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How a Community Is Saving Itself and the Environment

Our current economic model has created nothing but poverty and pollution for the South Bronx. But the visionary folks there have a different model that will change all that.
 
 
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The following conversation with Omar Freilla is an excerpt from the new book Building the Green Economy: Success Stories from the Grassroots (PoliPointPress, 2007) by Kevin Danaher, Shannon Biggs, and Jason Mark. You can read more about the book here.

Though only 33 years old, Omar Freilla has already distinguished himself as a leader in the movement to create a sustainable and just economy. As the founder of the Green Worker Co-op in the South Bronx district of New York City, Freilla has laid out an exciting vision of how to balance economic needs with ecological wisdom. That vision rests on the basic principles of environmental justice-ensuring that no one community has to bear a disproportionate burden for society's toxins and wastes. The way to do that, Freilla believes, is by creating worker-owned co-operatives that will have no incentives to pollute. He spoke to us from his office in the Hunts Point neighborhood in the Bronx.

Q: How did you get the idea for the Green Worker Co-op? Was there any "aha" moment that you remember?

Omar Freilla: There have been a couple of "aha" moments. The most recent came when I worked for Sustainable South Bronx. I was involved in a collaborative effort to try to attract green businesses into New York, with the hope and the desire that they would be locating in low-income neighborhoods.

Unfortunately, it didn't go anywhere at the time. I realized that I wasn't really comfortable with the approach that we were taking as a group, which was to try to attract businesses -- traditional, corporate-structured businesses -- into an area from outside. I felt that an approach that produces even more results and maximizes benefits to an even greater extent would actually be building up business from within the community. And creating it as a worker-owned business. So that way the profits would actually stay within the community, and decisions would be made by people from the area.

Q: A key part of the vision is recycling and reusing all the waste produced in New York. How do you plan to turn trash into opportunity?

OF: Well, that's part of the vision. Our vision is to incubate and let fly a number of worker-owned businesses that are able to improve environmental conditions generally. It's not specific to waste. We just happened to latch on to this idea of creating a co-op that could reduce waste. This particular co-op would be salvaging building materials that would otherwise get thrown out and get sent to a landfill, or even worse, to an incinerator. We have latched on to that and really promoted that as an idea.

The next co-op or the third one or the fourth one could be anything. It could be energy efficiency, doing anything related to improving environmental conditions. For us, the big issues in the South Bronx are reducing air pollution, and reducing waste.

Q: Why is it important to you to have a worker-owned co-operative? How does that fit in with your broader philosophy?

OF: There are two reasons. One is economic. It's about being able to maximize the resources within the community. We have an incredible amount of money that just cycles out almost immediately, as soon as it's generated. People don't make a lot of money, and the money we do make winds up going into stores that aren't owned by people in the community. In many cases, especially if you are talking about big chains, the money immediately flows out to some corporate headquarters and distant stock owners in other parts of the country and other parts of the planet. There's really no financial benefit coming back to the person who actually shops there or who works there, other than maybe getting a particular product. We felt that the worker co-op model is a great way to go.

Q: What is the second reason?

OF: Democracy. We live in a country that is counted as a great democracy, but in day-to-day life few of us actually experience it. We go to school and we go to work under conditions where people don't have a say in their day-to-day life; they don't have a say in the things that happen around them. And then people are surprised that there is little participation at the voting booth, or that people don't really take seriously this idea of living in a democracy. So that is a really big part of it, creating an opportunity for people to have ownership of their lives.

Q: We have an industrial economy that's built on extraction. How do you envision a different kind of economy that's more sustainable?

OF: I think there are lots of different pieces that need to be there. One is requiring that everything is counted for, that you don't have natural resources that are being exploited without any kind of accountability. But there is an even larger question of accountability in general: Not being able to exploit anything without being accountable to other people that use it.

My point is that you have corporations that get away with really noxious, destructive practices because the people that are being impacted don't count. They don't count in the political structure or the economic structure. They don't have much clout, and that's why we see environmental racism and classism in poor neighborhoods.

Communities of color wind up bearing the greatest burden of all the environmental horrors that are out there, whether it's places like the South Bronx, with high asthma rates, or the Gulf Coast, known as Cancer Alley because of all the oil refineries. As long as those practices are allowed to happen, as long as those companies and governments feel that they have a dumping ground, then there is no incentive to do things better.

So I think, first, you really need to close that gap. And we can't have a green society or a green economy as long as you have social and economic injustices. Because that's always going to allow for someone to be exploited. We live in a capitalist society. We have businesses that are out to make a quick buck and they will do that, regardless of what the latest ideology is or however many groups are out there trying to promote green as a win-win strategy. There are plenty of people than can make an even quicker buck by exploiting and taking advantage of people's weaknesses. As long as you have that, then, I don't see it as possible to get to some pure sustainable economy. I think sustainability requires social justice.

Q: Van Jones of the Ella Baker Center in Oakland, California, warns that in rushing to a green economy, people of color are at risk of being left behind. How do you make sure that doesn't happen?

OF: I think we need to be in the driver's seat. We need to be the ones taking control of resources and shaping the kind of world that we want to live in. That is the nature of what our organization is about. Our approach is very different for lots of other groups that are out there. We really feel it's necessary to create the model ourselves. I don't have much faith in our governments-local, regional or federal-or the benevolence of outside corporations to implement the things that we want to see and the way that we want to see them.

Q: Is this about creating a new game, since the old game is not working?

OF: Yeah, that's essentially what it is. I draw a lot of inspiration from every effort that I have ever come across where people in their communities have decided that they were going to take on their own development and really create their own economic structures under their own circumstances --from the Mondragon Co-operatives in the Basque region of Spain, to workers that have just taken over their defunct factories in Argentina, to Native Americans in the U.S. that are building their own energy co-ops and are doing different things to sustain their own economies. There are different things that are happening all over the country where people are trying to do that.

Q: You have written that, "We don't have the luxury to wait for alternatives. That's why we are creating them." What drives that sense of urgency?

OF: Asthma, cancer, every health problem and threat that is associated with the environment; pollution in the environment. All of that. If you are living with power plants and oil refineries and sewage-processing plants, you are also living with the horrible health threats and problems that those things generate.

Q: Twenty-five years from now, what do you want to see your neighborhood looking like?

OF: Lush, green, clear skies, happy people smiling. I'd like in twenty-five years for "worker co-ops" to be a household phrase. For people to understand what co-operatives are, and to know at least somebody in their family who is working in a worker co-op in the South Bronx; for these businesses to be green, environmentally friendly; and for the South Bronx not to be known as a dumping ground anymore, but instead to be known as a place where visions become reality.