BlueGreen Conference Report

Good Jobs are Green Jobs

The recent Blue-Green Alliance Conference drew nearly 2,000 people to Washington, DC February 8-10 to hear a number of panels and participate in workshops on the growing relationship between organized labor and the environmental movement. In an effort to undo the friction that had been felt between these two movements—each feeling that the other was not concerned about its core values— labor leaders, rank and file union members, environmentalists and other community members met together for two days before turning their attention on the third day to lobbying congressional lawmakers to push forward an agenda that upholds both creating good jobs and promoting a clean environment. The BlueGreen Alliance was formed five years ago when leaders of the United Steel Worker’s Union and the Sierra Club got together to find ways of furthering both their interests. Since that time, the Alliance has grown to include “more than 14 million members and supporters in pursuit of good jobs, a clean environment and a green economy.”

The conference had many more workshops than anyone could attend. I was interested in learning more about the state of development of businesses dealing with manufacturing for wind power development, where things stand with worker involvement in management, and issues concerning education and communities that are typically excluded from economic development, so I focused my time in those areas. In this and subsequent blog posts, I’ll cover each of these topics. First: Wind power.

Wind Turbines

I learned at the conference that there are 12 manufacturers in North Carolina actively engaged in manufacturing parts used in wind turbines. They specifically make some of the hundreds of parts used in the nacelle (the hub, generator and control portion) of high-powered wind power turbine installations. Large, precision-machined castings (similar to those used in the production of heavy transportation, shipbuilding or mining equipment) are used in the structures, where the relatively slow but powerful rotation of wind turbine blades is converted to the higher speed rotation needed for electricity production. Companies experienced in large-scale precision metalworking have opportunities for new markets in wind turbine production as part of the supply chain providing parts and equipment from local sources for the sometimes international companies that are the world leaders of wind turbine production.

Off Shore Wind

There are plans being developed to install a series of wind turbines just off shore along the east coast, to catch the stronger and more consistent winds that blow near the coastline. North Carolina does not otherwise have much potential for electric production from wind, since the average wind levels on land in this state would not support the use of wind power. This has not prevented a few North Carolina firms from being involved in manufacturing for other areas of the country, such as the Midwest, where there are much higher sustained winds. Given the extent of the transportation means that are available, large equipment made here can reasonably be transported by road or rail to the other states. North Carolina’s proximity to the Tidewater area of Virginia is also providential in terms of future economic development here. The shipbuilding industry in southern Virginia, not far from the North Carolina border, is well suited for some of the large-scale production that will be needed.


Visiting the Federation of Southern Cooperatives

A trip into Epes, Alabama takes you down some curvy, bumpy roads. But given their history and connections, visiting the training center for the Federation of Southern Cooperatives is a necessary part of looking into grass roots economies in the South. After a phone call where I asked for a few minutes time on their busy schedules to introduce myself and the F4DC project, I was finally able to get permission to come by briefly back in May. It seems that they were in the middle of filing some important reports and submitting proposals to make sure their work could continue. They were also preparing for a training program on the advantages of developing cooperatives and a summer youth sustainable agriculture program. Once I got there, however, the distance and impatience that I had felt on the telephone disappeared and I was warmly received and not rushed through the discussion. Face to face contact remains the most effective way of introducing people and ideas.

The Federation of Southern Cooperatives has been around since 1967. It is a product of the Civil Rights movement and has most recently been involved in struggles for black land retention and against the patterns of racism and discrimination that has up until recently characterized the US Department of Agriculture’s relation to black farmers. The victory in 1999 in the Pigford suite reflects years of effort to redress the grievances of black farmers in the south who were systematically denied loans and other support that white American farmers could take for granted. Unfortunately, the multi-billion dollar settlement has not been fully funded and is tied up in Washington bureaucratic red tape and budgetary complications.

The two people I got to talk to were Pamela Madzima, Forestry Program Assistant and Osagie Idehen, Cooperative Specialist. They told me about the Federations current work with Tuskegee Institute and Alabama A&M University on forestry and goat husbandry as well as work with the Alabama Association of Cooperatives on coop development. They were both excited about F4DC’s planned efforts to look at ways to strengthen grassroots economies in the south. In particular, they felt that if we could together identify sources of conflict on the one hand and the unmet needs of the many economic groups on the other, we could be instrumental in helping southern grassroots economies move forward. We talked specifically of finding overlaps that created intensified competition for scarce resources, as well as gaps in the economic chain that prevented the full development of the synergies needed to push the new economic ventures forward over the declining economies that are causing so much suffering in our communities.

Before I left, I got to go on a brief tour of the Rural Training and Research Center facilities. In addition to the offices, I got to see the dormitory space, classroom space, meeting rooms and the dining facilities. We then went outside to see the garden area and the goats that are to be used in a combination forestry – goat husbandry research to figure out the optimum number of goats that can be raised in wooded timber areas.

I am looking forward to going to Birmingham for the Federation’s award banquet August 19 and then back to Epes for the federation’s annual meeting August 20 and 21.

Critical Democratic Education is Child Centered and Community Owned, Based and Controlled

Given the situation in Wake County with the struggle over public school diversity policy, I thought it would be good to reprint this document which outlines some reflections I have been sharing with people on the issue of diversity and how it relates to democratic practice in education.  Please share any thoughts you have.  There needs to be a vibrant discussion that goes beyond the good people/bad people – diverse/segregated – resources/no resources type of thinking that is much of the current discourse.

(0) All children learn all the time unless there is a serious and rare neurological pathology (brain damage or deformity).

(0a) Education should foster the development of the whole child into a healthy, meaningful, engaged, informed, empowered/powerful and capable adult through being a healthy, meaningfully engaged, informed, and nurtured child.

(1) Standardized tests are not good means of assessing the full range of human development children are capable of and which is needed by the community.

(1a) Real world evaluation is pluralistic, multi-dimensional and recognizes the complexity of the world as well as the value of the divergence of the interests, talents and needs of children.

(2) Children develop best when family and community guide their development with access to adequate resources.

(2a) Resources can be shared fairly if there is a social commitment to do so. Directly fighting for that social commitment is better than backdoor approaches at equity through external advocacy. (“Money will follow the white children.”) We should fight for what we need.

(2b) Community should set the education agenda — not courts, not corporations, not government. Only this way can the necessary social critique be present in the classroom along with an ongoing evaluation of teachers, curriculum and resources/facilities.

(2c) Parents and community should be directly involved in the selection of teachers and curriculum as well as maintenance, expansion and replacement of facilities and materials.

(3) The most important factor in education is building relationships. No teacher is expert on every subject that may be of interest to their students. But teachers should be infectiously enthusiastic and good at learning. Mastery of material should be augmented with external access to resources and expertise.

(3a)The importance of modeling the excitement and possibilities of learning, encouraging, motivating and nurturing students can not be overestimated.

(3b)Neither expertise in subject matter nor expertise in teaching technique can substitute for the damage caused by negative messages sent to [taught to] vulnerable children.

(4) Desegregation had various motivations as well as good and bad results. Analysis of those struggles should not oversimplify them negating their complexity and richness.

(5) Separate schools are not inherently unequal, but segregated schools that exclude some category of children based on assumed inferiority, whether innate, acquired or cultural, are morally odious. The difference between “separate” and “segregated” needs to be understood as well as the incredible educational achievements that were made even under conditions of segregation.

(5a) Local plans that are coercive to parents and community, ignoring their desires and shunning their involvement and input should be examined closely to see if the social end that is being promoted justifies the abandonment of democracy.

(6) Equality is a difficult concept to define precisely given differences in the needs, interests and abilities of children and the multi-dimensional nature of education. We should seek to guarantee the provision of appropriate and adequate resources and support.

(7) The key to literacy education lies in the importance of “reading the word” to facilitate “reading the world.” For students to make the effort to learn to read well they would have to find reading liberating and empowering. When students tell teachers the curriculum is boring we should listen and change. Either teachers should make a better connection of the material with the student’s lives and interests or change material.

(8) We should value and validate student’s humanity and their day to day reality as the important first step toward building nurturing, empowering relationships and toward developing engaging, stimulating and challenging pedagogy.

(9) Phrases like “avoiding racial isolation” have become coded passages for assumptions of inferiority as they are applied to some groups and not others. Isolated white groups are often seen as normative with little need to avoid their establishment. Much of the language around the achievement gap calls on other groups of students to reach their level on what are often culturally biased metrics.

(10) “Voluntary” as used to describe Seattle and Louisville plans simply means non-court mandated but carries the connotation of freedom for community. Racist segregation plans were “voluntary” in that same sense, coming generally from the legislative bodies and school boards rather than the courts. The Topeka, Kansas plan in 1953 was voluntary, but no one calls Jim Crow education policy “voluntary.” In the discussion of the Seattle and Louisville plans “voluntary” is used to imply “reasonable” to prevent the discussion of their content.

(11) Minority students should be allowed to be in the majority in some schools if some natural neighborhood patterns or desire of the students involved and their parents creates such conditions. To disallow this is as inherently bad is to place an unfair burden on black children and families as it implies that something is wrong those who are not allowed to be concentrated. Sometimes the concentration of minority groups as majorities within institutions will create the only opportunity them to feel normal and just be students. In addition it increases the opportunity for leadership positions and participation on the broadest range of extra-curricular activities which are also part of learning. The motions toward separation initiated by blacks like the rise of the black church after emancipation were often based on such reasoning.

(12) We should remember that most of the arguments against the recent Supreme Court ruling would also be arguments for the elimination of historically black colleges and universities as well as black churches and civic groups.

USSF 2010 and a Resilient Detroit

US Social Forum 2010
US Social Forum 2010
US Social Forum 2010

The US Social Forum (USSF 2010) was amazing. Inspired by gatherings of the internationally based World Social Forum which started in 2001 in Porto Alegre, Brazil in response to the World Economic Forum (WEF) meeting in Davos, Switzerland, the USSF was organized first in Atlanta in 2007 and this second time in Detroit, Michigan. As a gathering of tens of thousands of grassroots activists, movement leaders and public intellectuals, it was much more than any one participant could fully absorb. As one of my friends put it, it was overwhelming.

There were about a thousand workshops during the four and a half day forum. Even the well-laid-out book that described them all was intimidating. But in a way, it was hard to go wrong with so many interesting people and ideas around.

In addition to some exciting cultural work with Cakalak Thunder the Radical Marching Band, the area I focused on was economic justice. I got to participate in an extended workshop on Community Based Enterprises in which we heard from the Restaurant Opportunity Center (ROC), which runs a worker-owned business in New York. ROC is planning to open another worker-owned restaurant in Detroit by October. We also heard from the worker-owned Maryland Brush Company, which is expanding its production to include the manufacture of solar water and electric panels.

But some of the most exciting work we heard about is the collaboration taking place in Detroit, a city that is taking its economic woes as an opportunity to build a new economy on the ruins of the old. Some of the most community-based businesses we learned about (and visited!) include the Avalon International Bakery, Slow’s Bar BQ, and the Spiral Collective.  The dynamic C2BE (Center for Community Based Enterprises), which coordinates collaboration between businesses and individuals who are interested in supporting a healthy new economy in Detroit is also playing a critical role.

The essential features of Community Based Enterprises are simple: 1) a sustainable business that is 2) intentional about its relationship to the community and 3) paying a living wage. There are no requirements that the business be organized as a cooperative, or that it be owned by its workers, nor even that it be all organic. These specifics are part of the mix of how people are working to be intentional about their relationship to community, but none are seen as “litmus tests” to limit the inclusion of businesses that are trying to be wholesome parts of the community’s structure.

Included, however, in the leadership of C2BE are people who have visited the Mondragon Coops in Northern Spain, as well as experts on Employee Stock Ownership Plans. Deborah Olson, the Executive Director of C2BE, is well aware of the esoteric fine points of community economic development, but she is also practical enough to recognize that there are many ways to build business enterprises that enhance the quality of life of everyday people.

One very beautiful feature of C2BE’s work is the type of cooperation between businesses that it inspires. While we toured the Willis Avenue area, I went into the Spiral Coop, a joint business of three African American women comprised of a book store, an art gallery and a fragrances and notions gift shop. When I asked them if they were friends with the Avalon International Bakery down the street they beamed and shared that Avalon had loaned them the money that they needed to get their building on the corner ready for use. The thought that one successful business might loan money to a start-up which would have had difficulty borrowing from a bank in this tight money market was an eye-opener to me. The reason for the loan isn’t just the altruistic desire to help someone; Avalon recognizes that every successful business on their block enhances their own business possibilities. With the encouragement of C2BE to which the Avalon owners belong, the businesses on that block have shared community celebrations that bring more business to the area. It is a synergy that has produced a vibrant and healthy place in Detroit’s largely bleak landscape. Because it is a replicable model, we can look to see a lot of other people in and out of Detroit learning from it.

I am sure that other folks who pursued different paths at the USSF came away similarly inspired by what they participated in and the contacts that they made. Hopefully we can get together in our local areas and continue to share the lessons and the networks so that the Different World that is Possible comes to be along with the Different US that is Necessary.

Facilitating the building of a new economy

Taking advantage of a wedding that I was invited to at Highlander Research and Education Center and a planned to trip to see my mother in Little Rock, Arkansas, I was able to get started on our outreach efforts for the Southern Grassroots Economies Project in late May.

A core group of folks gathered in Black Mountain on the weekend of May 14, to sketch the general outline of this next major project of the Fund for Democratic Communities. Marnie Thompson, Suzanne Pharr, Emery Wright, and I met with the support of Bryan Cahall and Lamar Gibson at a retreat center in Black Mountain, North Carolina for two full days of discussion around how F4DC might involve itself in helping to facilitate the development of democratic economic activity that can make a significant difference in people’s lives.

We got involved in this work following a discussion that Marnie and I had with Suzanne Pharr some months before in Knoxville. At that time, the idea of looking for ways to help people realize their potential to be the productive in the midst of the current economic crisis became central to a discussion we were having about charting a way forward for F4DC.  Based on suggestions from Suzanne, we contacted Emery Wright of Project South and Monica Hernandez of Highlander to talk about the potential of planning for a gathering of people involved in community based democratic economic activity to take place in late 2010.

In the course of our follow-up Black Mountain discussion in May (which Monica could not attend due to a prior commitment), Suzanne, Marnie, Emery and I came to see how our projected work meshed with the work of a number of other people from across the country who are involved with what is called “Solidarity Economics”.

We are looking into ways to focus efforts in the US South, centered in African American, immigrant and poor white communities, and also particularly among women, to help create new opportunities and enhance existing efforts to allow people to be productive.  Rather than simply being content with redistributing existing wealth, we want to look at expanding opportunities to create additional goods and service to meet human needs

Among the things that inspire this effort are the very successful large industrial worker-owned cooperatives in the city of Mondagon in the Basque region of Spain, as well as growing activities around worker ownership of productive enterprises from South America to the dying factory towns of the US industrial heartland. The movement of community gardens on the one hand and worker-owned factories on the other has the potential of linking with community-based financing from credit unions and collective, cooperatively-based distribution through consumer coops of various forms to form the basis of a new kind of economic activity. We envision this not just be counter-culture activity, as many of the consumer coops are now, but the basis of a new economy that grows stronger as the old economy collapses of its own contradictions, which can be seen in the absurd concentrations of wealth creating increasing disparities in the distribution of the product of working people.

During last few weeks of May I drove 2,200 miles across the South and talked to people in Knoxville, Tennessee; Little Rock, Arkansas; Epes, Alabama; and Morganton, North Carolina.  In each city, those to whom I spoke saw the promise of linking the efforts that they are involved in via our Southern Grassroots Economies Project.

In the next few posts, I will detail some of the conversations I have recently had with Elandria Williams of the Solidarity Economics Network (SEN), Tamidra Marable of Heifer International, Osagie Idehen and Pamela Madzima of the Federation of Southern Cooperatives and Molly Hemstreet of the Center for Participatory Change, an Asheville-based organization that supports the work of Opportunity Threads, a worker-owned cut-and-sew shop in Morganton, North Carolina.

F4DC Co-sponsors Peace & Justice Network’s First Annual Concert for Peace, Justice & Sustainability

Eliza Gilkyson
Eliza Gilkyson
Eliza Gilkyson

The Peace & Justice Network is holding its First Annual Concert for Peace, Justice & Sustainability featuring Grammy-nominated singer-songwriter Eliza Gilkyson, with opening remarks by author and activist Robert Jensen.

Gilkyson doesn’t pull any punches. She graces the music with her lush and passionate voice; a dark and lonely sound, hope and satisfaction, and edgy lyrics with piercing imagery… – New York Times