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From Jail Cells to Solar Cells

A visionary new project highlights the powerful environmental solutions that are blossoming from the urban grassroots.
 
 
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Breast cancer rates are skyrocketing in San Francisco's Bayview-Hunter's Point neighborhood. Asthma inhalers are more common than schoolbooks in West Oakland’s schools. Toxic factories are poisoning the skies of Oakland’s Chinatown.

In the Bay Area alone, communities of color have paid the price for polluters' excesses. Around the globe, it’s the same story.

But this month in San Francisco, people of color are launching a new vision for our cities and our communities -- a vision that highlights the powerful environmental solutions that are blossoming from the urban grassroots. North America's first-ever United Nations World Environment Day is taking place in the Bay Area June 1-5, 2005.

The theme of this year's conference is "Green Cities: Where the Future Lives." But you can't speak about green cities without talking about the large numbers of brown folks who live in them.

The U.N., and mayors from the world's 50 biggest cities attending this year's conference, are catching up to what we've been saying for years -- environmentalism includes everyone. And our cities are ground zero for both the steep costs of pollution and a visionary hope for the future.

To put the spotlight on our communities, the Ella Baker Center for Human Rights volunteered to coordinate a Social Equity Track, a series of events that highlight environmental problems and solutions for low-income people and people of color. The World Environment Day this year is a call to action for the creation of green cities all over the globe.

It is also a forum for asking some hard questions. As the new green economy springs to life, will we live in eco-equity or eco-apartheid? Will clean and green business flourish only in the rich, white parts of town? Will our kids be left to deal with the toxic wastes of polluting industries, the life-threatening diseases that decimate polluted communities, and the crushing lack of economic opportunity as the old polluting economy goes bust?

Not on our watch. We dream of cities in which our children can grow and thrive in clean, economically strong and healthy environments. We see a new future in which ecological equity and sustainable development strengthen communities of color in the Bay Area and around the world.

To turn that dream into reality, the Ella Baker Center for Human Rights is helping to weave together solutions to the challenges urban communities face. At the World Environment Day, the Center will launch a bold new initiative -- Reclaim The Future.

Reclaim The Future (RTF) will work to build a constituency that can transform urban America by creating jobs, reducing violence and honoring the Earth. RTF will engage grassroots leaders, mainstream environmental activists, labor unions and socially responsible business leaders. It will also include youth, artists and faith leaders.

Our founding slogan is: "Green Jobs, Not Jails." The path to peaceful streets and true community safety is not more prisons, but ecologically sound economic development. RTF will push for the creation of public-private-community partnerships that promote healthy communities.

We envision eco-industrial parks on once blighted land. We envision non-profit "Solution Centers" training young urban workers in new technologies and ancient wisdom. We envision those Centers sprouting up everywhere and driving down crime in every police precinct.

We dream of seeing urban youth creating zero-pollution products, healing the land and harvesting the sun. We dream of a day when struggling cities like Oakland, Watts, Detroit and Newark blossom as Silicon Valleys of green capital.

RTF will help build the pathway from the present "grey economy" to the future "green economy." We want California and the United States -- the world leaders in locking people up -- to become the world leaders in lifting people up.

Our partners in the Social Equity Track are some of the leading environmental justice organizations in the nation, who have been fighting for green cities for many years. They include: the Silicon Valley Toxics Coalition, the Asian Pacific Environmental Network, Bayview Hunter's Point Advocates, People's Grocery, Indigenous Environmental Network, Environmental Justice Coalition for Water, Public Citizen, Amazon Watch, SF's PODER, Native Movement, West Oakland Environmental Indicators Project, Communities for a Better Environment, Urban Habitat and many, many more.

We are proud to be working with such stalwart organizations. Collectively, we will help create peaceful, healthy communities in the new millennium.

The Oakland-based Asian Pacific Environmental Network (APEN) empowers low-income Asian Pacific Islander communities to achieve environmental and social justice by building grassroots organizations that improve the health, well-being and political strength of our communities. Communities for a Better Environment (CBE) is one of the nation's most established and effective environmental justice organizations. With community activists, organizers, attorneys and scientists CBE has a track record of making industry and government quake in their boots. Urban Habitat is a powerful force addressing issues of social and environmental justice from a regional perspective.

Together, we're putting environmental justice on the world stage at the United Nations World Environment Day.

Van Jones is executive director of the Ella Baker Center for Human Rights .