The New York Times published Karl Rove’s emails saying: This is the real danger to the Republican Party and to the Right; we must go after them. So, there ensued AttorneyGate. You remember Alberto Gonzales and the resignation of those U.S. attorneys who said, “We’re being used for political purposes.”

Clarke: Right.

Lewis: It all started with us. So, they had their sights on us for a while and developed a way to go after us. It was really quite brilliant: Take your strength and turn it against you. Discourage these new voters—young people, people of color. We’re hurtling toward being a majority minority country. You’ve got to blunt that somehow.

Clarke: Where are the places you’re starting to see emerge this powerful alliance of communities of color and progressives and women to actually turn this right side up again?

Lewis: Well, I think this is why the election this year is so important. Because you’ll begin to see, like you say, this new majority, this coalition of folks who find that they have interests in common. Women are under attack. Black folks are under attack. Brown folks are under attack. Left folks are under attack. Progressives are under attack. Our cities are under attack. People can see very clearly—it’s in their self-interest to come together. When the Right attacks, they really set up an atmosphere for groups to come together and really be stronger and fight back because the Right becomes so extreme that everyday people can see it’s crazy. But we understand that we are in a real war. There’s no complacency here. You have women of all stripes coming together saying, listen, they can pass a law in Texas cutting healthcare for 300,000 poor women, mostly black and brown. They can do some draconian things here. So I’m happy. Because, you know, as an organizer, we thrive in polarizing situations. And America is polarized more than ever before.

Clarke: Well, but you said when you were a community organizer—without any Alinsky training—you looked at the individual interest of each member—and our self-interest is at stake. We’re being attacked as progressive. We’re being attacked as people of color. We’re being attacked as women. But then, you said there was a second ingredient—what was that second ingredient?

Lewis: Public policy... It’s not just what affects your members, but what kind of policies we put in place that are going to benefit more than just your identified folks—and that’s the key.

Clarke: We need an ‘action tank’ to pick up these policies and present them out there so that this new majority can take them.

Lewis: You know what? What’s good for people of color, what’s good for black folks, is good for America and good for the world. Like General Motors, you know? If we don’t look at stuff from the point of view of black people and people of color here in the United States throughout this, we’re ignoring things that could help our country.

[For the Black Insittute], I decided that we need to have three strategies: (1) Data, research, and polling. There are studies and data that sit on dusty shelves in academia about people of color, about black folks. But there is no company that exclusively polls people of color. We’re always a tab in a larger poll. (2) If you could bring down the data and the research and, as Malcolm X said, make it plain, [you could] turn it into public policy. Train people on how to turn it into legislation. (3) You’ve got to be able to move it on the ground, because you can have all the advocacy in the world and the best ideas in the world, but if you don’t move it on the ground through grassroots organizations and mobilize people around it, it won’t make a difference. So that’s what I want: Research, which is sort of symbolized by the head. Leadership, training and development, signified by the heart. And then, being able to move it on the ground.

Clarke: In closing, I want to give our audience at Radio RP&E a little taste of your remarks at the State of the Region...

Lewis: Whether we call ourselves the new majority or just the majority, I do not accept the idea that we are going to wait until 2050 and then shazam! all of a sudden, we will be the majority. We already are. Look from city to city and from region to region and you can see people of color are already the majority. We’ve got to realize that we are the majority already and act like it. We don't need to wait until we get to critical mass, we are at critical mass.

We're here talking about changing demographics, what do you think the Right is doing? Voter ID and voter suppression, the American Legislative Exchange Council, the attack on healthcare and contraceptives, access to healthcare for poor women—what do all these things have to do with each other? Fear of a black planet!

We have an opportunity right now to move people to the polls based on their own self-interests and issues. So, the message is this: If we are the new majority, start acting like it! Let us make sure that electoral politics, as well as real, on-the–ground, knock-on-doors, face-to-face organizing is part of that.

B. Jesse Clarke is the editor of Race, Poverty & the Environment.

 


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Mitchell Silver Keynote Address April 2012

 



Keynote speakers Mitchell J. Silver, president of the American Planning Association, and Bertha Lewis, president and founder of The Black Institute, delivered exhilarating and passionate calls to action as they spoke about the changing demographic in the United States and how to ensure that low-income people and people of color have the infrastructure and policies in place to support their success.

To read and listen to an exclusive interview with Bertha Lewis or read the transcript of this speech please visit Radio RP&E: New Political Spaces.

Bertha Lewis Interview Transcript (Raw)

Clarke:   (01:30) Welcome to another edition of Radio RP&E.  I want to welcome to our studio Bertha Lewis, president and founder of the New York based action think tank Black Institute and former president and chief organizer for the community organizing group ACORN.  A veteran organizer and powerful public speaker, Bertha has been involved in organizing since the 1980s. (02:00)  You know, and actually that’s where I wanted to start.  I mean if you could just, you know, just talk a little bit about your beginnings.  I mean, the Bronx 1980s.  How did you end up getting involved in this whole organizing world and what were you doing?
Lewis:  Well it was really sort of organic, you know.  I didn’t know anything about Saul Alinsky or anything like that.  I just—a group of us had answered an ad in the Village Voice newspaper (02:30) that said, “Low rent deal.  Be an urban homesteader.  Take two apartments, make a live/work space.”  And I was in the theater.  I was producing original plays at that time.  And, of course, we were all up in the Bronx.  We’re just like, yes, we’re so earnest and [laughs] but the building that we got lured into, (03:00) no windows, no floors, no plumbing, no heat.  You know, we were truly urban homesteaders and that’s where I learned to sweat pipe and do drywall.  And we all sort of helped each other.  It was very, very romantic and very exciting, but at the time, this was what was affordable to us.  
And I remember being at the theater just getting ready to open a play. (03:30) I got a phone call from my neighbor who called the theater and said, “Bertha, there are men here with guns and they say we have to get out.”  And I know it sounds dramatic, but I left the theater that day and never returned.  And it became the beginning of a battle just to fight for my home.  You know, back then in the South Bronx, there were many distressed buildings (04:00) and you had these speculators.  They would come and buy them up for—make a deal with the city for taxes.  And we were an earnest little group of tenants and we did what everybody told us to do and we actually were two weeks away from having the property sold to us as a group so that we really would be urban homesteaders.  And I tell you, (04:30) it was in my life an epic battle to really understand what organizing was about and the political implications and having every single day to fight for your own home.  So those are my beginnings and, you know, seven years later (05:00) I didn’t have any job.  A guy who had helped us all along the way, his name was Nelson Rodriguez—
Clarke:  Wait, wait.  Did you keep the house?
Lewis:  Well, here’s the thing.  
Clarke:  OK.
Lewis:  Nelson Rodriguez said, “Well, you know, if you don’t have a job, you should come and apply with the organization I’m with called Banana Kelly”.  And I said, “To do what?”  And he said, “Well, we have an opening for a community organizer”.  I said, “Well, what the hell is that?” (05:30) He said, “Well, you really are doing what you’ve already been doing here”.  I said, “Do you mean to tell me that people will pay you to fight for justice?”  And he’s like, yeah.  And that was it.  And we did have the eight year battle.  It’s very difficult to hang together and stick together and we thought we had lost.  I went to work for (06:00) ACORN.  20 years later—and this, again, is bizarre—20 years later, New York ACORN took over possession of that same building, rehabilitated it, and now it houses 40 low-income families.  I mean, you can’t make this stuff up.  [laughs]
Clarke:  Wow.  Well, you know, as long as we’ve moved in to that (06:30) ACORN period—and I was interested, too, because I read that in the nineties that you organized against redlining using the Reinvestment Act.
Lewis:  Community Reinvestment Act.
Clarke:  The Community Reinvestment Act to pressure banks to see what you could do to stop redlining for the homeowners that were in the Bronx.  The cycles come and go, but that is kind of an amazing—I mean, just talk a little about what was the story?  I mean, after that speculative wave (07:00) and some people were trying to actually buy houses and live in their own houses, what was the role of ACORN and your work there in terms of the Community Reinvestment Act?
Lewis:  Well, you know, we’re a membership organization and we organize low and moderate-income folks.  And we take our issues and fight on things that affect our members.  But two things have to happen.  One, the fight has to benefit (07:30) our members.  But two, at the same time, it’s got to move public policy.  For years people understood that the banks put a red line around black and brown neighborhoods and you couldn’t get credit to buy and if you could, then you were exploited.  So after the savings and loan debacle, we looked and saw that there was something called (08:00) the Community Reinvestment Act that said if these banks are going to merge, then they really do need to create a real program.  And we actually created programs in which if folks were counseled so that they really understood about buying something that they really could afford, our interest was for them to stay in their homes long-term.  So for years we fought to get banks (08:30) to open up and actually give credit so that low-income people could buy if they were counseled.  And for years we tried to sound the alarm about predatory lending and subprime mortgages because it was ironic.  For years we could get credit into our neighborhoods.  And then banks discovered, ah, there’s gold (09:00) in them there poor people’s hills.  And so the whole frenzy around subprime loans and predatory lending came in.  We were railing against it but, of course, who listens to us?
Clarke:  The New York Reinvestment [Coalition].
Lewis:  I mean, and all across the country.  And sure enough, what we predicted would happen did happen.  Here’s what folks don’t tell you about the (09:30) foreclosure crisis story.  In New York, we had a one percent default.  One percent.  Why?  Because all of our folks were counseled and we always counseled people into buying homes and having mortgages that could withstand any hardship.  So they don’t talk to you about if folks are really counseled and it you work with them, (10:00) they survived the foreclosure crisis.
Clarke:  And they got loan products [without]--    
Lewis:  Exactly right.  Exactly right.
Clarke:  --balloon payments, escalating interest rates and surprise clauses and upfront fees that—
Lewis:  So, it really makes me, you know, it really makes me crazy because you fight so hard to get some benefits for poor people.  But in our free market economy, folks will always find a way to exploit that. (10:30)
Clarke:  Well, you know, if you look at the work that the successors to ACORN doing now—here in California you have Alliance of Californians for Community Empowerment.  And I know there’s 18 or 20 chapters, or no longer chapters, but separate independent organizations across the country carrying on some of that work.  But how do you see the relationship between this foreclosure crisis, this devastation of the, not surprisingly, in our views that the same communities that were redlined well, that first were segregated in the 1940s, (11:00) then were integrated so to speak [laughter] in the 1960s.  They were redlined and then they were predatory lent.  Now they’re being foreclosed.  When you see that organizing and you see ACCE carrying on this kind of work and the other community organizers, what do you see happening?  And, you know, you go back to in our system, what’s the thing that’s got to change?  I mean, what—if a Community Reinvestment Act wasn’t strong enough to keep them from flipping it on its head?  Here we go.  We’re going to get people in their homes. (11:30) Now let’s flip it on its head.  Well, let’s give them a loan package they could never pay for and let’s double the price of their house and get twice as much money and then take it back and sell it for a quarter back to ourselves and then sell it again.  So it’s a terrible—if you had a crooked landlord doing this on a one-on-one basis, everybody would be going, wait a minute now.  You sold it first and you sold it twice, and so on.  
Lewis:  But that’s exactly what’s happening.
Clarke:  So where do you see this—where do we get involved if the Reinvestment Act (12:00) was a weak instrument?
Lewis:  Well, I mean—
Clarke:  How are we going to change that?  What is ACCE doing?  What are the other groups—
Lewis:  The Community Reinvestment Act was just a tool.  Here’s where I think all things come together.  Number one, the whole financial collapse came about because there was no regulation and regulations that were on the books were not enforced because it’s the free market and, you know, business needed to thrive. (12:30) We had a mindset in this country that actually worshipped rich people.  And so the culture became anything that benefitted making money and rich people was fine.  You see this being manifest today.  There really is a war on the poor.  If we can exploit you, if we can pay you below minimum wage, (13:00) if we can exploit your labor, then something is wrong with you, poor people.  Here’s what’s good.  What’s good is folks like ACCE here in California and, like you say, 17, 18, 19 groups, we will multiply.  And it’s when the right attacked ACORN.  What it did was just spur social justice (13:30) Frankensteins, for lack of a better—you know.  People got so outraged.  And they said, you know what?  We know what the attack looks like now.  We can protect ourselves against that and we will proliferate.  And that’s what happens.  What the right and those conservatives don’t understand is there are more of us than there are of them and groups get stronger. (14:00) Voting matters because what really matters are local elections.  What we see happening in these state Houses, we see an attempt to suppress voters.  We see an attempt to even stop registering voters because that’s what really counts.
Clarke:  Yeah, well, I want to get back to that and the period after ACORN, (14:30) with such a vicious, cooked-up campaign to blacken the name of the organizers that were actually engaged in some very good work.  The notion that the voter registration cards were somehow defective was part of the libel.
Lewis:  A brilliant strategy, by the way.
Clarke:  But the, and the nonsensical story of pimps and whores.  (15:00) We hope that part has been undone in terms of our readership, but if it hasn’t, [we’ll put a sidebar for] it.
Lewis:  Good.
Clarke:  But the question about what--this is a long campaign they’re involved in.  First off, they went after the biggest voter registration outfit in the country after an election, by the way, which was swung by the new voters.
Lewis:  That’s right.
Clarke:  And then they have passed, I don’t know, 18 voter suppression, voter ID, citizenship check laws.
Lewis:  30.
Clarke:  30?  Oh. (15:30) I haven’t been counting.  They’re moving fast.  And then the [Alec] group is—
Lewis:  That’s right.
Clarke:  --churning them out.  So where do you see this—when it first happened with ACORN, it was like, oh it’s just this nutty right-wing guy’s website.  And he pays a videographer to go around and do mean stuff.  And boy, that’s weird.  It caught on so bad.  I wonder what happened and gee, too bad.  Oh, where is that group?  Oh, too bad.  They’re out of business.  So it kind of caught people’s up.  Now we’re into this.  Like you said, we know they’re—so how do you see that (16:00) trajectory and where are we in that process right now, because we have another election just coming up in—
Lewis:  We do.  I mean, the rise of the Tea Party was not accidental.  You’ve got to give credit where credit is due.  The day after the 2008 election when the right lost, they immediately, immediately set about organizing.  They immediately set (16:30) about looking at the 2010 midterm elections, immediately.  This is why I’m always sort of like on a “Wake up, progressives” tour, you know?  Wake up, left.  Don’t sleep here because you must organize, organize, organize all the time.  You began to see a tactic because those of us who consider ourselves on the left (17:00) and progressive, you know, we’re really very civilized about our arguments.  We always think that they have to be grounded in fact.  Well, the other side doesn’t care about fact.  It is all about winning and maintaining power.  
When you go after the largest voter registration operation in the country—at our height, we, ACORN accounted for (17:30) 25 percent of all voter registration.  Karl Rove in 2004 put his sights on us because we had a minimum wage ballot initiative in Florida.  We registered over a million people and we moved those people to the polls based on issues, the issue of raising the minimum wage, not on a personality.  Even though (18:00) George Bush won that state, people who may have voted for Bush also went to the other section of the ballot and voted to raise the minimum wage.  That was dangerous.  The New York Times published Karl Rove’s emails saying this is the real danger to the Republican Party and to the right.  We must go after them.  So there ensued AttorneyGate. (18:30) So you remember Alberto Gonzales and the resignation of US attorneys who said, “We’re being used for political purposes.”
Clarke:  Oh, right.  Right.  The whole scale just slipped my mind for a while there, didn’t it?
Lewis:  It all started with us.  So they had their sights on us for a while.  And they developed a way to go after you and it was really quite brilliant.  Take your strength and turn it against you. (19:00) Discourage these new voters, young people, people of color.  We’re hurtling toward being a majority minority country.  You’ve got to blunt that somehow.  And so they take a long-term view.  And all politics is local, so if you can affect city council, state Houses, now you’ve set yourself up with an atmosphere in which—Wisconsin (19:30), you know, you can go after labor.  You can go after those groups that represent poor people.
Clarke:  Well, but if you turn that on its head, if you look at these demographic trends and you see the majority minority, minority majority, the majority of the majorities, which has been really here all along, especially if you take a look at the women’s vote.  So if we look at that 99 percent, OK, well we’ll do the math later.  66.6 percent.  But that majority has been here.  But now that the new majority is really gaining (20:00) that kind of threat, where you see the fear in places like Arizona in that top demographic that people over 65 are 80 percent white and the people under 35, there’s 60 percent people of color.  You see that gap and you see that shift.  Thinking about the contours of the new majority coalition, what are some of the—you know, you turn this on the head.  You had that right-wing strategy looking 10 years out.  What are the contours and where are the places where you’re starting to see emerge (20:30) this powerful alliance of communities of color and progressives and women to actually turn this right-side up again?
Lewis:  Well I think this is why this election this year is so important.  Because I think what you’ll begin to see is, like you say, this new majority, this coalition of folks who find that they have interests in common.  You know, women are under attack.  Black folks are under attack. (21:00) Brown folks are under attack.  Left folks are under attack.  Progressives are under attack.  Our cities are under attack.  So people can see it very clearly and see it’s in their self-interest to come together.  See, that’s what I mean.  It’s like when the right attacks, they really set up an atmosphere for (21:30) groups to come together and really be stronger and to fight back because the right becomes so extreme that everyday people can see this is crazy.  But we understand that we are in a real war.  There’s no complacency here.  And you have women of all stripes coming together saying, listen, they can pass a law in Texas cutting healthcare from 300,000 (22:00) poor women, mostly black and brown.  They can do some draconian things here.  So I’m happy.  It’s almost like—[laughter] because, you know—
Clarke:  Thank you, Rush.
Lewis:   --as an organizer, we thrive in polarizing situations.  And America is polarized more so than ever before.
Clarke:  Well, but when you go back to this (22:30)—you said when you were a community organizer without any Alinsky training, nonetheless you looked at the individual interest of each of these members and our self-interest is at stake.  We’re being attacked as progressive.  We’re being attacked as people of color.  We’re being attacked as women.  All of us have this self-interest.  But then the second ingredient, you said there was a second ingredient.  It wasn’t just enough to look out for your interest because, sadly, we have seen the end road (23:00) of looking out for your own interest in the labor unions.  You’ve seen the end road of looking out for your own interest in the narrow definition of feminism that could get a Secretary of State.  You know, we’ve seen that looking out for your own interest without the second—what was that second ingredient?
Lewis:  Public policy.
Clarke:  And for this new majority, what are the policies?
Lewis:  Well, remember when I said the unique thing about ACORN—and now our model is being duplicated—is you not only look out for your members’ (23:30) self-interest for them, because we were like a community union.  That was our model.  But whatever the campaign was not only had to benefit your members but change public policy so that it benefitted other folks that were in a like situation.  I think that’s the key and I think what people—even labor—realizes now that they are under (24:00) this brutal attack, they have been under attack for decades.  I mean, you know, we’ve seen union membership go down in this country.  And unions, organized labor was at its height when?  When it came outside of the workplace and actually got involved in social justice issues like civil rights that affected their members. (24:30) So it’s not just what affects your members, but what kind of policies that we put in place that are going to benefit more than just your identified folks and that’s the key.  And I think that’s what community organizations are looking at now.  No more can you put a shell or a bubble around you.  You really do have to open up.  
And I think, I think what has happened is sort of like the old clichés, you know. (25:00) I used to always say they come for me in the morning; they’re coming for you at night.  And now people have seen that played out and it’s very real.  It’s extremely real.  And folks are saying, you know what?  When you work for social justice, this is not just a hobby.  This actually affects the world.  It actually affects my neighborhood (25:30) and I have to look outside of myself.  That’s why, I think, community groups like ACCE here in California grow stronger, grow better out of this adversity and out of recognizing we are at war and we need to have allies of all stripes.
Clarke:  So, now if we were to get to that place, and we see some of it stirring here in California for sure.  And we did sort of sidestep the last little (26:00) right-wing wave in terms of our elections, but we didn’t exactly stop it and turn it back, either.  It’s still washing over us, particularly as we look at the real impact.  So when you’re talking about the policies, I know that now that you’ve moved on to create a new organization called the Black Institute and you’re thinking about, particularly, the policies—it’s sort of a think and action.
Lewis:  It’s an action tank.
Clarke:  Action tank.  OK.  So it’s taking action.  What policies—because, you know, when you said you organized in Florida for minimum wage (26:30) in the state of Florida, so they upped the minimum wage in the state of Florida.
Lewis:  Right, right.
Clarke:  So, you know, that’s a pretty basic idea.  But there’s sort of a mystification here like, well, we need an action tank to pick up these policies and present them out there so that this new majority can take them.
Lewis:  Well, I mean, it is very simple but you don’t let perfect be the enemy of good. (27:00) Now this thing called ALEC, the American Legislative Exchange Council, ALEC.  Now people know that word, they know that acronym.  They know that this is a right-wing think tank.  Well, of course, there’s millions of them.  You know?  I mean, what was the senior Bush, you know, a thousand points of light?  You know, they’ve got the Heritage Foundation (27:30) and the Cato Institute and this and this and this.  And for years, people hadn’t really heard about ALEC.  But groups like ACORN and others, we knew about them.  And again, I think what we have to do is trust each other and not fall into the trap of being territorial, of saying, well—of falling prey to foundationitis, where a foundation (28:00) will say, “Well, we’ve already got one of those.  We don’t need another one.”  Well, to hell with that.  Community groups have got to find ways to do earned income so that you don’t rely on the kindness of strangers, so that you can weather the storm.  We need a thousand points of light.  And in 2009 after I began to reorganize the ACORN chapters (28:30) because, you know, you’ve got to live to fight another day.  And another cliché, what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.  Well, they didn’t kill us.  They made us stronger.  And you morph in to what you need to do.  
And I remember standing down by the White House and there’s these dueling kind of protests going on about healthcare. (29:00) And you had these people saying, “Well, the American public doesn’t really want universal healthcare.  They don’t want single payer.”  And I said, “What America are you talking about?  Who are the people that you’re talking about?”  Not being able to affect comprehensive immigration reform in the 21st century (29:30) when the country, again, the browning of America had begun decades before, this fear of a black planet was just palpable.  And I decided, you know what?  What’s good for people of color, what’s good for black folks is good for America and is good for the world.  So, like, General Motors, you know?  (30:00) So if we don’t look at stuff from the point of view of black people and people of color here in the United States and throughout the [this war], then we’re ignoring things that could help our country.  
I decided that we needed to have three strategies.  One, data, research, polling.  There are studies and data that sit on dusty shelves in academia (30:30) about people of color, about black folks.  There is no company who exclusively does nothing but poll people of color.  We’re always a tab in a larger poll.  So if you could bring down the data and the research and as Malcolm X said, (31:00) make it plain, turn it into plain language, turn it into public policy, train people on that, train people on how to turn that into legislation.  But then you have to have the third element.  You’ve got to be able to move it on the ground because you can have all the advocacy in the world and you can have the best ideas in the world but if you don’t move it on the ground through grassroots organizations, organize, and mobilize people around it, (31:30) it won’t make a difference.  So that’s what I wanted the Institute to be.  Research, which is sort of symbolized by the head.  Leadership, training, development, signified by the heart.  And then being able to move it on the ground.  Green for grassroots.  I figured after the ordeal that I’d gone through with ACORN, (32:00) I knew about forming ACORN chapters.  I also knew that there were other organizations that really met that challenge and came up.  And I said, well, if I could connect with them and we start working together, we could deal with immigration.  The face of immigration is a lot blacker than the frame that it’s all about undocumented Latinos.  You know, (32:30) there is a huge, huge black population of immigrants from the Caribbean, from South America, and from Africa and they need to be included in that narrative.  The privatizing of education, this is serious because now that these urban school districts have more melanin in them and have more color, all of a sudden now, (33:00) once again, let’s privatize.
Clarke:  And make some money off it.
Lewis:  Then you’ve got to—the environment and, of course, economics.  So we have three strategies, four areas of interest, and for me this idea had been brewing in my head for a very long time and I just said what the hell?  We’re in a war, so I may as well fight the war the way that I think is most effective for me (33:30) and that’s what I’m doing with the Black Institute.  And that’s why I’m here in California today.  
Clarke:  Well, that’s a great segue into what we’ll be actually doing tomorrow.  And I want to acknowledge that this is part of a project here that the Urban Habitats Bay Area Social Equity Caucus is putting on for the State of the Region conference, which will be featuring a powerful public speaker, Bertha Lewis, (34:00) and we’ll be getting more of this stuff tomorrow.  And we want to thank, especially, the people who are putting the conference on:  Frank Lopez, who’s not in the room with us right this minute, but who will be listening to this soon.
Lewis:  Yea, Frank.  Yea.
Clarke:   Frank, he’s been doing quite a job.  But actually the entire Urban Habitat staff’s been pulling on.  And I want to also thank our board engineer today, Joe Feria-Galicia and Christine Joy Ferrer, publishing assistant in the house.  So thanks for joining us, Bertha, and we’ll look forward to (34:30) finding out the three strategies, the four areas, and the key to building the echo chamber of the left.
Lewis:  [laughs] Yes, yes, and I thank you guys for having me on.  This is fabulous.  It’s wonderful to have your own media outlet.  Because remember, what did the right do?  Little by little, they did their right-wing talk radio, took over radio stations.  (35:00) So—
Clarke:  Here we go.
Lewis:  We can do the same thing.
Clarke:  And we’re starting it here.  Thank you again, Bertha.
Lewis:  Thank you.  
[End of Audio]

Bertha Lewis Keynote 4/26 Raw Transcript

Bertha Lewis;

[00:00]Ok how y'all doing?  Now the people that had the fried chicken, no napping, all right, no napping because you're on camera and you will be recorded.  And ah?  So what was I doing between 2007 and 2012? [00:30]I got carted off to the right wing gulag.  My god its cold in the gulag, but that’s all right.  Glen Beck and I had our affair.  That’s why he does the thing that he does and says the things he says about me, he wanted to have a love child.  But I saidvno Glen, [01:00]the demographics are changing.  Well I guess, you know Mitchell was so great, you know, this guy.  The PowerPoint, everything all fancy-smancy, but really on time and really got us to thinking about what’s really real and digging down into the numbers. [01:30]You know?
So my message today is whether we do need to figure out what to call ourselves, the new majority or just, we are the majority instead of minority and I do not accept the fact that we are going to wait until 2015 and then shhhh, all of a [02:00]sudden we will be the majority, we already are.  See I don't believe all the stuff that these people try to tell us, we already are.  Look from city to city and even from region to region and we say well, you know, people of color are already the majority there.  When you start putting that stuff together, that means we got to realize that we are the majority [02:30]already and we need to act like it.  We don't need to wait until we get to critical mass, we are at critical mass.  I mean you can even look in this room, right?  You know that not too long ago this room was decidedly melanin challenged. [03:00]But we got our melanin and all melanin thing on now. 

Let me just give you a brief little thing about the Black Institute and who we are and yes, I did not focus group the name.  People were saying, whoa, don't call it the Black Institute, you know, you want to be more universal.  And I'm like, Black is universal, Okay? Okay? [03:30]and every color in the rainbow. 
I was standing in D.C. in 2009 when the Healthcare debate came up and there was this tiny little group of people walking around with tea bags and talking about "We don't want universal Healthcare, we don't want single payer and the American people [04:00]don't want it and we have a poll."  And I'm like what Americans are you talking about?  Who?  Because people in my hood definitely want universal Healthcare.  So who are you and then it all became, begin to come together for me, and I began to understand and to realize that these were the people that the day after [04:30]the 2008 election, the Right started to organize these people.  We were all partying, feeling good, you know.  Yeah we finally got it, first Black President.  [We're peoples racial]  Whoo.  Everything's going to be all right now.  Wrong! [05:00]Wrong.  The minute you stop organizing, the minute you stop bringing people together, you have lost. 

So what I'm here to say today in all of my different remarks is, regional planners, those of you who are doing research, data collection, and writing fabulous [05:30]things like this.  Listen, the one thing that you better have, is you need an organizing component.  [Remark from crowd]   Absolutely.  Absolutely.  After I did reorganize the former ACORN chapters, and it was, you know, its all good because [we'll send that girl with that said (singing) can you [06:00]makes you stronger, a little longer.]  I can’t remember what it is but you get the point.  Theses bastards tried to kill us and when you are faced with death, things flash before your eyes.  And the things that flash before your eye are what actually really count.  That you cannot be moderate, you do have to be radical [06:30]because they will lie on you and they will attack you no matter how reasonable you believe you are being, understand that.  So for me when I saw these town hall meetings turn into debacles it became clear that they had to remove ACORN from the chess board because you would [07:00]know if the ACORN red shirts had been in on those town hall meetings, they would have been an entirely thing, entirely different.  Also what I realized was that these folks were serious, there was fear of a black planet, that they would do whatever it took, however long it took, to change the dynamic. [07:30]We're here talking about changing demographics, what do you think they're doing?  What do you think they are doing?  Voter ID and voter suppression, ALEC, the American Legislative Exchange Council, [08:00]the attack on Healthcare and contraceptive and access to healthcare by poor women.  What do all these things have to do with each other?  Fear of a black planet.  Fear of you all and your regional planning and what kinds of things you are planning.  Maybe we ought to change the terminology to not [08:30]be [social-like really] but social fairness.  Every last one of you in the room today is a threat.  You are a threat to the powers that be.  You need to understand what a danger you are.  Get that in your heads, you are dangerous.  I know, "I'm kind of nice, I got, I have multiple [09:00]degrees, I'm not like those other people, I'm doing research, nothing wrong here, you crazy Bertha, you go and make people afraid."  Well guess what? [09:30]You cannot hide because you are dangerous and that’s how they look at you. 
We don't have progressive elected officials, you think because you elected someone, because they're Latino, or they're Asian, or they're Black, that somehow or another they have a predisposition to social justice? [10:00]  This is why we are in the fix we're in today.  Because we try to say well if we support this one or that one maybe we'll get one or two things because intrinsically we understand they're not progressive, they don't even know how to think progressively. [10:30]  Now any funders in here, don't get your pantyhose in a wad, I'm not trying to foment partisan politics because I know that is forboden for 501c3's, however, issue advocacy is not, and the issue is, what is progressive policy [11:00]and you cannot have progressive policy if you don't have progressive elected officials, you just can't, it won't work.  Folks come into a room, they hear race, they get up and leave, they hear gender, they get up and leave.  When you go to these city halls and you go to the state houses, the reason that we're having so many problems [11:30]today was again the day after Barack Obama was elected, those folks on the right were already at the 2010 elections, already.  You think that because we have the facts and the data that Americas is browning and that there will be people of color in the majority that these folk are sitting back? [12:00]  They are looking back at their counterparts in South Africa.  You think that a [par time] can't come here when everybody is black and brown and in the majority?  You better think again, because the powers that be don't care about your numbers if you don't [12:30]act like numbers are your power. 

It’s an understanding, the demographic change, we got to be a little bit deeper.  I keep saying Black, I keep saying Black and not African American.  Why?  Because you got people like Mitchell, all mixed the hell up. [13:00]This is not your traditional up from the South migrating Negro, this is super Negro.  As regional planners, [13:30] you got to dig down into who these demographics are.  You've got to look at how you are going to effect comprehensive immigration reform.  It has to be part of your plan, because guess what, it isn't just about borders and Latinos [14:00]hopping over fences and having anchor babies.  If we're looking at the economics of this country and regionally, our comprehensive immigration reform, if it'll ever come please God, we need to look at who's coming into this country, African immigrants are the most [14:30]highly educated of all immigrant groups combined. 
There’s a dirty little secret going on in this country about education, where education and immigration cross. The recruitment of international teachers.  These are professionals and they are coming up from the Caribbean, [15:00]Black immigrants from South America as well as Africa, and its a cottage industry of recruiters that not only charge the teachers, but the system.  I don't know if any of you heard about Filipino teachers in New Orleans [15:30]that were practically indentured servants, had their passports taken away, forced to live in trailers, and give part of their earnings back to their recruiters, it was like an international professional coyote.  But here's the other thing, I was, I was over at Howard College and [16:00]talking to a class and one of the students said to me "you know Mrs. Lewis, I know what the left is all about, I know what progressives are all about, I know what we want, but I just can't figure out what the right wants because it just doesn't seem to be clear to me."  And I said well, it right in front of [16:30]your face...privatize everything.  Privatize everything.  The war on public education is raging all around us.  It is predatory education.  We will no longer have public schools in a minute if we don't watch out. [17:00]International teachers are being recruited to populate charter schools.  That is their new thing, be aware of this, be aware. 
If we are talking about geography and people moving around and us being in the majority, in urban settings and [17:30]inter-suburban setting, all of a sudden when the school system is now black and brown it got to be privatized.  It just like gentrification happens after we take away services in neighborhoods and we call it urban renewal but you remove the folks out of [18:00]that system, it is the same thing that is happening in public education, be aware.  You got to be able to put that into your formula.

We have an opportunity right now to move people to the polls based on their own self-interests and issues. [18:30]ACORN at its height accounted for 25% of all voter registration in this country.  One organization.  Well with that dubious distinction, we had a bull’s-eye on our backs that was huge, you see, in a way, why we had to be removed. [19:00]I mean it makes perfect logical sense.

Using this Trayvon Martin moment again in your planning, where was Trayvon Martin shot?  In a gated community that arguably according to whomever [19:30]you want to believe was 50/50 in terms of white vs. people of color.  A gated community.  Again, the rise of these types of developments have proliferated…proliferated.  If we want to look at what kind of housing [20:00]we're having, anytime you have a gated community, that already sets up a certain mentality.  Are you keeping people in or you keeping folks out?  Is there free movement even between the neighbors in this place?  Regional planners, think about the proliferation of gated communities and its not just the rich, [20:30]we convinced moderate, middle income folks that they should be in gated communities too.  This is why we have this whole flight to the suburbs.  Lets have a house and a yard for the dog.

Well I'm a boomer. [21:00]Let me tell you a little secret about boomers.  We get cranky and once we hit a certain age, we revel with it.  Early on in our life we were like, so restricted and all of a sudden the big sexual revolution and we got loose, and then we got too loose [21:30]and had to pull back.  And yeah, we seen far too much, and we actually have seen you know in our short lifetime things change drastically so we get cranky, and we like it because we can finally be cranky and talk about all the things that we see that we don't like and that other people shouldn't like and [22:00]one of the things that we don't like is people not being call what they really are, like you all, dangerous.  There's nothing safe about you.  The fact that revolutions and what you all are doing, it costs money.  Sorry funders in the room but most folks sitting up in here [22:30]are suffering from foundation-itis.  No foundation can tell me that they are suffering, not when the stock market is over 13,000.  There's no such thing.  You bounce back and your investments have bounce back even better and greater than before. [23:00]Think about self-sufficiency.  We are not going to be able to do the things that we want if we don't have self-sufficiency.  We need our own bean pies.  The Nation of Islam don't give a damn about what you think of about them because they got a bean pot.  And we got to think [23:30]about that.  What is our self-sufficient motto?  You cannot keep relying on the kindness of strangers because they have an agenda.  We got to change our minds about how we are going to fund our own revolution and it isn't going to be from government grants or from totally from foundations, it cannot be, because if it is, [24:00]the revolutions certainly will not be televised.

But because there were folks who actually said we are going to tell the truth and shame the devil...bull.  Occupy.  The occupy movement has does more for your regional planning than you all have done for a decade. [24:30]You should give them a hand.  Because no one was talking about inequality before these crazy ass people laid down and said "that’s it, no more, no more."  You got to join up with labor.  Please, please, please.  And god knows [25:00]they can be a pain in the ass.  Lord knows, I know, but you got to go to them because what is happening.  Changing demographics, their rank and file demographics are changing.  Don't let some guy in a suit, who's a business suit, he's a business agent.  They don't even call themselves organizers anymore, they're business agents. [25:30]You say look, I know what your rank and file looks like.  I know who they are, there is no separation between labor and community because their rank and files live on streets which are neighborhoods, which are part of communities, if they would only recognize that, we have to help them.  Wisconsin didn't happen by accident and they need us, they need us, [26:00]they need us.  You don't have to beg, you need to tell them come and invest with us.  There has to be an inside outside strategy here.  Stop the bickering, stop the crumb snatching, please just stop it.  Its my turf, you know, [26:30]some funder tells you, "well we already got one of those."   Why don't you come up with something different, or here’s a dollar, I want all ten of you to share it because we want to maximize.  I mean sometimes you just got to walk away [27:00]and say no, the 10 of us say that is unacceptable, the work is too important and you will respect us and you will recognize us.  I know again that sounds real radical [inaudible] don't tell us to do that but you have too.  You just have to take a different tact.

I said in Detroit and I'm going to say it again, [27:30]I don't care how academic you are, I don't care how researcher in it you are, I don't care.  Every last one of you needs to have a political voter registration, voter turnout door-knocking component.  If you don't have it within your own organization than you better get with someone who does, and they exist. [28:00]You must do this.  Earlier I was in the demographic section and they were saying, "Oh the universities used to have departments just devoted to different ethnicities and they don't have it anymore.”  Well damn, that’s unacceptable.  All we been doing is how we are the new majority, so [28:30]if we're so new, lets get real and start exerting that power right now.  Who are the African Americans?  That’s a whole different class of folks.  Black faces need to be at the table when we talk about immigration reform.  When we talk about immigration reform, we got to talk about changing how we treat professionals.  Theses are our cousins; [29:00]we need them here to fight the battle with us.  So it is disturbing to me when I don't see a real effort to say, yes we're going to use Twitter, yes we're going use Facebook, we're going to go into the cloud.  That was really frightening to me because I had just gotten down with cyberspace then [29:30]they said, "go into the cloud."  I was like, nah.  No more of that forced march thing for me.  I’ve seen too many science fiction movies where none of us are in the future except [inaudible]. 

So the message is this.  If we are the new majority, start acting like it. [30:00]If we are the new majority, let us make sure that electoral politics as well as real on the ground knock on the door face-to-face organizing is part of that.  The Black Institute has three strategies: The head, data, research, polling but it doesn't mean anything if you cant make a claim and bring it down to the heart which is [30:30]leadership turning all that rusty dusty stuff into reality and training people to do it but none of it, it will always be advocacy if you don’t move it on the ground.  You still have to knock on doors.  You ain't getting away from that.  You can have all the videoconference you want. [31:00]And here’s the proof right in your own publication, Black and Latino coalition's Black anti-immigrant laws in Mississippi.  Whenever I’m in Mississippi I try to be inside after dark.  So if they can do it in Mississippi, we can join website to website, strange bedfellows and all kind of coalitions, we have to do it [31:30]for our own survival, you cannot do it alone.  And so, in conclusion, you want to call to action?  You gonna get up off your ass right now.  Stand up, stand up, stand up.  Mic check, Mic check.  We are the majority, and we will rule. [32:00]We are fired up, and tired of all the bullshit, and we wont take it anymore.  We are the majority, not in 2050, we are the majority right now, and we will rule.  Thank you.

Voter Suppression Disenfranchises Millions



The right to vote is under attack all across our country. Conservative legislators are introducing and passing legislation that: (a) creates new barriers for those registering to vote, (b) shortens the early voting period, (c) imposes new requirements for registered voters, and (d) rigs the Electoral College in select states.

Although voter fraud is exceedingly rare, conservatives have been fabricating reasons to enact laws that disenfranchise as many potential voters as possible among certain groups, such as college students, low-income people, and minorities.[1] Rather than modernizing our democracy to ensure that all citizens have access to the ballot box, these laws hinder voting rights in a manner not seen since the Jim Crow laws enacted in the South to disenfranchise blacks following Reconstruction.

It should be noted that these proposals being introduced in states as different as Florida and Wisconsin is no coincidence. Rather, they are drafted and distributed by corporate-backed entities like the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), according to an investigative report by the Center for American Progress.[2] Corporations, such as Koch Industries Inc., Wal-Mart Stores Inc., and The Coca-Cola Co. pay ALEC a fee for access to members of state legislatures, so that the corporate representatives and ALEC officials can work together with elected representatives to draft model legislation. As ALEC spokesperson Michael Bowman told NPR, the system is especially effective as legislators, “will ask questions much more freely at our meetings because they are not under the eyes of the press, the eyes of the voters.”



The investigative report also included a leaked copy of the model Voter ID legislation approved by ALEC’s board of directors in 2009. It prohibits certain forms of identification, such as student IDs, and has been adopted as the preferred model by both Tea Party organizations and Wisconsin’s Republican legislators, State Representative Jeff Stone and State Senator Joe Leibham.

Similar legislation had been proposed in Missouri and other states during the early part of the last decade, but it frequently failed to pass. Seeking new avenues, the George W. Bush administration prioritized the conviction of voter fraud to the point where two U.S. attorneys were allegedly fired in 2004 for failing to pursue electoral fraud cases at the level required by Attorney General John Ashcroft. But after three years of scrutiny of the 2002 elections, Ashcroft’s efforts had only produced 95 charges of election fraud. News reports from 2007, however, pointed out that simply “pursuing an investigation can be just as effective as a conviction in providing that ammunition and creating an impression with the public that some sort of electoral reform is necessary.”[3]

Having laid the groundwork, ALEC is now spearheading these antivoting laws anew. A number of nonpartisan organizations ranging from Rock the Vote to the League of Women Voters to the Public Interest Research Group, are challenging ALEC’s efforts. Additionally, the Department of Justice is reviewing some of the new state laws for possible violations of the Voting Rights Act in nine southern states because of their history of voter suppression in the past.

Speaking on the subject at the Campus Progress National Conference in Washington, D.C. on July 6, 2011, President Bill Clinton told the young audience that the reason why laws making it harder to vote were being proposed and passed across the country was that “They are trying to make the 2012 electorate look more like the 2010 electorate than the 2008 electorate.”

Conservatives are scared because more young and minority voters are entering voting age and their collective impact is growing accordingly. In 2008, about 48 million millennial generation voters—those born between 1978 and 2000—were old enough to vote. By 2012, that number will be 64 million, or 29 percent of all eligible voters. According to analysis by the Center for American Progress, by 2020, all of the millennial generation—about 90 million—will be eligible to vote and will comprise around 40 percent of American voters.[4]

Simultaneously, the number of minority voters has increased from 15 to 26 percent between 1988 and 2008.[5] These young and minority voters strongly support progressive staples, such as investing in renewable energy[6] and maintaining Social Security,[7] which affects election results. In 2008, young voters and Hispanics delivered two-thirds of their votes to President Obama.[8]

The growing influence of staunchly progressive voters has conservatives scared to the point of extreme measures. Backed by large corporate donors, they are looking for any proposal or law that will help negate this change in voting demographics. While this is their motivation, the right to vote is an American right that should be protected for those of all political persuasions.

Right now, the protection of anti-voter suppression measures put in place during the 1960s is preventing the enactment of the Voter ID law in key states. In some states, the issue will become a ballot measure whose outcome is decided by the voters, while in others, the laws have already been passed and must be aggressively challenged through legal and electoral measures, so that our system of democratic elections can get back on the right track.

Endnotes
1.    Justin Levitt, The Truth About Voter Fraud, (Brennan Center for Justice, New York University School of Law, 2007). <truthaboutfraud.org/pdf/TruthAboutVoter Fraud.pdf>
2.    Tobin Van Ostern, “Conservative Corporate Advocacy Group ALEC Behind Voter Disenfranchisement Efforts,” Campus Progress, March 8, 2011. <campusprogress.org/articles/conservative_corporate_advocacy_group_alec_behind_voter_disenfranchise>
3.    Mark Follman, Alex Koppelman, and Jonathan Vanian, “How U.S. Attorneys were used to spread voter-fraud fears,” Salon.com, March 21, 2007. <salon.com/2007/03/21/us_attorneys_2>
4.    Ruy Teixeira, New Progressive America: Twenty Years of Demographic, Geographic, and Attitudinal Changes Across the Country Herald a New Progressive Majority, (Washington: Center for American Progress, 2009). <americanprogress.org/
issues/2009/03/progressive_america.html>
5.    Ruy Teixeira and John Halpin, The Path to 270: Demographics versus Economics in the 2012 Presidential Election, (Washington: Center for American Progress, 2011). <americanprogress.org/issues/2011/11/pdf/path_to_270.pdf>
6.    Joel Benenson and Amy Levin: Youth Poll Results (Benenson Strategy Group, New York, September 15, 2009). <bsgco.com/releases/ACES_Release.pdf>
7.    Alliance for Retired Americans, “Social Security: A Promise to All Americans,” (2010). <scribd.com/doc/87962818/Voter-Suppression-101>
8.    Teixeira, New Progressive America.

Scott Keyes is a researcher at the Center for American Progress (CAP) Action Fund. Ian Millhiser is a policy analyst and blogger on legal issues at CAP and the CAP Action Fund. Tobin Van Ostern is communications manager for CAP’s Campus Progress project. Abraham White is a communications associate with Campus Progress. 


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Web Special: Citizenship Verification, Obstacle to Voter Registration and Participation



Several states across the country have instituted voter identification requirements that force voters to provide proof of identity in order to cast a regular ballot at a polling place.  Although these laws passed quietly at first, drawing little to no national attention, they have more recently been the subject of increased national scrutiny and debate.

A smaller number of states have adopted requirements that affect citizens before they ever make it into the ballot box or even on to voter rolls:  citizenship verification to register to vote.  These requirements have received little to no national attention, but are spreading quietly from state to state.  They will make registration more onerous for every citizen and have the potential to disenfranchise a large number of people.  This article will discuss the various citizenship verification provisions in the states, the reasons proponents offer for them, and why we should be concerned about their proliferation.

Citizenship and Voting
The right to vote in the US has come to be closely tied to citizenship and membership in the demos.  Although into the 1800s, white non-citizens who had declared their intention to become citizens were permitted to vote in some states, today non-citizen voting is limited to a handful of local jurisdictions, meaning that in the overwhelming majority of local elections, and in all federal and state office elections, the franchise is limited to citizens.

During much of the late 20th Century, citizens “proved” their eligibility, including citizenship, by affirming or swearing to it, under penalty of perjury. In 1993, the National Voter Registration Act (“NVRA”), also known as the “Motor Voter law,” streamlined the registration process for federal elections to increase voter access and participation, requiring the creation of voter registration forms that could be completed by mail and directing the states to provide opportunities to register to vote when individuals obtained drivers licenses or other social services provided by the state.   The federally mandated forms provide a space for registrants to swear they are citizens, 18 or over, and otherwise eligible to vote.

In 2004, Arizona became the first state to require that an individual’s citizenship be proven by more than the oath of citizenship provided in the NVRA.  Since then, three other states have passed similar laws and several others have considered them.  As of April 2012, legislation was currently pending in an additional seven states.  These citizenship verification laws fall into two general categories: (1) verification through documentary proof of citizenship and (2) verification by database cross-reference.  

Verification through documentary proof of citizenship:  
In 2004, Arizona voters passed Proposition 200, known as the “Protect Arizona Now” initiative.  It required documentary proof of citizenship in order to register to vote, identification in order to cast a ballot, proof of eligibility for non-federal public benefits, and that local officials report suspected undocumented immigrants to federal officials.  Proposition 200 revised Arizona election law to require that county registrars reject any application for registration that did not contain or come accompanied with acceptable proof of citizenship.  Accepted documents include an Arizona driver’s license issued after 1996, a passport, a birth certificate, or naturalization papers.   While a copy of a passport or birth certificate could be submitted with a by mail registration form, naturalized citizens presenting their naturalization papers must present original documents in person for inspection at their county registrar’s office, and an individual supplying only a naturalization number will not be registered until the number is verified with US Immigration and Customs Enforcement (“ICE”).    

In 2011, the Kansas legislature passed the Kansas Secure and Fair Elections Act, which required photo ID at the polls starting January 1, 2012 and proof of citizenship to register to vote starting January 1, 2013.  However, pending legislation seeks to move the effective date up to June 1, 2012, so that it would be in effect for what Kansas Secretary of State has called, “the spike in registrations” associated with the 2012 Presidential Election.   Acceptable forms of proof of citizenship in Kansas include a passport, birth certificate showing US citizenship, a drivers license from a state that requires citizenship for licensing, Bureau of Indian Affairs ID card or number, and naturalization papers or numbers (but numbers must be verified with ICE before an applicant is added to the rolls).

In 2011, Alabama passed HB 56, the “Alabama Taxpayer and Citizen Protection Act.”  This Act has been called the strictest state anti-immigration law in the nation and has garnered international attention and several lawsuits.  However, while aspects some aspects of the law, such as the requirement that police inquire into citizenship status when there is reasonable suspicion that a stopped individual may not be a citizen or the requirement that local public school officials investigate students’ citizenship status, have drawn intense attention, very little attention has been paid to Section 29 of the Act, which requires proof of citizenship prior to being added to the voter rolls.  The law accepts the same documentation as Kansas (in fact, Section 29 is nearly identical to the Kansas law, which might not be surprising since Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach is said to have authored the majority of Alabama’s HB 56, as well as Arizona’s AB 1070).   

Citizenship verification by cross-reference:  
In 2008, the Georgia legislature passed a law requiring verification of registrants’ citizenship before they can be added to the voter rolls.  The Georgia law requires verifying registrants’ citizenship with the state’s drivers’ license database, since individuals are listed as citizens or non-citizens in that database.  If an individual is listed in the license database as a non-citizen, her citizenship must be verified, through documentation or though communication with ICE, before she can be added to the voter rolls.  Although the US Department of Justice originally objected to Georgia’s law,  it has since relented and precleared it.  As such, Georgia is free to pursue its policy unless another challenge invalidates it.  Like the Arizona, Alabama, and Kansas laws, the precleared version of the Georgia law only applies to new registrants in the state.  

In 2011, Tennessee passed a law requiring that the statewide voter rolls be cross-referenced with other state and federal databases to identify potential non-citizens who are registered to vote.   When such cross reference raises a question about a voter’s citizenship status, county officials are to send the voter a notice requiring her to produce proof of citizenship within 30 days or be removed from the voter rolls.  Acceptable proof of citizenship includes a birth certificate, passport, naturalization papers, or other documentation accepted by the Immigration Control and Reform Act of 1986.  Unlike the laws in Arizona, Kansas and Georgia, the Tennessee law will check citizenship of all registered voters.   

Arguments for Citizenship Verification:

Proponents of citizenship verification argue that it is necessary to safeguard the electoral process from fraudulent non-citizen voting and protect the votes of legal citizens.  They argue that due to lax registration requirements in the NVRA,   particularly the lack of any proof of eligibility, non-citizens can and are registering to vote and even voting.   Arguments for proof of citizenship generally follow some incarnation of the following formula:  (1) registering to vote is very easy, with no safeguards or requirements to prevent fraudulent registration; (2) there are many non-citizens in the country, including millions of “illegals”; (3) such non-citizens could register to vote if they lie about their citizenship and could then cast illegal ballots; and (4) several recent elections have been decided by small margins, so illegal non-citizen votes could affect electoral outcomes.  Although some advocates admit that “there is no reliable method to determine the number of non-citizens registered or actually voting,” they state that that “thousands” of non-citizens are registered in some states, and “tens if not hundreds of thousands may be present on the voter rolls nation wide.”   Some even claim that 9/11 terrorists were registered to vote and actually voted.  

In addition, citizenship verification and voter ID policies are claimed to be necessary to protect legal citizens’ votes and increase their confidence in the electoral system among legal citizens.  Votes cast by non-citizens are said to cancel out or dilute the votes cast by legal citizens.  This risk of non-citizen illegal voting, in turn, decreases legal citizens’ confidence in the electoral system, leading to a decrease in participation among legal citizens.  By restoring confidence in the system, proponents argue, citizenship verification and voter ID will increase participation among legal voters.

Given the fervor of advocacy for anti-fraud provisions and intensity of claims of fraud and non-citizen voting, one would expect ample evidence of widespread fraud.  However, there is very little evidence of non-citizen voting fraud, meaning non-citizens who knowingly register and vote despite knowing they are not eligible to do so.  There are very few claims of non-citizen voting, compared to total votes cast, and subsequent investigation turn up very few, if any, documented cases of non-citizens voting.  For example, an analysis of voting crime records in California between 1994 and 2006 found 161 complaints about non-citizen registration.  Of the 104 cases where State officials determined there was a criminal violation, 101 resulted in no action because the defendant lacked intent to commit fraud, and only 2 resulted in a criminal conviction or guilty plea. During this same period, more than 75 million votes were cast in California.    Similarly, an investigation of “illegal voting” in the 2004 gubernatorial election in Washington State found only two non-citizens, both university students, voted in the election; out of 2.9 million votes cast.  The vast majority of the 1,678 complained of “illegal votes” were cast by felons.

Reasons for concern:   
Since citizenship is required to vote in the vast majority of elections in the US, one might wonder what harm there is in asking individuals to prove their citizenship in order to register and vote.  Aside from the lack of evidence that the current system is unreliable, citizenship verification does provide cause for concern due to the likely effect of making registering to vote, and therefor participating in our democracy, more difficult.

Registering to vote will be more onerous for everyone:  
Citizenship verification requirements place an additional hurdle in the voting process by requiring more information for registering to vote and/or remaining on the voter rolls.  

Documentation challenges:  
All new voters in several states will have to prove their citizenship through documentation.  However, not all citizens possess the required documentation.  It is estimated that only 30% of US citizens (including children) possess a US Passport, arguably the most reliable method of proving citizenship.  Many citizens do not have access to other documents, such as a birth certificate.  While the Kansas and Alabama laws allow a person without documentation to petition for registration, this places additional requirements and delays on the process, which could affect the ability to vote in a given election.  For example, most jurisdictions require voter registration to be completed 30 days prior to an election; pursuing hearings to establish citizenship could easily delay a registration past that threshold.  

In addition, for a substantial portion of the population, a birth certificate alone will not be sufficient to prove citizenship for registration.  In Kansas and Alabama, the names and sex on the birth certificate much match that on the voter registration form.  For some populations, such as married women, for example, there is likely to be an inconsistency between their birth certificate name and voter registration name, requiring them to take the additional step of completing a form explaining the reason for the inconsistency under penalty of perjury.  The fact that these laws permit an applicant to swear to their identity on forms but not to their US citizenship is an interesting contrast.  

Database Accuracy
Although database verification methods don’t put the onus on voters to provide documentation at the start, they still pose challenges to registration.  Databases may erroneously identify citizens and non-citizens, either due to data input errors but also due to old data.  For example, driver’s license data on citizenship may not be updated after an individual naturalizes, leaving him flagged as a non-citizen in the database and subject to voter registration problems.  In Georgia, such an individual would not be added to the voter rolls until further documentation or verification proved citizenship, and in Tennessee, a voter would be purged from voter rolls if unable to prove citizenship within 30 days.  

Harsher impact on particular groups:  
In addition to the general impact on all citizens seeking to register, these laws may have a particular impact on members of certain groups who have or are perceived to have a higher risk of being non-citizens.  

Perceived “foreignness”
Experiences from past elections show that citizenship-based challenges often fall most severely on those perceived to be “foreign” regardless of their actual citizenship.  Such challenges to voters on the basis of citizenship have been based on stereotype more than fact, with Latinos, Asian Americans, and Middle Eastern Americans feeling the biggest brunt.  For example, in the 1999 elections in Hamtramck, MI, poll watchers challenged voters on the basis of citizenship selectively in the polls without proof of non-citizenship.  Challenged voters were Arab American, and challenges were based on Arab sounding name, accent, and/or appearance.  Some voters were made to take oaths of citizenship even though they carried US Passports with them to the polls.  In the 2004 election cycle, one Georgia county registrar required voters with Latino surnames to appear in court to prove their citizenship and eligibility to vote.   In 2005, an individual in Washington State challenged the citizenship eligibility of several voters who had registered to vote when they got their drivers’ licenses, on the basis that they had names “that appear to be from outside the United States.”

Registration disparities:
As noted above, most current citizenship verification laws apply only to registrants.  Since people of color, particularly Latinos and Asian Americans, are registered at lower rates than non-Latino whites, laws that affect only new registrants may have a more heavy effect among these communities.  Table 1 shows the percentage of voting age citizens for various racial groups who reported being registered to vote in 2008 and 2010.  Since participation among registered voters is roughly the same among racial groups, one of the biggest obstacles to Latino and Asian American participation is becoming a registered voter.  Citizenship verification laws present an obstacle to all new voters, but may have the largest effect on groups with low registration rates.  

Although voting is limited to citizens in nearly all jurisdictions, citizenship verification laws are a blunt instrument with a potentially disenfranchising effect.  Citizenship verification laws will make registering to vote more difficult for all voters and may have particularly strong effects on the political participation of Latinos and Asian Americans.  While Voter ID laws and controversies have captured the majority of press attention, citizenship verification laws have been cropping up and passing quietly.  More attention should be paid to citizenship verification laws and more time spent questioning whether the burden they impose is in the interests of US democracy.  

Ana Henderson is the Director of Opportunity and Inclusion at the Chief Justice Earl Warren Institute on Law and Social Policy and a Lecturer-in-Residence at the University of California, Berkeley, School of Law.


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Latino, Black Political Clout Grows in Florida and North Carolina

The face of the Southern electorate is changing and nowhere is the shift clearer than in Florida and North Carolina. In these two critical battleground states, the share of white voters has shrunk since the 2008 presidential election, while the number of African American, Latino and other people of color voters has steadily grown. However, new voting restrictions could undermine the political potential of this shift towards an increasingly diverse electorate.

According to an analysis of state voter registration data by the Institute for Southern Studies (southernstudies.org ), the most rapid change has been in North Carolina, where the percentage of voters who identify as Hispanic doubled between 2008 and 2012. Even more striking, the share of the electorate identifying as "other"—that is, not white, black, Hispanic, or American Indian—rose by 252 percent.  Overall, the total number of voters not identifying as white has grown by 5.6 percent in four years, bringing their share of the electorate to 29 percent.

The chart below shows how the North Carolina and Florida voting populations have shifted. (In North Carolina the period is from March 2008 to May 2012. The second row in the chart shows how Florida's electorate changed between the July 2008 general primary and the January 2012 presidential primary).

These trends have put North Carolina remarkably close to Florida, where voters of color grew a more modest 2.2 percent between July 2008 and January 2012, but still represent 30 percent of all registered voters.

  If the number of voter registrations for black, Latino and other communities of color seem lower than expected given recent census data, the reason may lie with the sweeping new restrictions that have forced the League of Women Voters to cease registration drives entirely while the new laws undergo court review.

Restrictions Hamper Voter of Color Registrations

A March 2012, New York Times article—drawing on analysis by University of Florida political scientist Daniel Smith—found that in the eight months since the state's new laws went into effect, 81,000 fewer new voters had been added to the rolls, compared to the same period four years ago.
Civil rights advocates have argued that the restrictions would hit African American and Latino voters hardest because, as the Brennan Center and others have noted, they are more than twice as likely to register through registration drives as white voters.

Additionally, there is concern that bills requiring picture IDs (passed in Florida and likely to be on the North Carolina Republican agenda for the current legislative session), limits on early voting, and attempts to end Sunday "Souls to the Polls" turnout drives can and will disproportionately impact the ability of voters of color to exercise their political clout.

 

Chris Kromm is the executive director and publisher of Facing South and Southern Exposure, where an earlier version of this article appeared.

 


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New Battleground States: Georgia and Arizona

The 2010 Census clearly documents a profound population shift in the U.S., which could be a game-changer for the progressive community. However, given the  regressive rhetoric and policies of conservatives  toward voters of color (VOC) and progressive whites, states like Arizona and Georgia are rapidly turning into key battlegrounds. The populations of both states have increased significantly since 2000 and each has gained a new congressional seat and an extra Electoral College vote.

In Arizona, VOCs now make up 24 percent of the voting population. In 2008, an impressive 74 percent of registered voters went to the polls. In Phoenix, long a Republican stronghold, the population grew by 9.4 percent to nearly 1.5 million with significant numbers of them being people of color. The city recently elected a Latino city councilman and a Democrat for mayor.

A similar dynamic exists in Georgia. The current political landscape resembles that of 1998 when hyper-partisan rhetoric motivated communities of color to get out and vote. With a 30 percent VOC share of the electorate, candidates of color made significant gains then and progressive candidates won the governorship and Democrats retained control of both houses of the legislature.

Today, people of color in Georgia make up close to 35 percent of the voting age population. In the 2008 general election, VOCs made up 34 percent of the vote share. If every eligible VOC votes in 2012, the potential impact would be significant, especially in cities like Atlanta and Athens-Clark County, which together have over 230,000 "key" VOCs.

Electoral Impact of Reactionary Policies
From the rhetoric on immigration in states like Arizona and Georgia and the threats to veto the DREAM Act, to the voter suppression and &quot;stand your ground&quot; laws, progressives and communities of color have had their rights, their families, their dreams, and their lives trampled upon. Now they have had enough and are starting to take a stand and fight back.

The Supreme Court hearings over Arizona's SB 1070 law caught the attention of people of color everywhere and now we are seeing signs of an energized electorate. With enough resources, this energy could be transformed into a victory for candidates, such as Arizona’s Richard Carmona for U.S. Senate and Kyrsten Sinema for U.S. Congress, and Georgia’s Stacey Abrams for State General Assembly. In fact, if enough determined voters go to the polls, regressive policies can be replaced by progressive laws in states like Arizona and Georgia.

History has shown that VOCs can make a difference in the outcome of elections. A case in point is Illinois, where the total vote increased from 10 percent in 2006 to 19 percent in 2010. The strong turnout from VOCs brought a candidate (Pat Quinn) who embraced progressive views to the governorship—with just one-third of the white vote.

By closing the gap between eligible and likely voters, we will have a better chance of regaining our voice and enacting progressive policies. A progressive candidate could win Georgia with just 41 percent and Arizona with just 37 percent of the white vote.

African Americans and progressive whites have often come together before and can continue to do so to develop transformational relationships that dramatically impact politics, culture, and economics. But we must also remember that the local political machines have never just been about whites and African Americans but also Latinos, Asians and Native Americans. So, rather than creating anxiety in political circles, the expanding share of the electorate of these communities should reinforce our commitment to an all-inclusive brand of politics. 

Kirk Clay is the senior advisor for PowerPAC (powerpac.org), an organization focused on politics and civic engagement.
 

 


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Sit-ins and Voter Registration in 1960

A Nashville, Tennessee lunch counter sit-in circa 1960. ©Jimmy Ellis/Nashville Tennessean.

In 1960, the young civil rights movement faced a split between advocates of direct action and electoral work. The movements for justice today face a similar divide, between direct action strategies, such as Occupy and more traditional efforts to advance the agenda through the electoral system.

In the summer of 1960, Amzie Moore, Medgar Evers, and other local Black leaders in Mississippi told Bob Moses that they needed help with voter registration more than they needed demonstrations against segregation. He promised he would return in the summer of '61, and in July, he began voter registration work in McComb, Mississippi. Staunch long-time Movement supporters, such as Harry Belafonte and many of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) leaders also believed that SNCC should focus on voter registration rather than direct action, such as sit-ins and Freedom Rides. They argued that poor, rural blacks had no money for lunch counters or other public facilities and that what they needed most was political power that in Mississippi had to begin with winning the right to vote.

Victoria Jackson Gray Adams, 1964 Democractic National Convention. ©1964 George Ballis/Center for Documentary Expression & ArtOther SNCC leaders—many just released from Parchman Prison and Hinds County Jail—argued that the Freedom Rides and other forms of direct action must continue. The protests were gaining momentum and bringing the Movement into the darkest corners of the Deep South, raising awareness, building courage, and inspiring young and old. They were deeply suspicious of?  President John F. Kennedy's demand that they switch from demonstrations to voter registration, and they were unwilling to abandon the tactics that had brought the Movement so far in so short a time.
In August, the issue came to a head when SNCC met at the Highlander Center in Tennessee. After three days of passionate debate, SNCC was split right down the middle—half favored continuing direct action, the others favored switching to voter registration. Ella Baker proposed a compromise—do both. Her suggestion was adopted.

Amid the fires of the Freedom Rides and the heat of debate, SNCC as an organization was rapidly evolving away from its campus/student roots. More and more SNCC activists were leaving school to become full-time freedom fighters. With money raised by Belafonte, first Charles Sherrod, then Bob Moses, and then others were hired as SNCC &quot;field secretaries,&quot; devoting their lives to the struggle in the rural areas and small towns of the South.

As so often turns out to be the case, when committed activists passionately disagree over strategy, both sides are proven correct. Both direct action and voter registration are needed. Each supports and strengthens the other. The determination and courage of student protesters inspires and encourages their elders, and the growing political power of adults organized around the right to vote supports and sustains the young demonstrators. Instead of splitting the organization apart, they forge a unifying compromise. By respecting that fellow activists could passionately disagree over strategy and tactics—yet remain allies—they strengthened SNCC and the Movement as a whole.

In 2012, supporting candidates and ballot initiatives are not really equivalent to fighting for full citizenship for African Americans as in the 1950s and 60s. Then, voter registration was an assertion of equal citizenship and social equality against white-supremacy. Voter registration was a more radical and confrontational challenge to the powers-that-were than were direct actions, such as Freedom Rides and sit-ins. Far more people were killed and jailed fighting for the vote than were for sit-ins against segregation. So, in a sense, it turned out that voter-registration was a form of direct action.
That said,  our movement today has to incorporate both direct action and electoral engagement. It is as true today as it was back then. For me, the most important lesson is that by respecting the fact that fellow activists could passionately disagree over strategy and tactics—yet remain allies—they strengthened SNCC and the Movement as a whole.

Bruce Hartford was active with CORE, SCLC from 1963-67 in Alabama, Mississippi and California. This article is excerpted from a timeline of the Southern Freedom Movement during the years 1951-68, published at crmvet.org.

 


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Black-Brown Strategy Beats the South's Anti-Immigrant Wave

By David Bacon

In April 2012, an anti-immigrant bill similar to the ones passed in Alabama, Georgia and South Carolina legislatures was stopped cold in Mississippi—contrary to all expectations.

Tea Party Republicans, confident of rolling over any opposition, had enlisted Kansas Secretary of State and co-author of Arizona’s SB 1070 Kris Kobach, to push the bill with Mississippi state Representative Becky Currie, who introduced it. The American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), which designs and introduces similar bills across the country, also had its agents on site in Jackson. The timing could not have been better. In November 2011, Republicans took control of the state House of Representatives for the first time since Reconstruction, making Mississippi one of the last Southern states to give up Democratic control of the legislature—a final triumph for the Nixon/Reagan Southern Strategy. But these were not just any Republicans. When Governor Haley Barbour, now ironically considered a “moderate Republican,” stepped down, voters replaced him with Phil Bryant, a rabid anti-immigrant whose venom rivals that of Lou Dobbs. And yet, the seemingly inevitable did not happen.

Instead, the state’s Legislative Black Caucus fought a dogged rearguard war from the opening of the legislative session in January 2012. Over the preceding decade, the Caucus had acquired a reputation for defeating over 200 anti-immigrant measures. This session, however, they had lost all the crucial committee chairmanships that had made it possible for them to kill the earlier bills. But they did not lose their voice.
“We forced a great debate in the House, until 1:30 in the morning,” says state Representative Jim Evans, caucus leader and AFL-CIO staff member. “When you have a prolonged debate like that, it shows the widespread concern and disagreement. People began to see the ugliness in this measure.”

People’s Voice Trumps Special Interest on HB 488
Like the other bills created by Kobach and ALEC, HB 488 stated its intent clearly: “to make attrition through enforcement of the public policy of all state agencies and local governments.” In other words, to make life so difficult and unpleasant for undocumented people that they leave the state. Without papers, residents would not be able to get so much as a bicycle license or a library card, and schools would have to inform authorities about the immigration status of their students. And the police were mandated to verify the immigration status of all they arrested—an open invitation to racial profiling.

“The night HB 488 came to the floor, many black legislators spoke against it, including some who’d never spoken out on immigration before,” says Bill Chandler, director of the Mississippi Immigrant Rights Alliance (MIRA). “One objected to the use of the term ‘illegal alien’, while others said it justified breaking up families and ethnic cleansing.”

Many white legislators were also inspired to speak against the bill. Nevertheless, it was rammed through the House to the Senate, also controlled by Republicans for some years but presided over by the more moderate Lieutenant Governor Tate Reeves. Reeves could see the widespread opposition to the bill, even among employers, and was less inclined to toe the Tea Party line. Instead, he appointed Hob Bryan, a rural Democrat, to chair one of the Senate’s two judiciary committees and sent him HB 488. Bryan’s committee killed it.

On the surface, it appears as if fissures within the Republican Party facilitated the bill’s demise, but the real reason lies elsewhere.
As the debate and maneuvering played out in the capitol building, its halls and grounds were filled with angry protests and noisy demonstrations for several days. The grassroots upsurge produced political alliances that cut deeply into the bill’s support, and calls for its rejection came from the sheriffs’ and county supervisors’ associations, the Mississippi Economic Council (a.k.a. chamber of commerce), and employers—from farms to poultry packers.

That upsurge was neither spontaneous nor a last-minute emergency mobilization.

“We wouldn’t have had a chance against this without 12 years of organizing work,” Evans explains. “We worked on the conscience of people night and day, and built coalition after coalition. Over time, people have come around. The way people think about immigration in Mississippi today is nothing like the way they thought when we started.”

Two Decades of Strategic Organizing Pays Off
In the late 1990s, veterans of Mississippi’s social movements like Evans, Chandler, attorney Patricia Ice, Father Jerry Tobin, activist Kathy Sykes, and union organizer Frank Curiel came together—not in the hope of stopping a bill 12 years later—but to build political power. Their vehicle was MIRA, which partnered with the Legislative Black Caucus and other coalitions fighting most of the progressive issues facing the state.

Their strategy was based on the state’s changing demographics. Over the last two decades, the percentage of African Americans in Mississippi has been rising. Black families driven from jobs by factory closures in the north have been moving back in a reversal of the Great Migration of the last century. Today, at least 37 percent of Mississippi’s population is African American—the highest of any state in the country.

Following the boom in casino construction in the 1990s, people from Mexico and Central America, displaced by NAFTA and CAFTA, started migrating into the state to work in the poultry plants, farms and factories. Guest workers were also brought in for the Gulf Coast reconstruction and shipyards. Today, Mississippi has several established Latino communities whose children are achieving voting age.

In MIRA’s political calculation, blacks, immigrants and unions are the potential pillars of a powerful political coalition. HB 488’s intent to drive away immigrants is an effort to make that coalition impossible.

MIRA is not just focused on defeating bad bills. It built a grassroots base by fighting immigration raids at the Howard Industries plant in Laurel (2008) and at other worksites, and its activist staff has helped families survive sweeps at apartment houses and trailer parks. MIRA also brought together black workers suspicious of the Latino influx and immigrant families worried about settling in a hostile community, with the idea that political unity based in neighborhoods protects all groups.

For unions organizing poultry plants, factories and casinos, MIRA became a resource helping to win over immigrant workers. It also brought labor violation cases against employers in the wake of Hurricane Katrina.

Alliance of Friends and Adversaries Pays Off
Despite being adversaries otherwise, employers and MIRA both opposed workplace immigration raids based on the “attrition through enforcement” idea and recognized a mutual interest in fighting HB 488. Since 1986, U.S. immigration law has forbidden undocumented people to work by making it illegal to hire them. The enforcement of this law (part of the Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986), especially under the Bush and Obama administrations, has caused thousands of workers to be fired. In the last decade, Congressional proposals for comprehensive immigration reform have called for strengthening sanctions and increasing raids and firings.

“Those bills violate the human rights of working people to feed their families,” says Chandler. “Employers... didn’t like workplace enforcement either. All their associations claimed they didn’t hire undocumented workers, but we all know who’s working in the plants. We want people to stay as much as the employers do.”

During the protests, the organizers underlined this point by giving legislators sweet potatoes with labels saying, “I was picked by immigrant workers who together contribute $82 million to the state’s economy.”

“Forcing people from their jobs forces them to leave,” Chandler continues. “[That’s] an ethnic cleansing tactic.”
Although MIRA allied with employers over HB  488 for tactical reasons, it is primarily a labor coalition that helps workers defend themselves against employers. In fact, MIRA has actively fought guest worker programs used by the Mississippi casinos and shipyards to recruit workers with few labor rights. To fight HB 488, MIRA bussed in members of United Food and Commercial Workers Local 1529 from poultry plants in Scott County, laborers from Laurel, Retail and Wholesale union members from Carthage, catfish workers from Indianola, and electrical union members from Crystal Spring. The black labor mobilization was largely organized by the new pro-immigrant leadership of the state chapter of the A. Philip Randolph Institute, the AFL-CIO constituency group for black union members.

Religious congregations—Catholics, Methodists, Episcopalians, Presbyterians, Evangelical Lutherans, Muslims, and Jews—along with the Mississippi Human Services Coalition, also brought people to protest HB 488. The groups around MIRA and the Black Caucus fought not only this bill, but many others introduced by Tea Party Republicans, on a wide range of issues: banning abortions when fetal heartbeat is detected; promoting charter schools; restricting access to workers compensation benefits; and taking away civil service protection from state employees.

Big Picture is Bleak Without Sustained Organizing
According to Dr. Ivory Phillips, a MIRA director and member of the Board of Trustees of the Jackson Public School District, charter school proposals, voter ID requirements, and anti-immigrant measures are all linked.

“Because white supremacists fear losing their status as the dominant group in this country, there is a war against brown people today, just as there has long been a war against black people,” he says. “In all three cases—charter schools, immigration reform, and voter IDs—what we are witnessing is an anti-democratic surge, a rise in overt racism, and a refusal to provide opportunities to all.”

Tea Party supporters also see these issues as linked. Following the defeat of HB 488 and in the wake of a debate on charter schools, Representative Reecy Dickson, a leading Black Caucus member, was surrounded by a shoving crowd, which hurled racist epithets at her.

“We need political alliances that mean something in the long term,” says Chandler. “Permanent alliances and a strategy for winning political power that includes targeted voter registration that focuses on specific towns, neighborhoods and precincts.”

Despite the national implications of stopping HB 488, the resources for the effort were almost all local. When MIRA emptied its bank account over the fight, additional money came mostly from local units of organizations like the UAW, UNITE HERE and the Muslim Association.

“The resources of the national immigrant rights movement should prioritize preventing bills from passing as much as fighting them after the fact,” warns Chandler.

On the surface, the fight in Jackson was a defensive battle waged in the wake of the Republican takeover of the legislature because the Tea Party threatens to bring HB 488 back until it passes. Yet Evans, who also chairs MIRA’s board, believes that time is on the side of social change. “These Republicans still have tricks up their sleeves,” he cautions. “We’re worried about redistricting and a Texas-style stacking of the deck. But in the end, we still believe our strategy will build power in Mississippi. We don’t see last November as a defeat but as the last stand of the Confederacy.”

David Bacon is a freelance writer and photographer. For more articles and photos see dbacon.igc.org. This article was first published in The Nation.

 


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"We wouldn't have had a chance against this bill without 12 years of organizing work."

Selma to Montgomery March: From Voting Rights to Immigration 1965-2012

Every year, the NAACP holds a rally from March 4-9 to commemorate the Selma to Montgomery march and draw attention to the issues facing African Americans in America.  Since the passage of Alabama’s HB 56—the nation’s worst anti-immigrant law—the NAACP has reached out to organizations around the country to build lasting relationships between Civil Rights and Immigrant Rights communities over their common history of struggle. The event marks the coming together of a broad movement for a renewed call for civil rights in America. This year, a core part of their agenda was a demand to repeal HB 56.    

Gamaliel, a grassroots network of non-partisan, faith-based organizations in 18 U.S. states, South Africa and the United Kingdom, is now taking on the voting rights issue. They are working together with the NAACP and other social justice organizations on “Get out the Vote” initiatives for the Fall elections. 

Among the participants in the Selma to Montgomery march this year was 28-year-old Carlos Pinedo, who emigrated from Mexico with his family at the age of eight. In the racially diverse community in Chicago’s South Suburbs, young Pinedo soon became conscious of the tensions and boundaries between blacks, Latinos and whites and quickly adopted the racial stereotypes he learned from his new friends. Growing up in Blue Island, Illinois, Carlos and his brother Jose became targets of racial profiling themselves. Things took a nasty turn when Jose was arrested by ICE officers in front of his mother on Mother’s Day for failing to present a state-issued picture ID to police officials who were questioning him for no legitimate reason. He was deported to Mexico, leaving behind his family and newborn child.

The incident prompted Carlos to become a leader with the South Suburban Action Conference (SSAC) and Gamaliel’s Civil Rights of Immigrants Task Force, working to raise awareness about racial profiling and its negative impact on families. In 2010, SSAC was able to persuade Blue Island Mayor Donald Peloquin to sign a resolution allowing undocumented immigrants to present the Matricula Consular as a valid form of identification.

Pinedo decided to participate in the march because, as he says, “I felt that now more than ever, I needed to show my community that what I have been working for is really worth it. In this way, I can stand for the ones who have no voice.”Florida Immigrant Coalition marches from Selma to Montgomery, 2012. Courtesy of Equal Voice News.

The march made Pinedo acutely aware of other communities all over the U.S. who have been fighting for the same thing—namely, human rights.

The Reverend David Bigsby, co-founder and president  of the Gamaliel National Clergy Council, also attended the march. He was at Morehouse College in Atlanta during the 1965 Selma-Montgomery March. “Voting rights were especially important to me because neither my parents nor anyone in our family had ever voted, except me,” he recalls. “They feared what would happen if they attempted to register. Most of them could not read very well and did not think their vote would make a difference. The 1965 march caused my father to find the courage to vote for the first time. He had served in WWII but did not feel he was a valued citizen.”

One young leader with Gamaliel, Eliza Perez-Montalvo, is responding to the call for renewed black-brown unity, saying: “Marching today is the beginning of my journey.”

Alma Campos is the communications coordinator for Pilsen Neighbors Community Council, a Gamaliel affiliate.


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Atlanta: Unsafe at Any Speed

Transit Fatality Raises Issues of Race, Poverty and Transportation Justice


in July 2011, an all white jury in suburban Atlanta convicted Raquel Nelson, an African American single mother of three, of second degree vehicular homicide for the death of her four-year-old son in a hit-and-run incident on a busy thoroughfare. She was also charged with reckless conduct for crossing a roadway other than at a crosswalk and faced a three-year jail sentence.

The story is tragic and seemingly incomprehensible, especially when you learn that the driver of the vehicle was eventually caught, admitted to driving under the influence of alcohol and prescription drugs, had two previous hit-and run- convictions, and was blind in one eye—but received just six months in jail under a plea bargain. However, taken in the context of Atlanta’s history, the incident does not seem so strange and is a good illustration of the challenges Atlanta faces going forward.

Tragic Story
Nelson and her three children lived in an apartment complex in a northern suburb of Atlanta. Since she did not have a car, grocery shopping entailed catching two buses to the nearest WalMart with three kids—aged nine, four and two—in tow. On that fateful day (April 10, 2010), the bus was late picking them up from WalMart, which caused them to miss their connection. It being a Saturday, they had to wait an hour for the next bus and only arrived at their stop—located along a busy five-lane arterial where vehicles travel at 50 miles per hour—after dark.
The nearest traffic signal with a crosswalk being a third of a mile up the street, bus riders routinely crossed the street near the stop, and that evening was no exception. As Nelson, carrying the toddler and the groceries paused at the narrow median, four-year-old A.J. darted into the road. When Nelson attempted to pull him to safety, a van hit all three, killing A.J. and injuring Nelson and her youngest.

A few months later, the grieving mother was arrested and charged with vehicular homicide because, according to the county prosecutor, she had caused her son’s death by illegally crossing the street. Fortunately for Nelson, on July 26, 2011 a judge agreed to give her a new trial and she has since filed an appeal to get all the charges dismissed.

Atlanta’s History Shapes Present Realities
A.J. Nelson was killed on Austell Road, a state highway that cuts across suburban Cobb County, carrying around 40,000 vehicles per day. The traffic signals are spaced over half a mile apart to provide the least delay for drivers; and sidewalks, if they exist, are an afterthought. Whoever planned, built and expanded the road to carry an increasing number of cars never imagined the needs of people like Raquel and her children because suburban Atlanta was built for the car.

When the civil rights movement succeeded in integrating public facilities in Atlanta—schools, transit, parks, and pools—the white population responded by fleeing to the suburbs to create enclaves of private space. In the 1960s, about 60,000 whites moved out of the city of Atlanta while the population of Cobb County increased by 83,000 or 72 percent. Rapid economic growth in the region and subsidized mortgages made the suburbs—with low-density housing connected to commercial destinations by high speed arterials—affordable to middle class families. And post World War II investment in transportation infrastructure made the suburbs more accessible—but only if you had a car.

In 1965, voters in Cobb County—which was 94 percent white—rejected an option to join the newly forming Metropolitan Atlanta Rapid Transit Authority (MARTA) because they did not want the poor African Americans they had fled in Atlanta to be able to reach their communities. Similar decisions were made by two other suburban counties, which is why the heavy rail network is limited to the two counties containing the city of Atlanta.

Raquel Nelson grieves over her son’s death. ©2011 Atlanta Journal ConstitutionA Landscape Determined by Race Shifts
In 2010 when Nelson was staying in Cobb County it was only 56 percent white. After decades of white flight the demographics of the region changed; the poor and people of color were pushed and pulled out of the city. The majority of the economic growth in the region took place in the northern suburbs.  Despite the lack of public transit, workers were drawn to the job prospects. Middle class African American families left the city to escape failing schools and high crime rates. Immigrants from Latin America and Asia settled along a major arterial out of northeast Atlanta. The poor quality housing stock built immediately after World War II transitioned into affordable housing. By 2010, 85 percent of Atlanta’s poor lived in the suburbs.

In response some white households moved farther out to the second ring of suburbs or in some cases back to the city. In the 1990s the white population in the City of Atlanta started to increase, in part attracted by the public amenities of living in the city. Intown neighborhoods were gentrified and poorer residents forced out. In the run up to the 1996 Summer Olympic games, Atlanta began demolishing all of its public housing projects. The city is still majority non-white, but in the last census it lost 30,000 African American residents and gained 22,000 white ones.

The vast majority of low-income and minority residents have cars, as evidenced by the fact that only three percent of all trips in the region are taken on public transit. For the six percent of households that do not have a car, getting around is very hard because buses are infrequent—averaging once every 30 minutes during peak hours—and only about 12 percent of the region is accessible by transit. Like Raquel Nelson, transit riders in the Atlanta region tend to be the poorest of the poor—making only 37 percent of the median income of the region—and are overwhelmingly people of color. (Fewer than 20 percent are white.)

Transit is systemically underfunded in Atlanta and recently, one suburban county to the south cut bus services entirely. Owing to race and geographic politics, the state of Georgia does not contribute to transit operations, making MARTA the largest transit system in the U.S. without state assistance. The only dedicated source of transit funding is a one-cent sales tax in the two counties containing the city of Atlanta.

Transportation Choices, but not for the Poor
Nelson was riding on a Cobb Community Transit bus the night A.J. was killed. In response to the shifting demographics, Cobb and two other suburban counties started their own bus service and are now pushing plans to have rail service extended to them.

Historically, transit has been seen as a social service, a way to get poor people to the most basic of destinations, and not vital transportation infrastructure. But now, a coalition of environmental and business groups and elected local officials view rail as critical to Atlanta’s ability to compete globally and a way to relieve congestion on the freeways. They are pushing for a new sales tax measure to fund transportation projects in the region, half of which are transit.

Previously the transportation problem in Atlanta was defined by elites as congestion but the discourse is shifting towards providing more choices. Choices not for people like Nelson, who have to depend on infrequent buses and walk on unsafe roads, but for automobile users who cannot easily access public transit.

Although the discourse around transit is changing, none of the jury that convicted Nelson had ever been on a bus in the region—except for the special MARTA bus that shuttles fans to the Atlanta Braves games from the nearest rail station. (That service continued uninterrupted even when service for everyday riders was cut by 11 percent.) From their perspective as automobile users, the jury members could not understand the choices Nelson had to make or the risks she had to take on a daily basis, navigating the transit system with her children. They apparently believed that the onus was on her—the pedestrian—to avoid the intoxicated driver and that she should have walked the extra two-thirds mile to use the crosswalk.

Sadly, A.J. Nelson is part of a growing statistic; currently Atlanta has an average annual rate of 1.6 pedestrian fatalities per 100,000 residents. The increase is partially due to the mismatch between the transportation infrastructure and the needs of a growing population of low-income and immigrant residents in the suburbs. Families with children trying to cross busy multilane highways is a common sight, as are dirt paths paralleling roads where no sidewalks exist.

Infrastructure and Institutional Solutions Needed
Not much has changed on Austell Road since A.J.’s death. The transit agency put up a sign at the bus stop warning people to use the crosswalk up the road. But it is routinely ignored by area residents.

Atlanta needs to undertake a serious retrofit of its auto-oriented land use and transportation infrastructure to avoid repeating this tragedy and to accommodate or even encourage transit use. It is especially important now that the poor and carless are increasingly residing in the suburbs. The current push for new transit is focused on creating options for drivers, especially rail. But transit that focuses on serving peak hour trips or requires car access does not help the carless mother trying to get her groceries on a Saturday afternoon. Instead of choices, the solution needs to be accessibility for everyone.

In order for this to occur, the empathy gap between someone like Nelson and the members of the jury has to be bridged. Although they live in the same community, they have no concept of each other’s lives. Changing perceptions about transit as a mode will require changing the perceptions of people who use it. This means not ignoring Atlanta’s history of race and class divisions.

The ending of this story is yet to be determined; Nelson gets a new trial and Atlanta has the ability to change its path. Recognition of the institutional structure of inequity and a commitment to reversing this legacy in transportation and regional development policies can reshape Atlanta’s future. 

Laurel Paget-Seekins has lived in Atlanta for seven years without a car and works with the Partnership for Southern Equity to develop and advocate for a just transportation and development policy. She has a Ph.D. in Civil Engineering.

 


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The Road Ahead for Atlanta

We have had an opportunity to work with Atlanta’s Metropolitan Planning Organization (MPO) to create something called the Social Equity Advisory Committee, which is charged with holding the planners and others at MPO accountable for issues of equity, balanced growth and inclusion. I think now, more than ever, it is very important for us as equity leaders to not only focus on winning the game, but also changing the rules.

How do we define and measure equity through the various planning agencies? How do we create formal processes where people get involved and engage in the decision-making? How do we create spaces and opportunities for communities of color and low wealth communities to actually be engaged—not just invited to the table—as people involved in moving our communities forward? 

The civic engagement process initially was created at a time when you had the nuclear family—a two-parent household, suburban America, and people who had time to get involved in meetings. Now our society is a lot more diverse in terms of age, race and income. Because of that, there are diverse ways by which we must give our community the opportunities to engage and act. For me, that is also where the sweet spot exists.

“It’s not enough for us to do the research and come up with great ideas if people can’t hold onto them.The role of an organization like Partnership for Southern Equity or PolicyLink is to push for a re-imagining of how everyday folks can be involved in the decision-making process. It’s not enough for us to do the research and come up with great ideas if people can’t hold onto them and believe in them and be willing to sit at the table and push, because then they will just be reports on the table. It is our responsibility to not only educate and inform communities and be in places where other stakeholders may not necessarily have an opportunity to be engaged but to also push for new opportunities for engagement.

In metropolitan Atlanta, we are soon to decide whether to approve an 8 billion dollar transportation referendum.  The MPO has done the best that they could in terms of providing opportunities for people to get engaged, but there is still a segment of our population that could not be involved. Unfortunately, there still are individuals in communities—specifically communities of color and low wealth communities—that still don’t realize the magnitude of this referendum. So, we have had to actually go into the community—with Partnership for Southern Equity—and have our own regional forums, not just about the referendum but about how transportation has become a barrier to opportunity. Using feedback that we receive from the people that are participating, we will finally create a transportation equity policy agenda for our region. That is the way we have to become more engaged, more involved, and create new and innovative mechanisms for people to not only be seen, but also be heard, which I think is even more important.

Nathaniel Smith is the founder and cheif equity officer of Partnership for Southern Equity, Atlanta. This interview took place at Urban Habitat’s State of the Region Conference 2012. To hear the full interview, visit urbanhabitat.org/rpe/radio.

 


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California's Broken Ballot Initiative System Endangers Civil Rights

Ballot initiatives play an increasingly important role in setting policy in California on every issue from healthcare and the environment to same-sex marriage. In 1911, when wealthy special interests had corrupted politics in Sacramento and crippled the people’s ability to hold government accountable, California established the initiative, referendum, and recall to give the people the power to make or unmake their own state laws and to remove their elected officials. But today, that system is not functioning as it was intended, especially for California’s new majority.

Wealthy special interest dollars fuel the initiative economy, which coupled with a lack of review and oversight, plus poor voter education on ballot measures, has led to poorly drafted proposals, legal challenges and attacks on people’s civil rights. This is not the empowering direct democracy reformers had envisioned.

In 2011, the Greenlining Institute launched an unprecedented effort to identify a set of reforms to fix our broken system. With funding from California Forward, the James Irvine Foundation, and the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, we conducted a two-part public opinion survey of a representative sample of California adults in June and December, 2011.1 More importantly, we convened 17 community listening sessions across 14 cities to learn more about real voter experiences, attitudes and ideas for direct democracy. The input we received from the community, in addition to that from a 33-member advisory panel of policy experts, good government groups, and community-based leaders, helped us develop a reform agenda that can start to return the initiative system to its “citizen democracy” roots.

Following is a summary of key findings from our poll and listening tour, along with recommendations for reform.

Initiatives Often Attack Civil Rights
Our survey found that 73 percent of California voters believe the rights of various groups of people are often attacked via the initiative system, while 44 percent felt their own rights have been attacked. Some of these initiatives have proven unconstitutional but owing to a lack of review or oversight prior to voting, their violations only become apparent after they are litigated and overturned in court. We need a mechanism to keep the initiative system from being misused or abused. One way—favored by 81 percent of California voters—would be to review proposals for legal and constitutional issues and drafting errors before they get on the ballot.

Considering the costs of signature-gathering, running a campaign, and litigation, a system of review and oversight at the front end of the process could save both the state and initiative proponents money, while reducing attacks on people of color and other disenfranchised groups.

Petitions Unavailable to Non-English Speakers
Those who do not speak English are excluded from determining what goes on the ballot simply because initiative petitions are available in English only.
The Federal Voting Rights Act (VRA) of 1965 outlawed discrimination in voting with a series of provisions designed to ensure that all eligible citizens can exercise their right to vote free from intimidation or discrimination. Section 203 of the law requires counties with significant limited-English populations to provide elections materials in relevant languages. For California, this has meant that we provide materials, such as voter guides and sample ballots, in at least Spanish, Chinese, Japanese, Vietnamese, Korean, and Tagalog. But this requirement does not currently extend to initiative petitions being circulated in hope of getting on the ballot.

According to Migration Policy Institute, California’s Limited English Proficient (LEP) population grew by 56 percent from 1990 to 2010, to roughly 6.9 million. About 47 percent of California’s naturalized citizens do not speak English very well. It is unacceptable, therefore, that a majority minority state like California does nothing to proactively integrate these voters into our direct democracy.

The Greenlining Institute has sponsored legislation (SB 1233), which is being authored by Senator Alex Padilla (D-San Fernando Valley), to make initiative petitions language accessible.

Big Money’s Great Influence Over Initiatives
Californians are clearly frustrated by the influence of big money on the initiative process. It can cost proponents upwards of $2 million to qualify a measure for the ballot and several more millions to run a successful campaign afterwards. Consequently, groups with low and moderate means cannot run effective proactive campaigns and often end up on the defensive side of issues. While we cannot legally limit the amount of money spent on ballot initiatives, we can keep wealthy interests accountable by making information about top funders more readily available.

In our survey, 85 percent of registered voters said it is important to know who is funding initiative campaigns—both for and against measures—when making decisions; and 78 percent wanted that information presented to them in the California voter guide. Fifty-nine percent also said that they would actually be less likely to vote for a legislator who opposed legislation, such as The California Disclose Act (AB 1648), that would improve disclosure of top donors on political campaign advertisements.

Process and Language Defy Comprehension
Our survey found that 30 percent of California voters mistakenly think that they have to vote on all propositions listed on a ballot to make it valid. Disturbingly, this incorrect belief is held by 42 percent of black and 53 percent of Latino voters.

When undecided about how to vote on a ballot measure, 44 percent of California voters said they “make the best decision they can.” As one participant in our listening tour said, “I will look at the fiscal if I’m not sure. If it is going to cost money, I vote no. The state doesn’t have any money.” But the fiscal estimate alone does not give voters the whole picture. Currently, the state voter guide does not provide an analysis of a proposition’s social impacts—its effects on things like the poverty and unemployment rate and the environment. We found, however, that a strong majority (60 to 70 percent) of California voters would like to have information about a proposal’s social impacts.

Also, many community members described the current voter guide language as “complex,” “confusing” and “legalese,” and expressed a need for simplifying the language to be consistent with the reading levels of the average California adult.

The Future of the Ballot Initiative System
Ultimately, initiative reform is about enhancing the ordinary citizen’s access to and use of the initiative process while at the same time, protecting vulnerable groups from being attacked by the initiative process.

If we want an initiative system that: (a) enables California’s new majority to participate, (b) protects against attacks on civil rights, and (c) allows people to hold their government and wealthy special interests accountable, we have to include people of color in the discussion.

There is no quick fix to the complex problems we face in trying to reform the initiative process, but the recommendations outlined here would be a good place to start. Some reforms can be enacted by the legislature and may get approval relatively easily but the more extensive and complex reforms may very well require their own ballot initiatives. 

Endnotes

1.    Daniel Byrd, Michelle Romero, and Chanelle Pearson: California Ballot Reform Panel Survey 2011-2012. (The Greenlining Institute, Berkeley). Publications archives at: <greenlining.org/publications/pdf/648/648.pdf>

Michelle Romero is program manager of Greenlining Institute’s Our Democracy program.


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RP&E Release Party, June 27th, 6 p.m. - New Political Spaces

19-1-cover
Public Property —
Popular Power

New Majority Rising

Wednesday, June 27, 2012 @ 6:00 p.m.

Pacific Coast Brewing Company
906 Washington St. @ 10th St.
Oakland, California.

Join us in conversation about the role of emerging majorities, Occupy, and the power of the public to create new political spaces.

Drink, eat, mingle! Meet the writers and editors behind the magazine. All ages invited (under 21 okay) and wheelchair accessible. Please R.S.V.P. to christinejoy@urbanhabitat.org for more info call (510) 839-9510 ext 303

Next Generation

Next Generation

 


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Students for Quality Education Decolonize the University

Students for Quality Education Banner

More than 40 years after the struggles for free speech and ethnic studies at the University of California Berkeley and San Francisco State, students on the 23 campuses of the California State University (CSU) system are forging a new form for this generation’s protest movement.

Students for Quality Education (SQE) belongs to this new wave of organizations rising to protest cuts in the budget for higher education, increases in tuition, fees, and class sizes, reductions in available courses, and irresponsible salary increases for top administrators.

Nyala Wright, SQE, California State University East Bay
In my view, students are a definite part of the broader struggles of the 99% because we face the possibility of not being able to survive in an ever-growing economic downturn, despite getting an education. We carry some of the biggest debt in the country.  This debt and its increase over time due to loans are directly related to increased tuition and fees. Both will squeeze out people of lower-income backgrounds and thereby prevent any real success.
The driving force behind the efforts to privatize public higher education is the rich few who want to marginalize and push out lower income people, who are predominantly people of color. Behind privatization is a system that puts money towards prisons that are filled up with a majority of African Americans and Latinos. Our country spends billions of dollars on Afghanistan, yet there is no similar amount of money put towards the education system.  This continuing misallocation of funds to wars, prisons and other areas will lend itself to the collapse of our society and the people within it.
As far as Occupy is concerned, I would say that a more inclusive attitude is necessary in order to build community and actually have a more valuable effect on particular issues. I definitely feel that the Occupy movement needs to be more inclusive so others feel comfortable in taking part in making decisions and taking any actions thereafter. 

 These new groups differ from previous student organizing in their commitment to creating alliances with the community, eschewing the traditional privilege and presumed vanguard status of the educated class, and redefining university students as workers subject to the dictates of contemporary neoliberalism.
SQE’s specific demands grow out of this reframing. The group focuses on the growing debt burden that working class students are shouldering as public education is privatized. Its members actively engage other workers and activists in dialogue to build community.

But even more important than SQE’s connection to the wider community is its inclusionary practice, rooted in its conscious understanding of racial, gender and sexual identity differences. In this it surpasses its predecessors (such as the Free Speech Movement, Students for a Democratic Society, SNCC, and the Third World Liberation Front) as well as its contemporary allies in Occupy, who remain at a stage of debating and theorizing the deconstruction of white male privilege.
Abigail Andrade, SQE, California State University East Bay
As a first-time college student and Chicana single mother, I come from a low-income household and had always been told that college would be my ‘ticket’ to success. However, student debt and the current job market make me feel I’ll continue to be ‘stuck’ in an economic struggle for some time.
Although we are ‘student-activists’ and many of our actions involve issues in higher education, we’re constantly trying to connect with other social movements. We’ve held several SQE meetings at Occupy Oakland, we’ve gone as a group to the general strikes and p
ort shut-downs, and some members have been arrested at some of the actions.
Our actions have specific demands: Roll back student fees; fund higher education by taxing corporations; put decision-making power in the hands of students, faculty and staff; and democratize the Board of Trustees. Our demands are linked with Occupy Education, where we demand that California make education at all levels a priority and provide quality education in grades K-12, as well as in higher education.
On March 1, SQE organized “People’s University: Liberate Education.” Students conducted teach-ins on topics, such as radical theory, democratizing the Board of T
rustees, fee hikes, access to higher education, free speech, and faculty solidarity. This was all in an effort to educate our student body on issues that affect all of us within  CSU, and on ways we can organize to reclaim our universities.
In SQE we have women of color, transgender, undocumented, radical, and not-so-radical folks. Yet, we all vibe together in a way that is extremely hard to describe. We always seem to point out who seems to hold leadership positions. The majority of folks at Occupy Oakland are white males or white women, and after making a lot of connections with them, most seem to be college-educated. People of color have been disproportionately affected by the issues that the Occup
y Movement has called attention to, yet the organizers and ‘decision makers’ have been primarily white. In a discussion with Dr. [Luz] Calvo [in Ethnic Studies, CSU East Bay], we talked about how some occupiers are ready for a confrontational action on May Day. However, undocumented Americans also want to participate in the May Day actions, and it’s unfair to put people who have more to lose at such a risk. Once again, I think it all comes back to checking our privilege.


Given the CSU system’s long history of embracing diverse communities of working class students, it provides an ideal base for SQE, even as its commitment to its traditional population is in jeopardy.

SQE may reasonably claim varying degrees of credit for the California State Senate’s denial of reappointment to former CSU Trustee Herb Carter, limitations on executive salary increases, and State Assembly Speaker John Perez’ Middle Class Scholarship bill, which aims to substantially lower CSU and UC tuition and fees for students from families earning less than $150,000 per year.

Several state tax measures supported by SQE that will appear on the November 2012 ballot may also help to stem the tide of rising fees and shrinking services: the Molly Munger initiative, the Millionaires Tax, the Tax on Oil to Fund Education Initiative, and the California Income Tax for Multistate Businesses.

In the end, SQE may be judged by its effectiveness at limiting the ravages of privatization in state education—but its ideology and practice of radical inclusivity and 99% discourse will forever alter the future of university protest.

Nicholas L. Baham III is an associate professor of Ethnic Studies at California State University East Bay.

 


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Privatizing Public Education: The Neoliberal Model

 


No Child Left Behind (NCLB) was passed with bipartisan support during the Bush presidency and despite many attempts to repeal it, it’s still the law of the land. Its rhetorical promise, like the Obama administration’s “Race to the Top” program, is that the federal government will hold public schools accountable for their failure to educate poor and working class Hispanic and African American students.But the purported aim of increasing educational opportunity masks the real intent of these so-called education reformers to create a privatized system of public education that has a narrow, vocational curriculum enforced through standardized tests.

 

The “reform” rhetoric is enormously seductive to parents and low-income communities whose children attend poorly funded, poorly functioning schools. In predominantly Hispanic and African American neighborhoods, schools are often incapable of providing children with more than the rudiments of literacy because they cannot afford to recruit and retain sufficient numbers of teachers. Schools that serve large concentrations of recent immigrants are usually so underfunded and overwhelmed by the number of students that they are compelled to use bathrooms and closets as classrooms.

Education “reforms” like NCLB and Race to the Top, however, presume that if children do not succeed at school, the responsibility rests solely with the school. Such an approach destroys the structure and organization of a publicly-funded and presumably publicly-controlled system of education begun more than a century ago. In fact, NCLB closely resembles the blueprint developed in ultra right-wing think tanks for replacing locally controlled, state-funded school systems with a collection of privatized services governed by the market. What NCLB chiefly adds to the original “free market” framework is standardized curricula and testing and the Christian Right’s “faith-based” interventions.

Applying the Skewed Logic of Free Markets to Schools
The free market underpinning to education pretends that schools can compensate for the array of savage economic and social problems created or abetted by government policies. Under such flawed reasoning, public funding for low-cost housing is reduced or eliminated because the “market” is best at regulating housing costs and availability. However, when markets fail, resulting in soaring rates of homelessness, schools are told that it is not an acceptable excuse for a child’s poor performance. If there is sufficient political furor over the schools’ inability to cope with this crisis, the government creates a discrete token allocation for educational services for the homeless. But the allocation often is too small relative to the enormity of the problem to be meaningful. Just tracking the whereabouts of children who move from one shelter to another, let alone providing them with appropriate services, is beyond the capacity of most urban school systems, which would have to interact with numerous bureaucratic, under-resourced and dysfunctional agencies in the process.
A program to advance educational opportunity has to be undertaken as part of a larger project to end inequality, including de facto school segregation. To argue that schools have a limited capacity to ameliorate economic and social inequality is not to diminish the moral or political importance of the struggle to improve education. Any progressive movement deserving of the name will demand that public schools provide all students with an education that will allow them to be well-rounded, productive citizens, capable of competing for well-paying jobs. Improving schools for the poor and working class can make a difference in the lives of some children and for that reason alone, progressive school reform deserves our attention. Improving schools for all children is of critical political significance because it demands that American democracy make good on its pledge of equality. However, we also need to be cognizant of the limitations of school reform as a policy vehicle for making society more equitable. As the authors1 of Choosing Equality: The Case for Democratic Schooling note, education can challenge the tyranny of the labor market—but cannot eliminate it. As neoliberal policies tighten their grip on governments and capitalism’s assault on the living conditions of working people intensifies, schooling becomes an ever weakening lever for improving the economic well-being of individuals even as it remains a critical arena for political struggle.

Any agenda for progressive social change, which includes improving education, must address what historian David Hogan calls “the silent compulsion of economic relations,” i.e. the nexus of racial segregation in schools and housing and the funding of schools with local property taxes. Segregation in housing has become the pretext for abandoning the challenge of racially integrating schools, which in turn has seriously weakened the forces that can challenge funding inequities. Some African American activists and researchers advocate dropping the demand for integrating schools, arguing that African American children would be better served in segregated schools staffed by African American teachers. Although the despair that underlies such thinking is understandable,2 the reality is that racially segregated schools and school systems are more isolated politically and, thus, more vulnerable in funding battles with state legislatures. The urgency for making schools better is undeniable, but so is the necessity for mounting a political and legal challenge to de facto school segregation and the use of local property taxes to fund schools.

NCLB and Capital’s Global Agenda for Education
The endurance of NCLB is a dismal indication of the level of disorientation about education’s role in a democracy and the contradiction of privatizing this essential civic function.
Underlying the bipartisan endorsement of  “school reform” is a shared ideological support for a neoliberal global capitalist economy and neoliberal view of education. In both industrialized and developing nations, neoliberal reforms are promoted as rationalizing and equalizing delivery of social services. Even the World Bank demands curricular and structural changes in education when it provides loans as outlined in its draft “World Development Report 2004: Making Services Work for Poor People,” which describes education’s purpose solely in terms of preparing workers for jobs in a global economy where capitalism can move jobs wherever it wishes—that is, to countries where profits trump working conditions and salaries. The draft was later modified in negotiations with governments and non-governmental organizations, but the original is a declaration of war, especially on public education and independent teachers unions.

Public education remains the largest piece of public expenditure, highly unionized and not yet privatized. The draft report identifies unions, especially teachers unions, as one of the greatest threats to global prosperity, arguing that they have “captured governments,” holding poor people hostage to demands for more pay and suggests that teachers should be fired wholesale when they strike or resist demands for reduced pay. The report also calls for privatizing services, greatly reducing public funding, devolving control of schools to neighborhoods, and increasing user fees. The World Bank has implemented many elements of the draft report by making loans and aid contingent upon “restructuring,” which is to say, destroying public funding and control of educational systems. The results, writes University of Buenos Aires Professor Adriana Puiggros, have been devastating to literacy rates and the Bank’s promise of equality.[3]

A key element of the program is limiting access to higher education through the imposition of higher tuition and reduced government support to institutions and individual students. Meanwhile, lower education is charged only with preparing students for jobs requiring basic skills, which the multinationals aim to move from one country to another. Schools that train workers for jobs requiring limited literacy is all we can realistically expect for poor people in poor countries, says the report, and they do not require well-educated or skilled teachers. Teachers with significant education are a liability because they are costly to employ and the largest expense of any school system, the report argues, whereas minimally educated workers require only teachers who are themselves minimally educated.

Most of NCLB’s elements for reorganizing education in the U.S. are straight out of the World Bank draft report: Charter schools and vouchers to be used in private schools fragment oversight and control; testing requirements and increasingly punitive measures for low scores pressure schools to limit what is taught so that the tests become the curriculum; privatization of school services, such as tutoring and professional development for teachers tied to raising test scores, undercuts union influence and membership.

Teachers Unions Fight Neoliberal Downscaling
The Bush administration was quite open about the explicit linkage between a deskilled teaching force and a narrow curriculum as evidenced by the statements of Grover Whitehurst, an undersecretary in the Department of Education agency responsible for education research. Public investment in research about teacher education is unnecessary, he maintained, because the government is required to provide only a basic education that will prepare students for entry-level jobs; therefore, government funds are better spent creating materials for teaching basic skills that teachers with little or no expertise can use. This is precisely the strategy promoted in the draft report, which lauds programs that briefly train 15 year old peasant girls, who then teach literacy skills in rural areas.

One way to limit access is to charge fees to attend school at all levels. We see the former strategy in underdeveloped countries, where families must often pay for schooling that was once available for free. In fact, a World Bank condition for loans explicitly prohibited free education until a movement by liberals in the U.S. Congress, informed and inspired by global justice activists, challenged it.

Access to learning is also limited by curriculum. Larry Kuehn, research director of the British Columbia Teachers Federation, has traced this trend to the Reagan administration, circa 1987, when the U.S. began promoting the development of “education indicators” to guide curricula and testing at the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD). The OECD consists of the 29 most industrialized countries and some rapidly industrializing ones, such as Korea and Mexico. In the early discussions, the OECD planned the development of uniform curricula with “culture-free” materials appropriate for the new “information economy.” Kuehn’s work illuminates not only the anti-intellectual and anti-humanistic assumptions of these curricula, but also how existing expectations about what students should learn had to be “downscaled.”

Teachers in the Global North have avoided the full force of neoliberalism’s assault on education for decades. It is only in the past few years that they have started to realize that their profession and the ideals that brought them into classrooms may be destroyed. Many are frightened, but they are also angry. Growing numbers realize that teachers and their unions have to reach out to communities and parents, forming mutually respectful alliances. And now discussions about the global context now seem relevant.[4]

The universal experience of privatization, increasing tuition, enormous student debt, and ever less support for public education has awakened the unions. Yet, missing still in the work of teacher unions, their leaders and ranks, is an understanding that to defend public education in this country, teachers and their unions must help develop an international response to neoliberalism—one that puts justice and equity at the forefront of the union’s program for education and develops alliances across national borders.

Lois Weiner, Ed.D. is a professor of elementary and secondary education at New Jersey City University. She is the author of Social Justice and Teachers Unions: Reversing the Assault on our Schools (Haymarket Press), forthcoming October 2012. This article is adapted from one previously published by New Politics (newpol.org/node/285).For more information on resistance of teachers to neoliberal reforms, go to teachersolidarity.com.


Endnotes
1.    Ann Bastian, Norm Fruchter, Marilyn Gittell, Kenneth Haskins, and Colin Greer, foreword by James P. Comer. Temple University Press. 1986.
2.    African American and Hispanic youth are frequently tracked into classes that offer low-level materials and poor instruction rather than college preparatory work, even in well funded school districts.
3.    <indymedia.org.uk/en/regions/cambridge/2004/02/286118.html>
4.    Lois Weiner, “Teacher Unionism Reborn.” New Politics, Winter 2012, Vol:XIII-4,
<newpol.org/node/579>


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"Most of No Child Left Behind's (NCLB) elements for reorganizing education in the U.S. are straight out of the World Bank draft report..."

Occupying the Future, Starting at the Roots

Occupied Urban Farmland in the Bay Area Highlights Privatization of Public
Universities and Corporatization of Public Trust

On Earth Day—April 22, 2012—about 200 people, accompanied by children in strollers, dogs, rabbits, chickens, and carrying hundreds of pounds of compost and at least 10,000 seedlings entered a 14-acre piece of land containing the  last Class I agricultural soil in the East Bay. Located on the Albany-Berkeley border in the Bay Area, the plot is owned by the University of California Berkeley. By the end of the day, they had weeded, tilled, and successfully cultivated about an acre of the land. By May 14, when 100 University of California riot police surrounded the tract and began arresting the farmers, Occupy the Farm had cultivated around two acres of the plot known as the Gill Tract.

The Occupy farmers have laid out footpaths around cultivated plots, created wildlife corridors, riparian zones, and protected areas for native grasses and a wild turkey nest, and set up a library and a kitchen. They have planted thousands of seedlings of corn, tomatoes, squash, beans, broccoli, herbs, and strawberries, including heirloom varieties from a local seed bank. Other plots have been reserved for agro-ecological research. There’s also a permaculture garden for kids on the other side of a gazebo of woven branches where wind chimes tinkle in the breeze.“As a mother, I was nervous about
taking my daughters into a land
occupation. But I also feel an
enormous responsibility to stand up
against a global economic system
that puts profit over people.”
—Michelle Mascarenhas-Swan


Gopal Dayaneni of Movement Generation, says that the vision for the farm is the “practice and promotion of sustainable urban agriculture with a commitment to food justice and food sovereignty.” He is a father, activist, and member of what he calls the “new urban peasantry.” Food grown on the farm will be distributed—for free—through existing food justice networks in the San Francisco Bay Area.

On April 24, the University shut off the water supply and threatened the farmers with eviction. University administration has gone on a media offensive, attempting to pit researchers against the Occupy farmers[1] and according to some reports, preventing them from negotiating with the farmers. Some faculty members have published statements[2] in support of the farmers, arguing that the goals of the farm are aligned with the public policy goals of the state and the U.C. mission.[3] If transforming a student’s life is part of that mission, U.C. Berkeley student Lesley Haddock has certainly experienced it working on the farm. “Before our project began, I had never planted a seed,” she admits. “But in the past two weeks, I have become a farmer!”[4]

Public Good—Private Gain at the Gill Tract
One of the Occupy farmers, Ashoka Finley is a program assistant with Urban Tilth and runs an organic farm in collaboration with students at Richmond High School, in Richmond, California. A political economy graduate of U.C. Berkeley, Finley believes that the farm is redefining and reclaiming the role of the public university, just as the Occupy movement is redefining and reclaiming public space.
“The history of the Gill Tract is [about] public subsidization of private research that [profits] the corporate industrial complex; not research for the public good,” he says.

It was not always this way. The 104-acre plot was sold to the University in 1928 by the Gill family with the condition that it be used as an agricultural research station. Under the Smith-Lever Act of 1914, part of the University’s mission as a land grant institution is to promote community involvement and initiatives in agriculture.

From the 1940s through the 1990s, research conducted at the Gill Tract laid the groundwork for successful, non-chemical and non-petroleum-based methods for controlling numerous major insect pests on several California crops, and for the integration of biological, chemical, and cultural methods of pest control.5 The innovative methods developed, shared, and refined at the International Center for Biological Control included intercropping6 and using bugs to control pests in addition to or in place of pesticides, and means to reduce overall chemical dependency and prevent the development of superbugs in industrial and community agriculture worldwide.“Farmland is for farming.”
—Gopal Dayaneni


The turning point came in 1998, when Novartis gave $25 million to the Plant and Microbial Biology department to conduct genetic research on the land. “They kicked off the local organic pest management project to do gene research,” says Ulan McKnight of the Albany Farm Alliance. “What was here before directly benefitted the people of California; now what they do here directly benefits biotechnology companies. Instead of doing things that can help people, they are doing things that benefit the one percent.”
Among the projects closed down at the time was a seed bank of rare heirloom varieties of many important food crops, and a state-of-the-art drip irrigation system from a student-run urban sustainable agriculture demonstration plot. Until the water was cut off at the Tract, the Occupy farmers were planning to start using those irrigation tubes again.

Privatization Leaves U.C. System Impoverished
The trend of privatizing the research and knowledge produced at public institutions is systemic, according to Julie Sze, associate professor of American Studies at U.C. Davis. A long-time supporter of social justice and student movements, Sze attributes her activism to her student days at U.C. Berkeley, where she took courses with the likes of RP&E founder Carl Anthony. She credits the university with being the “social justice innovation lab” that produced so many of the environmental justice leaders of today and argues that corporatization is an impoverishment of the U.C. system and a betrayal of the system’s legacy for California.

It is worth noting that the number of people graduating from UCLA annually exceeds the total number of people graduating from all private colleges in the state. It is no exaggeration, therefore, to say that whatever happens with the U.C. system affects the future of California.

Universities have a special role to encourage ways of thinking that go beyond the corporate workplace, says Sze. People who have fought to work with communities on the side of racial and economic justice are an important legacy of the university. People like Paul Taylor, who in the 1930s, promoted the idea of the agricultural job ladder (where farm workers could eventually become family farmers) over the agribusiness model, which depended on seasonal workers. The university is a place to explore and imagine different possibilities and different futures, which is why student activism is a global force and so deeply threatening to the existing order.

Sze believes that the move towards corporate funding of research, coupled with increasing student debt, has curtailed the ability and desire of students to participate in the creative and innovative social justice thinking and activity that is so important to the common good.
David Naguib Pellow, another movement scholar-activist and a professor of sociology at the University of Minnesota, observes, “Every [public] university I’ve worked at, professors are encouraged to secure external funding for their research to alleviate state budget constraints. This often involves seeking resources from corporations and foundations that have little or no accountability to the public, which amounts to the privatization of ideas, knowledge, and the commons, and is a dangerous trend if we desire to live in a democratic society.”

The tuition hikes and the cuts in programs that do not have a corporate/profit bent are a direct result of the bias towards education in the service of corporations, according to Finley, and needs to be countered by the training of people in the service of people.

Occupy the Future—Take It, Make It, Shape It
In an email sent out in early May, Adbusters urges recipients to “occupy the future;” that is, “to describe, build and sustain the post-capitalist future we want to live in.”

Dayaneni concurs with that sentiment. “People ask me what they can do to support. I say, take more land. Occupy a library, a clinic, whatever, plan it right and [re-launch] it appropriately and at scale. We need to prove that we have the ability to self govern. This is the new moment of occupy, not tit for tat, not cat-and-mouse games with cops, but full-scale intervention. Occupy the Farm is one of the first to-scale interventions.”

Projects like Occupy the Farm also create a sort of sovereignty and allow a space for larger political expression where people can articulate their demand for a more egalitarian, just society through work done with their own hands, argues Finley.

“In the first world, we have been fed a false sense of security that is imploding,” says Michelle Mascarenhas-Swan, recounting her family’s experience with the militant experiment in collective governance and self-sufficiency. “On Earth Day, our families were a part of manifesting a collective vision for a better way forward—that the land be a community educational center. We have planted strawberries in the children’s garden and feed the chickens with snails that we collect from our own garden. My partner, a cook, brings us food regularly. We are making that vision real.”

Not everybody, however, sees Occupy the Farm in the same light and on the same terms, Finley points out. For many communities of color, farmwork is both a practice of material and cultural survival and self-sufficiency, and, at the same time, deeply tied to racialized exploitation in the United States. For African Americans, farming is related to slavery and sharecropping. For recent immigrants from Latin America, farming is about the bankruptcy brought on by the dumping of subsidized monoculture products in their countries. And for Southeast Asian immigrants, farming is associated with a bloody countryside strewn with unexploded ordnance and other detritus from U.S. wars. At the same time, like other forced immigrants before them, these people have also brought with them a knowledge and identity that is wrapped up in the cultivation and ceremony of working the land.

Subsistence through the production of one’s own food is one of the most effective forms of resistance.  But the action at Gill Tract also points toward the broader challenges at the University. 

The arena of struggle revealed by Occupy the Farm is not just organic farming, food justice, and food sovereignty. The classrooms, the libraries, and the research agenda of the university are being shaped to meet the needs of corporate sponsors. Groundbreaking areas in scholarship that were pioneered in the University of California, such as Ethnic Studies, Women and Gender Studies, Peace and Conflict Studies, were won by student-led protest and strikes (and occupations) in the early 1970s. They now face devastating cuts against which students are mobilizing. Battles against tuition hikes, student debt, and democratizing University governance will be key to shifting the overall direction of the university and the society.

Amilcar Cabral, the African revolutionary and agricultural engineer once said: “Culture contains the seed of resistance, which blossoms into the flower of liberation.” At the Gill Tract we can see seeds of resistance that have been planted—but it is clear that in order to blossom, they will need watering.

Diana Pei Wu is a frequent contributor to RP&E. She is a researcher, activist, organizer, and trainer with the Ruckus Society and various media
justice strategy and training organizations, as well a member of the boards of smartMeme and the Vietnamese American Young Leaders
Association of New Orleans. She has a Ph.D. from the department of Environmental Science, Policy & Management at U.C. Berkeley.

Endnotes
1.    dailycal.org/2012/05/02/gill-tract-occupation-impedes-agricultural-research/,
dailycal.org/2012/05/02/gill-tract-occupiers-sustainability-ideas-are-wrong-headed/
2.    occupythefarm.org/index.php/17-general-content/51-professor-jeff-romm-s-statement-regarding-the-gill-tract
3.    dailycal.org/2012/05/01/gill-tract-occupations-mission-mirrors-state-public-policy-goals/
4.    dailycal.org/2012/05/06/occupation-is-gill-tracts-last-chance/
5.    mindfully.org/Farm/2003/Altieri-Gill-Tract28oct03.htm#1
6.    The practice of planting two or more crops together or in close proximity. Benefits include structural support for climbing plants (beans and squash growing on corn), increased yields (from legumes enriching soils), natural pest repellents  (marigolds, for example), and climate control for shade loving plants (coffee grown under shade-producing trees, such as Erythrina or Jacaranda).


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“As a mother, I was nervous about taking my daughters into a land occupation. But I also feel an enormous responsibility to stand up against a global economic system that puts profit over people.” —Michelle Mascarenhas-Swan

From the Camps to the Neighborhoods

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Occupy the Farm The Gill Tract Albany, California. cc. 2012 occupyoakland.orgA Conversation with Movement Generation
Interview by Ellen Choy

The transformation of the Occupy moment into power for movements that can actually challenge entrenched economic interests will be a complex process. Movement Generation activists recently gathered to reflect on what it will take to make this happen.

 

Ellen Choy: Why  are you committed to the Occupy movement?
Michelle Mascarenhas-Swan: We think Occupy’s critical because we believe that mass movements are a vital ingredient to shifting the public debate and  moving us closer to transforming the economy and the political system. This is not just about making demands on the state, but also about reclaiming our right to meet our own needs directly, in community—to restore our resilience, our ability to support one another, to look after each other, to have the means to do that collectively. I think Occupy is presenting a really important model for how people can work together to set priorities and make decisions about how to best meet each others’ needs in a way that’s responsive and responsible to the place where they live.  

Carla Perez: Movement Generation is trying to flesh out and articulate a concept around an organizing model. This model organizes people around the direct decision-making process and physical work in meeting a need at hand. Whether it’s needing to grow our own food because of the discriminatory land-use processes that haven't allowed for fresh produce in our neighborhood (at least, not without highly gentrifying our historically black, Latino, working class, diverse community); or putting people back in their homes by repairing them and making them accessible; or building our own schools. And doing it in a way that forces a right-to-govern question. You know there’s some legal or other kind of barrier that you’re going to hit up against. They’re going to say, “You can’t use tax money to do that!” Or, “You’re exceeding the amount of food that’s permissible on a lot of this size in an area that’s zoned in this way!” That gives us the opportunity to say, “Who are you to say that we can’t do this when you have made political decisions that take these essential resources out of our community?”

Resilience-based organizing. That’s what Occupy is doing, too. It’s learning how to self-govern and self-manage and bring people together to get directly involved in that process at multiple levels.

Gopal Dayaneni: We don’t think that a movement is going to emerge solely out of the long, hard slogging organizing of 501(c)3 organizations. It’s going to need those sparks and those pushes of mass momentum. All of those things need to be in relationship to each other. And we do not have time to miss opportunities. It is okay for us to jump onto an opportunity like Occupy to try and create a psychic break with the system, to spark a shift away from the dominant culture. It’s okay for us to try that and to be unsuccessful. But it’s not okay for us to miss the boat. Because for us to be committed to the long haul, something has to change very soon, or the long haul will not be pleasant. Communities in Oakland will have a much harder fight if things don’t change really quickly, very soon. It’s going to be a hard road regardless, but we have the opportunity to set up transformations in our relationships to each other that will make it better. That, for us, is another reason why the movement can’t be missed.

Choy: The reclamation of land and housing has become a pinnacle battleground for Occupy.  Interestingly enough, this directly overlaps with Movement Generation’s commitment to a strategy where land reclamation is central. How did land and housing  become an Occupy fight?  And why is this critical?
Mascarenhas-Swan: One is the obvious plight of many of our families after this [real estate] bubble burst. The financial sector had duped a lot of families of color and working class people into deep debt based on this bubble and then ended up putting folks out on the street—foreclosing on family homes. That’s obviously one way the land reclamation [issue] has come to bear. People recognize that housing and access to land is a basic human right. No one should be out on the street at any time. People need shelter; and not only shelter, but a stable and safe place to call home. When so many millions have had their families impacted by this foreclosure crisis—it’s a clear call to reclaim what we believe is a basic right.

Occupy the Farm The Gill Tract Albany, California. cc. 2012 occupyoakland.orgDayaneni: This idea that we need to fundamentally change the tenure relationship to land and housing in this country, to take soil out of the market, to restore the commons—all of these ideas share a common history. What’s interesting for us right now is that there is an opportunity to take the tactic of claiming space and connecting it with real political projects that can transform people’s relationship to place. One of the ways that we think about the ongoing and ever-escalating food crisis in the City of Oakland is: “What huge plots of land can we take to do urban agriculture?” That’s important, but from our perspective, it’s almost more important to have small lots that half-a-dozen or dozen families around a neighborhood can share control of and grow food on, together. Not because it will meet all of their needs, but because it changes their relationship to the community, to the place. That’s where the transformative work happens.

The idea of people actually laboring in their own interests, as a form of organizing, is what’s transformative, instead of door-knocking to convince people that they should work together to take a plot of land where they can have a community garden. The idea of the action as an organizing opportunity in and of itself that the people model, join in, and can have control of—that’s what ultimately butts up against the rules. The rules of the city or the rules of the developer. And as we all know, the rules are made by the rulers. Until we are the rulers, the rules don’t serve us, they serve the rulers. So, the idea of us actually doing the work and using the actions to organize people is an exciting possibility.

Mateo Nube: The part that connects to Movement Generation’s interpretation of both our societal crisis and the solution to it, is that our profit-based, pollution-based economy sees land as a commodity. The next step to seeing land as a commodity is to disrespect land and disrespect everything that depends on that land—all species and ecosystems. That’s a mismanagement of [our] home. Many members of our species have forgotten what it means to take good care of our home and take good care of each other. So then, land reclamation becomes an expression of: “We, the people who live in this neighborhood,” or “We, who’ve been here for a long time, are the best keepers of this place.” We need to re-learn what being keepers of a place is and to have ownership over that keeping. Land reclamation, I think, is a really logical, healthy, proactive, generative way of calling the question: Will big corporations and capitalists determine how we manage where we live? Or will those of us who live here, or who deserve to live here, or have historically lived here, be the ones to manage that space and make the decisions.

 

Michelle Mascarenhas-Swan, Carla Perez, Mateo Nube, and Ellen Choy are members of Movement Generation. Ellen Choy is also a producer on KPFA radio’s Apex Express.


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Reflections of Activistas

Excerpted here are the voices of young activistas who redefine what it means to be part of the new majority as women of color.

We Are the Ones We’ve Been Waiting For
Activistas from the New Majority
By Christine Joy Ferrer

At the Empowering Women of Color conference in March this year, I was moved to hear Grace Lee Boggs, in an open dialogue with Angela Davis, say that we must re-imagine everything; change how we think, what we do, to re-invent our society and institutions in order for revolution to happen. And as I listened to female MC and rapper Rocky Rivera give short glimpses into the revolutionary lives of three iconic women activists—Gabriela Silang, Dolores Huerta, and Angela Davis—in the 16 bars of “Heart,” I wondered who would be our next movement builders.

According to a report from United for a Fair Economy—“State of the Dream 2012, the Emerging Majority”—by the year 2030, a majority of U.S. residents under 18 will be youth of color. By 2042, blacks, Latinos, Asians, Native Americans, Pacific Islanders, and other non-whites will collectively comprise a majority of the U.S. population. But numbers alone are not enough to shift the political and economic landscape if income and wealth remain overwhelmingly in the hands of a small group of whites. Although there have been many social and economic gains made for all races since the Civil Rights Movement, people of color continue to be left behind. The stark disparities that exist today in wealth, income, education, employment, poverty, incarceration, and health are the remnants of hundreds of years of racial oppression. To create a new world, we must sever the connection between race and poverty.

Excerpted here are the voices of young activistas who redefine what it means to be part of the new majority as women of color. They have chosen to confront the challenges plaguing their communities and build to eradicate institutionalized confines, while engaging in the struggle for social, economic and environmental justice. In their fight for liberation, they embody that famous quote from African American poet June Jordan: “We are the ones we have been waiting for.”

ReflectionsThe Activistas

  • Viridiana Martinez (ncdreamteam.org) is undocumented, unafraid and unashamed. She is co-founder of the North Carolina Dream Team and a young community organizer and activist for immigrant rights.
  • Yeashan Banks (peopleorganized.org) is an organizer for the Bayview Hunters Point Organizing Project at People Organized to Win Employment Rights (POWER). For the last year or so, she’s also been advocating for free public transportation for youth.
  • Theresa Q. Tran (miroundtable.org) is a youth program specialist at the Michigan Roundtable for Diversity and Inclusion. She received her M.A. in Social Work at the University of Michigan where she studied community organizing with youth and families.
  • Favianna Rodriguez (favianna.com) is a celebrated printmaker and digital artist based in Oakland, California. Her composites, created using high-contrast colors and vivid figures reflect literal and imaginative migration, global community, and interdependence.
  • Smita Nadia Hussain (chaaweb.org) is a poet, blogger and photographer who serves in leadership capacities for local young Democrat and API organizations, including Community Health for Asian Americans (CHAA), the English Center and the National Asian Pacific American Women's Forum (NAPAWF). She recently traveled with Habitat for Humanity to build homes in Vietnam. 
  • Raquel Nunez (lvejo.org) is a youth organizer for Little Village Environmental Justice Organization. 
  • Shanelle Matthews (sugarforyoursoul.com) does online media communications for Asian Communities for Reproductive Justice, advocating for women of color and families on the margins who have strategically been left out of the socio-political debate on reproductive health and rights.
  • Rocky Rivera (rockyrivera.com) is a hip hop journalist by day and MC by night who found international acclaim by winning a Contributing Editor position on MTV's docu-series, "I'm From Rolling Stone" (2007).
  • Ya-Ting Liu (transalt.org) is a federal advocate for the Tri-State Transportation Campaign and also the campaign manager for Rider Rebellion at Transportation Alternatives.

To listen to the Reflections of Activistas podcast on Radio RP&E, download the link below or click here.

Christine Joy Ferrer is the design and publishing editor for RP&E and founder of eyesopenedblog.com. Special thanks to Irene Florez (ireneflorez.wordpress.com) who helped to engineer and produce this podcast. Florez is a radio producer at KPFA, Berkeley, California.

Ya-Ting Liu

Transportation Justice
Excerpt from an Interview with Ya-Ting Liu

Ya-Ting Liu (transalt.org) is a federal advocate for the Tri-State Transportation Campaign and also the campaign manager for Rider Rebellion at Transportation Alternatives.

My family moved here from Taiwan when I was seven years old. We couldn’t afford a car. The bus was our only way to get around and we used it for everything. Public transit is a vital service that connects people to opportunity and allows for social and economic mobility. It’s just as important as education, health care and jobs. Rural, suburban communities also depend on transit and when bus service is cut, folks are literally stranded without any other way to get to work. 

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Rocky Rivera

Misogyny and Women Revolutionaries
Excerpt from an interview with Rocky Rivera

Rocky Rivera (rockyrivera.com) is a hip hop journalist by day and MC by night who found international acclaim by winning a Contributing Editor position on MTV's docu-series, "I'm From Rolling Stone" (2007).

As a pinay, female emcee and artist in the hip hop industry, I deal with misogyny so much. Every time I infiltrate this male circle, I must not fall into the “Here, let me show some skin and get your attention!” because that’s so easy to do. As a woman of color in the industry, you’re marginalized, hyper-sexualized, not allowed to “play” with the boys, and not treated as a peer. The young women who aren’t coming into it with a conscious mind, they’re just hoping to gain acceptance from the mostly male hip hop audience and most times, you’re treated as a novelty.

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Shanelle Matthews

Reproductive Health
Excerpt from an Interview with Shanelle Matthews

Shanelle Matthews (sugarforyoursoul.com) does online media communications for Asian Communities for Reproductive Justice, advocating for women of color and families on the margins who have strategically been left out of the socio-political debate on reproductive health and rights.

The way women of color activate themselves in their communities is different from the way white women do it. All women of color are struggling in this country for access to resources, public assistance, equality. Black women are harmed by a lack of solidarity because we are often stigmatized as insatiable and hypersexual. The commodification of our bodies is something that is left out of the conversation.

Raquel Nuñez

Sustainability and the Environment
Excerpt from an Interview with Raquel Nuñez

Raquel Nunez (lvejo.org) is a youth organizer for Little Village Environmental Justice Organization.

My passion for environmental justice is ever growing. By the age of 19, I was working to organize around various social justice issues. Over the last eight years, I have created several bodies of artwork with a central focus on social change and youth rights. My goal as an adult ally of the youth at Little Village Environmental Justice Organization (LVEJO) is to continue to grow and sustain an environmental justice youth leadership program. We organize youth by creating a curriculum that we share with high schools and have an open-door policy for anyone who would like to become involved and learn more.

Nadia Hussain

Smita Nadia HussainSouth Asian Freedom Fighters and Refugees
Excerpt from an Interview with Nadia Hussain

Smita Nadia Hussain (chaaweb.org) is a poet, blogger and photographer who serves in leadership capacities for local young Democrat and API organizations, including Community Health for Asian Americans (CHAA), the English Center and the National Asian Pacific American Women's Forum (NAPAWF). She recently traveled with Habitat for Humanity to build homes in Vietnam.   

My parents are from Bangladesh, a country birthed from genocide. People were victimized; tongues were cut off. They wanted independence and were literally fighting for their voice. They demanded the right to speak their language and fought for democracy. When the civil war happened in 1971, a lot of the guerilla fighters were women. Many were executed. Half a million women were raped in nine months. Yet, they still stood up.

Related stories:

Favianna Rodriguez

Women of Color in the Movement
Excerpt from an interview with Favianna Rodriguez

Favianna Rodriguez (favianna.com) is a celebrated printmaker and digital artist based in Oakland, California. Her composites, created using high-contrast colors and vivid figures reflect literal and imaginative migration, global community, and interdependence.  

As a young Latina I felt invisible. I am the daughter of immigrants and grew up in communities of color most of my life. I felt that my immigrant family, our communities were invisible. Yet, we all carried the brunt of what was happening to the economy in the country and even throughout the world. We were experiencing the effects of injustices in our own community. The injustices I saw as a child, the racism that I experienced via the media or the school curriculum, the xenophobia directed at my parents... angered me in a way that I didn’t have words for. Art became a way for me to talk about those experiences, reframe them, and do something positive. Making art was a way to have a voice and an empowering way to fight back, instead of acting out on my internalized oppression.

Related stories:

Viridiana Martinez

North Carolina Dream Team
By Christine Joy Ferrer
Click to Listen to the Podcast

Viridiana Martinez, 25—undocumented, unafraid and unashamed. Martinez is co-founder of the North Carolina Dream Team and a young community organizer and activist for immigrant rights. She only discovered her illegal status after graduating from high school. Born in Mexico and raised in a little town in North Carolina called Sanford, she has lived in the United States since the age of seven, when her parents immigrated. The NC DREAM Team is an organization composed of undocumented immigrant youth and allies, dedicated to the creation of a sustainable, community-led immigrant rights movement in North Carolina and to helping undocumented youth recognize their individual and collective power to activate their communities. 

Christine Joy Ferrer: What was it like growing up as a young, undocumented Latina in the South and how has your identity influenced your work?

Theresa Tran

Youth, Diversity and Ethnic Studies
Excerpt from an Interview with Theresa Tran

Theresa Q. Tran is a youth program specialist at the Michigan Roundtable for Diversity and Inclusion. She received her M.A. in Social Work at the University of Michigan where she studied community organizing with youth and families. Tran also serves on the board of Asian & Pacific Islander American Vote—Michigan, working to increase civic engagement of APIAs.

Youth are much smarter than adults tend to give them credit for, which is ironic since we were all youth once and know what being marginalized feels like. Youth know right away when something is unfair—they recognize it immediately but don’t always know what to do when they witness this unfairness. Or else, they’ve been socialized by adults to be complicit with the way things are.

At the Michigan Roundtable for Diversity & Inclusion's Youth Program in Detroit, our issues change each year with each new group of youth that join our program. One of our program principles is that youth should organize on the issues that they’re passionate about; that they are directly affected by.  In our program, our youth decide on the issues they want to focus on as they are living those experiences. Last year, the group focused on disability justice, structural racism, strengthening alliance with LGBT communities, and immigration. This year’s group is focusing on Islamaphobia, educational justice, sexual assault against teen girls, and organizing youth to be better connected across the city.

Yeashan Banks

Young Organizer Advocates for Transit POWER
By Christine Joy Ferrer
Click to Listen to the Radio RP&E Podcast

Originally from Bayview-Hunters Point in San Francisco, Yeashan Banks, 22, is an organizer for the Bayview Hunters Point Organizing Project at People Organized to Win Employment Rights (POWER). For the last year or so, she’s also been advocating for free public transportation for youth. In 2010, Banks graduated from the Movement Activist Apprenticeship Program with the Center for Third World Organizing and has volunteered for Congresswoman Barbara Lee and the Black Organizing Project and served as a Youth Researcher for the California Endowment’s Building Healthy Communities Initiative. She has also worked with Oakland’s Youth Uprising.

Christine Joy Ferrer: What motivates you to do the work that you do?
Yeashan Banks: POWER’s environmental justice project in [my neighborhood] is what first attracted me to the organization. The Bayview-Hunters Point toxic shipyard has been making folks in the neighborhood—specifically folks in my own family—sick for years. My grandfather worked at the shipyard and has asbestos-related lung problems.

 

 


New Political Spaces | Vol. 19, No. 1 – 2012 | Credits

To order the print edition of "New Political Spaces" use the back issues page.

 

You can also subscribe to the Radio RP&E podcast feed or listen on iTunes

 

Viridiana Martinez

North Carolina Dream Team
By Christine Joy Ferrer
Click to Listen to the Podcast

Viridiana Martinez, 25—undocumented, unafraid and unashamed. Martinez is co-founder of the North Carolina Dream Team and a young community organizer and activist for immigrant rights. She only discovered her illegal status after graduating from high school. Born in Mexico and raised in a little town in North Carolina called Sanford, she has lived in the United States since the age of seven, when her parents immigrated. The NC DREAM Team is an organization composed of undocumented immigrant youth and allies, dedicated to the creation of a sustainable, community-led immigrant rights movement in North Carolina and to helping undocumented youth recognize their individual and collective power to activate their communities. 

Christine Joy Ferrer: What was it like growing up as a young, undocumented Latina in the South and how has your identity influenced your work?
Viridiana Martinez: If you look at the undocumented youth movements, most of the founders and cofounders are women. A lot of us are getting older; we’ve had to grow up so much more quickly than some of our more advantaged peers. I’m not in California. I’m not in Miami. I’m not in New York or Texas. I’m in North Carolina. Reality in the South is a lot different than any of these places. There is no Chicano movement. Many of us are the first generation of Mexican and Latin American immigrants. The history of this region is the struggle existing. We’re the pioneers in terms of immigration work, immigrant rights, and activism. The challenges we face can be seen in either of two ways. One, this is so challenging, I’m not going to do it and I don’t want to get involved, or two, this is challenging, this is risky, and this is crazy but I need to do it. We need this open mind; this uninhibited creativity to seek different opportunities in spite of obstacles. Let’s find opportunity in these tragedies to organize and to expose our reality.
I have the privilege of being a fair-skinned Latina, and I’m fluent in English, so I don’t get profiled as much or as often as other people do. It’s different being a fair-skinned Latina fluent in English in the South compared to a farm worker who’s not fluent in English and not fair-skinned. Being aware of my own privilege I think is very important in doing this work.

I got pulled over a month or so ago for speeding. My license expired last year. The cop came to my window and gave me the ticket and said, “You know why I pulled you over—for speeding. And I’m also giving you a ticket for driving with an expired license. You know it’s been expired since last July, right? Why haven’t you gotten it renewed?”

And I said, “Because I can’t, I’m undocumented.” 

I’m at a point where I’m like, why the hell do I need to hide this reality? This is what I’m living. But this consciousness isn’t the same situation for all immigrants. Many are still living with this internalized pressure.

Deportations are happening every single day through programs like 287G and Secure Communities. Supposedly, it’s to find criminals but our people are getting racially profiled. In the South, you have these like hick cops that are pulling over our folks everyday. They position themselves strategically near mobile homes and trailer parks or in neighborhoods that are predominately immigrant. They do so to target our people. I get three to five calls at least every two weeks, or emails saying: “My son is getting deported. My daughter got pulled over. What do we do?”

Viridiana Martinez with Uriel Aldesto. Courtesy of laconexionusa.comFerrer: What did the release of Uriel Aldesto, an undocumented youth, mean for the immigrant community, activists, and others who have been mobilizing against deportations, institutionalized discrimination and the exploitation of their communities?
Martinez: This was a major victory in the fight against deportations. It proves that a community standing behind a person can move mountains. But it also exposed the structural racism and discrimination within our communities. It was also a reflection of our reality. Aldesto has a criminal background. Most of our youth are not valedictorians. They are not the cream of the crop necessarily in terms of what Anglo schools want to define as the cream of the crop. They don’t have the perfect, squeaky-clean profiles. We grow up facing some real life challenges and some of us are lucky to have both of our parents healthy, working and loving each other. We must continue to organize the community, get youth to understand the importance of coming out as undocumented, and educate people. Sometimes a family doesn’t realize the seriousness of the situation until one of their own is put in deportation proceedings or picked up for driving without a license or for something that simple.

Ferrer: What is necessary to achieve a just reform that is acceptable to and guided by the voices of those directly affected by our broken immigration system?
Martinez: Whatever legislation is necessary to serve our undocumented immigrant community, we first need those directly affected to speak for themselves.

Our youth who are graduating from high school feel absolutely hopeless. This is very real, the pain, the anger, the confusion, and lack of hope, because you don’t see the light at the end of the tunnel. There are cases where some have committed suicide. One of our biggest focuses right now is on the mental health of undocumented immigrants. We’re hearing more and more stories of undocumented youth and adults living with mental health issues. Whether it’s depression, anxiety, attempted suicide, or that we’re hurting ourselves. Sometimes the help you need, to just hear that you’re not alone, or to vent with somebody, requires the understanding from those who are in the same boat.

We need to take the leadership as undocumented youth and organize. We need to create spaces, whether it’s at youth empowerment summits, rallies or town hall meetings, where youth can get together. We must take the time to develop relationships, by creating a safe space where more undocumented youth can open up about their lives, about the abuse, the trauma, that they have lived to get on the path to liberation—a space where they are not afraid or ashamed. Where they are understood more than anything.

And having allies that are conscientious, who admit, “I am never going to know what it’s like to be in your position because I have papers, but want to help.” These are the people that we need beside us, behind us, so that we can be in the forefront and feel supported. And if we fall, somebody’s going to catch us as we fight for this. All this, in consequence, leads to lobbying efforts, rallies, and protests, where youth are no longer afraid to hold a blow horn and speak out. 

That’s why these organizations that are undocumented youth-led and for undocumented youth are so important. We’re not jut talking about legislation anymore. We’re talking about our own daily lives. And we need to be our own power. We need to be our own voice. We need to be our biggest advocates.

Christine Joy Ferrer is the web and publishing assistant for Urban Habitat and the creator of eyesopenedblog.com, dedicated to all artists of color committed to social justice. For more information on the North Carolina Dream Team, visit: ncdreamteam.org.


New Political Spaces | Vol. 19, No. 1 – 2012 | Credits

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You can also subscribe to the Radio RP&E podcast feed or listen on iTunes

To read more of our stories please sign up for our RP&E quarterly newsletter and occasional updates.

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Yeashan Banks

Young Organizer Advocates for Transit POWER
By Christine Joy Ferrer
Click to Listen to the Radio RP&E Podcast

Originally from Bayview-Hunters Point in San Francisco, Yeashan Banks, 22, is an organizer for the Bayview Hunters Point Organizing Project at People Organized to Win Employment Rights (POWER). For the last year or so, she’s also been advocating for free public transportation for youth. In 2010, Banks graduated from the Movement Activist Apprenticeship Program with the Center for Third World Organizing and has volunteered for Congresswoman Barbara Lee and the Black Organizing Project and served as a Youth Researcher for the California Endowment’s Building Healthy Communities Initiative. She has also worked with Oakland’s Youth Uprising.

Christine Joy Ferrer: What motivates you to do the work that you do?
Yeashan Banks: POWER’s environmental justice project in [my neighborhood] is what first attracted me to the organization. The Bayview-Hunters Point toxic shipyard has been making folks in the neighborhood—specifically folks in my own family—sick for years. My grandfather worked at the shipyard and has asbestos-related lung problems.

Ferrer: What are some of the issues that young people face through lack of access to public transportation?
Banks: If you have a single parent, or even just a working class family in San Francisco, then you know it can be really hard for your parent(s) to give multiple children a $21 pass or $2 for every ride they take.
A woman I organized with told me that one time her children came back from the bus stop because the bus driver refused to let them on without fares. She lives on a fixed income in public housing and can’t afford to pay. I remember when I was younger and didn’t have the [35-cent fare], I could ask the driver for a courtesy ride. It wasn’t as big a deal.
Now youth are getting criminal charges for not having proof of payment. I’ve seen kids at the Third Street station jump off the platform to get away from MUNI police. They are running straight into traffic. Or you see them hide from police, or not give their real name and address. They shouldn’t feel scared to ride the bus to school. If the city is cutting down the number of school buses, especially in low-income neighborhoods of color, like Bayview-Hunters Point, and your parents can’t afford to get you back and forth from school, it shouldn’t cheat you out of an education. Already, all over the city, they’ve closed down different schools [because of] low attendance.

Community Coalition Wins Key Votes On Transit for Low-Income Youth
On April 17, the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency (SFMTA) Board of Directors voted unanimously to make public transit free for the city’s low-income youth. If the Metropolitan Transportation Commission (MTC) votes at its June meeting to supply the remaining funding, the Free MUNI Youth Program will begin in August, 2012.
“The vote was a victory for community organizing and a victory for all the youth who stepped up and made this possible,” says San Francisco Youth Commission President Leah LaCroix.
A broad cross-section of community groups has been organizing since 2010 to make San Francisco’s municipal rail and bus system free for all the city’s youth. The coalition includes People Organized to Win Employment Rights (POWER), the Chinatown Community Development Center (CCDC), the Jamestown Community Center, the Youth Commission, Urban Habitat, and the San Francisco Organizing Project.
Rising transit fares and the San Francisco Unified School District’s (SFUSD) decision to slash school bus service lent urgency to the campaign. The cost of a youth bus pass more than doubled between 2009 and 2012, even as SFUSD planned to cut its fleet from 43 buses to 25 by 2013.
“It’s unfair for people to get kicked off the MUNI because they don’t have money,” Sebastian Alfaro, a middle school student, told the San Francisco Board of Supervisors. A member of the Community Leadership Club of the Mission Beacon After School Program, Alfaro was one of dozens of young people who have stepped up during the campaign—filling hearings at City Hall, sending video testimony when they could not appear in person, rallying, marching, and building support with social media. Their families have organized alongside them.
“As a single mother, the cost of transportation is a huge burden on my family,” says Estela Rosales, a member of POWER and a leader in the campaign. “The youth passes are a critical issue for low-income families like mine. This is about fairness and equal access.”



Ferrer: How is the lack of transit justice impacting young people in low-income and communities of color in Bayview-Hunters Point and other parts of San Francisco?
Banks: Right around the time we started this campaign [for free fast passes], a black male was shot in the back for not having his proof of payment. Kenneth Harding was riding the T-Train, which runs up from Sunnydale through Bayview to downtown. When he saw the officer, he ran. Shots were fired from both sides and he died. During routine fare checks, police are stricter and more belligerent in certain neighborhoods like Bayview and Mission, versus the Sunset. Transit racism happens in this city. More and more bus lines are getting cut in places like Potrero Hill, where public housing is located. When you talk to youth in low-income communities about organizing, they think, “But I need to work on getting a job right now.” Or maybe, their single mom is facing eviction from their home. They’d rather be investing their time into what they need at that moment. It’s a really long process to get a youth to understand the connection between what they’re going through and the system of oppression.

Ferrer: How does POWER organize youth and help them understand the connections between social, racial and economic equality?
Banks: We do a program at Balboa High School where we show youth that we’re organizing for free youth passes, but we also are educating them in movement history. After we win, these youth will feel empowered. [Then], they’ll want to further change things. It’s not just about free passes, it’s about connecting to different global struggles. You wonder, “Why am I fighting for youth free passes? I’m not a youth.” But it’s about getting people to start analyzing the system and thinking about why things are the way they are and what to do to change them.

Christine Joy Ferrer is the web and publishing assistant for RP&E and founder of eyesopenedblog.com.


 

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Theresa Tran

Youth, Diversity and Ethnic Studies
Excerpt from an Interview with Theresa Tran

Theresa Q. Tran is a youth program specialist at the Michigan Roundtable for Diversity and Inclusion. She received her M.A. in Social Work at the University of Michigan where she studied community organizing with youth and families. Tran also serves on the board of Asian & Pacific Islander American Vote—Michigan, working to increase civic engagement of APIAs.

Youth are much smarter than adults tend to give them credit for, which is ironic since we were all youth once and know what being marginalized feels like. Youth know right away when something is unfair—they recognize it immediately but don’t always know what to do when they witness this unfairness. Or else, they’ve been socialized by adults to be complicit with the way things are.

At the Michigan Roundtable for Diversity & Inclusion's Youth Program in Detroit, our issues change each year with each new group of youth that join our program. One of our program principles is that youth should organize on the issues that they’re passionate about; that they are directly affected by.  In our program, our youth decide on the issues they want to focus on as they are living those experiences. Last year, the group focused on disability justice, structural racism, strengthening alliance with LGBT communities, and immigration. This year’s group is focusing on Islamaphobia, educational justice, sexual assault against teen girls, and organizing youth to be better connected across the city.

It’s necessary to provide youth with a structure and training for skills to help them be successful in proposing/implementing solutions to these challenges. Their access to opportunity and resources is so intertwined into intuitions of social, racial and class inequalities. Some youth are over-intellectualizing, which detaches them from what’s happening to everyday people. How could they ever connect with one another, especially young people in low-income neighborhoods where that intellectual language and mindset is not in their everyday vernacular. If we can help them understand our complex systems by meeting them where they’re at, they can create equitable solutions.


"If we don’t offer ethnic studies, we only maintain the dominant narrative of whiteness in this country." —Theresa Tran

It’s also important to help them understand the history of where they live. With Detroit’s history of racist FHA policies, the intentional segregation of racial/ethnic communities by one of the automotive companies, racial rebellions, and a myriad of other things, history informs us of where and why we are in the neighborhoods we are today. We use intergenerational oral histories to help young people learn about what our region was like “back in the day” and hear that history from the perspective of people who look like them.

Youth should learn the history of their communities from their own community members. Ethnic Studies is the reason why I’m an organizer today. When I finally learned about the oppression faced by API communities in the U.S., I had an “A-ha, this shit is fucked up” moment. It was truly an awakening for me that opened my eyes to the ways in which my K-12 public school education had brainwashed me into believing—that the U.S. was this amazing country founded on the principles of freedom, liberty and justice. And yet, we have a horrific history of devaluing and dehumanizing people of color, women, non-Christians, queer communities, and the disabled. I learned about amazing API women who were standing up and speaking out for justice, I learned about exclusionary policies, Japanese Internment, and Vincent Chin, whose murder happened right here in Detroit.

If we don’t offer ethnic studies, we only maintain the dominant narrative of whiteness (and other privilege) in this country. We have to challenge that narrative as often as we can to dismantle oppressive behaviors and mindsets. When a safe space is created, as in a diversity workshop or an ethnic studies class setting, we can begin to probe, challenge and devise new ways of connecting to one another.

 


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Favianna Rodriguez

Women of Color in the Movement
Excerpt from an interview with Favianna Rodriguez

Favianna Rodriguez (favianna.com) is a celebrated printmaker and digital artist based in Oakland, California. Her composites, created using high-contrast colors and vivid figures reflect literal and imaginative migration, global community, and interdependence.  

As a young Latina I felt invisible. I am the daughter of immigrants and grew up in communities of color most of my life. I felt that my immigrant family, our communities were invisible. Yet, we all carried the brunt of what was happening to the economy in the country and even throughout the world. We were experiencing the effects of injustices in our own community. The injustices I saw as a child, the racism that I experienced via the media or the school curriculum, the xenophobia directed at my parents... angered me in a way that I didn’t have words for. Art became a way for me to talk about those experiences, reframe them, and do something positive. Making art was a way to have a voice and an empowering way to fight back, instead of acting out on my internalized oppression.

In my work, I approach issues that most affect me as a woman of color and that I see affecting the women around me, whether it’s my mother, family or friends. This includes issues around immigrant rights, economic justice, climate change, sexism, patriarchy, and globalization. I think about systems that work to oppress us and take away our agency to be the full humans we want to be. The same forces that are destroying the planet and organizing against workers and supporting the big banks as they rip off people all over the country are passing anti-immigrant laws and leading this conservative assault on women’s reproductive rights. I engage in campaigns that look at the intersections between these different struggles.

"I engage in campaigns that look at the intersections between different struggles." —Favianna Rodriguez

I’ve seen more women than ever before question and challenge the frameworks that we have accepted for so long. Women of color in particular are really challenging traditional feminism and thinking about how race is a key part of how we need to analyze being a woman. In the immigrant rights sector, I see women workers organizing for collectives that hold better resources and look at building infrastructures because many unions are not creating that space for immigrant labor—immigrant women in particular. I see women organizers usually outnumber men organizers and more young immigrant queer women are speaking out about their experiences. In the environmental sector, young women are drawing parallels between how we inflict abuse on mother Earth and on women’s bodies. Women are finally embracing their complexities and claiming their power.


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Nadia Hussain

Smita Nadia HussainSouth Asian Freedom Fighters and Refugees
Excerpt from an Interview with Nadia Hussain

Smita Nadia Hussain (chaaweb.org) is a poet, blogger and photographer who serves in leadership capacities for local young Democrat and API organizations, including Community Health for Asian Americans (CHAA), the English Center and the National Asian Pacific American Women's Forum (NAPAWF). She recently traveled with Habitat for Humanity to build homes in Vietnam.   

My parents are from Bangladesh, a country birthed from genocide. People were victimized; tongues were cut off. They wanted independence and were literally fighting for their voice. They demanded the right to speak their language and fought for democracy. When the civil war happened in 1971, a lot of the guerilla fighters were women. Many were executed. Half a million women were raped in nine months. Yet, they still stood up.

When people think of Muslim women they think of an arranged marriage or a head covering. But, my grandmother’s sisters were doctors and lawyers in their country. They marched and protested for their rights. My great grandmother and her sisters used to march at their university saying they wanted a free country and that women should be free to go out and work.

There’s a lot of intersection between issues confronting Muslim women, South Asian immigrants and refugees, and Islamaphobia in the United States. Their stories are those behind headlines of war, immigration and political strife.

I’m a part of the East Bay Refugee Forum—a coalition of organizations that work on issues facing API and refugee communities in the Bay Area. Directly and indirectly, these organizations provide necessary services and resources—such as, bus rider information, community events, legal and health clinics, and where to get vaccinations. I do some work also for the English Center, which serves immigrants, international students and professionals who need to improve their communication skills to achieve their goals, find better jobs, attend college, and improve their professional options.

Although there are services out there, with the budget cuts to social services across the country, so many benefits are lost to the point where fear of starvation and homelessness is very real. Within the refugee communities in Oakland, there is a high unemployment rate, much higher than the rest of the country and the rest of California. There’s one group called the Karan—a minority group from Burma that came here because of war in their country. They have an 80 percent unemployment rate; higher than any other constituency in Oakland. The economic situation of refugees in Oakland is very troubling. On top of the language issues, many don’t have a formal education and no English skills. They are stuck.


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Raquel Nuñez

Sustainability and the Environment
Excerpt from an Interview with Raquel Nuñez

Raquel Nunez (lvejo.org) is a youth organizer for Little Village Environmental Justice Organization.

My passion for environmental justice is ever growing. By the age of 19, I was working to organize around various social justice issues. Over the last eight years, I have created several bodies of artwork with a central focus on social change and youth rights. My goal as an adult ally of the youth at Little Village Environmental Justice Organization (LVEJO) is to continue to grow and sustain an environmental justice youth leadership program. We organize youth by creating a curriculum that we share with high schools and have an open-door policy for anyone who would like to become involved and learn more.

LVEJO is currently focused on creating a sustainable sense of awareness with the volunteers and organization members. There is also a focus on creating more parks and garden spaces in the community, and a clear air campaign that is working on the site remediation of a retired coal-fired power plant. LVEJO partnered with the Chicago Clean Power coalition for the clean air campaign. This partnership was the catalyst for closing the two coal-fired power plants in the Chicago area.


Our current day institutions are crumbling but this has happened throughout history. The key is empowering people and opening spaces where they can learn the skills they need to thrive. Education, communication and new ideas go hand-in-hand. If we could change the way that we deal with one another and speak with one another, a natural evolution will happen through community dialogue. Self-knowledge is a critical component and revolution is the natural result of any community gaining self-knowledge on an individual basis.


With the current crisis intensifying the number of people experiencing poverty and food insecurity, community gardens and open space help people weather economic storms, inspire self-reliance and enhance health through increased access to whole foods, good nutrition and physical exercise. They also provide a common space for intergenerational interaction and knowledge sharing.

It is important to increase funding for social services, open spaces and community gardens that build local food self-sufficiency and support fair access to fresh food. I believe, in order to improve community resiliency, we must strengthen local food and gardening knowledge through education in traditional foods, permaculture and sustainable agriculture techniques. It’s about providing our communities, youth and elders with business and leadership development training through gardening and food-based entrepreneurial opportunities. 


 

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Shanelle Matthews

Reproductive Health
Excerpt from an Interview with Shanelle Matthews

Shanelle Matthews (sugarforyoursoul.com) does online media communications for Asian Communities for Reproductive Justice, advocating for women of color and families on the margins who have strategically been left out of the socio-political debate on reproductive health and rights.

The way women of color activate themselves in their communities is different from the way white women do it. All women of color are struggling in this country for access to resources, public assistance, equality. Black women are harmed by a lack of solidarity because we are often stigmatized as insatiable and hypersexual. The commodification of our bodies is something that is left out of the conversation.

The environmental impacts on black women’s bodies are ever present. From slavery to hurricane Katrina, we are the first to be displaced, denied resources and access to healthcare, denied opportunities to save our families. When you deny a woman an option to take care of herself, her reproductive rights, you are ensuring that she is going to withdraw from the workforce, thus increasing the capital for white men.

"All women of color are struggling in this country for access to resources, public assistance, for equality."  - Shanelle Matthews

The foundational fabric of this country lies in racism and socioeconomic status. It is almost safe to say that most black women are at the bottom of the socio-economic totem pole. To start working towards equality for all women, we must insert a racial and class analysis and build solidarity across color and gender lines. If we don’t acknowledge privilege in this country, we won’t be able to navigate through this conversation.

We have organizations working for the broader benefit of women that are leaving out low-income women and women of color. We must teach others about what we need, letting them know that it is our race that intersects with our class to deprive us of the things that they can easily access. We must educate those who are shifting policy for women that they need to include the intersection of race and class.

At Asian Communities for Reproductive Justice (ACRJ), our primary initiative is the 10-year-old Strong Families for changing the way people think, feel and act in support of families. We recognize that only 25 percent of families in America look like the hetero-normative, married-with-biological-children type that policy would have us believe. Seventy-five percent of us are queer, low-income, immigrant, refugee, families of color, and families with disabilities.

We are engineering a campaign, along with several other organizations, to shift policy so that it reflects the needs of families on the margins. We utilize the reproductive justice framework that says people should be able to empower themselves and their communities to make those socio-political decisions that are best for them and their families.


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Rocky Rivera

Misogyny and Women Revolutionaries
Excerpt from an interview with Rocky Rivera

Rocky Rivera (rockyrivera.com) is a hip hop journalist by day and MC by night who found international acclaim by winning a Contributing Editor position on MTV's docu-series, "I'm From Rolling Stone" (2007).

As a pinay, female emcee and artist in the hip hop industry, I deal with misogyny so much. Every time I infiltrate this male circle, I must not fall into the “Here, let me show some skin and get your attention!” because that’s so easy to do. As a woman of color in the industry, you’re marginalized, hyper-sexualized, not allowed to “play” with the boys, and not treated as a peer. The young women who aren’t coming into it with a conscious mind, they’re just hoping to gain acceptance from the mostly male hip hop audience and most times, you’re treated as a novelty.

Hip hop was once underground, something that young blacks and Latinos in the Bronx created. They did what they had to do to make music. They were oppressed and rebelling. It was an empowering movement. Now 30 plus years later, it has become a commodity. But it all starts from the communities that have nothing... as a voice for the people. Once capitalism gets a hold of it, it ruins it. Capitalism took hold of the formula and squeezed all the creativity and originality out to package and market it—to white people. There is no depth to mainstream hip hop. Women are objectified, disrespected, and men are mere caricatures of themselves and stereotypes.

My rhyme is basically my world where every woman is respected and allowed to be a woman. She's not limited, she has a voice, she's strong, she's vulnerable, she's multidimensional. Rocky Rivera represents the woman that’s not compromising her values just to be in the entertainment industry.

My song “Heart,” speaks of Angela Davis, Gabriela Silang, and Dolores Huerta. Not a lot of people know who they are and they should be known alongside the Cesar Chavezes, Malcolm Xs and Martin Luther Kings because they were fighting not only for Third World liberation and people of color but also for women. There was a double oppression that they had to overcome in order to be the organizers they were. 

There aren’t a lot of women artists out there that speak of our history and our progress as a people. I knew that given the opportunity, I would definitely be speaking on behalf of all women, especially women of color. At the end of the day, if our male activists are injured or murdered, it’s our women revolutionaries who are still left fighting.


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Ya-Ting Liu

Transportation Justice
Excerpt from an Interview with Ya-Ting Liu

Ya-Ting Liu (transalt.org) is a federal advocate for the Tri-State Transportation Campaign and also the campaign manager for Rider Rebellion at Transportation Alternatives.

My family moved here from Taiwan when I was seven years old. We couldn’t afford a car. The bus was our only way to get around and we used it for everything. Public transit is a vital service that connects people to opportunity and allows for social and economic mobility. It’s just as important as education, health care and jobs. Rural, suburban communities also depend on transit and when bus service is cut, folks are literally stranded without any other way to get to work. 

New York City boasts the largest and only 24-hour public transit system in the country. Its buses and subways carry 7.5 million daily riders who make up about one third of all mass transit users in the United States. Fares cover about 60 percent of bus and subway operating costs, so service continues to deteriorate due to lack of adequate investment from the state and the city. 

"Public transit is a vital service that connects people to opportunity that allows for social and economic mobility." - Ya-Ting Liu

Since 2007, New York transit riders have been fed a steady diet of fare hikes and service cuts due largely to the lack of leadership and political will of elected officials at the state level who control and determine how public transit is run and funded. The Rider Rebellion campaign was created in 2010 to organize transit riders to hold elected officials accountable for the quality of our transit service. We’re mobilizing outer borough communities disproportionately impacted by fare hikes and service cuts by partnering with community-based organizations and local elected officials. We’re also hitting the streets and surveying bus and subway riders directly about the quality of their commute and the improvements they’d like to see.

Nationally, we’re grappling with the legacy of auto-centric transportation planning and policies from the 1950s, when gas was 20 cents a gallon. Now we find ourselves in a very different world where we’re paying a very high price for oil dependency, which is also taking a toll on our climate. Transportation accounts for one-third of our country’s carbon footprint. Auto-centric planning has also led to neighborhoods without safe places to walk, bike and play.

If laws and policies were made purely on merit and based on measurable goals instead of politics, we would have a very different way of prioritizing government resources. If transportation investment decisions were made based on reducing congestion, fossil fuel dependency, job creation, and equitable access, transit projects would be a top priority every time. 


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Public Property - Popular Power

public property

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Beyond Public/Private: Understanding Corporate Power

By john a. powell and Stephen Menendian

Who inhabits the circle of human concern? Who counts as a person or a member of the community and what rights accompany that status? In a democratic society, there is nothing more vital than membership. Those who inhabit the circle of human concern, who count as full members, may rightfully demand such concern and expect full regard. It is they who design and give meaning to that society’s very structures and institutions; they have voice. This is the ideal of democracy. But there is an important question: Who inhabits this circle?

In our history, there have been varying answers to these questions. In Dred Scott, our nation’s highest Court announced that persons of African descent were not and could never become members of the political community, and enjoyed “no rights which the white man was bound to respect.” Yet the same Court carefully carved space in the circle for corporations, extending quasi-citizenship rights and eventually, full personhood. Consequently, corporations today enjoy never intended constitutional rights and protections. They exercise authority, power and influence that threaten not just democratic accountability, environmental safety and the rights of workers, but individual freedom, personal privacy, and civil and human rights. The architects of this nation and its citizens understood that concentrated power in either government or the economy may threaten freedom.

Occupy Wall Street
The Occupy Wall Street Movement is a grassroots challenge to this power. The Movement harkens back to the 1870s populist and farmers’ rebellion against unchecked financial speculation, which regularly set off Wall Street panics that sent families ever deeper into debt. The Occupy Movement highlights the contemporary predatory practices of companies like Goldman Sachs, one of the engineers of the great 2008 financial meltdown. On the other hand, the anti-statist Tea Party would insulate and secure corporate power, leaving individuals defenseless against unchecked corporate avarice. Its most basic tenets are market fundamentalism and governmental noninterference in the economy: Roll back regulations, reduce taxes and privatize government. These ideas are offered as the best, last defense of individual liberty in what is commonly perceived as an enduring contest between the public and private spheres.
Yet, the debate over public versus private misses the point. In fact, it hides the real issue. The debate over public versus private, the size of government, the tax rate, the stimulus, the jobs bill, public worker benefits, and so much more draws attention away from the behemoth in the boardroom: corporate power. By framing the issue as public versus private, government versus the individual, we blind ourselves to the ways in which corporations distort our democracy. The Occupy Wall Street Movement senses this, but cannot name it as such.

When is Private Public?
The public/private distinction papers over meaningful differences between real human beings and corporations. Entrepreneurs, small business owners, farmers, workers, and enormous corporations are all swept up into the “private” sphere. In turn, the public sphere is seen as a threat to the private and any growth in government as harmful to all “private” persons. From this perspective, regulations intended to curb the excesses of corporate behavior seem equally hostile to the small business owner or homeowner. For example, the Dodd Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act, which was designed to protect consumers and homeowners from the kind of predatory lending practices that resulted in the meltdown of 2008, is attacked as an unnecessary regulation that strangles local banks, small businesses and start-ups.

How have we gotten to the point where any regulation that constrains major corporations is viewed as an attack on individual liberty, small farmers and business owners? We must know that neither corporations nor markets can exist without enabling and constraining regulations. There never has been or will be an unregulated market. The architects of this nation and its citizens understood that concentrated power in either government or the economy may threaten freedom. But those on the right miss this reality in current debates, in large part because the public/private dichotomy uncomfortably sorts everyone into one of these two categories. The result is a blind spot in which corporations dwell as merely “private” persons like everyone else. In essence, the public/private distinction has grounded the expansion and protection of corporate power.

A Brief History of Corporate Power
Corporations were never intended to be persons or citizens. In our Republic’s early years, corporations were public institutions, chartered to serve public purposes: build roads, facilitate commerce and educate the public. In exchange for the benefits of corporate form, including perpetual life, corporations were expected to serve the nation. Early Americans were as wary of concentrated economic power in corporate form as they were of concentrated political power in monarchal form. But 19th century lawyers and judges, often in the service of corporate entities, began to free corporations from state control.

Corporations were traditionally understood to be creatures of the state—artificial entities that could enter into contracts, sue and be sued, and enjoy perpetual life. By the 1840s, the Taney Court decided that corporations counted as citizens under the Constitution for the purpose of suing in federal court. Passage of the 14th Amendment, designed to protect the rights of freed slaves after the Civil War, became an even firmer basis for protecting corporate prerogative. The equal protection and due process protections therein were quickly extended to corporations. And, in Santa Clara v. Southern RR (1886), the Court asserted, without argument or explanation, that corporations were considered “persons” under the Constitution and enjoyed many of the rights it afforded. Just as the Court extended standing rights to corporations, it denied those rights to blacks. This inverse connection between limited rights for blacks and other marginalized groups and the concomitant expansion of corporate power persists. Between 1890 and 1910, just 19 cases brought under the 14th Amendment dealt with the rights of descendents of slaves, whereas 288 dealt with the rights of corporations. Justice Hugo Black pointed out that by 1938, of the cases that applied the 14th Amendment since the Santa Clara decision, “less than one-half of 1 per cent invoked in it protection of the Negro race, and more than 50 per cent asked that its benefits be extended to corporations.” This period is well known as the Jim Crow era and in legal circles, as the infamous Lochner era, named for Supreme Court decisions that struck down state labor and minimum wage laws and economic regulations. The Tea Party’s anti-statism is reminiscent of this era, which severely curtailed the power of the federal government and states to regulate the economy. This period came to a crashing halt with the New Deal and FDR’s court-packing plan to stop the Court from overturning it.

The Court reversed course on both race and economic regulations in a series of cases epitomized by Carolene Products. In that case, the Court announced a rule that economic regulations were presumptively constitutional rather than presumptively unconstitutional, and that courts would defer to legislatures to fashion reasonable labor and wage laws in the public interest. At the same time, the Court announced that laws that reflect prejudice against “discrete and insular minorities” would be more carefully scrutinized by courts. As the law constrained corporate and economic prerogative, it conversely protected the rights of “minorities.” Even as this approach helped spur the Civil Rights Movement, a massive resistance emerged in the South, followed by a backlash in the North. The country and courts again moved away from protecting, first minorities, then all people, in favor of expanding corporate discretion. It was Justice Powell, a former lawyer in the firm that opposed Brown, who secured renewed corporate power that had been limited by civil rights and labor. He simultaneously rejected the claim that the 14th Amendment protected “discrete and insular minorities,” and revived the spirit of corporations as deserving of protection as persons and citizens.

In the 1970s, Justice Powell authored a series of decisions arguing that commercial speech did not lose First Amendment protections because of the corporate actor. Even the conservative Justice Rehnquist foresaw the danger of protecting the “blessings of potentially perpetual life and limited liability” for vast amounts of economic power. In particular, the dissenting Justices warned of the potentially distorting influence of corporate campaign contributions—protected as speech—in a democracy. These fears have now been realized and the full logic of corporate personhood exposed. In Citizens United v. FEC (2010), the Court held that corporations enjoy unbridled First Amendment rights to spend independent money on political campaigns.

We are currently living out Powell’s dream, not Dr. King’s. It is Justice Powell’s vision that Chief Justice Roberts and his Court have embraced, along with the Tea Party. Speaking less in terms of the 14th Amendment and its purposes, they frame this dream in terms of “public” and “private,” with some acknowledgement that we may need to cut back on civil rights, unions and environmental protection in order to secure these liberties for corporations.

Beyond Public/Private
We do not mean to suggest, however, that the exercise of excessive corporate power is simply a by-product of errant Court decisions rendered over the past 125 years. While removing corporate personhood and limiting corporate speech rights within our jurisprudence would be a step in the right direction, the manifold bases of corporate power are much broader. It is the public/private distinction that distorts our legal and political culture into thinking that corporations are just like everyone else. The case against corporations is not anti-capital. Rather, it is an indictment of the pernicious influence of corporate power to influence our political system, manipulate our democracy and even reverse legislative decisions. We suggest that a more appropriate schema for understanding corporate power and observing the dangers posed by it is to think in terms of four domains rather than two: public, private, non-public/non-private, and corporate.

The conflation of the corporate and private spheres confuses small business owners and ordinary citizens with powerful corporate actors. It also makes any legislative act that curbs corporate power appear to infringe upon the liberties of ordinary people. Legal scholars have long criticized the public/private dichotomy as a meaningless and misleading legal distinction. Historically, corporations were both quasi-public and quasi-private entities, but the conflation of corporations and their confirmed personhood with private space has become a source of corporate power and continues to generate unintended corporate constitutional protections, rights, powers, and authority. The idea of public or private spheres is also misleading for certain marginalized groups that historically have had neither the rights and freedoms of the public in a public space, nor the rights of individuals in a private space. The public/private distinction makes it more difficult to appreciate how corporations threaten individual freedom and privacy, and to understand the exclusion of marginalized groups from both public benefits and private rights. Historically, women and slaves inhabited the non-public/non-private sphere. Today, immigrants, the incarcerated, the formerly incarcerated, and to some extent, the disabled, also inhabit this space, which is sometimes abusive.

Privatization as Corporatization
The expansion of corporate power represents a threat not only to the public, but to the private and non-public/non-private spheres as well. In Kelo v. City of New London, the Supreme Court upheld the condemnation of a stretch of riverfront homes when the sole purpose of the undertaking was to enable private redevelopment by pharmaceutical giant Pfizer, Inc. Although not a privatization case, this decision suggests the true function of privatization. The privatization of public entities or property is not simply a shift from public to private control; it is a shift from public to corporate. As a heuristic, the public/private dichotomy fails to capture these shifts in power or account for the consequences. Not only may corporations collect and store personal information (Google’s “street view project” is one example), individual privacy and speech rights are often sharply circumscribed in corporate space. Consider the context of a commercial shopping mall. We may think of that space as public, but it is not. Not only are there limited privacy rights free from surveillance, First Amendment rights are also limited and there is virtually no right to organize or petition. Meanwhile, the Tea Party would shield and protect the discretion of corporate prerogatives from the government under the banner of free markets, while remaining silent regarding the exclusion and oppression of the ”private sector.”

The unbridled exercise of corporate rights and prerogatives threatens our democratic process as well as “discrete and insular minorities.” It is our view that the market, banks and corporations should exist to serve people, as they were originally intended to do, not the other way around. Neither Adam Smith nor the founders of the nation subscribed to a faith in the intrinsic beneficence of corporate interests for the nation. On the contrary, they feared the concentration of economic power just as they feared the concentration of political power.

Who inhabits the circle of human concern? Some might argue that the poor, unemployed, gays, immigrants, and Muslims do not belong as full members of our democracy. On the other hand, many  in the Tea Party movement and jurists, such as Chief Justice Taney, would argue that corporations do belong and enjoy constitutional privileges and rights. Along with the Occupy Wall Street Movement, we reject this position. We could draw the circle of inclusion and belonging liberally, but it would not include corporations. The public/private dichotomy is a false one that obscures what is at stake and blinds us to the separate corporate sphere. Despite the position of the Court and well-known politicians, corporations are neither people nor citizens. They do not belong in the traditional public or private space, but inhabit their own space. Our position is not anti-corporate. Rather, we call for a proper alignment of corporations in a liberal democracy. Corporations make good servants, but bad masters. To realize this realignment will require a transformative wave of individual, judicial and legislative actors. Our goal is not to eliminate corporations, but to build an inclusive democracy with a sustainable economy of shared responsibility and prosperity. This is the unfinished dream of America.

john a. powell is the director of the Haas Diversity Research Center at University of California Berkeley. Stephen Menendian is the senior legal associate at the Kirwan Institute for the Study of Race and Ethnicity at Ohio State University. This article was published in Poverty & Race, Vol. 20, No. 6, November/December 2011.

 

 


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There never has been or will be an unregulated market.

Disneyfication of Downtown Oakland

Business Improvement Districts and the Battle for Public Space


Oakland is far removed from Anaheim in look, feel and form. But as corporate real estate firms stake a claim to the maintenance and administration of public space in Downtown Oakland, the area is being reshaped in accordance with the model for a controlled and commodified space exemplified by the post-war suburban shopping mall and theme park par excellence: Disneyland.

While redevelopment agencies typically control the building phase of large-scale downtown projects, in the built environment, the “curb to property line” streetscape is often controlled by the Business Improvement District (BID), a lesser known but strategically relevant urban entity.

In early 2008, a small group of managers working for the largest real estate corporations in downtown Oakland partnered with New City America, Inc. (a San Diego-based consultancy that has established over 61 BIDs in the U.S.), to create the Downtown Oakland Association (DOA) and Lake Merritt Uptown District Association (LMUDA).

How BIDs Became Such Big Deals
BIDs have radically reshaped public space and the people’s right to their cities since 1994, when California passed a Property and Business Improvement District Law (PBID). The law was written expressly to facilitate the formation of BIDs by concentrated groups of large property owners, needing little help or approval from smaller property owners, and completely bypassing the non-property-owning residents of the area.[1] It’s author, John Lambeth, is a land-use lawyer and developer who was then working for real estate corporations in an effort to “clean up” downtown Sacramento. Lambeth today runs Civitas Partners, a consulting firm that specializes in creating and managing BIDs, such as the Fruitvale and Temescal/Telegraph BIDs, and the Oakland Convention Center and Visitors Bureau.

Marketed as a strategy for downtown retail districts to remain competitive with suburban malls, the BIDs initially followed the mall paradigm in collecting fees for facility maintenance and security. Today, there are over 1,200 BIDs in the U.S.—and many more in Europe, Canada and South Africa[2]—employing thousands of lawyers, consultants, developers, and planners who work with cities and real estate companies to operate districts.
Proponents credit BIDs with facilitating a “business renaissance” in many blighted urban areas and generating retail tax revenues. These accolades, however, belie the anti-democratic nature of BIDs, which have state-like powers in policing, sanitation, redevelopment, and taxation matters, but are run like private nonprofit organizations governed on the basis of votes apportioned to members according to their gross property ownership. BIDs are nearly always the creation of a few large corporate real estate firms and though they often unite small businesses seeking to increase sales through street improvements and public relations campaigns, their economic benefits are actually long-term and accrue to a narrow slice of the business elite. The real benefits are in the militarization and privatization of public space in a process that ultimately leads to greatly increased rent revenues for major real estate owners.

Ostensibly non-political organizations, BIDs actively lobby elected officials and civil servants, influence how city general funds are spent, shape police policy and practices, and pressure elected officials on a variety of controversial issues. Through lobbying, BIDs greatly increase the political power of those who own land and buildings at the expense of the non-property owning majority. Oakland’s two largest BIDs are a case in point.

SIDEBAR
Whose Business is a BID
By Western Regional Advocacy Project
A Business Improvement District (BID) is a special, legal subdivision of the city. The city collects taxes from businesses within the district (some remain exempt) and  distributes that money to the BID, which uses the funds to run private services that serve only businesses within the district. Activities of BIDs are outlined in state and city law.
Downtown businesses claim that their BID is necessary because it provides additional private services that address issues, such as “crime, presence of transients, litter, and other drawbacks,” which prevent people from living and shopping downtown.
In the 1970s and 1980s, many cities experienced an economic slowdown. Reasons for the slowdown varied, but it was generally attributable to the movement of the city’s more affluent residents  to the suburbs. Simultaneously, federal funding also decreased significantly, which compelled cities to cut local services—such as police, street cleaning, and court systems—despite increased demand.
Soon, downtown businesses complained that they could not compete with the suburbs because downtown areas did not seem as “clean and safe” to shoppers or potential new businesses. Assuming that cities would not be able to meet their demands for a “clean and safe” downtown owing to the funding shortages, businesses began to lobby state governments for legislation that would enable them to petition city governments to implement BIDs. Most were successful and there now exist about 1,500 BIDs in the U.S.

”Clean and Safe” Bad for Downtown?
A BID’s services are geared towards benefiting shoppers and businesses. Homeowners and homeless people who live in the area are not a part of the equation and are only visible on the radar if their property is considered “blighted” and in need of fixing or their persons are considered undesirable and subject to removal.
Critics of this approach argue that this perspective misses a vital point—that systemic issues are not being addressed. While there is no doubt that pinched city budgets have resulted in an increase in so-called nuisance activities—such as homelessness and low level crimes—and more visible blight, merely targeting the signs and symptoms, does not address the real problem. The BID approach fails to take care of the underlying causes, hence is unlikely to bring about a real reduction in homelessness, low level crimes, and blight, say critics. Moreover, they argue, BIDs present serious issues in regards to matters of governance and accountability because:
•    There is no mechanism in place to oversee the BIDs and especially their private security patrols of public spaces.
•    Area homeowners are greatly disadvantaged by not being able to participate in decisions that directly affect their property and lifestyle.
•    Smaller businesses, unless they have consensus and represent a 50 percent or greater voting bloc, have no say in the setting up of BIDs. n

Western Regional Advocacy Project (WRAP) is a coalition of homeless organizations.

 



BIDs Facilitate Taxation for Benefit of Corporations
Under Proposition 13—the single most destructive cause of California’s chronic fiscal crisis—property taxes can only be raised with a two-thirds majority of voters or the Legislature. Passed in 1978, the law has especially harmed cities with large non-white and working class majorities, such as Oakland, which have experienced capital flight and consequently, have a relatively small retail tax base.

By demanding an affirmative vote of only those corporations and individuals who account for 50 percent of proposed assessments in a district, the PBID law allows for two unique, anti-democratic modes of governance of city space and services: (i) a small alliance of property owners can effectively circumvent Prop 13; and (ii) a handful of large property owners, if they are organized and in agreement, can raise taxes on all other property owners in a district.
Under PBID law, taxes can be raised by a tiny minority who own a majority of a district’s real estate because the taxes are technically classified as “special assessments,” which may only be spent on improvements or activities that directly benefit those paying the assessments. The legal mechanism used to raise these “special assessments” cannot be used by a city, school district, or other state agency to improve under-funded public services, which disproportionately affect communities of color. Rather, the law, by design, only allows for raising taxes in ways that are favorable to the same parties who have benefitted the most from Prop 13—large commercial real estate holders. Under current law, they pay only 1 percent of a property’s valuation at its last sale and have managed via special loopholes for corporations to transfer property without triggering a re-assessment.[3]

Marco Li Mandri, CEO of New City America explained it very well in a 2008 address to Oakland’s business leaders: “Experience has shown that once the assessment district management corporation is formed, the private property owners in the district can normally leverage a greater amount of general benefit city services than before the establishment of the district. This is due to the fact that those property owners are now organized and can request things, such as additional trees, trash cans, lighting, and sidewalk repairs, and the CBD assessment revenues can maintain these additional capital improvements.”[4]
In other words, BIDs greatly increase the political power of real estate corporations in city budget politics, allowing property owners to demand greater shares of the shrinking general budget to be spent in areas that benefit them at the expense of others. Not surprising, therefore, that a few large real estate corporations hired New City America to establish and operate two BIDs in downtown Oakland, both of which have been aggressive political organizations on behalf of Oakland’s owning class ever since.

It only took a small number of property owners to establish each district—nine for the DOA and 12 for the LMUDA—even though each district spans many city blocks and is composed of hundreds of individual parcels owned by several hundred persons or companies, most of whom have no meaningful voice in the BID’s governance. Control of both BIDs is reflected very straightforwardly in their boards of directors. The DOA’s board has included executives of the largest property holding corporations in the district.[5] (Figure 1 illustrates which companies control the DOA by right of their assessments and proportional votes.) Within the LMUDA, the holdings of a few companies dwarf all others, giving those companies a controlling interest in the district’s affairs.[6]

From Disneyfication to Militarization of Downtowns
After a visit to Disneyland in 1965, architect Charles Moore articulated a position that has become the “mantra” for BIDs today: “You have to pay for the public life.”[7] For Moore, Disneyland exemplified an ideal form of public space, “much more real” in its austere, organized, and instrumental nature. However, even he admitted that such spaces do not allow for the full range of public experience, noting that political experience is wholly absent.

BIDs attempt to create a cityscape conducive to commerce, and by claiming “curb to property line” space, attempt to instill an atmosphere of publicly accessible private space, not unlike museums, hotels and enclosed shopping malls. In an apparent emulation of Disneyland, friendly-looking, smartly dressed “ambassadors” in navy blue or bright orange uniforms patrol the sidewalks, ready to direct tourists and enforce district rules. The  point, as is exceedingly clear in downtown Oakland, is to create a Disneyfied space safe for consumer citizens to shop and eat at trendy stores and restaurants, and for corporate employees to zip through from BART stations to their office towers. The entire process hinges on an intensive gentrification effort in which undesirable categories of persons and activities associated with them are removed.

Numerous scholars have commented about the increasing “militarization” of public space—the armoring of cityscapes and city politics against the poor.[8] Militarized cities are legal-political constructs designed to withdraw a resident’s right to space in favor of capital’s right to increase its control and profit from the cityscape. They are achieved through a simple logic of inclusion/exclusion and the control of access.

Both the DOA and LMUDA have focused their efforts on driving youth of color, activists, the poor, houseless persons, and other targeted populations out of district boundaries. They have executed these gentrifying policies by: (a) environmental design practices; (b) using private security for order maintenance; (c) influencing the Oakland Police Department’s (OPD) deployment of force; and (d) lobbying public officials to eradicate unwanted persons, events or businesses from the districts.

Occupy Oakland Challenges the Militarized City
Until October, 2011, there had been surprisingly few criticisms of the practice of driving out “undesirable” persons from the boundaries of Oakland’s BIDs. But all that changed when police were ordered to crack down on Occupy Oakland and specifically, to remove the encampment from Frank Ogawa Plaza, which many in the city have since re-named Oscar Grant Plaza.

After the initial violent raid and several more episodes of police violence against peaceful protestors, evidence surfaced that Oakland’s BIDs had pressured City Hall to remove the encampment. In a letter addressed to Mayor Jean Quan, the BID directors—essentially Oakland’s largest corporate real estate owners—demanded that the city remove any and all signs of protest from the downtown area, saying: “The protest has been allowed to run its course. Now it’s time to focus on jobs and the economic restoration of our city.” Ironically, the BIDs identified Frank Ogawa Plaza as a “public space,” to be “enjoyed by all the people of Oakland, not just a minority who have now had their moment and headlines.”

From the very beginning, Occupy Oakland’s encampment had been a physical manifestation of the local racial and class struggle against the BID agenda of gentrification. More generally, Occupy was a protest against housing insecurity and the vastly unequal distribution of public goods among Oakland’s neighborhoods, as well as the racist violence of the OPD. The same populations—houseless persons, panhandlers, youth of color—that were being targeted for elimination from the downtown area by the BIDs flocked to Occupy Oakland for the sense of camaraderie it created and the services it offered, including food, medicine, and security. Many of the tents pitched in Oscar Grant Plaza housed persons who had been living outdoors or in cars and tents long before the encampment started.

In many ways, Occupy Oakland was from the very beginning a political statement not against distant Wall Street villains and D.C. politicians, but rather against Oakland’s business leaders, City Hall and the police. The protest had not “run its course” as the BIDs would have liked it, rather the political opposition was just getting organized. Occupy Oakland, like many encampments across the U.S., localized the terms of political struggle and focused on those who controlled urban real estate, the police force, and private security forces, and for whom the city was being designed.
The violent expulsion of a permanent encampment is not the end of resistance to the BID agenda for a Disneyfied downtown Oakland. Rather, it is the beginning because it has clarified for many Oaklanders the structure of power in their city and revealed the goals of those who own the real estate, as well as the tactics they are willing to employ to maintain control.

Endnotes
1.    The California Streets and Highways Code, Section 36621(a) reads: "upon submission of a written petition, signed by the property or business owners in the proposed district who will pay more than 50 percent of the assessments proposed to be levied, the city council may initiate proceedings to form a district," by voting on a resolution.
2.    Lorlene Hoyt, The Business Improvement District: An Internationally Diffused Approach to Revitalization. (Washington, D.C.: International Downtown Association, 2003).
<vancouver.ca/commsvcs/cityplans/bia/pdf/Hoyt_IDA.pdf>
3.    System Failure: California's Loophole-Ridden Commercial Property Tax. (Report prepared by the California Tax Reform Association in collaboration with the Alliance of Californians for Community Empowerment, May 2010).
<caltaxreform.org/pdf_ppt/SystemFailureFinalReportMay2010.pdf>
4.    “Lake Merritt/Uptown Property Owners Demonstrate Support for the Concept of a New Lake Merritt/Uptown Community Benefit District,” (Lake Merritt Uptown Community Benefit District Newsletter, February, 2008). <newcityamerica.com/downloads/Lake%20Merritt%20Newsletter.pdf>
5.     The LMUDA's board has included executives from the Swig Company, Metrovation, Kaiser, CIM Group, Brandywine, The Leamington, Beacon Properties, Metropolitan Estates, Signature Properties, Portfolio Property, Oakland Properties, and others.
6.    LMUDA, Interim Board of Directors Meeting, September 22, 2009. According to the  minutes of the meeting, LMUDA Executive Director "elaborated on a note from City Councilperson Nancy Nadel that state some small property owners are upset at Bylaws implying that the Bylaws somehow exclude small property owners from Board participation...."
7.    Charles Moore, You Have to Pay for the Public Life: Selected Essays of Charles W. Moore, MIT Press, Cambridge, 2001, p. 126-128.
8.    Mike Davis: "Fortress Los Angeles: The Militarization of Urban Space," in Michael Sorkin, Variations on a Theme Park: The New American City and the End of Public Space, Noonday Press, New York, 1992, p. 154.


Adrian Drummond-Cole is a writer, organizer and musician who lives in Oakland. Darwin Bond-Graham is a sociologist and author. His writing can be found in the East Bay Express, the San Francisco Bay Guardian and other publications.


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The real benefits are in the militarization and privatization of public space in a process that ultimately leads to greatly increased rent revenues for major real estate owners.

Homeless Push Back-- Take Over Vacant Building in San Francisco

The numbers are alarming. In recent years, the federal government has cut 400,000 vouchers from Section 8—the program that provides housing subsidies for low income people—even as 300,000 units of public housing have been turned into for-profit developments, rendering them unavailable to low-income people. Meanwhile, 2.5 million foreclosures have worsened the housing crisis for the poor.

These big numbers are more than real estate figures; they are real people—families with children, people in ill health, the elderly. But rather than trying to help them, cities are issuing “sit/lie bans” and “public commons for everyone” laws, which make it illegal to “loiter” in a public space. Criminalizing these simple acts and making them subject to police harassment and arrest is an egregious violation of the civil liberties supposedly guaranteed by our democracy. Yet it happens to homeless people all the time.

In a survey of 716 homeless people in 13 different communities, the Western Regional Advocacy Project (WRAP) found that 78 percent reported being harassed, cited or arrested for sleeping; 75 percent for sitting or lying on the sidewalk; and 76 percent for loitering or hanging out. Only 25 percent said they knew of a safe place to sleep at night.

This nationwide pattern has escaped civil rights protections because the ordinances are drafted very carefully to appear as if they apply equally to all people, but enforcement is very much impacted by a person’s skin color, housing status, economic class, and mental health. These laws were skillfully developed to withstand judicial scrutiny while criminalizing poor and homeless people. Or as French novelist Anatole France observed, “The law in its majestic equality, forbids the rich as well as the poor to sleep under bridges, to beg in the streets and to steal bread.”

BID Credo: Non-Consumers Not Welcome
Paul Boden, director of WRAP, attributes the motivation behind these draconian laws to the rise of the Business Improvement Districts (BIDs) all over the country. Business owners are seeking “to create safe and friendly shopping environments by making sure there’s nobody there who is not shopping,” says Boden.

Members of BIDs tax themselves and use the revenue to hire private security people—called “ambassadors”—who wear special uniforms and look helpful and friendly. In reality, their function is to police the BIDs, which are “privatizing large segments of our community and  removing the people that they feel are not business-friendly and tourist-friendly,” observes Boden, adding that “it’s absolutely frightening [how the] business community is running major sections of our cities.”

Janny Castillo, community builder at BOSS (Building Opportunities for Self-Sufficiency), says: “We are constantly engaged in the struggle to have the plight of those that are living on the streets, the homeless people, recognized. The challenges that they go through, the way the police and the city comes up with these laws that actually are designed to move them off the street, it’s illegal basically, even if there’s a law for it. It’s just inhumane.”
It’s even worse than denying people their civil rights, she says. “It’s all about the right to exist. It takes away the little bit they have left, which is their dignity, their respect.”

April Fool’s at the Union Square BID
To build awareness of the plight of the homeless amongst us and generate sympathy, WRAP and a number of other activist organizations called for a Day of Action on April 1, in cities across the United States and Canada. It was to be a day of nonviolent resistance to the efforts of business owners to create a private security force to harass and persecute the poor and homeless and enable corporations to gain control over our communities.
According to a press release from WRAP, the date was chosen because poor people were going to play “an April Fool’s prank” at Union Square in San Francisco, where several of the largest and richest corporate-controlled businesses have created a BID, hiring private security forces to drive away the “visibly poor.” WRAP was joined by Occupy SF, St. Mary’s Center, Food Not Bombs, and other groups that afternoon to convey their message in a number of creative ways, including dance and music by groups, such as Dancing Ambassadors and Brass Liberation Orchestra. A satirical skit featuring “BID ambassadors” in uniforms rounding up and arresting people who looked homeless and their subsequent triumphant jailbreak was received with great cheering from the crowd.

Hopefully, this bit of street theater will encourage more vigilance over the kinds of laws our cities try to pass and help to bring about more compassion for the people without homes who are being made criminals simply for sitting down, sleeping, or asking for help, says Boden. Above all, he adds, the homeless are targeted as being bad for business, which in modern America is an unforgivable offence.

Archdiocese Evicts Homeless from Vacant Building
At 5 P.M. on April 1, several hundred housing activists were joined by a busload of people from Occupy Oakland on a mile-long march to take over a vacant building at 888 Turk Street and set up a homeless community. The two-story building owned by the Archdiocese of San Francisco has been unoccupied for a long time. About 100 housing activists entered the building to occupy and reclaim it as a service and housing center for unhoused people. A banner unfurled from the top of the building and clearly directed at church officials read: “Give us this day our daily bread, and forgive us our trespasses.”
“There is no reason why any building should be vacant when people have no housing,” said Emma Gerould, a member of Occupy SF, adding that the archdiocese should be more sensitive to the extent of poverty in the community and allow the building to be used.

George Wesolek, speaking for the archdiocese, admitted that the building—which was used to hold music classes—has been vacant for 18 months. But archdiocesan officials signed a citizen’s arrest order on charges of trespassing and graffiti. Shortly after noon on Monday, April 2, police in riot gear ripped down the barricades set up by the demonstrators, entered the building, and arrested over 75 people. The archdiocese has since boarded up the building again and announced plans to bring in private security forces.

Lydia Gans is a San Fransisco Bay Area photojournalist. Terry Messman is the editor of Street Spirit newspaper where this article first appeared.


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Affordable Housing Hit Hard by Redevelopment Agency Closures



Affordable housing advocates across California are scrambling for alternative sources of funding following the closure of the state’s redevelopment agencies in February 2012.

A state law upheld by the California Supreme Court mandated the dismantling, which aims to redirect billions in property tax earnings held by the redevelopment agencies (RDAs) back to local governments to help close a huge gap in the state’s general fund.

The demise of California’s 425 RDAs “comes at a very bad time,” says Rachel Iskow, executive director of the Sacramento Yolo Mutual Housing Association.
Money coming from the federal housing program has been substantially reduced. The $2.9 billion generated by the state’s Proposition 1C bonds—enacted by California voters in 2006 for various types of housing—are almost gone, and a sluggish development market has reduced money for local low-cost housing trust funds to a trickle.

“The end of redevelopment agencies significantly shrinks the total supply of financing for affordable housing,” Iskow explains. She adds that her private nonprofit has built more than 900 homes in the Sacramento-Yolo area. It serves an ethnically diverse community of mostly “workers earning an average of $20,000 a year for a family of four people.”

It must now put a hold on the construction of 100 apartment units on six acres and the renovation of a decrepit 150-unit housing complex, all meant for low-wage workers. It also stands to lose well-trained professional housing managers and neighborhood advocacy organizers, says Holly Wunder Stiles, the group’s housing development director.

RDAs: Ready Source of Housing Funds

Redevelopment agencies served as the second largest source of funding for affordable housing in the state for 65 years. Local RDAs zoned out rundown or blighted areas, held down property values within them, and borrowed funds for infrastructure improvements—roads, services, open spaces—to attract private developers.

Once the property values in the redeveloped areas rose, RDAs kept the incremental increase in property tax earnings for their exclusive use. This amounted to 12 percent of all property taxes collected in California, currently around $5 billion a year. By law, 20 percent of the RDAs’ share of the new tax revenues went back to the county or city for affordable housing.

After the passage of Proposition 13 in 1978, which slashed property tax revenues, cities relied on RDA funds to build affordable housing and rehabilitate blighted areas. From 1998 to 2001 RDA money helped build 16,714 units, more than 75 percent of which were for low-income households, according to a 2002 study done by the Department of Economics at California State University/Fullerton.

Governor Brown Takes Down the RDAs
Governor Jerry Brown pushed for dismantling RDAs, in hopes of freeing up billions in property tax revenues held by them, to ease the $26-billion crunch in the state budget by at least $1.7 billion. His push gained traction because RDAs had become vulnerable to criticism over the years. Some of that criticism was directed at the diversion of as much as $5 billion a year in statewide property tax funds from local governments, depriving schools, law enforcement and other services of much-needed money. RDAs also have been accused of subsidizing private developers.

Critics charged that the criteria designating an area for redevelopment were loosely defined. By 2009, RDAs had incurred huge debts—$29 billion in outstanding bonds. Oakland’s RDA alone owes $160 million.

A CSU Fullerton study noted the  contribution of RDAs to the state’s housing stock but also found that they had very small low-to-moderate income housing funds—insufficient to have a dramatic impact on affordable housing overall.

Feeling the Crunch
With RDAs gone, large cities—Los Angeles, San Diego, Oakland, San Francisco—and sprawling suburban centers in Southern California and the Central Valley that benefited the most from redevelopment money are suddenly feeling the crunch.

Thousand Oaks may lose up to $20 million in cash and $10 million in assets. Oakland used most of its $39 million in RDA funds to support citywide staff salaries ($3.7 million for police; $3.2 million for city attorney staff; half the salaries of city council members). The demise of its RDA will cut 160 jobs in 11 departments.

San Francisco may be able to stand the hit better than other places, reports the San Francisco Planning and Research Association (SPUR). As a successor agency to its RDA, the city government transferred redevelopment funds and assets to the Mayor’s Office of Housing and the City Administrator’s office; so affordable housing and existing redevelopment projects stand to be protected.

As both a city and county, San Francisco does not have to send its redevelopment money to a separate county government where funds will be divided up among cities—unlike Oakland or San Jose, which are just part of larger counties.

“Redevelopment here in Hercules was under water even when it was around,” explains Hercules city manager Steve Duran, “but dismantling it sure doesn’t help.”

For Hercules, a middle-class community east of San Francisco with a diverse population, the end of redevelopment means “no money for affordable housing subsidies and no capital funds for potential infrastructure projects,” says Duran.

On top of this drought, a private financial guarantor is suing Hercules because its RDA defaulted on a $2.4 million bond, and the city is accused of diverting RDA funds to its operations. If it loses the suit, it could go bankrupt.

Banking on New Legislation
Housing advocates are seeking state legislation for a new source of funds and a statewide housing trust fund, which will be a permanent source for affordable housing. A trust fund would support the construction of affordable housing, the renovation of distressed housing stock, and foreclosure prevention and homebuyer assistance programs.Thirty-nine states have such trust funds, but California has none.

State Senate President pro tem Darrell Steinberg (D-Sacramento) and Sen. Mark DeSaulnier (D-Concord) introduced Senate Bill 1220, which would have charged a fee of $75 per document for recording non-sale real estate transactions—maps, easements, liens, title changes, and notices of default.
“All of the state’s affordable housing advocates focused on building support for this bill,” says Iskow.

The California Association of Realtors dropped its opposition to the bill once it was made clear that the purchase and transfer of residential and commercial property will be exempt from the fee. Nonetheless, the measure fell two votes shy of the two-thirds needed for passage.

In an email to supporters, Housing California noted that despite the loss, this was the first time in several decades that permanent funding that would create a housing trust fund made it to a floor vote. Advocates vow to try again—after the election this fall.

Rene Ciria-Cruz is consulting editor at filipinasmag.com and writes for New America Media, which originally published this article.


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Redevelopment: After the Fall



The closure of California’s 452 Redevelopment Agencies (RDAs) could rock land-use planning and policy as dramatically as 1978’s Proposition 13. For six decades, redevelopment gave California cities one of their most powerful—and controversial—tools for spurring real estate investment. Now they stand to lose $1.6 billion per year in local RDA property tax levies and will need to change their approach to housing, land-use planning and development financing. The millions of Californians who rely on affordable housing and the groups that build and support it will feel even stronger aftershocks from the fall of redevelopment.

The abrupt shutdown of the RDAs left plans for hundreds of affordable housing units in limbo and billions of dollars worth of debt from RDA-issued bonds unpaid. The state law dissolving the RDAs (AB X1 26), set up complicated mechanisms for winding down their business, paying their debts and maintaining their housing assets. Advocates face the challenge of untangling the processes and monitoring the disposition of RDA assets while quickly formulating (and organizing around) legislative and policy solutions.

“It’s complex and badly planned,” Housing California Executive Director Shamus Roller says of the dissolution process. “From an advocate’s standpoint, our first challenge is to resolve the confusion.”

Low-income Californians Put at Risk
The California Community Redevelopment Act of 1945 (later called the Community Redevelopment Law) aimed to catalyze private investment by allowing a city or a county to designate “blighted” areas and establish an RDA, which could raise capital for infrastructure improvements by issuing bonds against future tax revenues. The RDA got to keep the difference between the original property tax revenue and the revenue from the improved property (the “property tax increment”). These funds were used to pay off the bonds and capitalize the RDA operations overall.

Amendments to the law in 1976 and 1993 required RDAs to set aside 20 percent of their funding to create and preserve affordable housing, and required cities to ensure that 15 percent of all housing in a redevelopment area be affordable to low- and moderate-income residents. This allocation supported the preservation and development of nearly 100,000 units[1] of housing for low- and moderate-income families statewide between 1993 and 2011, and supported local first-time-homebuyer programs and rehab loans in many cities.

The fall of redevelopment has left community-based organizations and housing advocates concerned about how to finance affordable housing.  Unless they can be particularly creative in identifying new funding sources and changing political will, the RDAs’ demise may well result in displacement, instability, and even homelessness for thousands of Californians.

“Redevelopment has been key in funding supportive housing projects for some of the most vulnerable groups,” Roller says. “Over the last 10 years, the supportive housing movement has learned a lot about how to help people who’ve been homeless and have disabilities. Losing redevelopment will be a particular blow to that movement,” he says.

The affordable housing provisions in the redevelopment law also provided an important advocacy tool for residents to ensure that redevelopment did not just mean gentrification.

 “It’s not only the lack of funds that will hurt,” says Evelyn Stivers, field director for the Non-Profit Housing Association of Northern California. “The law also came with strings attached that made the people we work with part of the conversation,” Stivers says. “We’re losing that requirement for inclusion.”

Cities Face Major Shifts
Redevelopment agencies could float bonds without voter approval but only if they were spent on economic development or affordable housing. The RDAs received the increased taxes generated by rising property values —a pool of money that was generally separate from cities’ general funds and protected from the choppy seas of public budgets.

The loss of RDAs deprived some cities of operating funds—Oakland, San Jose and Los Angeles among them. (See “Affordable Housing Wobbles as Redevelopment Agencies Close,” page TK). Cities may also find it harder to attract commercial investment without access to redevelopment funds. Redevelopment supporters argued that it was the best and perhaps the only way to spur business development and improve infrastructure in areas considered “blighted.”

Losing dedicated funds for affordable housing will make it harder for many cities to meet their obligations under the Regional Housing Needs Assessments (RHNA) set up by state housing element law. RHNAs spell out the number of housing units each city must build at each income level in order to take on its fair share of regional growth.

In the absence of flexible redevelopment funds, cities will also find it significantly more difficult to pay for the type of dense infill development needed to help them reduce vehicle miles traveled under SB 375, part of the state’s climate change law. 

Ironically, a tool with a history of inequitable displacement had become one of the only ways left in California’s broken budget system to fund and build affordable housing near transit and opportunity.  
 
Why Redevelopment Made an Easy Target
While nonprofit housing developers and advocates fight to retain approximately $1 billion in funds held by RDAs which could be used for affordable housing, they are facing the reality of having depended on a problem-plagued program.

Redevelopment’s negative history made it an easy target for the budget-cutters. Over the years, cities stretched the definition of “blight,” RDA funds subsidized for-profit developers, and redevelopment sped gentrification and caused displacement in historic low-income communities and communities of color.

A 2011 audit by the State Controller’s Office found that some cities took a broad definition of blight. “Coronado’s redevelopment area covers every privately owned parcel in the city, including multimillion dollar beachfront homes,” Controller John Chiang reported. “In Palm Desert, redevelopment dollars are being used to renovate greens and bunkers at a 4.5 star golf resort.”[2]

Large swaths of many cities—including 40 percent of Oakland’s land area—were declared “blighted” and in some cases completely transformed, sometimes at the expense of residents and sometimes to their benefit. 

Yerba Buena Gardens in San Francisco shows both the potential and the inequity of redevelopment. Its gardens and museums create a vibrant public space and tourist draw—but leave no hint of the more than 3,000 residents of SRO hotels displaced by its construction, many of them retired sailors, longshoremen and other working people who had no other safe housing options in the city.[3]

Redevelopment’s more aggressive tools of creating mega-block projects like Yerba Buena and using eminent domain to capture and raze private homes have become less prominent over the years as communities pushed back.  Project Area Committees—suspended since the RDAs’ elimination—offered public forums where residents of the redevelopment areas could respond to RDA projects.

But redevelopment’s complex community legacy got lost in the public and political debate about whether it should survive. Stories of fraud and abuse drowned out the voices of thousands of poor and working poor residents who found a quality, affordable home financed by redevelopment’s “low-mod” funds.

County governments and school districts also joined the chorus of opposition. Counties contended that city governments were unfairly claiming property tax revenues that could be used for crucial services. School districts argued that the RDAs’ economic and housing development projects stole funds from K-12 education.

California Gov. Jerry Brown played on the discontent when he proposed closing down the RDAs and transferring the property tax increment funds back to the counties. He touted the move as a strategy for closing the state’s 2011-12 budget gap, because giving schools an increased share of property taxes could reduce some of the state’s General Fund education expenses.

Breaking Up
The State Supreme Court decision on Dec. 29, 2011 that upheld the elimination of redevelopment left jurisdictions wading through an alphabet soup of processes to wind down the RDAs’ operations. 

Each city or county that created an RDA has to designate a “successor agency,” which is usually the city or county government itself, and an oversight board composed of representatives from city government and other affected taxing entities, such as K-12 schools, transit agencies and community colleges.
The successor agency is charged with preparing an “enforceable obligations payment schedule” (EOPS) that lists all the RDA’s contractual obligations, such as outstanding loans, housing projects in the pipeline, and even the 15 percent inclusionary housing requirement. The oversight board decides which of the EOPS will become “recognized” and thus paid off.

The former RDAs’ property tax increment goes into a trust fund administered by the County Auditor. The recognized obligations get paid out of this fund, which is supposed to hold enough assets to pay off all the obligations over time. Funds left over after these distributions go back to local governments.
A separate housing successor entity will control the housing and land that belonged to the RDA. Its functions will include enforcing HUD agreements and acquiring and disposing of land assets.

Affordable housing advocates and community members have a great stake in identifying and monitoring the successor agencies and oversight boards. These are public bodies, if rather obscure ones. The oversight boards have to follow state laws governing public meetings and records, so community members have a chance to ensure that the boards are distributing redevelopment’s assets fairly and transparently, with an eye to the hundreds of as-yet-unbuilt affordable housing units that hang in the balance.

Moving On
California legislators have written several bills designed to retain existing funds and/or secure new monies for affordable housing and community development. Advocates are organizing with their allies inside the Capitol to move these bills as fast as possible, but they will face an uphill battle as the legislature struggles to fill other budget gaps and Republicans continue their opposition to new revenue measures. In late May, SB 1220, sponsored by Sen. Mark DeSaulnier (D-Concord), fell short of a two-thirds majority by only two votes. The bill would have created a permanent source of funding for affordable homes by setting a $75 fee on the recording of real  estate documents, excluding point-of-sale transactions.[4]

Advocates are also studying other types of districts that might generate money for redevelopment—infrastructure financing districts, business improvement districts, and districts for transit-oriented development.

“It will be hard to get this type of ‘redevelopment 2.0’ off the ground,” says Stivers. “Most districts take a vote of the people to initiate, and projects like brownfield remediation and sewer pipe replacement just aren’t too sexy.”

Roller of Housing California concurs, and urges caution. “Lots of things about redevelopment were problematic,” he says. “We ought to pay attention before we dive back in.”

Endnotes
1.    <thecorecompanies.com/uploads/Redevelopment_brief_FINAL.pdf>
2.    <sco.ca.gov/eo_pressrel_9789.htm>
3.    <foundsf.org/index.php?title=The_Yerba_Buena_Center:_Redevelopment_and_a_ Working_Class_Community’s_Resistance>
4.    For updated information on affordable housing bills moving through the California legislature, visit: <housingca.org>

Christy Leffall is Land Use and Housing coordinator at Urban Habitat. Gloria Bruce is the deputy director of East Bay Housing Organizations (EBHO). Marcy Rein is a Richmond-based freelance writer and Urban Habitat communications specialist.


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Oakland Civic Auditorium: Delivered Vacant

The City of Oakland, California, is sometimes compared to a good model car that, for strange reasons, never seems to be able to give uninterrupted service or get up to full speed on the highway. Strategically located and blessed with an interesting, industrious, creative, and diverse population, a wonderful climate, spectacular views, and the perfect blend of city, marsh and woodland hills, Oakland ought to be one of America’s jewels. It is not. Instead, it is often described as a city of missed opportunities and wasted resources. Nothing exemplifies that description more than Oakland’s treatment of the structure originally known as its Civic Auditorium (renamed the Kaiser Convention Center in 1984).

After years of bungled management, Oakland closed the 98-year-old cultural treasure in 2005—at the same time it was pouring redevelopment money into rehabilitating and reopening another entertainment venue, the Fox Oakland Theater in the rapidly gentrifying Uptown District. Then the city dithered for years over what to do with the Civic Auditotium before entering into a purchase-leaseback agreement with the Redevelopment Agency (RDA) in 2011, just in time for the statewide dissolution of the RDAs. In January 2012, the Auditorium became the target of the Occupy Oakland movement which staged a failed attempt to occupy the building and convert it into a social services center.  

Buffalo Bill, Huey Newton, Grateful Dead, and the Oakland Ballet
In its time, the Civic Auditorium was the cultural center of one of the most multicultural cities in the nation. Built in 1913, it has hosted such varied events as Buffalo Bill’s Wild West show, roller derby contests, boxing matches, concerts by Duke Ellington, Elvis Presley, James Brown, the Grateful Dead, and Public Enemy, and even a massive benefit birthday party for then-imprisoned Black Panther Party founder Huey Newton featuring a speech by national African American leader Stokely Carmichael.

With a total seating capacity of 6,400 persons in a multipurpose arena and an adjoining theater, the Auditorium can still host all but the largest indoor entertainment activities in Oakland. For years, many of Oakland’s high schools held their graduation ceremonies in its confines, and the Oakland Unified School District held its annual holiday party performances for elementary school students and their families there. It has been home to both the Oakland Symphony and the Oakland Ballet. When Oakland was a segregated city, the Civic Auditoriun hosted dances and other social events that attracted African Americans from all over the Bay Area.

Despite the still-weak national economy, these should be boom days for the Civic Auditorium. Ten years ago, Oakland voters passed the $198 million Measure DD water and park bond to renovate the southwestern end of Lake Merritt, near where the  Auditorium sits. Measure DD workers are currently putting in attractive pedestrian- and bicycle-friendly bridges and walkways directly in front of the Center and opening up the Lake Merritt Channel that runs along its southern edge. This will eventually make both the Channel and the Civic Auditorium grounds a part of greater Lake Merritt, Oakland’s premier outdoor tourist and citizen attraction.

But the Civic Auditorium has been shuttered for seven years since the Oakland City Council closed it down at the request of then-Mayor Jerry Brown, saying that it was losing $600,000 to $700,000 a year in city funds. “I just don’t think [the building is] profitable,” City Administrator Deborah Edgerly said at the time.

Oakland Tries to Salvage Treasure—or Scrap It
Since 2005, through the succeeding mayoral administrations of Ron Dellums and Jean Quan, the city has tried unsuccessfully to either sell the Auditorium property, lease it out, or reopen it. It tried to sell the Center to the RDA, which would issue bonds and re-sell the building to a private entity, which would lease it back to the city. It also proposed redeploying the building as the site of the city’s main library or part of the Peralta Community College District, or selling it outright.

“Every time the city runs short of cash, they decide to sell off public assets,” says Naomi Schiff, a veteran of Oakland’s many development battles and member of the board of the Oakland Heritage Alliance. The 30-year-old nonprofit Heritage Alliance works to preserve Oakland’s architectural, historic, cultural, and natural resources.

Oakland officials “have tried to sell off pieces of land around the lake before, and the [Heritage Alliance] has fought it every time,” Schiff says. “I think if [Oakland] tried to sell [the Kaiser] into the private market then the Measure DD folks would react immediately and there would be loud noises made.”
Schiff believes the Center should remain public, and the city could face legal obstacles if it tried to transfer ownership of the property into private hands.
“There are some title issues as well as tidal issues involved,” Schiff says, referring to California’s environmental laws concerning preservation of tidelands properties as well as the original deed of the Civic Auditorium lands to the city.

But longtime Oakland City Councilmember Jane Brunner says that the Civic Auditorium probably cannot be saved without some sort of public/private partnership. Brunner chairs the Community and Economic Development Committee, which oversees development issues in the city.
“I’d love it to stay public, but in reality, it has to be a combination. That’s what we did with Children’s Hospital and the Old Merritt College,” Brunner says.
Several years ago, the City of Oakland went into partnership with Children’s Hospital on the long-shuttered former community college campus in North Oakland. The city put in a publicly held senior center and the hospital uses the rest of the campus for a private research center.

“It really has to do with getting creative and finding somebody who can work with a joint project,” Brunner says. “And it’s not just refurbishing Civic Auditorium; the other problem is that the operations are expensive,” she says.

Under Mayor Jean Quan, Oakland has made a renewed effort to do something, anything, with the Center besides letting it sit by the side of the Lake Merritt Channel and deteriorate. Late last year, the city solicited bids from firms who could market the Civic Auditorium and find a buyer, an operator or tenants; two companies submitted proposals. By that time, however, the rehabilitation of the Center had been caught in an epic government meltdown: the statewide dissolution of California’s city redevelopment agencies.

Auditorium Pushed into Redevelopment Morass
During its 2011 budget crunch, Oakland had entered into a purchase-leaseback agreement with its RDA, selling both the Civic Auditorium title and its $14 million annual debt to the agency. But as that sale was being finalized, former Oakland Mayor Jerry Brown—now governor of California—got the state legislature to pass the bill that ended redevelopment  in the state. AB X1 26 seized all city redevelopment funds to balance the state’s 2012-13 budget, forcing cities to take over existing redevelopment obligations.

This lobbed the Civic Auditorium and its problems to Oakland’s state-mandated successor to the RDA, a new public entity overseen by a seven-member board consisting of Mayor Quan and representatives of AC Transit, the Alameda County Board of Supervisors, the Peralta Community College District, and the Oakland Unified School District. The decision over what to do with the two bids to Civic Auditorium will now be made by that oversight board, taking the venue out of the sole hands of the City of Oakland for the first time.

Meanwhile questions linger over the wisdom of the decision to close the Civic Auditorium in the first place. Proper management and marketing could have avoided the shut-down, according to Schiff.

“The City Council people would lean on the staff to give them a good rate when all these churches and nonprofit groups would come and try to rent the place out, and then they wouldn’t backfill it out of their budget,” Schiff says. “Then they turned around and said, ‘We’re losing money on the auditorium.’” The decision to rename the venue also hurt, she says. “It lost its identity as the Oakland Auditorium. Nobody was trying to keep that building going.”
Under Mayor Jerry Brown, responsibility for running the Civic Auditorium went to then-Director of the City Cultural Arts Department, Dennis Power. Already tasked with managing the Oakland Museum and the Alice Arts Center (later renamed the Malonga Casquelourd Center), Power had little time for or interest in the Civic Auditorium. During the debate over closing the Auditorium, Power called it “an anachronism,” adding that it was too large for some gatherings, and too small for other concerts and events.

Schiff sees no connection between the closing of the Civic Auditorium and the fact that the Brown Administration and the City Council invested massive amounts of city redevelopment money in rehabilitating and reopening the Fox Oakland Theater.

But others believed in 2005, and continue to believe now, that the city erred in planning to close one viable entertainment venue while reopening another, and that the real reason the Auditorium did not get city support seven years ago was that private developers had their eyes on the Center, and used their influence with city leaders to block its continued use as a public entity.

The massive demonstation by Occupy Oakland brought the abandoned building briefly back into the  limelight but in the budgetary climate of today’s Oakland, there seems little chance it will be brought to life any time soon. For now Oakland’s Civic Auditorium continues to sit empty, forlorn and alone at the end of Lake Merritt, awaiting its ultimate fate.

J. Douglas Allen-Taylor writes frequently for RP&E. He is a freelance journalist based in Oakland, California.


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Communities of Color Organize against Urban Land Grabs

Foreclosure Poster. Courtesy of occupysf.org

The foreclosure crisis has disproportionately impacted communities of color because people of color were sold adjustable rate mortgages at a higher rate than whites, even where income levels and financial risk were on par.[1] The upshot of this predatory lending practice has been a massive dislocation of workers and families (most of whom considered their homes their only economic asset) side by side with an unprecedented transfer of wealth to financial institutions and the private sphere.

Advocates abroad call this type of activity by a name more familiar to the third world—a land grab.[2] Multinational corporations have acquired 15 to 20 million hectares of land in wholesale purchases in the global south to establish large-scale industrial farms for food and biofuels.

Closer to home, in the Detroit area, speculator John Hantz is trying to purchase 200 acres to create a large corporate farm.[3] Indeed, land grabs have been afoot for some time within postindustrial landscapes from where capital has fled in search of cheaper labor. What makes the current land grabs especially troubling is the opportunistic use of the tsunami of foreclosures by banks to seize properties. Their willful enablers in this transfer of assets have been the states and their housing policies, ostensibly created to reduce the number of vacant bank-owned properties by converting them into rental units.  

Foreclosures: Excellent Investment for Some

A handful of fast-growing real estate management corporations are now stepping into the foreclosure crisis. Backed by billions of dollars in private equity, property management companies are viewing the crisis as a rare opportunity to amass tens of thousands of single-family homes and convert them into rentals—i.e. long-term high-yield investments. Beyond the stresses on families in neighborhoods experiencing the land grab, this nascent industry—promoted by federal policies—will in all likelihood facilitate the transfer of tens of billions in wealth from distressed homeowners—largely Black and Latino—to a few wealthy private equity firms.

The Bay Area has rapidly emerged as the headquarters for many of the most aggressive companies and largest investors in the land grab. Oakland-based Waypoint Homes, founded in 2008, has led the way in developing the technology and business model necessary to take advantage of the situation. Waypoint is the partnership of two wealthy entrepreneurs who struck up a conversation at an investment conference in San Francisco in 2008. Observing trends in the East Bay, especially in the suburban cities, such as Antioch and Concord where foreclosure rates have been phenomenally high and home values have plummeted in half, Doug Brien and Colin Wiel agreed to pool their money to buy as many distressed properties as possible. By the end of 2011, Waypoint reportedly had accumulated about 1,000 foreclosed homes, mostly in Contra Costa and Alameda Counties.

In an effort to “scale up” their operation, the firm’s founders welcomed a $400 million investment from GI Partners of Menlo Park, a politically connected private equity group that handles hundreds of millions of CalPERS funds. Executives with GI Partners have said that they intend to back Waypoint’s foreclosure-to-rental mill up to $1 billion. Waypoint has indicated that the focus of its purchases will be in the Bay Area and southern California.

It is worth noting that many among Waypoint’s senior staff were previously with companies that caused the foreclosure crisis or were poised to reap rewards from it. Waypoint’s chief operating officer, for instance, was a vice president at Wells Fargo for 11 years and head of its home finance group. The chief financial officer used to work at Kenwood Investments, Darius Anderson’s politically connected development firm. And until recently, the vice president of acquisitions was employed by Ridgeback Partners—a  “real estate investment and development firm formed in 2007 to take advantage of compelling opportunities in the distressed residential and land sectors in the U.S. market.”[4] Cofounder Wiel is also involved in a Panamanian land grab as founder of Rainforest Capital Management, which has purchased 10,000 acres in Panama’s Mamoní Valley with the intention of developing an “eco” hotel called Junglewood, and is also developing multiple energy projects, selling carbon credits, and logging timber for sale in international markets.[5]

Land grabs in places like Panama and in Africa have occurred as a form of arbitrage. Wealthy private equity funds and corporations purchase land at prices far below the actual value and derive immense profits from developing, farming, mining, or leasing—activities not very different from the Bay Area’s foreclosure-to-rental mill. A recent Bloomberg Report story about Waypoint’s arbitrage operation began as follows:“Ken Major climbs the steps of a county courthouse in a San Francisco suburb with $500,000 in cashier’s checks in one hand and a list of addresses in the other. Major is a buyer for Waypoint Real Estate Group LLC, an Oakland-based investment firm that’s scooping up foreclosed homes in California. On this December afternoon, he joins a dozen house flippers as an auctioneer starts hawking the latest batch of defaulted properties to hit the market. Major bids on a three-bedroom house in Antioch, and after other buyers counter, he wins at $147,600.”[6]

Although generally praising Waypoint’s entrepreneurship and innovation, the story does hint at the social costs exacted by this massive transfer of homes into the hands of wealthy investors, noting that upwards of three-quarters of residents whose homes are bought out from under them by Waypoint end up displaced.

“Most of the time, occupants have to leave within 15 days of Waypoint’s purchase because they can’t afford the rent or choose to go. Gordon returns to one residence where a family has refused to move out for six months as they pursue a legal claim that they’re the victims of mortgage fraud. No one’s home, but two brand new radio-controlled toy cars sit under the Christmas tree and family pictures line the mantle. Gordon sighs. It’s going to take more time before Waypoint earns a return on this property.”

According to news reports, Waypoint earned as much as a nine percent return on its foreclosure-to-rental investments in the last quarter of 2011.

Replicating the Model
Numerous other real estate management companies, backed by major investors, are seeking to copy the Waypoint-GI Partners model in the U.S. where little has been done to prevent or repair the massive foreclosure rates of major banks—even where they are in violation of state and federal laws and regulations.[7]

San Francisco headquartered Landsmith, LP is targeting homes in Arizona, where the foreclosure process is faster and homeowners have fewer protections owing to weaker state laws. According to press reports, Landsmith purchased 225 foreclosed single-family homes in Phoenix in 2011 and is converting them into rentals, hoping to earn a yield of 14 percent. Also seeking to scoop up foreclosed homes in hard-hit Arizona is American Residential Properties, which reportedly bought 800 homes in the Phoenix suburbs in 2011.[8] For expansion, the company is reportedly seeking funds from the New York-based Ranieri Partners, whose founder describes himself as the “father” of the securitized mortgage market.[9]

McKinley Capital Partners is another Bay Area firm that has been rapidly purchasing foreclosed homes. According to McKinley’s website, the company has invested over $100 million through three funds to purchase nearly 400 “distressed single-family homes” in California.[10] McKinley is backed by New York’s Och-Ziff Capital Management, one of the world’s largest hedge funds, entrusted with money from private investors, as well as public pension systems like CalPERS.

Foreclosure hot spots like California, Arizona, and Florida are also investment hot spots for opportunistic private equity groups and hedge funds. Now thanks to policies developed by the Obama administration (in close cooperation with private equity and corporate real estate managers), the federal government is poised to hand over tens of thousands of homes currently owned by the government-sponsored housing enterprises (GSE) and millions of foreclosed homes owned by banks, to private equity.

Policies Promote Major Housing Grab
The administration’s intentions to feed distressed U.S. housing stock to private equity investors was officially announced on August 10, 2011, when the Federal Housing Finance Agency (FHFA) put out a request for information “to solicit ideas for sales, joint ventures, or other strategies to augment and enhance Real Estate-Owned (REO) asset disposition programs of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac (the Enterprises) and the Federal Housing Administration (FHA).”[11] The government’s bias towards the private equity-funded model of Waypoint and GI Partners was clear in statements, such as these: “FHFA, Treasury and HUD anticipate respondents may best address these objectives through REO to rental structures.”[12] The FHFA reportedly received 4,000 comments, many of them from the very corporations and investment firms that hope to earn billions of dollars from government-owned “distressed” homes.
On February 1, 2012, the FHA finalized plans and invited interested investors to pre-qualify for a pilot “REO disposition initiative.” At stake are roughly 83,000 foreclosed homes from the government-sponsored enterprises inventory.[13] While this figure might seem small in comparison to the 1.17 million home foreclosures that occurred nationwide in the first half of 2011,[14] the government’s plans for federally-owned housing poses serious problems in terms of racial justice. The inventory of Fannie, Freddie, and FHA foreclosures are disproportionately owned by non-whites and low-income families, and located in urban minority-majority communities, such as Oakland and Los Angeles.

The government’s pilot program, unveiled on February 27, 2012, targets federally-owned homes in Atlanta, Chicago, Las Vegas, Los Angeles, Phoenix, and Florida because these metropolitan areas contain the largest stocks of geographically concentrated REO single-family housing. Foreclosed homes held by Fannie, Freddie, and the FSA are especially valuable to private equity because they can be sold in large blocks in single metropolitan regions, allowing companies like Waypoint to profit from economies of scale. Such transactions essentially transform traditional single-family homes into massive multi-family apartment housing.

Federal policymakers see this pilot program as the start of a larger effort to sell off GSE-owned foreclosed homes across the U.S. The full program will surely include the San Francisco Bay Area and Sacramento regions, which accounted for 1,546 Fannie, Freddie, and FSA-foreclosed units in December, 2011. As of March, 2012, there were over 18,000 foreclosed homes in Alameda and Contra Costa Counties alone.[15]

Julia Landau translating “Ocupar, Resistir e Produzir!” for Janaina Stronzake. Courtesy of civileats.comOccupy to Liberate the Land
Clearly, this is a story of Goliath swallowing up David. But, in communities of color around the country, people are organizing—often in conjunction with the Occupy movement—to sling rocks at the ravenous monster. The first volley included defending the right of families to stay in their homes while undergoing foreclosure.

More recently, the organizing has been on the offensive, rather than the defensive. On December 6, 2011, Occupy Our Homes launched its “Go out of the streets and into the homes” campaign to expropriate empty buildings and convert them into residences for the homeless and families who have lost their homes to foreclosure.[16] In East New York, organizers converged to help a family squat a vacant home.

The movement’s next offensive move—perhaps its most radical challenge to capital—was to occupy buildings for collective use. The first salvo in this campaign was fired on November 2, 2011, the day of the general strike in Oakland. Euphoric from a triumphant day, in which tens of thousands had turned out to shut down the Port of Oakland—the fifth largest in the nation—a small group attempted to reclaim a former homeless services building that had been closed following austerity measures.[17] Oakland police responded immediately with bean bag projectiles, tear gas, and flashbang grenades—a troika of weaponry that has sadly become the signature of the OPD—and the occupation ended quickly but the spirit was irrepressible. Three months later, Occupy Oakland attempted to set up a community center in an unused building. Dubbed the “Move-In Festival,” organizers were “armed” with peace sign shields, armchairs and furnishings for the occupied space. That attempt also ended in violence—perpetrated by Oakland police.

But the notion of liberating land for collective use resonates with the Occupy movement, which has adopted the slogan: ”You can’t evict an idea whose time has come!” Max Rameau, founder of Take Back the Land, Florida, issued a call for a spring offensive, in which the Occupy and Liberation movements—the latter made up of low-income people of color displaced from their homes and land—join forces to wrest control of the land away from the 1 percent. An example of a possible outcome of this offensive may be seen in the Landless Workers Movement of Brazil, Movimento dos Trabalhadores Rurais Sem Terra (MST), where 350,000 families now occupy 20 million acres of land, challenging global capital, which has set up white picket fences around the commons of the world. MST’s flag, showing a couple holding aloft a machete, celebrates the industry of landless workers and their willingness to fight—and shed blood if necessary—for land reform.[18]

The flag accompanied MST leader Janaina Stronzake when she visited the Occupy Wall Street encampment at Zuccotti Park last November.[19] “Occupation is a time to grow,” she told the assembly. “To grow education, empowerment, and food community.” The crowd roared back: “Occupy, Resist, and Grow!” n

Endnotes
1.    Applied Research Center Report. Race and Recession. May 2009. <arc.org/content/view/726/136/>
2.    Eric Holt-Gimenez, Yi Wang, and Annie Shattuck. March 2011. The Urban and Northern Face of Global Land Grabs. Food First.
3.     Laura Berman, Urban farming idea slowly sprouts in Detroit, Detroit News
<detroitnews.com/article/20120320/OPINION03/203200352>
4.    <ridgeback-partners.com/about.html>
5.    <rainforestcap.net/news/projects/>
6.    Edward Robinson, “Private Equity’s Foreclosures for Rentals Net 8%: Mortgages.” Bloomberg News. March 13, 2012. <bloomberg.com/news/2012-03-13/private-equity-buying-u-s-foreclosures-for-hot-rentals-net-8-mortgages.html>
7.    “Foreclosure in California: A Crisis of Compliance.” Report of the Office of the Assessor-Recorder, San Francisco. February, 2012. <aequitasaudit.com/images/aequitas_sf_report.pdf>
8.    John Gittelsohn, “Investor Support for Housing May Suffer in Obama Rental Plan.” Bloomberg News. September 12, 2011. <mobile.bloomberg.com/news/2011-09-12/investor-support-for-housing-may-suffer-in-obama-rental-plan-1->.
9.    Biographical blurb on Ranieri. “Proposed Qualified Residential Mortgage and Risk Retention Rule: Net Impact Bad for Housing.” Comments on the Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act submitted by Ranieri Partners to U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission. July 20, 2011.
10.    <mckinleycp.com/about-us/company-overview> <mckinleycp.com/investments/distressed-housing>
11.    <fhfa.gov/Default.aspx?Page=360>
12.    Joint Press Release, August 10, 2011. <fhfa.gov/webfiles/22367/FHFARFIReleaseFinal.pdf>
13.     FHFA: “Request for Information: Enterprise/FHA REO Asset Disposition Supplemental Data.” <fhfa.gov/webfiles/23259/REO_Portal_StateMSA_12_26_2011.xlsx>
14.    “Foreclosure Activity Off 29 Percent for First Half of 2011.” RealtyTrac. July 13, 2011. <realtytrac.com/content/press-releases/midyear-2011-us-foreclosure-market-report-6681>
15.    <realtytrac.com/trendcenter/ca-trend.html>
16.    Sarah Seltzer, “Occupy Our Homes: From the Streets to Foreclosed Homes, OWS Finds a New Frontier.” Alternet. December 5, 2011. <alternet.org/module/printversion/153318>
17.    Micah White, “#OCCUPYHOMES: We reclaim our property.” Blackspot Blog. Adbusters. November 9, 2011. <adbusters.org/blogs/blackspot blog/occupyhomes.html>
18.    <mstbrazil.org/about-mst/mst-flag>
19.    Julia Landau, “Brazil’s Landless Workers’ Movement in New York: From the Un to Zuccotti Park. Civil Eats. November 8, 2011. <civileats.com/2011/11/08/13578/>


Darwin Bond-Graham is a sociologist and author. Yvonne Liu is a senior research associate at the Applied Research Center.


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Foreclosure Crisis Meets Occupy Effect

Vultures! Vultures!” a middle-aged African American man yells at a Caucasian male in an expensive leather jacket and white button-down shirt. The man holds a clipboard with real estate listings—identifying him as an auctioneer.

A crowd of more than 100 has assembled on the steps of the Alameda County Courthouse in Oakland as the auctioneer attempts to read out the list of properties to be auctioned publicly. But the crowd starts up a chant of “Banks got bailed out, we got sold out!” Musical instruments are played loudly, signs and banners are waved about, and the auctioneer is drowned out with hisses and jeers. The auctioneer endures the hazing for a few minutes, makes a whispered call on his cell phone, and ducks into the courthouse building. A long line of protestors immediately forms, preparing to follow him inside. A young African American male holds up an “Occupy Oakland” sign.

The auctioneer is told by a deputy that he cannot conduct his business in the building and there ensues a game of cat-and-mouse between him and the crowd as he attempts to conduct his business at a different spot outside the courthouse and the crowd splits up to hound him wherever he goes. Finally, the auctioneer leaves after another whispered phone call—presumably to a bank official—and the crowd moves on to another auctioneer, also identified by his clipboard. Having witnessed the crowd’s treatment of a fellow auctioneer, he leaves without attempting to read out the names of listed properties. A third auctioneer is also encircled and quickly shouted down.

In a little over an hour, the auction that day is cancelled and the bank agrees to discuss a loan modification with Nell Myhand, whose home was being auctioned. After two years of not receiving a response from the bank, she declares the action a “victory.”

Foreclosures Target Immigrants, Elderly, People of Color
Foreclosed properties auctioned on courthouse steps have become a sign of the economic times throughout California and the United States. In Oakland alone, more than 35,000 homes have been lost to foreclosure since 2007.

This particular foreclosure auction, however, was noteworthy for the irony behind it. The homeowner, Nell Myhand, is a veteran community organizer and housing counselor who had been actively helping other homeowners fight precisely this type of occurrence.

Myhand had bought her East Oakland home with her partner, Synthia Green, over a decade ago when they were both fully employed. But then, Myhand had to take responsibility for the full-time care of her mother who suffered from dementia and Green was forced into early retirement from her job as a teacher because of a stroke. Even as their income declined, the monthly mortgage payment on their modest two-bedroom home ballooned to over $2100. Myhand made two attempts to get the loan modified but her request was denied by the bank. Then on March 8—International Women’s Day—Myhand and Green’s home was scheduled to be sold to the highest bidder on the steps of the Alameda County Courthouse.

If the bank expected the proceedings to go smoothly and for Myhand to go quietly, they were gravely mistaken. Myhand enlisted the help of Causa Justa/Just Cause, Global Women’s Strike, and the Occupy Oakland Foreclosure Defense Committee, who mobilized the supporters on her behalf, forcing the bank to cancel the auction and talk to Myhand.

At an impromptu press conference following the courthouse action, Myhand called for a national moratorium on foreclosures, saying: “It’s time for them to stop putting us out of our homes and leaving our homes empty and us homeless!”

Women of color, she noted, are 256 percent more likely to be saddled with a sub-prime loan than white men. Adding that in Oakland, “foreclosures are concentrated in three zip codes that have the highest concentration of African American residents, monolingual Spanish speakers, and elders.” The banks have “charted a strategy to transfer wealth from those of us who have less to those of us who have more. And we’re finished with that!”
Actions against foreclosures show the banks that “it’s not business as usual,” Myhand emphasized.

Foreclosed Households: 20 Million and Counting
As many as 20 million American households have been foreclosed since 2006, when the crisis began. Many of the foreclosures are directly attributable to sub-prime loans, which generated trillions for the banking industry and resulted in hundreds of billions in lost wealth for communities of color.

In cities like Oakland, where the foreclosure rate in 2011 was more than double the national average (according to RealtyTrac.com), there has been an overall negative effect on property values as a whole. Foreclosed, unoccupied properties attract blight, squatters, drugs, prostitution and violent crime. Yet banks are rarely held liable for the $1,000-per-day fee cities can lawfully charge for blighted properties. Additionally, foreclosures have a huge impact on emotional and physical well-being. A joint study conducted in 2011 by Causa Justa and the Alameda County Public Health Department found that foreclosed residents are twice as likely to experience stress, depression or anxiety.

The situation will likely worsen before it improves. In the next three years, as many as 1.7 million more Californian households face foreclosure. A $25 billion settlement against the five largest mortgage servicers recently accepted by state Attorneys General is not expected to effect a significant reduction in the number of foreclosures before 2015. Moreover, the settlement excludes Freddie Mac and Fannie Mae, which own 80 percent of all American mortgages and more than 60 percent of California’s home loans.

The economic reality of the situation and the corresponding lack of compassion toward homeowners by financial institutions—many of whom benefited from the bailouts, which they used to bankroll foreclosures—became a prime catalyst for Occupy Wall Street and the affiliated Occupy movements that sprang up in 2011. For organizations like Causa Justa and the Alliance of Californians for Community Empowerment (ACCE), who were already battling foreclosures, the timing was serendipitous.

Causa Justa Executive Director Maria Poblet finds considerable alignment between Wall Street critiques and campaigns for bank accountability. And ACCE organizer Grace Martinez points to the economic connections between job losses, service cuts, deficits, spending reductions, and the lack of funds for education. “A lot of the [university] regents are also part of the banks,” she says.

Grassroots Network Spreads Far and Wide
When Occupy Oakland started, it was about housing, Myhand recalls. Months later, it still is, as evidenced by the spray-painted message on one foreclosed West Oakland home: F_ck you for taking my home, Bank of New York Mellon.

Despite the closure of the Occupy encampments, the momentum against foreclosures appears to be building. Protests against financial institutions and occupations of abandoned or foreclosed properties are becoming more commonplace in Oakland and other cities. Increasingly, nonprofit organizations are teaming up with foreclosure victims, neighborhood activists, Occupy protestors, labor unions, policy advocates, and legal experts to “build a movement bigger than any one campaign or organization,” says Poblet.

Occupy Oakland’s Tactical Action Committee has staged several actions around housing, including taking over vacant lots and foreclosed properties. In February, its Foreclosure Defense Committee began holding regular meetings.

A group calling itself Occupy Our Homes has started tracking anti-foreclosure protests and actions against banks in cities across America, including Detroit, Washington, Riverside, Oakland, Los Angeles, Petaluma, Sacramento, Minneapolis, and New York.

Take Back the Land has been advising Occupy Oakland and activists in other cities on foreclosure defense strategies.
Occupy Atlanta has been garnering national news headlines with a succession of actions against Chase bank in the area.

In Seattle, five activists who chained themselves together at a Chase bank to protest foreclosures were found “not guilty” of criminal trespass last March—a hint, perhaps, that the judges were not turning a blind eye to the injustices of banks.

In California, ACCE has launched Home Defenders League, a campaign designed to empower homeowners and demand that banks develop fair, equitable and sustainable home loan practices. ACCE also helped to lead “takebacks” of foreclosed homes in San Francisco’s predominantly African American Bayview-Hunters Point neighborhood, where many have fallen prey to predatory lending. (According to a recent audit of county records, a staggering 84 percent of San Francisco’s foreclosures had clear legal violations.)

There is now increasing evidence of international solidarity around anti-foreclosure movements. Swiss-based aufbau.org recently announced an action against Chase in Zurich in support of Myhand.

While banks continue to advertise heavily on American television, grassroots networks relying on social media and independent news outlets have played a big role in spreading the anti-foreclosure message. Using Facebook and YouTube, they have publicized cases like that of Katie Mitchell, an elderly African American woman from Oakland who was granted a loan modification after the Foreclosure Defense Committee and ACCE staged an action on her behalf inside Union Bank.

These actions send a message that protest tactics are effective, says Boots Riley, founder of political hip-hop outfit, the Coup, and an active Occupy Oakland participant. “When people think there’s a definite way to make a change in the course of actions, they respond.”

Assessing the ‘Occupy Effect’
According to Riley, Occupy has shown that the banks do not have a moral high ground: “People are willing and supportive of shutting down banks, shutting down home auctions, moving people back into foreclosures.”

Poblet points out that the movement reinforces “what the working class communities of color we work with have been saying for a long time—the problem of foreclosures wasn’t caused by lack of personal responsibility on the part of homeowners; it’s a symptom of a systemic problem caused by the big banks and financiers that control our economy and our political process.”

Where Occupy has been a game-changer, Martinez believes, is in “unifying people beyond constituencies.” Residents of San Francisco’s Bayview and Excelsior districts, for instance, were not previously active on housing issues.

Now the Occupy message may even be trickling upwards into state and local politics. During a New America Media forum on the 2012 election issues in March, media experts attributed high poll numbers for a proposed “millionaire tax” in California in part to the 99% meme resonating with the public. Moreover, in some jurisdictions, local officials are showing a new willingness to challenge financial institutions.

Poblet credits movement pressure on city governments with furthering discussions over bank divestment in Oakland and San Francisco and draws attention to Supervisor John Avalos of San Francisco’s Excelsior district, whose poll ranking as a mayoral candidate rose from fourth to second after he introduced legislation in favor of divestment from big banks and started a committee to explore the possibility of creating a municipal bank. Poblet attributes it “in great part [to] the alignment between his policy platform and the demands of the Occupy Wall Street movement, which many voters supported. I think that’s an example of Occupy politics trickling up!”

In Oakland, City Council Member Jane Brunner recently co-authored a proposal to explore divesting the city’s $300 million in municipal assets from Wells Fargo. She undertook the action because the bank has not responded to the city’s request for numbers on loan modifications and foreclosures in Oakland. “We’re trying to be creative about what we can come up with,” she says, adding that “the 99% message has changed the dialogue nationally” around foreclosures. Yet, Brunner maintains that Occupy Oakland organizers have not worked directly with any elected officials, making it difficult to determine the amount of political capital their activism has generated.

ACCE and Causa Justa, however, have clearly received a visibility boost from their alignment with Occupy, which helps their ongoing efforts at policy reform. That, says Martinez, is the endgame strategy. “To address systemic change, you have to think in terms of policy.”

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


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Web Special: Communities Organize Against Banks

Disrupting Business As Usual For ‘Hells Fargo’
In the midst of a national recession indelibly identified with the foreclosure crisis, Wells Fargo’s 2011 profits rose 28 percent, to $15.9 billion. As a result, CEO John Stumpf’s 2012 compensation package totaled nearly $20 million.  In years past, the bank’s annual shareholder’s meeting came and went without a second thought. Not so in 2012. This year, Occupy protestors—aka the “99%”—planned an action to disrupt business as usual.

The action took place April 24, at the Merchant Exchange building on California and Montgomery Sts. —smack dab in the middle of a “1%” stronghold, San Francisco’s financial district.

Before the meeting started, a colorfully-dressed man, who identified himself as Franzo King, Archbishop of the Church of John Coltrane, explained why he had come. Among the many injustices he was concerned about were “illegal evictions and foreclosures behind predatory loans, and the way that is affecting our communities. The African communities and the brown communities are really being destroyed.”

These communities, King charged, were targeted by lenders who made promises they never intended to keep. He was one of many people, he said, who had been talked into taking out a loan and was now facing a foreclosure eviction.

The sound of marchers up California Street signaled the arrival of the 99% vanguard: hundreds of people, representing a broad coalition comprised of labor unions, housing-rights organizations, interfaith groups, immigrants and native-Spanish speakers, and Occupy movements from SF, other California cities and even other states.

One protest sign read “Hells Fargo” – complete with a banner decorated with burning flames. There was a mock stagecoach—the bank’s iconic symbol—adorned with Stumpf’s face on “Wanted” posters. Several protestors dressed in orange jail jumpsuits, a reference to the bank’s investment in private prisons.

For several hours, organizers kept the energy level of the protestors high. Speakers led the crowd in anti-bank chants from a truckbed which had become an impromptu stage. Bands played music; dancers danced. ATMs were blockaded; street entrances were covered.  Several protestors chained themselves to metal barricades (and were later arrested).  All this activity was not lost on the Financial District’s everyday inhabitants—most of them older Caucasian gentlemen in expensive suits. The suits glanced around nervously, afraid to make eye contact with the 99%-ers.

One protestor, who identified herself as Ari Clemenzi, said she was there because her friends and family had been impacted by foreclosures.  After closing her Wells Fargo account, chaining herself to a barricade, she said, “felt like the only next step I could take.”

Up on the 15th floor of the Merchant Exchange building, under a massive, opulent chandelier, shareholders were asked to show proof of investment, i.e. stock certificates, before being allowed to enter the meeting. Among the 250 investors allowed inside were about fifteen people identified as “one share protestors,” 99% members who had purchased single shares of bank stock.

These activists were a Trojan horse: once inside, they stood up and denounced Well Fargo’s practices as Stumpf watched. Twenty minutes after the meeting started, a Causa Justa representative told the crowd outside the building that the 99%-ers had “taken over” the meeting, which ended more than two hours earlier than scheduled. Upon hearing the news, the crowd chanted “Si se puede!” (yes, it is possible).

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


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Cuba Opens to Private Housing but Preserves Housing Rights

The mortgage meltdown in the United States has spurred renewed calls for a more rational financing system that prioritizes the right to housing over the profits of the banking and real estate sector.  Interestingly, in socialist Cuba the government is experimenting with legalizing market mechanisms in housing.

For 50 years the great majority of Cuban households have legally owned their homes as a form of “personal property,” but with some limitations. In November 2011, the Cuban government legalized free-market sales and other measures aimed at bringing to the surface an underground market that had been largely unregulated.

But will this lead to widespread speculation, a full-fledged real estate market and eventual foreclosures? The measures to legalize free-market sales of housing are part of a broad package of “guidelines” adopted by the Sixth Communist Party Congress in spring 2011 to “update” Cuba’s socialist system. These include a broad expansion of self-employment and the start of urban worker cooperatives, in part to absorb steep layoffs in state employment. Rather than heavily subsidizing certain goods and services, government has started providing needy households with assistance. The economy continues to be based on socialist ownership of the basic means of production and planning rather than market forces. But the model also includes cooperatives, small farms and a range of options for self-employment. While the new laws institutionalize many existing practices, they also create new problems and expand inequalities.

Fifty Years of Homeownership

After the Cuban revolution in 1959, evictions were halted, most rents were reduced and urban land speculation was largely controlled. Through the 1960 Urban Reform Law, tenants became homeowners by amortizing the purchase price of their units through rents. Landlords and other property holders were allowed to keep their own home as well as a second vacation home. State-built housing was offered as long-term “leaseholding,” with rents set at 10 percent of family income. Private renting was prohibited. In addition, vacant units confiscated from emigrants were distributed to people in need, and the Cuban lottery was transformed into a short-lived vehicle for financing new housing. Residents of poor urban housing remained as long-term leaseholders, but by the mid-1960s, no longer paid rent.

Homeowners could buy and sell dwellings and land, but only at low government-set prices, and the state had first option to buy. Although little legal buying and selling of land and dwellings occurred for the next two decades, informal sales of land for self-building were common. Housing exchanges were the way most households moved to another dwelling, but the values of the properties—as determined by very low official prices—had to be certified as equivalent. Homeowners’ heirs were entitled to receive their share of a dwelling’s official price, however, the right to remain in and acquire the property—by amortizing the share due other heirs—was restricted to people who lived in a unit at the time of the owner’s death. Similarly, when a leaseholder passed away, existing residents could remain.

The 1984 (and 1988) General Housing Laws converted most leaseholders into homeowners, legalized most illegal and ambiguous tenure situations of tens of thousands of self-builders and others, permitted free-market private rentals and sales of roof-rights, and fostered self-building by both individuals and newly permitted housing cooperatives (which never got off the ground). The only groups not converted into homeowners were residents of tenements and shantytowns, who remained rent-free leaseholders, and occupants of units directly “linked” to workplaces. These laws also updated existing legislation regulating housing management, succession, house swaps, maintenance, repairs, and evictions, and they established the National Housing Institute. The 1984 law also allowed free-market buying and selling of land and housing, but it was restricted within a few years. Few households saw the need to sell, but pent-up demand and low supply led to high prices and some speculation.

By the early 1990s, more than 85 percent of Cuban households were homeowners, paying little or nothing for their units except for maintenance, repair and utilities. There were no mortgages or land and property taxes. Financing for purchases of units or repair was considered a loan, not a mortgage, and therefore dwellings were not used as collateral. The island’s economic crisis of the 1990s led to substantial hardship for many families who used their homes to supplement meager earnings by renting (legally) or downsizing, moving to a less accessible neighborhood, or selling through under-the-table transactions. After a decade of stricter regulations, in 2010, restrictions on building permits and the purchase of building materials were substantially relaxed, resulting in more construction and repair.

Why Allow Free-Market Sales Now?
Disguised sales of units and “disproportionate” house swaps were illegal, but they became common in the last two decades, along with bribes to local housing officials. But buyers and sellers risked confiscation of their new property and proceeds. The requirement that the units in house swaps be equivalent in value made it difficult to move. Cash poor but property rich families couldn’t downsize and obtain money to live on, while households seeking more space couldn’t legally use their savings or remittances to expand. The new measures are intended to address such discrepancies, bring greater transparency to the market and limit opportunities for corruption.

The New System
Provisions of the new law include:

  • Instead of having to go through local housing officials, the buyer and seller complete the necessary paperwork before a specialized lawyer.
  • Payment is made through a bank so the buyer must have a bank account.
  • Sellers pay 4 percent personal income tax on the sales price and buyers pay a 4 percent property transfer tax.
  • Residents are still allowed to own only one residence and a second home in a vacation area.
  • People trading homes can pay for the difference in value.
  • Cubans who emigrate can transfer or sell homes before leaving the country. If they haven’t done so, the state will transfer the property at no cost to family members rather than the value being confiscated by the state as was previously the case.
  • Transfers and donations as well as property disposition in divorce settlements and inheritance have also been revised.

Issues and Concerns
Despite widespread agreement in Cuba about the need to loosen restrictions on the real estate market, there are concerns about implementation and its consequences. The most important issues relate to affordability, prices, speculation, and the source of funds for purchases. For years, Cubans living abroad have funneled cash to relatives to purchase, exchange or upgrade their dwellings, and this has swelled with legalization. Many are helping out relatives, but others are purchasing homes for themselves, despite the fact that legal sales are generally limited to Cubans and foreigners permanently living in Cuba. Other potential buyers are those with substantial earnings—whether gained legitimately or not—or convertible currency through remittances and jobs related to sectors, such as tourism and joint ventures. Some of these buyers may seek speculative investment opportunities. Buyers have to justify the sources of funds for the purchase price, which may lead those with illicit cash to continue to operate through the black market or declare a low purchase price. In any case, prices have spiked, especially in prime market areas.

Limiting homeownership to one primary residence is designed to prevent accumulation of wealth, but evasion may be possible by putting the names of relatives on different dwellings.

For the majority of the population without access to substantial funds, acquiring a dwelling depends on whether credit is available and on what terms. In December 2011, Cuba expanded access to loans for private self-employed workers, small private farmers, and households to pay for building materials and labor for home repair, rehabilitation and construction. Also allowed are loans to purchase “durable goods,” such as vehicles, homes and other buildings, as well as other items, such as electric appliances. But according to the law, “these will be phased in as the country’s economic and financial conditions improve.”

Banks issuing credit perform a risk assessment to assure repayment. They usually demand collateral from borrowers and any co-signers. A new form of collateral is a “real estate mortgage,” but only on vacation homes and vacant lots and for no more than the low legal price. Items that cannot be used as collateral include the borrower’s primary residence and necessary furnishings and appliances, land owned by small farmers, social security pensions, child support, and two-thirds of borrowers’ incomes.

In January 2012, a new subsidy for low-income residents to build and repair housing was launched. Priority is going to households where homes were damaged or destroyed in hurricanes and other natural disasters.

So far, the only taxation in effect regarding real estate is the property transfer tax paid by the buyer and income tax for the seller. Ongoing property taxes based on tax assessments are being considered as part of an overall tax law to be discussed at the summer 2012 meeting of Cuba’s legislature. Should tax assessments be instituted, they may force some households who had not intended to sell to downsize, crowd in with relatives or move to low-cost areas. However, tax rates may be low and exemptions may be granted for low-income families.

All these proposed measures are likely to accelerate the trend toward greater geographic differentiation by race and class. Neighborhoods became more socially heterogeneous after the revolution, but black market sales and house swaps in the last two decades have started to reverse this pattern. However, restrictions on sales or house swaps in special areas —for instance, those slated for tourism—continue from the past.

Some fear that market forces may lead not just to gentrification but also to homelessness and the continued growth of shantytowns. Not only could foreclosure (should there eventually be mortgages on primary residences) and tax assessments (should they be instituted) pressure people to leave, but some homeowners may find some offers so attractive that they will sell the house out from under other household members, which occasionally occurred during the brief period of free-market sales in the mid-1980s. The new law contains provisions to assure that occupants of the house being sold will have a place to live, but it is unclear how well it will be enforced.

Some planners and architects argue that families now have an incentive to spruce up their dwellings for sale or can fund building maintenance from proceeds of house swaps. This is certainly occurring but may also reflect easier access to building permits and materials.  A new real estate boom could deal a blow to Havana’s crumbling architectural legacy. The Cuban curator and art critic Gerardo Mosquera noted that “if things don’t change, Havana will collapse. And if things do change, they’ll tear it down.”

Also of concern is the small, separate system created in the mid-1990s for joint venture real estate investment for foreigners. Thousands of units were built for sale to foreign business people, diplomats and snowbirds. After several hundred condominiums were sold, sales were ended and the rest of the units rented. The proposed law regulating this parallel housing system has gone through numerous drafts over many years, but has not yet been approved. The Cuban government recently agreed to permit a joint venture developer of golf course real estate to sell luxury condominiums free and clear. And some have questioned why, if foreigners can buy property through these special deals, they can’t buy regular dwellings.

Housing is a Right, not a Commodity
In Cuba, housing is seen as a right and not a commodity. Experience has shown the difficulty of eliminating the real estate market but leaving it completely free won’t work either. The challenge will be to establish an enforceable legal framework that regulates the market to prevent speculation and artificial price hikes. Prime areas in Havana, beach resorts and elsewhere are experiencing strong speculative pressure, but other areas may have a more “normal” market, influenced by access to convertible currency or other substantial income. Although some sources of corruption are eliminated, others will continue, since incentives to evade taxes or the need to justify the source of funds to purchase will deter some participants from completely going through legal channels. House swaps continue because families want to be assured they have a place to live, and it is more affordable to pay the difference in value in a swap than purchase a dwelling unit.

As the United States and Europe go through an extraordinary period of austerity where public assets are being sold into the market, Cuba continues its enduring commitment to social control of both public and private property. Cuba’s willingness to experiment with the introduction of market mechanisms in their economy provides a compelling contrast to the industrialized North where social control of capital seems to be out of reach of even the advanced social democracies of Europe.

Jill Hamberg is an urban planner who teaches at the State University of New York Empire State College. This article is adapted from one that appeared in Progressive Planning No. 189 | Fall 2011


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The View from Havana

A few blocks from Havana's famed Malecon, another new joint venture waterfront hotel is on its way to completion. Across the street from the construction site a small wooden building draws in a trickle of Cubans searching for the latest available construction materials posted on a list on the front door. Despite the images and cliches of Havana as a city whose beauty is matched only by how rapidly it seems to be disappearing before your eyes, the city shows signs of being poised to take advantage of the Cuban government's new laws governing private property.

Even with the uncertainty over the impact and details of how Cuba's new property laws will be implemented, some residents of Havana appear to be convinced that the new reforms are worth investing in. But scarcity of resources— material and financial—as well as competing priorities seem likely to temper the enthusiasm of Cubans towards the reforms.

“I'm a child of the revolution, I believe in it and it has done many good things,” responded a resident of Old Havana when asked about how the new law that reforms how Cubans can buy and sell homes would impact his life. “But the problem is the way people in different neighborhoods live.” Tourism and related economic development may provide new employment opportunities but in areas like Old Havana they have not relieved crowded conditions or housing shortages, nor have they addressed differences between housing stock in Old Havana and areas like the suburb of Miramar in the west of Havana.

Outside Havana, in the city of Cienfuegos, a taxi driver explained that more than the ability to buy or sell houses or cars, what was needed were more employment opportunities. “The new laws won't really change life for most Cubans.”

How these expanded private property rights will change the character and demography of neighborhoods in Havana or introduce forces of gentrification and displacement remains in question. What does not seem in doubt is the commitment of ordinary Cubans to preserve the gains of the revolution—like the right to housing—while trying to improve their own economic conditions.

Bob Allen is director of the Transportation Justice Program at Urban Habitat and just returned from a research trip to Cuba.


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Advocates in Action


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Preserving Affordable Transit-Oriented Housing



As the U.S. economy slows, the likelihood of significant federal or local investment in new mass transit diminishes. But low- and moderate-income families depend upon housing close to transit to reduce their commuting expenses and improve access to jobs, schools, and other opportunities. Not surprisingly, the rental market has already begun to grow tighter in communities near existing transit and will most likely lead to escalating property values, making it more difficult to ensure long-term housing affordability.

Thousands of privately owned affordable apartments—both HUD-subsidized and unsubsidized—located near transit are at risk as property values rise. A 2009 AARP report co-authored by the National Housing Trust (nhtinc.org) and Reconnecting America (reconnectingamerica.org) claims that there currently exist over 250,000 privately-owned, HUD-subsidized apartments within walking distance of quality transit. However, over 150,000 of them are covered by federal housing contracts that will expire in 2014, which raises the possibility of their being converted to market rate housing as transit-oriented housing values rise.

These HUD-subsidized apartments house a very vulnerable population: The average annual income is less than $12,000; approximately 66 percent of residents are elderly or disabled; and most are people of color. In fact, low-income and people of color are about four times more likely to rely on public transit to get to work than middle class whites. Consequently, preserving transit-oriented housing is critical to maintaining access to jobs and resources for these disadvantaged populations.

In an environment where resources are scant, preservation becomes a critical priority, as well as an attractive option. Preserving an existing home is significantly less expensive than constructing new affordable housing. Rehabilitating an existing affordable apartment can cost one-third less than building a new apartment and in more expensive communities with high land costs, preservation can cost half as much as building new affordable housing.
Ironically, the economic downturn provides an excellent opportunity to safeguard affordable housing near transit—if we act before property prices appreciate.

Notable Preservation Strategies
In September, 2010, the National Housing Trust, Enterprise Community Partners (enterprisecommunity.com), and Reconnecting America published a report—Preserving Affordable Housing near Transit: Case Studies from Atlanta, Denver, Seattle and Washington, D.C.—which demonstrates how nonprofit developers in these metro areas have engaged in creative strategies to preserve and improve affordable rental housing near transit in spite of the challenges presented by the economic downturn. Featured preservation strategies include:

Act quickly to acquire buildings close to planned transit prior to price appreciation. NEWSED Community Development Corporation (CDC) faced this challenge when it sought to preserve Jody Apartments, located adjacent to the Sheridan Light Rail Station in Denver, Colorado. NEWSED (newsed.org) purchased the unsubsidized but affordable rental property in 2007, six years before the scheduled opening of the station. Early access to flexible acquisition assistance from Enterprise and a land lease from the Urban Land Conservancy were critical to making the purchase feasible. Although NEWSED immediately made improvements to address life and safety issues, they were unable to obtain financing to make substantial physical improvements and secure long-term affordability within the same time frame. The seven-year loan term from Enterprise allowed NEWSED sufficient time to assemble the financing needed for a complete property redevelopment.
Renters near D.C. Metro Live Better for Less
Approximately 55,000 renter households in D.C. live in apartments located within half-a-mile of a metro rail station and over two-thirds of these apartments are unsubsidized. Many are located in neighborhoods that have experienced dramatic increases in median household incomes from 1999 to 2009. These households have significant lower housing and transportation costs than their counterparts in auto-dependent neighborhoods. According to data from the Center for Neighborhood Technology (cnt.org), combined housing and transportation costs in D.C. neighborhoods are less than 45 percent of area median income (AMI), as compared to over 55 percent of AMI in the region’s outlying suburbs.


Use data to identify and target at-risk, affordable properties near transit. Successful preservation often begins with good data that can be used to identify and prioritize HUD-assisted, Low Income Housing Tax Credit (LIHTC), and unsubsidized rental properties near existing and planned transit. The Mt. Baker Housing Association in Seattle, Washington (mtbakerhousing.org), is using a data-driven approach to carefully target and preserve unsubsidized rental properties for long-term affordable use along Seattle’s southeast transit corridor.

Although the southeast corridor’s new light rail line opened in 2009, the economic downturn has minimized widespread investment in the area, giving nonprofits an opportunity to acquire rental housing before speculation occurs. Since accessing public subsidies to redevelop such projects can be a challenge, Mt. Baker has chosen to purchase properties that do not need significant rehabilitation. To identify cost-effective preservation targets, Mt. Baker reviewed data on approximately 350 buildings in the transit corridor looking at factors, such as the property’s age and construction type—to weed out properties that may have been poorly constructed or were in bad condition or simply not good candidates for preservation. This approach allows Mt. Baker to stretch its limited resources much further in securing affordable housing before speculation picks up.

States and localities are increasingly prioritizing public resources for affordable housing near transit. At present, 32 states provide an incentive for proximity to transit, usually by awarding points in their LIHTC competitive scoring process. In Missouri, Mississippi, Oregon, Texas, and Utah, properties near transit can benefit from a 30 percent “basis boost” in LIHTC, thereby improving project viability.

Tap zoning incentives to lower capital cost of affordable units near transit.
Capitol Hill Housing (capitolhillhousing.org) preserved Brewster Apartments—conveniently located just blocks from Seattle’s streetcar line—by tapping into resources created by the city’s innovative Transferable Development Rights (TDR) program. The TDR allows commercial real estate developers seeking to construct buildings in excess of allowable density to purchase unused density from affordable housing owners, providing them an opportunity to benefit while increasing building density near transit.

Capitol Hill Housing agreed to sell Brewster Apartments’ unused development rights to Vulcan, Inc., which plans to construct three office buildings taller than allowable heights for the neighborhood. The exchange provided $648,000 to Capitol Hill Housing, which was used to pay off Brewster’s underlying debt and improve the property’s replacement reserve accounts, making it sufficiently capitalized to continue serving as affordable housing for the next 50 years.

Create acquisition funding sources. Flexible financing to acquire and hold properties near existing and proposed transit until permanent financing can be assembled is critical to preservation. The National Housing Trust and Enterprise are working to fill this gap in Washington, D.C., through the Green Preservation of Affordable Transit-Oriented Housing (GreenPATH) initiative. GreenPATH is an acquisition loan fund specifically for existing subsidized and unsubsidized multifamily buildings that serve low- to moderate-income families within half-a-mile of rail stations in the D.C. metropolitan area.

Planned transit investments in Maryland and Virginia promise to bring improved transportation services to D.C.’s suburbs, but also raise the challenge of preserving affordable rental housing if neighborhood redevelopment occurs. In Montgomery County, Maryland, more than 26,000 apartments are located near existing or proposed rail stations and according to the Northern Virginia Affordable Housing Alliance, nearly 50 percent of multifamily rentals along three redevelopment corridors in northern Virginia’s inner suburbs are currently affordable to households with incomes below 80 percent of area median income (AMI). NHT and Enterprise intend to raise about $54 million to preserve 1,000 affordable apartments through the GreenPATH loan fund. Potential sources of capital include banks, foundations, insurance companies, local government, and contributions from NHT and Enterprise.

Assembling the right mix of capital to provide preservation-oriented purchasers a low enough interest rate to maintain rents at affordable levels is critical to the success of the fund. Also critical are loan terms, which must grant buyers sufficient time to assemble permanent preservation financing, especially in light of limited public subsidies and the challenge of securing private financing.

All of these preservation strategies should be put in place during an economic downturn, so that when properties begin to appreciate, we can ensure that families of all incomes enjoy the many benefits of living near public transit.

References

  • Preserving Affordable Housing near Transit: Case Studies from Atlanta, Denver, Seattle and Washington, D.C. <nhtinc.org/downloads/preserving_affordable_ housing_near_transit_exec_summary.pdf>
  • Preserving Affordability and Access in Livable Communities: Subsidized Housing Opportunities near Transit and the 50+ Population. <aarp.org/home-garden/housing/info-09-2009/2009-15.html>

Michael Bodaken is president and Todd Nedwick is assistant director of public policy at the National Housing Trust. This article is adapted from one originally published at Shelterforce.org.

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New Housing near Highways Threatens Community Health

The landscape at 14th and Wood streets in West Oakland has quite a story to tell about reclaiming a community’s future from industrial pollution.

Fourteenth Street, which runs through the downtown office district, ends at the sound wall bordering one of the busiest interchanges in the San Francisco Bay Area. Nearby, a historic train station that community activists fought to preserve from profit-driven redevelopment shows telltale signs of neglect: litter, broken windows, overgrown grass. The panoramic view of diesel trucks on the freeway framed by large gantry cranes at the Port of Oakland contrasts sharply with the new market-rate housing development next door.

The developer’s website offers a provocative vision for this newly rebranded area: “Once the end of the line for transcontinental rail passengers, Central Station will soon become a new kind of urban community: diverse, stimulating, and welcoming.[1]” But environmental justice activists have a cautionary tale about the politics of infill redevelopment and smart growth that are ushering this neighborhood into a new era.

In a converted trucking facility across the street from the new housing development on 14th and Wood, a small but mighty community-based organization goes toe-to-toe with developers in the fight for the future of West Oakland.

History, Smart Growth, and Health
Margaret Gordon, cofounder of the West Oakland Environmental Indicators Project (EIP), has long been a key community voice in redevelopment planning for the properties outside her office window. “The community has been through two different planning processes with the City around the train station development, and now we are on our third process,” she says. “Now the people in that new development next to it have different ideas. All these new residents see is an abandoned building... they don’t know about the baggage wing in that train station where the Pullman Porters did all their organizing because that was the only place that African-Americans were allowed to do so. We had to fight the City to not allow developers to tear it down and to put local hiring in place to make sure that residents will benefit.”

The struggle over West Oakland’s fabric connects the fate of historic buildings like Central Station to the diesel trains and trucks servicing the Port of Oakland through a network of rail lines, freeways, and truck routes. To groups like EIP, the situation at 14th and Wood streets is also a textbook example of land-use conflicts that smarter growth should be helping communities to avoid.

Smart growth proponents argue that building more housing near public transportation is a smart way to reduce air pollution. But what if it places more people next to sources of toxic pollution like diesel truck traffic? Not such a smart idea, as residents already living next to freeways and port facilities can attest. Diesel truck and train traffic has been shown to reduce lung function in children, increase the risk of developing cancer and asthma, and affect school performance and sleep patterns.[2] According to the California Air Resources Board, diesel pollution costs the state at least $19.5 billion per year in the form of missed school days, missed work days, and health care costs.[3]

Warning: SB 375 May Be Hazardous to Health
Recent smart growth efforts in California hold peril as well as promise from an environmental justice standpoint. State legislation (SB 375) to lower commuter car emissions that contribute to climate change requires each region to realign its housing, land-use, and transportation investment priorities to encourage more compact development along existing transportation corridors. But it does not require regions to account for emissions from diesel trucks and trains, which may expose more residents to toxic air pollutants like diesel particulate matter. (See Figure 2, page 80.)

Much of the Bay Area’s mass transit infrastructure—such as the Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) rail system—runs parallel to major freight corridors with heavy diesel traffic. Consequently, transit-oriented housing is being planned around light rail stations next to freeways, warehouse districts, and designated truck routes. What’s more, bicycle- and pedestrian-friendly developments are being proposed for the streets in these areas with their heavy volumes of truck traffic and truck-attracting businesses.

Like canaries in a coal mine, some Bay Area environmental health advocates are warning that planners may be heading towards a collision between smart growth and environmental justice. For over eight years, the Ditching Dirty Diesel Collaborative has been supporting EIP and other community groups in their efforts to reduce exposure to diesel pollution in the hardest hit neighborhoods. More recently, the coalition has focused its efforts on changing the unhealthy land-use patterns that attract diesel trucks and trains into residential areas.

A 2011 report by the Diesel Collaborative and the Pacific Institute indicates that potential land-use conflicts may be averted if regional SB 375 implementation efforts start taking into account the health risks posed by freight transport corridors.4 The report found that nearly half (42 percent) the land being prioritized for development in the Bay Area is located in communities with the highest health risk from toxic air contaminants as designated by the region’s Air District. It also found that three-fourths of the land in Priority Development Areas is far enough away from freight transport hazards to be more suitable for sensitive uses like new housing. (See Figure 1.)

“Freight transport is a major source of unhealthy pollution that disproportionately affects low-income and communities of color in our region,” says Gordon, a founding member of the Diesel Collaborative and co-author of the report. “This new study shows that healthier places for new housing, schools, parks, and other sensitive land uses can be found in these communities. All planners have to do is to consider where diesel pollution sources are in deciding where more housing should be built.”

Uphill for Advocates and Opponents Alike
Ignoring the health impacts of a smart growth strategy that puts more people next to sources of toxic pollution has already proven a tough road for regional decision-makers. Last September, the Attorney General’s office issued a comment letter on the draft Environmental Impact Report for the SB 375 implementation plan put forth by the San Diego Association of Governments (SANDAG). It states that “SANDAG has failed adequately to address impacts to public health and communities already burdened with pollution” and that environmental review should “consider feasible mitigation for localized air quality impacts” resulting from the plan’s implementation.[5]

Advocates and planners alike face an uphill battle in carrying out the due diligence outlined in the Attorney General’s letter to SANDAG. Environmental review processes are time-intensive and costly for developers, who are spearheading efforts to streamline the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) guidelines in order to fast-track infill projects aligned with smart growth priorities.

In January 2012, the Alameda County Superior Court issued a preliminary finding in a lawsuit brought against the Bay Area Air Quality Management District (BAAQMD) by the California Building Industry Association (CBIA), upholding their claim that BAAQMD should be required to conduct an environmental review of its more stringent proposed new CEQA guidelines.[6] Not satisfied with the outcome, the CBIA is now arguing that only the impacts of a proposed project on the environment should be considered—not the impacts of environmental conditions like toxic air contaminants on a proposed project or the people directly affected by it.

Freeway Oriented Development Health Risks
Environmental review rollbacks threaten community advocates who have long fought to expand due diligence to include the health impacts of additional diesel truck and traffic that proposed developments could attract into residential neighborhoods. “There’s nothing but sleight-of-hand around the transportation impacts of the former Oakland Army Base redevelopment next to the Port of Oakland,” says Brian Beveridge, co-director of EIP. “Where the trucks will be re-routed to, I don’t know. We’ve gone from a casino to a logistics center to a theme park to big box retail to the current plan at the Army Base, and we’ve been told that this doesn’t change the impacts that should be considered because the project’s design can’t mitigate for transportation impacts. It’s been a complete agency-to-agency brush-off.”

While the battle over environmental review continues in the courts, residents living in freight-impacted communities are fighting to keep development decisions accountable on the ground, despite getting the runaround.

“Everything at the city has been in such disarray,” says Gordon. “With redevelopment going away and budgets being cut, it’s definitely a life-and-death situation. Instead of being at the table, you’re going to be on the menu unless you fight to justify these changes. You’ve got to have hundreds of people at city council committee meetings or threats of real lawsuits to get anything to change. On top of that, you have to have capacity to be able to go from local to county, regional, state, and federal levels, and to organize the agencies at the same time. It’s a constant juggling act.”

Community Organizations Step Up Their Proposals
Ensuring that current residents benefit from efforts to clean up toxic pollution, eliminate blight and attract economic reinvestment into an environmental justice community is no easy task. So far, long-time residents who have borne the brunt of industrial operations in their neighborhoods have reaped relatively few of the benefits of cleanup and redevelopment that are paving the way for gentrification. One key benefit—the increase in tax revenues from redevelopment—which was supposed to resource community-supported projects, such as West Oakland’s Central Station redevelopment, is now in limbo because of a statewide overhaul by Governor and former Oakland Mayor Jerry Brown.

Low-income residents of the Bay Area—a region with some of the highest costs of living in the nation—have had few housing choices besides those made affordable by their proximity to freeways, ports, industrial facilities, and other polluting areas. If affordable housing continues to be sited next to sources of toxic pollution, a closer look at current environmental and health conditions in impacted communities reveals what could be in store for coming generations—West Oakland has one of the highest asthma hospitalization rates in the region.

“If we want to create healthy and safe communities, we need to hold public agencies accountable [for] policies to make sure that happens,” says Azibuike Akaba, a Diesel Collaborative member with the Regional Asthma Management and Prevention Program.

The Diesel Collaborative has proposed a number of solutions to regional agencies, including prioritizing land located beyond a health-protective buffer zone from freight-related land for sensitive uses like housing. The land located within the buffer zones itself can be prioritized for commercial and light industrial development. Redevelopment of the former Oakland Army Base next to the Port of Oakland, for instance, could incorporate a logistics center for truck-attracting businesses to green their operations and relocate them from residential areas in West Oakland. Where the only available land for new housing is located close to freight-related uses, developers should be required to incorporate mitigation measures in the design, such as indoor air filtration and monitoring systems, to reduce potential health impacts.

Health-conscious planning is a critical step towards assuring that community benefits for current and future residents are fully integrated into and result from proposed redevelopment plans and projects. We can either address public health in planning for regional growth, or pay later in the form of serious illness, lowered productivity, and soaring health care costs. To advance environmental justice, a smarter growth strategy must address up front the potential conflicts between existing polluting land uses and proposed housing developments.

Endnotes
1.    Central Station Development: <welcomeaboard.com/>
2.    Paying With Our Health: The Real Cost of Freight Transport in California. 2006. Ditching Dirty Diesel Collaborative and Pacific Institute: <pacinst.org/reports/freight_transport/>
3.    Emission Reduction Plan for Ports and Goods Movement. (Appendix A—Quantification of the Health Impacts and Economic Valuation of Air Pollution from Ports and Goods Movement in California. California Air Resources Board: <arb.ca.gov/planning/gmerp/gmerp.htm>
4.    At a Crossroads in Our Region’s Health: Freight Transport and the Future of Community Health in the San Francisco Bay Area. 2011. Ditching Dirty Diesel Collaborative and Pacific Institute. <pacinst.org/reports/crossroads_for_health/>
5.    Letter from Attorney General’s office to SANDAG. September 16, 2011. <ag.ca.gov/globalwarming/pdf/comments_sandag_rtplan_deir.pdf.pdf>
6.     David Gold, Miles Imwalle, and Sue Landsittel. “CEQA Guidelines ‘Up in the Air’: Court Suspends BAAQMD Air Quality Rules.” January, 2012. Morrison and Foerster LLP Client. <mofo.com/files/uploads/images/120118-baaqmd-air-quality-rules.pdf>

Catalina Garzón co-directs the Community Strategies for Sustainability and Justice program at the Pacific Institute in Oakland, California.


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"We had to fight the City to not allow developers to tear it down and to put local hiring in place to make sure that residents will benefit.”—Margaret Gordon

Sailing to Local Hire in San Francisco

In late 2010, San Francisco was abuzz with the prospect of being selected to host the 2013 America’s Cup sailing race. Like other cities seeking to emerge from the current recession, San Francisco has been eager to attract business and economic investments. Moreover, local billionaire Larry Ellison’s team had won the previous race, giving him the right to select the location for the next one. But San Francisco’s America’s Cup experience has been emblematic of the fact that equitable distribution of economic benefits is not automatic. It is up to community advocates to push policies that ensure equity.

As is typical with any “public-private partnership project,” jobs were at the center of the America’s Cup discussion. Supporters projected a $1.2 billion infusion of cash into the local economy that would create more than 8,000 jobs. Meanwhille, community advocates had spent the summer and fall of 2010, working with Supervisor John Avalos and  building trade unions to develop a landmark mandatory local hiring policy.
Jobs Policy Brings Promise for Rhode Island Jobs
Community and labor leaders around the country are coming together to work with cities to increase local employment opportunities on taxpayer-funded investments. Last week, the Providence City Council approved revisions to its local hiring policy—crafted by community groups, such as Direct Access for Rights and Equality (DARE) and the Rhode Island Building and Construction Trades Council, the training organization Building Futures, and high-road job advocates Build Rhode Island. Co-sponsored by Mayor Angel Taveras, this important initiative comes at a time when the city’s unemployment rate is over 13 percent.
Although happy about the policy, DARE Executive Director Fred Ordoñez acknowledges that based on past experience, the bigger challenge is in the implementation and enforcement. "We are hopeful that with a new administration, local allies, and allies around the country like Brightline, we will be able to hold officials and businesses accountable to hiring those who need employment the most," he says.
Rhode Island Building Trades Council Secretary and Treasurer Scott Duhamel, who is also the treasurer of Rhode Island Jobs with Justice, notes that the policy is a direct result of a stringent but collaborative dialogue among community, labor, and city administration. "If enforced, this will truly be a policy that helps enact substantive positive change,” he says. —JA

Community advocates and policy makers suggested that America’s Cup job guarantees for local communities would help align the event with economic expectations of inclusion and expand interest in it beyond traditional yachting enthusiasts. In a Host and Venue Agreement signed on December 14, 2010, the Oracle-led America’s Cup Event Authority LLC voluntarily agreed to comply with San Francisco’s recently approved local hiring policy on $55 million worth of construction required to prepare the city’s waterfront. In return, the Event Authority received long-term rights to develop this waterfront property after the event. The Agreement was signed by Mayor Gavin Newsom and unanimously approved by the Board of Supervisors.

The following summer, however, when the local hiring coalition entered into discussions with event organizers about a strategy for non-construction jobs, such as vending and on-site recycling, they realized that not only did the Event Authority’s draft workforce plan seek to introduce a “good faith” element to soften the mandatory local hiring policy, it showed a lack of commitment to engaging an all-union workforce on permanent and temporary construction, such as event staging and spectator seating.
Revive Oakland Wins Jobs Policy on Army Base Conversion
On February 7, 2012, the Oakland City Council unanimously approved a good jobs and community benefits framework that will guide the redevelopment of the massive Oakland Army Base project.
The Council’s vote followed a well-attended public hearing featuring a powerful line-up of advocates, workers, youth, and neighbors and was a major step towards victory for the Revive Oakland coalition. Convened by EBASE, Revive Oakland has been waging a multiyear campaign for a comprehensive job creation policy through local hire, with the goal of lifting communities impacted by the redevelopment. Next, community groups, labor unions, the city, and developers will negotiate a detailed Community Jobs Agreement and Project Labor Agreement.
Coalition-Endorsed Framework Guides Negotiations
A diverse coalition of stakeholders convened by Oakland Councilmember Jane Brunner developed consensus around a community benefits framework that will guide the negotiations in this groundbreaking opportunity to leverage public dollars to create skilled jobs for those often stuck in temporary low-wage jobs. 
A staggering 80 percent of Oakland voters want the project to ensure workers' rights to organize and to provide opportunities for previously incarcerated individuals, according to Jessamyn Sabbag of Oakland Rising.
“We are hopeful that we will reach agreements that deliver on the long-held promise of good jobs—for those often locked out of the economy—from this major redevelopment of publicly-owned land,” said Kate O’Hara, Revive Oakland’s campaign director.
Ambitious Goals Promise New Opportunity
The policy framework lays out a 50 percent local hire goal for construction and long-term warehouse operations jobs and calls for a share of the work each year to be set aside for new apprentices who have to be from Oakland. The local hire goal, which begins with West Oakland and extends to other low-income neighborhoods, marks the first time that Oakland has set local hire expectations for jobs beyond the construction phase.
The framework also includes the development of a West Oakland Jobs Center—ensuring long-term job pathways and training programs—and expects operations employers to pay living wages and hire workers directly, not through temporary staffing agencies, which can reduce job quality and stability.

Visit workingeastbay.org/reviveoakland for more information about EBASE and Revive Oakland.

 

Local hiring success in San Francisco has always depended upon a unique partnership between community advocates and progressive building trade unions—a powerful alliance that was reignited by the America’s Cup workforce plan. Last September, Supervisor Avalos called a hearing to highlight the need to apply local hiring and prevailing wage protections to the America’s Cup jobs plan and the need to ensure that the wages and benefits secured by organized labor are not undermined.

Fundamental to this discussion is the idea that cities are not made to compete against one another for business. So, local hiring advocates maintained a dialog with community and labor leaders in Rhode Island, a potential alternative host site, to ensure solidarity with respect to prevailing wage and local hiring commitments. (See sidebar “Jobs Policy Brings Promise for Rhode Island Jobs.”) Any willingness to depart from these important safeguards to attract business only leads to a race to the bottom, especially for blue collar workers.
San Francisco’s Local Hire Works!
Prior to the December 2010 adoption of the local hiring legislation crafted by Supervisor Avalos and a coalition of community and labor advocates, only 20 percent of local residents got hired on taxpayer-funded construction on average. A year after the law went into effect on March 25, 2011, resident participation on the same projects has jumped to 34 percent—a 70 percent increase over previous "good faith" levels. In addition, the new policy has increased racial and gender diversity on public works projects.
Preliminary data on 22 active public works projects that got underway in the latter part of 2011 shows that 34 percent of craft hours and 68 percent of apprentice hours have been performed by San Francisco residents. Women performed less than one percent of all the craft hours, with San Francisco women performing about 1.8 percent of all craft hours by residents. As most of these projects are still in progress, the data only indicates the preliminary impact of the policy, rather than definitive results. 



The jobs discussion came to a head at a City Hall hearing in January 2012, when dozens of community advocates, labor leaders and workers delivered a consistent message about the importance of embracing the city’s local hiring and prevailing wage protections for all work associated with the event and long-term development of the waterfront.

On February 27, Mayor Ed Lee and event organizers announced that the long-term development aspect was to be replaced by a scaled-back city-funded investment in shoring up San Francisco’s piers—to shift the focus of the discussion back to excitement around the race and the projected participation of hundreds of thousands of spectators.

However, community pressure and the support of key elected officials has ensured that local hiring and prevailing wages will apply to all aspects of America’s Cup construction—from temporary bleachers and tents to the America’s Cup Village—and that apprentices will be drawn from state-certified joint apprenticeship programs. The Board of Supervisors unanimously approved the scaled-back proposal on March 27.
One key lesson of the America’s Cup experience is this: advancing job equity in an environment where cities compete to attract economic investment requires both strategic policy development and partnerships with key stakeholders. San Francisco benefitted from the hard work that led to the creation of a local hiring policy that covers public works construction, which private companies can opt to comply with. Even so, securing that commitment would not have been possible without support from the city’s progressive building trade unions and community advocates.
The Event Authority’s decision to quickly embrace job equity ensured the support of an important group of stakeholders for the modified proposal with little impact on the deal’s bottom line. And San Francisco advocates have been able to send a clear signal that the Bay Area is a place to do business and host high-profile events—without compromising the values of job equity and sustainable working conditions.

Joshua Arce is the executive director of Brightline Defense Project, a sustainable community advocacy organization.


New Political Spaces | Vol. 19, No. 1 – 2012 | Credits

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Research and Resources 19-1

Visit urbanhabitat.org/rpe/research to read from our collection of
research and resources on racial, economic and environmental justice.


State of the Dream 2012: The Emerging Majority

MLK Photo

The last thirty years of public policy have not produced significant progress toward Dr. Martin Luther King's dream of racial equality. According to the Census Bureau, people of color will collectively make up the majority of the population in 2042, thirty years from now. If the country continues along the path that it has been on for the last thirty years, the racial economic divide will remain in 2042 and, in many regards, will be considerably worse. This is the core message of United for a Fair Economy’s (UFE) ninth annual MLK Day report, State of the Dream 2012: The Emerging Majority. In 2042, thirty years from now, people of color will collectively represent the majority of the U.S. population. If we continue along the governing path of the last thirty years, the economic divide between races will remain and, in many regards, will be considerably worse. The Emerging Majority measures the impacts of the past thirty years of public policy on the racial divide, examining a host of social and economic indicators, including income, wealth, poverty, health care, homeownership, education and incarceration. The report then offers thirty-year projections based on data trends since the Reagan presidency. Its findings should prompt people of all races to unite in action for a more just and racially equitable future.

Voter Suppression 101

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The right to vote is under attack all across our country. Conservative legislators are introducing and passing legislation that creates new barriers for those registering to vote, shortens the early voting period, imposes new requirements for already-registered voters, and rigs the Electoral College in select states. Conservatives fabricate reasons to enact these laws—voter fraud is exceedingly rare—in their efforts to disenfranchise as many potential voters among certain groups, such as college students, low-income voters, and minorities, as possible. Rather than modernizing our democracy to ensure that all citizens have access to the ballot box, these laws hinder voting rights in a manner not seen since the era of Jim Crow laws enacted in the South to disenfranchise blacks after Reconstruction in the late 1800s. Talk about turning back the clock! At its best, America has utilized the federal legislative process to augment voting rights. Constitutional amendments such as the 12th, 14th, 15th, 17th, 19th, 23rd, and 26th have steadily improved the system by which our elections take place while expanding the pool of Americans eligible to participate. Yet in 2011, more than 30 state legislatures considered legislation to make it harder for citizens to vote, with over a dozen of those states succeeding in passing these bills. Anti-voting legislation appears to be continuing unabated so far in 2012. Unfortunately, the rapid spread of these proposals in states as different as Florida and Wisconsin is not occurring by accident. Instead, many of these laws are being drafted and spread through corporate-backed entities such as the American Legislative Exchange Council, or ALEC, as uncovered in a previous Center for American Progress investigative report.

Millennials, Activism and Race

millennials1

Through a series of focus groups in key cities with Occupy participants and other activists aged 18-30, the Applied Research Center today released findings on young people’s motivations for engaging in activism, concerns about electoral politics, and thoughts on the extent to which race and racism should be an explicit part of current struggles for economic justice. The report also provides recommendations on key ways to engage millennials of all races/ethnicities in social justice work. An accompanying article on young progressives was published by ARC President and Colorlines Publisher Rinku Sen, and an informational webinar will be presented to coincide with the release. "From a researcher's perspective, it was a dream to hear from some of the most engaged progressive young people in the country," said report author and ARC Research Director Dominique Apollon. "And to provide a forum for them to express themselves freely, in ways that we hope readers of all ages and races will appreciate." In ARC’s report Millennials, Activism and Race, results show that the most significant influence for young progressives to engage in social justice work is their own personal and family experience, particularly for young people of color. In discussing what makes an ideal society, there were varied descriptions, but all agreed that it is one based on community and cooperation -- and that primary barriers include: (1) a dominant ideology based on individualism (especially economic), which too often causes people to be left to fend for themselves, without sufficient public resources and supports, and (2) a general lack of awareness of histories of oppression with political and economic analyses, that the general public doesn't have an analytic framework to critique our political and economic system. Additionally, Occupy protesters were more explicitly anti-capitalism, and more profoundly disillusioned by the electoral process than social justice advocates who had not participated in the Occupy movement.

Voting Law Changes in 2012

Voting Law Changes in 2012
Legislators introduced and passed a record number of bills restricting access to voting this year. New laws ranged from those requiring government-issued photo identification or documentary proof of citizenship to vote, to those reducing access to early and absentee voting, to those making it more difficult to register to vote. In total, at least nineteen laws and two executive actions making it more difficult to vote passed across the country, at least forty-two bills are still pending, and at least sixty-eight more were introduced but failed. As detailed in this report, the extent to which states have made voting more difficult is unprecedented in the last several decades, and comes after a dramatic shift in political power following the 2010 election. The battles over these laws were—and, in states where they are not yet over, continue to be—extremely partisan and among the most contentious in this year’s legislative session. Proponents of the laws have offered several reasons for their passage: to prevent fraud, to ease administrative burden, to save money. Opponents have focused on the fact that the new laws will make it much more difficult for eligible citizens to vote and to ensure that their votes are counted. In particular, they have pointed out that many of these laws will disproportionately impact low-income and minority citizens, renters, and students—eligible voters who already face the biggest hurdles to voting.

This Changes Everything; Occupy Wall Street and the 99% Movement

This Changes Everything Cover

The Occupy Wall Street movement named the core issue of our time: the overwhelming power of Wall Street and large corporations— something the political establishment and most media have long ignored.

But the movement goes far beyond this critique. This Changes Everything shows how the movement is shifting the way people view themselves and the world, the kind of society they believe is possible, and their own involvement in creating a society that works for the 99% rather than just the 1%.

Attempts to pigeonhole this decentralized, fast-evolving movement have led to confusion and misperception. In this volume, the editors of YES! Magazine bring together voices from inside and outside the protests to convey the issues, possibilities, and personalities associated with the Occupy Wall Street movement.

This book features contributions from Naomi Klein, David Korten, Rebecca Solnit, Ralph Nader, and others, as well as Occupy activists who were there from the beginning, such as David Graeber, Marina Sitrin and Hena Ashraf. It offers insights for those actively protesting or expressing support for the movement—and for the millions more who sympathize with the goal of a more equitable and democratic future.

 

 


Autumn Awakening | Vol. 18, No. 2– 2011 | Credits

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Credits, Vol.19, No.1

Editor Emeritus
Carl Anthony

Publisher
Connie Galambos Malloy

Editor & Art Director
B. Jesse Clarke

Assistant Editor
Merula Furtado

Layout & Design Assistant
Christine Joy Ferrer

Urban Habitat Board of Directors
Allen Fernandez Smith
President & CEO, Urban Habitat

Joe Brooks (Chair)
PolicyLink

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

Tamar Dorfman (Treasurer)
Public Health Institute

Carl Anthony
Co-Founder, Urban Habitat

Wade Crowfoot
Governor’s Office of Planning and Research

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


Debra Johnson
San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency

Felicia Marcus
Natural Resources Defense Council

Asha Mehta
Leaderspring

Arnold Perkins
Former Director, Alameda Public Health Department

Organizations are listed for identification purposes only.


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New Political Spaces | Vol. 19, No. 1 – 2012 | Credits

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