Aric Sleeper

'Public trust': A key legal tool to preserve our natural resources

With the reality of climate change becoming more apparent in the form of extreme weather events such as heat waves, droughts, and floods, it is clear that the future of all life on the planet is in peril. To stress the immediacy and seriousness of human-caused climate change and its effects, United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres addressed the leaders and representatives of nearly 200 countries at COP27 in November 2022.

This article was produced by Local Peace Economy, a project of the Independent Media Institute.

“Our planet is fast approaching tipping points that will make climate chaos irreversible,” said Guterres at the conference. “We are on a highway to climate hell with our foot still on the accelerator.”

As the climate rapidly changes largely due to the environmentally damaging practices of large corporations, unchecked by government officials that receive campaign contributions from the polluting industries, it may seem like there isn’t much that can be done to combat this problematic pattern.

However, there are underutilized legal weapons already on the books that can help fight big corporations and preserve the planet’s natural resources, such as watersheds and large forests, like those in Oregon—which can either serve as a sponge for carbon dioxide or an emitter when the forest cover is cut down. That legal weapon, a component of property law, is a concept known as the public trust.

“The public trust lies in the realm of fundamental rights law,” says University of Oregon Philip H. Knight Professor Mary Christina Wood. “Its roots actually go back to Roman law and the institutes of Justinian, which does seem like a long time ago, but every court case today that deals with the public trust mentions those Roman roots, literally.”

The institutes of Justinian or Justinian the Great, a Roman emperor ruling in the sixth century, declared that certain natural resources are always considered under public ownership, and those resources are air, water, and coastlines, according to Wood.

“The public trust has its origins in public property rights,” says Wood. “The Roman law became the basis of civil and common law systems around the world.”

The Roman concept that the public has ownership of natural resources subsequently became embedded in English law. After the Magna Carta was established in 1215, the king of England could not assert full dominion over fisheries, forests, or water, according to Wood.

In the law of the United States, the public trust principle is also present but is expressed in a slightly different way than the English monarchy.

“In this country [the U.S.], it was announced as the most simple and logical principle,” says Wood. “The government is a sovereign with the people giving it power, and the government does not have the power to fully privatize resources that are crucial. Those stay in trust for the people—and the government works as a trustee or fiduciary steward of those resources, and the beneficiaries are present and future generations of citizens.”

Wood points out that the public trust has always been a part of United States law, but isn’t always utilized in the context of protecting natural resources, with statutory laws such as the Clean Air Act of 1963 and others being more commonly used in court cases.

“I’m just sort of taking it off the shelf,” says Wood.

When Wood was a student at Stanford Law School, one of her professors was Joseph Sax, who was a pioneer of public trust scholarship. Wood was inspired by Sax’s work and took the concept of the law further by devising a litigation strategy based on the public trust, which continues to evolve.

She has also written a book called Nature’s Trust: Environmental Law for a New Ecological Age, which critiques statutory environmental law, in the sense that the laws don’t go far enough to protect natural resources. She also discusses established public trust principles in her book and identifies the responsibilities the government has to protect natural resources in the context of the public trust.

To put the concept in different terms, Wood explains the public trust through a financial example.

“Say you have a college-age daughter and you have $500,000 to pay for her college, but you don’t want to deal with the money management because you’re too busy,” says Wood. “So you appoint me as a trustee for the college account. As the trustee, I am the legal owner of that account. I manage it, safely invest it and pay [your daughter] the dividends, and she is the beneficial owner. If I screw up in some way or buy a condo with the money, which is what our political representatives are kind of doing by using our resources as a payback for political contributions, I have violated a fiduciary obligation to your daughter.”

In all, there are about 10 fiduciary obligations or legal responsibilities that the government has to its citizens with regard to vital natural resources that are a part of the public trust, which are outlined in Wood’s book and recent talk.

“The most basic fiduciary obligation is the duty of protection,” says Wood. “You protect the wealth of the trust.”

Wood notes that clear-cutting of forests is a violation of the public trust, as it releases large amounts of carbon. Although she points out that it is debatable whether a forest is considered part of the public trust, there is no debate about water and air’s inclusion. When a forest is clear-cut, it affects the watershed and releases carbon into the atmosphere, which violates another fiduciary obligation.

“That violates the duty to maximize benefit to the public,” says Wood. “The public has many interests in that ecology. It serves as a watershed and a habitat, and typically speaking, the agencies are taking actions for the primary benefit of a private party and not for the public.”

Because of the Citizens United court case, Wood can’t legally do anything about timber companies that give contributions to political campaigns, but with the public trust law she found a loophole with the fiduciary duty of loyalty.

“The government has many functions, and one of those is dealing with natural wealth,” says Wood. “The agencies in those dealings are public trustees, and courts say this across the board.”

In this context, when a legislator accepts a campaign contribution and makes a decision about the wealth of the public trust—say, a watershed—that benefits the contributor, then that is a violation of the public trust. This allows lawyers like Wood to challenge and legally invalidate the actions of legislators who try to give favors to their financial backers, but only in the sphere of natural resources protected in the public trust.

“It’s a full frame change of the law,” says Wood.

One group fighting to protect natural resources in the public trust in Oregon is called North Coast Communities for Watershed Protection (NCCWP), a grassroots organization of Oregon residents. The group is concerned with the protection of drinking water that comes from forested watersheds, and air quality, which are both negatively impacted by common timber industry practices like clear-cutting, slash burning, and pesticide spraying in forests that surround communities in Oregon. The group’s awareness-raising petition, launched in summer 2022, calls for the cessation of logging operations and pesticide use in drinking watersheds across the northern Oregon coast. Because the petition is not a legal petition but instead aims at increasing public awareness, anyone from anywhere can sign it. The group plans to present the petition to city, county, and state-level lawmakers in Oregon, as well as a number of relevant stakeholders, in an effort to increase consciousness about the ways communities are impacted by industrial timber practices.

Wood points out that the work of groups like NCCWP is vital to combating environmental degradation and fighting climate change, but changing the status quo will take even more audacious actions.

“We are going over Niagara Falls, all of us,” says Wood. “We really need some bold thinking, and I think that the public trust is that because it reorients government back to the basic principles of substantial impairment. So I try to create legislative approaches that hit hard and hit big.”

Author Bio: Aric Sleeper is an independent journalist whose work, which covers topics including labor, drug reform, food, and more, has appeared in the San Francisco Chronicle and other publications local to California’s Central Coast. In addition to his role as a community reporter, he has served as a government analyst and bookseller.

Successful tool-lending libraries force us to rethink what the public is willing to share

As the old saying goes, there’s a right tool for every job—but what happens when a sizable tree branch falls in someone’s driveway after a big storm and the person neither owns a chainsaw nor has the extra cash to rush off to purchase a new one? Or perhaps a student with a tiny apartment doesn’t have storage space for tools, and suddenly needs a drill to fix the sagging cabinet door in the kitchen but has never used one and doesn’t know how to.

This article was produced by Local Peace Economy, a project of the Independent Media Institute.

For all of these moments when the right tool for the job is out of reach, there are lending libraries that have been springing up around the country, which supply more than just books.

According to a 2021 study by an alumna from San José State University (SJSU), tool libraries were first documented in the United States in the 1940s. These unique institutions lend devices such as power and hand tools, yard and garden implements, and even kitchen utensils to those in need of the right tool, but without the means to own or store them.

According to the San José State University study, more than 50 tool libraries were operating in the United States until May 2021. There was a boom in the number of tool-lending libraries in the late 1970s with the establishment of these libraries in places such as Berkeley, California, which opened in 1979 with one staff member in a portable trailer, according to the study. After more than 40 years of evolution, the Berkeley Public Library’s (BPL) current tool lending library can now be accessed through BPL’s website.

The study, which compiled “news clippings, refereed articles, blog posts, and websites,” according to the author, pointed out that scholars of the subject traditionally thought that tool-lending libraries sprang up in the late 1970s. However, earlier examples date further back to the 1940s when the public library in Grosse Pointe, Michigan, opened the first tool lending library.

At the end of World War II, domestic utensils such as kitchen and yard implements were in short supply as the raw materials normally used in their production were diverted to support war efforts.

Informal tool lending within communities was common at that time, according to the study, and in 1943, the Grosse Pointe Public Library created its first tool lending library, which is still in operation, and can also be accessed online like its cousin in Berkeley.

The first inventory of about 25 tools was donated to the Grosse Pointe Public Library by the Boys’ Work Committee of the Grosse Pointe Rotary Club, who, according to the study, donated the tools to the community to “encourage manual dexterity in the younger generation.”

Today, the Grosse Pointe Public Library’s collection of tools includes more than 150 implements and devices ranging from bolt cutters to bird-watching binoculars, and even includes yard games such as bocce ball and croquet sets. All games, devices, and implements borrowed from the institution come with a how-to information pamphlet.

The local Rotary Club adopted the responsibility of maintaining and repairing a varied catalog of items, and still does so today. The study’s author stated that the survival and growth of the Grosse Pointe Public Library’s tool collection might not have been possible without the involvement of the Rotary Club, and that it was the only tool library in the country until the mid-1970s.

The second known tool-lending library in the United States was formed in Columbus, Ohio, in 1976. The tool lending library was established by the local city government and provided free tools and implements to homeowners and renters within the city, stated the study. The Columbus tool library was established in a warehouse that now contains more than 5,000 implements such as hammers, drills, and ladders, which can be borrowed for durations ranging from one day to a week.

In 2009, the nonprofit ModCon Living took over operations of the Columbus-based tool library from the local government and now finances the endeavor through membership fees and donations.

Another tool library was established in Seattle, Washington, in the late 1970s by a University of Washington professor who used tools and implements donated to him by students moving away after the school year and graduation. When the collection grew too big for the professor to maintain single-handedly, the Phinney Neighborhood Association took over operations of maintaining these tools.

The Phinney Tool Library is still in operation and carries about 3,000 items including an array of power and hand tools as well as unique implements such as apple pickers and a cider press. According to the study, tools in the Phinney library that are beyond repair are donated to local artists where they find a second life as a component in a craft piece or art installation.

The greatest increase in tool-lending libraries in the United States came around 2008 during the Great Recession, according to the study, with institutions like the Sacramento Library of Things in California and the Chicago Tool Library in Illinois opening as part of this “tool-lending movement.” Another organization that provides tools to charitable groups instead of individuals, called ToolBank USA, was also established at that time in 2008. The study’s author credits advances in technology like cloud-based software to the continued boom in tool lending libraries across the United States.

Tool lending libraries have also been established overseas in the United Kingdom, stated the study. Scotland’s Edinburgh Tool Library was established in 2015, which inspired similar institutions in areas like Leith and Portobello in Edinburgh, and in 2018, a Library of Things was established in London, England, which is run by volunteers who assist interested organizations and municipalities in creating their own tool libraries.

With the popularity of audio and digital books and rising inflation increasing the cost of tools and implements everywhere, public libraries in the United States and around the world may all adopt the tool-lending precedents established by pioneers such as the Grosse Pointe and Berkley public libraries, which have tool lending models that have been used successfully for decades.

Author Bio: Aric Sleeper is an independent journalist whose work, which covers topics including labor, drug reform, food, and more, has appeared in the San Francisco Chronicle and other publications local to California’s Central Coast. In addition to his role as a community reporter, he has served as a government analyst and bookseller.

Indigenous-led group opens new salvo in fight for climate justice

NDN Collective, inspired by the Standing Rock Sioux movement, releases a report on Dakota Access Pipeline.

Climate justice means something different to everyone but when it brings to mind images of shrinking glaciers, islands of floating garbage, or oil leaking into the soil from a cross-country pipeline, the associations being made are actually examples of climate injustices, according to climate justice campaign organizer for NDN Collective, Kailea Frederick.

This article was produced by Local Peace Economy, a project of the Independent Media Institute.

“We often envision climate injustices first before we talk about climate justice,” says Frederick. “It’s because we see a lot of injustice in terms of what has created climate change and continues to exacerbate it, [along with those] in the front-line communities that are most impacted, who happen to be our people,” says Frederick.

The concept of climate justice conforms to the belief that global warming and climate change are social, economic and political issues as much as they are environmental or scientific dilemmas. For organizers like Frederick and her colleague, Jade Begay, climate justice campaign director for NDN Collective, climate justice is more than just an acknowledgment that climate change is man-made and rooted in socioeconomic issues, it stands for a better future where the economy thrives while ethical considerations are made for the environment and all people—rich and poor, white or BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, and people of color).

“Climate justice is part of the social movement or activism lexicon, which isn’t always the most accessible to regular everyday people,” says Begay. “The unfortunate part is that climate justice is centered around meeting the needs of everyday people. In practice, climate justice is really about health and safety, having clean jobs and dignified wages for everyone.”

Founded in 2018 by Nick Tilsen of the Oglala Lakota Nation, NDN Collective is an Indigenous-led nonprofit organization focused on building the power of Indigenous people through organizing, activism, philanthropy and narrative change. Based in Rapid City, South Dakota, the collective’s formation was inspired by the efforts of the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe and many other Indigenous groups, and their struggle to stop the construction of the Dakota Access Pipeline (DAPL), which began in 2016.

“Thousands of Indigenous people came together and self-organized a fairly low-impact town that was partially fueled on solar power and governed by Indigenous people,” says Begay. “People first came together to fight the pipeline [DAPL], but it wasn’t just about the pipeline, it was about systemic racism.”

While forming NDN Collective, Tilsen was also heavily influenced by his work with the Thunder Valley Community Development Corporation, which seeks to preserve the culture of the Oglala Lakota Nation in South Dakota through community and economic development.

“Tilsen was already leading this incredible model in his own community and saw the need at Standing Rock for the growth and expansion of [the work being done by] Thunder Valley,” says Begay. “That was when the idea of NDN Collective came to be.”

Before committing to creating the collective, Tilsen and others decided to seek the counsel of their ancestors in the spirit world. The message they received in their ceremony was a question, “How long are you going to let other people decide the future for your children? Are you not warriors?” The question spurred Tilsen and his colleagues to proceed with forming the collective.

Begay and Frederick were drawn to the organization through their similar paths. Begay, a descendant of the Diné people and a citizen of the Tesuque Pueblo of New Mexico, had worked with Indigenous organizations in the past. She began consulting for NDN Collective in 2018 and was soon hired as a creative director. Now, as the climate justice campaign director, she focuses on informational campaigns and impacting governmental policy, while also serving as a member of the White House Environmental Justice Advisory Council.

“In my relatively short career and life, I’d never seen something so ambitious, and so exciting in terms of moving resources directly to Indigenous folks,” says Begay while referring to the work being done by NDN Collective.

Frederick, who came aboard NDN Collective’s climate justice team in 2021, identifies as a Black American and is a descendent of the Tahltan and Kaska nations. In addition to her work with NDN Collective, she is the editor of Loam and serves as a member of the City of Petaluma Climate Action Commission in California.

“I met Jade some years ago, so when I heard NDN Collective was starting a climate justice team, I was excited,” says Frederick. “It felt like a good fit to have the opportunity to work on a team that was focused on advocacy and capacity building for Indigenous communities in a climate-changed world.”

In March 2022, NDN Collective’s climate justice team released the report, “Faulty Infrastructure and the Impacts of the Dakota Access Pipeline,” which provides an analysis about the safety issues associated with the pipeline and chronicles the lack of due diligence that occurred throughout the planning and construction process. Begay and Frederick worked with contractors and engineers to compose the report, which includes a demand that the Biden administration drain and shut down the pipeline permanently.

“The report is the first to lay out a full and factual timeline of the DAPL process, and by laying out the entirety of the process, it became clear that there was a co-conspiracy happening between the Army Corps of Engineers [that granted permission for the construction of the pipeline] and the owners of DAPL,” says Frederick.

Even with the report published, and a full environmental review by the Army Corps of Engineers ongoing, oil continues to be transported through the pipeline. Despite the U.S. government’s refusal to shut the pipeline down, the work of NDN Collective’s climate justice team, who wrote the report, has created a precedent and structure for those who want to fight against the development of projects similar to DAPL down the road.

“We’re now stuck in the regulatory space,” says Begay. “But we can share the knowledge we’ve gained over this process with our partners and community members so that if we have to fight another pipeline, we’ll be that much better at shutting it down.”

Moving forward, NDN Collective’s climate justice team is focused on influencing policymaking at the state and federal levels and building climate-resilient communities through traditional ecological knowledge like executing safe prescribed burns and building low-impact adobe architecture.

“We are giving Indigenous people the knowledge, skills and tools that will help us prepare better for the shifts we will soon start experiencing in our ecosystem,” says Begay.

Author Bio: Aric Sleeper is an independent journalist whose work, which covers topics including labor, drug reform, food and more, has appeared in the San Francisco Chronicle and other publications local to California’s Central Coast. In addition to his role as a community reporter, he has served as a government analyst and bookseller.

How collectives are helping people navigate the tricky financial side of life

Removing the taboo around talking about money, two collectives are helping people work toward securing their financial well-being.

Financial health is the elephant in the room that we avoid talking about in social situations, at work, and even with our loved ones, despite the fact that financial well-being has a profound effect on how we think and feel. A review of 32 studies conducted on the dynamics of financial well-being and mental health between 2001 and 2019 found that a person’s financial situation has a “significant impact” on their mental health, with financial hardship being frequently associated with increased stress, anxiety and depression. Yet, financial well-being remains a taboo subject.

This article was produced by Local Peace Economy, a project of the Independent Media Institute.

Another study from 2018 shows that among the millennials, Gen Xers and baby boomers surveyed, talking about money was considered a more illicit subject than discussing marital problems, drug addiction, sex and even politics.

The overall physical health of a person can also be profoundly affected by financial well-being, as it can impede health care access, for example.

“There was a story several years ago about a woman in Boston who got her leg stuck in a subway train. When faced with [the possibility of] losing her leg, rather than asking for an ambulance, she begged the people around her not to call one because of the cost,” says actuary, financial consultant and founder of the Money Health Collective Lin Shi. “To me, this was a stark reminder about how much of our decision-making is driven by how we view our financial situation, which is the heart of the Money Health Collective.”

The Money Health Collective (MHC) was founded in 2021 through Lin’s work with the Mira Fellowship, which supports a small cohort of cultural visionaries each year. With her experience as an actuary and financial consultant, and an innate urge to help others, Lin sought to create a program that would dissolve the stigmas around money and provide knowledge for those who have never been exposed to financial expertise in any form.

“From my point of view, financial well-being is the foundational pillar of all other aspects of well-being because financial distress can have a huge impact on mental health as well as physical health,” says Lin.

To combat the taboo associated with talking about financial health, the MHC created a safe, online space for people across all demographics to meet and speak with each other in what Lin calls “money conversations.” For participants who decide to take their financial education to the next level, the collective conducts “money journeys,” which virtually unite disparate cohorts of strangers to share and learn from each other’s financial experiences through a series of creative exercises designed by Lin.

“The process is a bit whimsical, and has been described before as radical play,” says Lin. “The idea is to create some openness and some space to start talking about money openly with someone you’ve never met.”

After facilitating a number of money conversations and journeys since she founded the MHC in 2021, Lin has observed that the concerns participants from all demographics share are centered around debt, housing insecurity, emergency funds and savings. A psychological similarity, which Lin has observed in participants rich and poor, is visible when they start comparing their financial situation with others.

“A certain anxiety comes when people start comparing,” says Lin. “Most people feel financially fine until they find someone who has more than them, and suddenly they don’t feel so well. I’ve encountered this all across the income structure.”

Once participants overcome their initial envy and start to build camaraderie through the money conversations and money journey, Lin has found that sharing stories about personal finance leaves people feeling empowered and more confident about their relationship with money.

“At first there’s always the awkwardness and tension on a Zoom call, but seeing people open up and share their stories and light up by the end is very powerful,” says Lin. “And after a few weeks, or between sessions, when participants tell me they feel less burdened, I feel very grateful to be able to facilitate these spaces.”

With the MHC still in its early days, Lin is testing new iterations of the money journey and using what she’s learned to keep strengthening people’s relationship with personal finance and squash the stigma around discussing money. Moving forward, one of her long-term goals is to create a small army of financial coaches through the collective.

“I think there is such a need for financial education and support in the world, and if we can train people to be financial coaches through the collective, they can use what they learned as a flexible income stream for themselves and help to support others at the same time,” says Lin. “In the long term, I’d love to provide some level of financial support for members of the collective so that those who are financially struggling can continue to grow.”

Nowhere is the stigma around money stronger than in the workplace, and sometimes that is no different at a cooperative business, according to Alex Fischer, bookkeeper and worker-owner at A Bookkeeping Cooperative (ABC), which focuses on bookkeeping, consulting and training for the solidarity economy.

“All too often, we were seeing co-ops that were being democratically managed, but when it came to their finances, one person was in charge, the process wasn’t transparent and the whole team wasn’t empowered to participate,” says Fischer.

To demystify the world of budgets, expenditures and surpluses for all cooperative worker-owners and justice-oriented organizations, Fischer and their organization ABC, along with a small circle of bookkeepers and strategists from cooperatives like AORTA and the TESA Collective, banded together to create the Cooperative Financial Education Kit (CFEK). When it’s completed in the fall of 2022, the downloadable kit will include self-facilitated exercises that will range from 15 minutes to several hours and will aim to educate participants on topics ranging from organizational budget creation as a collective, to the history of racialized capitalism, and understanding cash flow statements.

“We also have games,” says Fischer. “They’re super fun for those of us who nerd out on finance and gaming. In general, bringing fun into the [financial education] process is part of our ethos because people relax and actually retain more information.”

The CFEK is a labor of love, which has been years in the making. Without outside funding for the project, Fischer and their colleagues have had to work on the kit whenever they can find time because they believe that financial education is the crux of a truly democratic organization.

“We have been creatively funding this project for years,” says Fischer. “The hardest part has been trying to find time for an unfunded project with people across three different organizations.”

After the kit is ready for download in the fall, Fischer plans to focus more on their other projects like ABC’s public financial education workshop series, Cosmos, which sheds light on topics like patronage. The art of patronage refunds, or dividing a cooperative’s profit, is rarely practiced, and cooperative members may find that they have to relearn the process every year.

“It is regulated, and there’s a lot of specificity about how you calculate it,” says Fischer. “And similar to budgeting, if the staff only does it [calculates their patronage refunds] once a year, it’s hard for them to build their skills. We help people to build those skills over time.”

Looking ahead, Fischer hopes to expand the curriculum and capacity of the Cosmos workshops, and work with justice-oriented organizations to tailor training based on their needs. Most of all, Fischer is excited to see the financial education kit out in the world.

“We will probably get lots of feedback about what people want more of and what didn’t go so well, and I do imagine that there will be future iterations,” says Fischer. “Down the line, we’re all excited to continue the work and keep people moving forward [in their financial journey].”

Author Bio: Aric Sleeper is an independent journalist whose work, which covers topics including labor, drug reform, food and more, has appeared in the San Francisco Chronicle and other publications local to California’s Central Coast. In addition to his role as a community reporter, he has served as a government analyst and bookseller.

How PeoplesHub is fostering local revolutions and taking on the right-wing

PeoplesHub offers organizers essential knowledge and online solutions for progressive change

Every revolution starts small—with an idea that the status quo isn’t quite right and a change needs to happen—but building a social movement from the ground up means putting in serious work. Connecting and organizing people who are like-minded, even at a local level, without access to the right knowledge can be daunting, especially without any help. Since 2017, PeoplesHub has assisted and reinforced progressive social movements through online training in team building and leadership, so that nascent revolutionaries can see their vision to fruition.

This article was produced by Local Peace Economy, a project of the Independent Media Institute.

“Local revolution means people taking collective action to utilize their unique strengths to transform their community. It’s centered in knowledge, collective care and the act of bringing those at the margins into the center,” says PeoplesHub project director Hope Ghazala. “At PeoplesHub, we believe that the popular education that we and others around the globe practice provides the first steppingstone toward developing a local revolution.”

After a 12,000-mile road trip across the United States, visiting towns, cities and Native American reservations, founding editor of YES! Magazine and author Sarah van Gelder was inspired to create PeoplesHub to unite and strengthen local revolutions across the country through workshops and clinics.

“As Sarah visited communities and met with organizers, she realized that local concerns people had weren’t getting national attention, which created isolation,” says Ghazala. “PeoplesHub was created as a place to connect, inspire and scale-up community efforts, and link local revolutions across the globe.”

Ghazala is a licensed social worker, facilitator and organizer, and joined PeoplesHub in 2020 as a community offerings coordinator, facilitating workshops centered on public safety. A proud native of New York City, Ghazala’s current role as the program director at PeoplesHub involves balancing a number of responsibilities within the organization.

“I was taught at a very young age that our oppressors can take everything material from us, but they can’t take our knowledge, so I am honored to work at an organization centered in popular education,” says Ghazala. “It’s inspiring to work at PeoplesHub.”

Popular education is a teaching methodology created by Pedagogy of the Oppressed author Paulo Freire, who argued that teaching and learning are political acts in themselves. Essentially, popular education is “[centered] on participants’ life experiences,” which means that the concept of teacher and student is scrapped and everyone involved in the process teaches and learns. A high level of participation is also expected in PeoplesHub’s offerings to ensure that every voice is heard in the education process, whether or not someone can speak English or Spanish, the two languages in which the training is conducted.

“As an online movement school, we try to make learning accessible for everyone in numerous ways,” says Ghazala. “It’s substantially less expensive to meet with people online, across geographies, and thanks to technology, we have translation services built right into the platform.”

PeoplesHub trainers work with labor unions like the American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations (AFL-CIO), nonprofits and media organizations that align with their values of resistance, resilience, restoration and reimagination. For the past two years, the Detroit-based media organization Allied Media Projects (AMP) has participated in PeoplesHub’s offerings to reimagine its annual conference in the context of COVID-19.

“Allied Media is an organization that cultivates media for liberation,” says MARS Marshall, co-executive director of AMP and director of the Allied Media Conference (AMC). “We support an ecosystem of people and projects that are working through the lens of media as a form of visionary organizing work.”

In addition to hosting Allied Media Conference, which draws thousands of technologists and cultural organizers each year, AMP’s Seeds Presenter Program facilitates online speaking events centered around social justice issues in the media. AMP also provides fiscal sponsorship and administrative support for social justice organizations and projects like Complex Movements and the Hinterlands through its Sponsored Projects Program.

“This support is crucial,” says Marshall. “Instead of all of these individual projects having to become 501(c)(3)s on their own, we are taking on the weight of administrative support for all of them.”

Members of PeoplesHub had attended AMP’s past conferences, so Marshall was familiar with the organization and knew who to connect with in 2020 when they sought to create a hybrid conference that was both hyperlocal and available online.

“PeoplesHub has always been this radical group of people orbiting in our network,” says Marshall. “In 2020, many conferences were making the massive pivot to go completely online. We had been following PeoplesHub in the past, but we started seriously collaborating [with them] at that moment.”

The 22nd Allied Media Conference will convene in Detroit, Michigan, at Marygrove College and the Detroit Institute of Arts, and online for participants across the world, thanks to the support of PeoplesHub. The event will feature film screenings, workshops, panels and plenary discussions centered around important topics like the framework of reparations, and power dynamics in the 21st century.

“We also have two dynamic ceremonies and three nights of parties this year,” says Marshall. “We like to say that relationships are formed in the sessions, but they get solidified on the dance floor.”

While trying to create a conference that’s accessible for all participants, environmentally conscious, COVID-19 safe and engaging, Marshall has been grateful to have the support and guidance of PeoplesHub.

“PeoplesHub plays a critical role in ensuring that our conference remains as dynamic and transformative as possible by engaging presenters and training them on the skills they need to make things happen,” says Marshall. “We couldn’t co-curate a container for so many people to come together and experiment with all of these strategies for liberation without the work by PeoplesHub.”

In 2022, PeoplesHub formed the Arts and Social Justice Fellowship to support the work of four artists, Elena House-Hay, Saleem Hue Penny, Taria Person and Miguel Lopez. One of the goals of Ghazala and others at PeoplesHub is to connect disparate artists already focused on social justice to spark collaboration and incorporate cultural work into the organization’s model of popular education.

“We want to bring more visual art, poetry, music, dance and all forms of art into the offerings and online presence that we have,” says Ghazala. “We are so honored to have Elena House-Hay as a fellow, who is an incarcerated [artist]. As an organization that believes deeply in the dismantling of the prison-industrial complex, we are using the fellowship to stop the intentional isolation of incarcerated people and will include [more] incarcerated artists in the years to come.”

Looking ahead, Ghazala and the team at PeoplesHub are focused on dismantling the influence of the global far-right ideology and decentering the United States in their perspective of the movement by offering a series of talks on the rise of white supremacy, resisting surveillance and the far-right movement internationally.

“PeoplesHub is a relatively new organization with a small team,” says Ghazala. “We’re still learning about which models to adopt and how to scale our vision with our capacity. We want to be ambitious about the goals we pursue, like our work [on] the far right, and grounded in what we can influence, to have as much strategic impact as we can as a movement school.”

Author Bio: Aric Sleeper is an independent journalist whose work, which covers topics including labor, drug reform, food and more, has appeared in the San Francisco Chronicle and other publications local to California’s Central Coast. In addition to his role as a community reporter, he has served as a government analyst and bookseller.

How one organization is helping to grow cooperative businesses in New York City

Green Worker Cooperatives nurtures co-op startups in the South Bronx.

Mention a worker cooperative or a cooperatively owned business in casual conversation, and most people will be left scratching their heads and will need some elaboration on the concept, despite there being a 36 percent increase in the number of cooperatives operating in the United States between 2013 and 2019. In addition to their recent growth, businesses owned and operated by employees, or worker cooperatives, have a long history in the United States and beyond.

This article was produced by Local Peace Economy, a project of the Independent Media Institute.

“The idea of worker cooperatives has been around for a long time in the United States and in New York City. For example, in the Bronx, there is one of the largest worker cooperatives in the country called Cooperative Home Care Associates, with about 2,000 members, and there are many [worker cooperatives] internationally that have a long history, like the Mondragon [Corporation] in Spain,” says interim director and co-op developer at Green Worker Cooperatives Danielle LeBlanc.

Green Worker Cooperatives is an environmentally focused cooperative business incubator founded in the South Bronx by social entrepreneur Omar Freilla during the economic downturn of 2008. Cooperative developers like LeBlanc and her colleagues at Green Worker Cooperatives facilitate a five-month-long workshop series called the Co-op Learning Institute. They also provide one-on-one coaching and pro bono legal assistance for nascent cooperative businesses through their partner organization TakeRoot Justice and provide access to non-extractive financing through another partner organization, the Working World.

“There is a strong need for this kind of work in New York City and outside of the city as well,” says LeBlanc. “Before the pandemic, we did the workshops in person and were constrained by the space we had. We would do two [workshops] a year and had a maximum of about 20 to 30 people who would fit in the space. After switching to virtual workshops [during the pandemic], we had more than 100 people who registered and about 75 people who committed to participate in the entire series.”

The workshop series begins with the world history of the cooperative model, which has its foundation in the seven principles of operating a cooperative business that were established in England by the Rochdale Society of Equitable Pioneers in 1844. The series then examines the advantages that cooperative businesses have over other business models.

“This model can work for any sized business and even existing businesses where, for example, the owner wants to retire and sell [the] business to the employees, who can then transform it into a cooperative,” says LeBlanc. “The positive thing about a cooperative is that everyone has ownership and makes decisions, which is important especially now when [workplace] health and safety issues are so important. Think about the [incident in the] candle factory [in Kentucky in December 2021] where the workers were afraid to leave during a tornado [as they would have been fired]. Because the workers are owners [in a cooperative], they tend to find a balance between taking care of each other and making a profit.”

However, there are some real challenges inherent in the cooperative business model, according to LeBlanc. By definition, the owners of a cooperative business need to cooperate in order to get things done, and not everyone finds it natural to work well in a group.

“In life, we are not always used to working together to make collective decisions,” says LeBlanc. “We don’t have a lot of opportunities in life to make collective decisions, but that’s what a cooperative business is all about. You have to really think things through and learn how to deal with collective decision-making, which is why it’s one of the first topics we talk about in the… [Co-op Learning Institute]. You have to know yourself, and that can be a challenge sometimes.”

Green Worker Cooperatives has graduated a number of entrepreneurs from its institute over the years, and helped to form many cooperative businesses, such as the White Pine Community Farm, Revolutionary Seeds of Harlem, WE ARE EARTH and Solar Uptown Now Services.

“Solar Uptown Now Services was formed by a number of individuals who went through solar installation training [conducted] through a workforce development program, but couldn’t find jobs after they completed their training, so they decided to start their own solar installation company,” says LeBlanc. “They went through our [Co-op Learning Institute] program and started their own cooperative. Now they have a number of projects and are working to get their general contracting license so they can bid for work themselves.”

Green Worker Cooperatives received a grant from the New York Community Trust, which is a community foundation for the city, to work in collaboration with three doula cooperatives in New York City that graduated from the Co-op Learning Institute like the Uptown Village Cooperative. With the funds, the doula cooperatives established partnerships with local hospitals, and a mentorship and training program for future doulas. Through these doula cooperatives, more than 13,000 services have been provided to families in New York City.

“The funds allowed them [the doula cooperatives] to stay viable and move their services online during the pandemic. It also helped them to build out the doula network in the city, and it was a great success,” says LeBlanc.

Guiding entrepreneurs through the process of creating and growing a cooperative business into a viable enterprise is the most rewarding aspect of LeBlanc’s work, as the unique businesses that emerge from the Co-op Learning Institute may never have existed without the help of Green Worker Cooperatives.

“What’s the chance that some economic developer or someone from up high would come and try to start a cooperative business in Brooklyn that transforms shipping containers into community farms, or start a compost cooperative, or a doula cooperative? The people we help are so invested in their own communities, and just hearing them talk about their business is a joy as well.”

Moving forward, LeBlanc and her colleagues at Green Worker Cooperatives are looking to expand their resources. After seeing a rise in interest in their online workshops, they want to hire additional economic developers so they can offer more workshops and increase their outreach.

“Right now, we have about 75 people attending one Zoom meeting, and it would be great if we had the resources to offer classes more nights in the week or at different times of the year,” says LeBlanc. “Figuring out a way to spread the word to bring more resources to cooperative [business] building here in the city is my dream and goal.”

Author Bio: Aric Sleeper is an independent journalist whose work, which covers topics including labor, drug reform, food and more, has appeared in the San Francisco Chronicle and other publications local to California’s Central Coast. In addition to his role as a community reporter, he has served as a government analyst and bookseller.

Movement generation works to usher in a sustainable just transition

Movement Generation educates activists on the dynamics of social and environmental justice.

In the mid-2000s, when the documentary featuring former Vice President Al Gore, “An Inconvenient Truth,” first alerted viewers that human activity was drastically altering the environment, and global warming would insidiously thaw the North and South poles and raise the sea levels, urban organizers like Mateo Nube heard the warning loud and clear. Nube quickly banded together with other activists in the San Francisco Bay Area to educate their communities about humanity’s devastating impacts on the environment and what needed to be done to try to abate the eventual irreparable changes by shifting people’s views about the economy, which was contributing to the environmental degradation.

This article was produced by Local Peace Economy, a project of the Independent Media Institute.

“At that time, most of my peers in urban organizing weren’t even discussing climate change,” says Nube. “Once we started digging into it, we realized our peers organizing in Miami might be underwater 50 years from now, and that climate change was a symptom of a much deeper set of interlocking crises rooted in industrial extractivism.”

In 2006, Nube and his colleagues co-founded the Movement Generation Justice and Ecology Project to create an analytical foundation for organizers interested in the relationship between ecology and social justice, and as a hub for strategic organizing efforts through workshops, retreats and campaign development.

More than 15 years later, with undeniable signs of climate change becoming more apparent in the form of extreme weather events, which are being experienced with growing frequency every year, and the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, Nube and other longtime organizers are trying very hard not to say, “I told you so.”

“Fifteen years ago [just after we started Movement Generation], a lot of our work was about being a proactive Chicken Little of sorts, telling folks that things are really dramatic, but now we’re way past that,” says Nube. “In the last five years, it’s easy to see that change is afoot.”

Movement Generation’s first weeklong retreat in 2007 united Bay Area activists to simply unpack the climate crisis and its origins. Nube found that the initial retreat’s participants were shocked by the information, and ready to act, but they didn’t know what the abatement of climate change looked like in practice.

“To use a ‘Matrix’ parallel, folks came out of the retreat saying, ‘We’ve eaten your red pill, so what’s next?’” says Nube. “But the retreat was a grand experiment, and the outcome was to really start thinking about what the work of creating a just transition looks like on the ground.”

Since then, Movement Generation’s annual weeklong retreat has become its flagship program. Other organizations have branched off from Movement Generation’s efforts, like the Climate Justice Alliance and Seed Commons, which all have their frameworks based in the philosophy and practices of a just transition. For those unfamiliar with the concept, a just transition is the process of shifting from an extractive economy to a regenerative economy.

“To put it another way, a just transition is moving from a banks and tanks economy to a sharing and caring economy, or moving from a me and I stance to a we and us stance, as we digest and process a very dramatic reality [resulting from the climate crisis] on the planet Earth,” says Nube.

One key strategy to ensure a just transition in the scope of the environment, according to Nube, is to relocalize, which Movement Generation facilitates through their programs like Earth Skills and regionally focused EcoSchools workshops. Meanwhile, Movement Generation’s four-part workshop series Course Correction examines the origins of the COVID-19 pandemic and what it means to move forward within the framework of a just transition.

“In January 2020, when the pandemic started to become serious, we realized that this outcome had been a part of our instructional course material for some time,” says Nube. “If you’re continually paving over vibrant ecosystems and constraining the capacity for the species in an ecosystem to thrive, one of the things that will happen is that a virus will jump and spread. The industrial economy and corporate capitalist globalization have created a system of viral superhighways.”

Nube and others at Movement Generation moved their workshops primarily online and soon found that they were reaching thousands instead of hundreds of people. They also realized how economic inequities were highlighted in the context of the pandemic, and that large-scale social support is possible when backed by political resolve.

“We saw how easy it could be to build something else and transform systems when the political will is there,” says Nube. “There’s a lot of potential in the knowledge that all systems are human creations and can be changed. They’re not ordained and fixed by a deity. That’s a gift that the pandemic gave us, with the contradiction of what it means to have a pandemic that’s so destructive.”

Nube points out that the pandemic and all other environmental crises humanity currently endures were created by outdated economic systems and attitudes founded in racism and exploitation, and enforced with violence. One of the critical flaws in the mainstream environmental movement, according to Nube, is to think of conservation as something that is outside the influence of human systems.

“The military infrastructure that enforces white supremacy and anti-Blackness is the same system that facilitates the… [destruction] of the Earth. You can’t disconnect one from the other,” says Nube.

After working as a grassroots organizer for decades, and with Movement Generation since its founding, Nube is still baffled by critics who think that he and his peers are unrealistic in their worldview.

“I have always found it curious and somewhat humorous when a voice from the status quo says we are not being realistic,” says Nube. “It’s very clear that if we don’t make a pivot, life systems [will] collapse. This concept of endless growth and speculation as a form of wealth creation that somehow sustains itself over the arc of time is an illusory reality, and is on a fast track to collapse.”

Moving forward, Nube is wary of the fascist movements emerging around the world, and the way that fear is used on a large scale to manipulate populations, but he still remains hopeful that more people will learn what a just transition means and will decide to do the necessary work to change society and protect the environment.

“With our opposable thumbs and our creative minds, only we can cap all the oil wells, and tear up all the concrete, and repurpose and regrow healthy soil. That’s going to take a [lot] of labor, and we should have started yesterday, but nevertheless, we can get it done,” says Nube. “It will be hard, but hard and bad are not the same thing. The future will be hard. It’s on us to ensure that it’s not bad.”

Author Bio: Aric Sleeper is an independent journalist whose work, which covers topics including labor, drug reform, food and more, has appeared in the San Francisco Chronicle and other publications local to California’s Central Coast. In addition to his role as a community reporter, he has served as a government analyst and bookseller.

How grassroots energy projects are taking back power from utility companies

As power outages caused by extreme weather events become more intense and frequent, the efforts by federal, state and local legislators to abate human-caused climate change may seem futile to those on the front lines, who are left sweating or freezing in their homes after the power goes out unexpectedly and at the worst time possible.

Without intervention, these events will only become more recurrent. According to data provided by the National Centers for Environmental Information—which is part of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and maintains and provides national geophysical data and information—there was an average of around three “weather and climate disasters” per year in the 1980s, compared to a staggering 22 extreme weather events in 2020.

The Biden administration’s participation in COP26, which took place in Glasgow from October 31 to November 13, 2021, was a step in the right direction to address climate change, compared to the previous administration, which derailed any progress made by the U.S. to address the current climate crisis. President Joe Biden, however, still did not go far enough at the international climate conference in terms of addressing environmental justice, systemic environmental racism and the disproportionate support for repairing the damage caused by extreme weather events in impoverished countries and underserved communities in the United States. The actions and projects needed to address these issues and bring about real change on the ground are, meanwhile, being championed by grassroots organizations led by women and people of color who are taking steps within their communities to move away from fossil fuels, power their neighborhoods with clean energy, and stay connected with community-created broadband infrastructure.

In New York City, Making Solar Power Affordable and Accessible Is About ‘More Than Just Putting Panels on Rooftops’

Working at the intersection of climate change and environmental justice in the heart of New York City is the Latino community-based nonprofit UPROSE. Founded in 1966, and based in the city’s largest maritime industrial district, the nonprofit organizes sustainable development projects and advocates for policies in the Brooklyn neighborhood of Sunset Park and throughout all five boroughs. Their Sunset Park Solar project, which “will be New York City’s first community solar project owned and operated by a cooperative for the benefit of local residents and businesses,” will save its participants about 15 percent on their monthly electric bill, once the solar system has been installed and is operational.

The road to the project’s completion has been long and challenging due to the slow-moving gears of the existing governmental processes, according to Summer Sandoval, energy democracy coordinator at UPROSE.

“Sunset Park Solar is about more than just putting panels on rooftops; it’s about creating a scalable and replicable community-led model for the development of solar projects that build long-term community wealth and exhibit a Just Transition,” Sandoval says. “This project builds on the traditional community solar model but is vastly different from anything that’s been done before, and it’s challenging to navigate our way through processes, financial models and incentive programs that weren’t built for projects like this.”

Sunset Park Solar would allow for about 200 subscribers to utilize renewable energy and would not require any of them to install solar panels on their homes or pay any upfront costs, as UPROSE and its partners in the project have already done the heavy lifting. The panels for this project will be installed on the Brooklyn Army Terminal rooftop and will provide 685 kilowatts of clean electricity. In addition to the tangible cost-saving benefits to residents, the project has shown that community-led clean energy projects are possible.

“Even before construction, this project has demonstrated that the climate solutions are coming from the people on the front lines, and hopefully decision-makers see that as well and invest their resources directly into those front-line communities,” says Sandoval.

A Bright Spot in Detroit With Solar Streetlights

In Highland Park, Michigan, a city that sits within the City of Detroit, the nonprofit Soulardarity has been fighting for energy democracy since 2012.

“The idea of energy democracy is essentially focused on ensuring that the people who are affected the most by the decisions in energy should be the ones with the greatest amount of say in the process,” says Soulardarity Program Director Rafael Mojica.

Energy costs for city residents have been skyrocketing for decades (and continue to do so). The rate hikes were largely at the hands of the investor-owned, state-regulated utility company, DTE Energy, which made an interesting demand when Highland Park residents could no longer afford to pay the maintenance bill for their streetlights.

“In 2011, DTE gave [an] ultimatum to the City of Highland Park that they [either] pay the debt associated with the streetlights’ maintenance costs or lose them, and unfortunately, the city was in no position to pay their debt, so DTE followed through and removed more than 1,000 streetlights from the city,” says Mojica. “They didn’t remove everything. They left the stumps as a reminder to the community of their presence.”

When like-minded community members, led by Highland Park resident Shimekia Nichols (who is now Soulardarity’s executive director), organized as a result of the streetlight removal, they formed Soulardarity to bring light back to the community. After gathering funds from local residents, the first solar-powered streetlight was erected in 2012 in the neighborhood known as Avalon Village in Highland Park.

Soulardarity’s mission isn’t only to illuminate their streets with solar energy but also to shine a spotlight on the failed model of electricity production that for-profit, investor-owned utility providers like DTE Energy represent.

“DTE increases the rates they charge customers on a regular basis, exacerbating financial distress [for] communities of color, and despite the profits they’re raking in, they’re not using it to reinvest in their infrastructure. As a result… [the communities in Highland Park] have a poor level of service,” says Mojica. He adds that in the summer of 2021, “for example, Southeast and mid-Michigan experienced a huge number of blackouts, which are in DTE’s service area.”

Mojica points to the rippling effects of frequent power outages, especially in the summer and winter months, which can lead to refrigerated groceries that cost hundreds of dollars going bad as a result of these outages or can lead to rising hotel costs that may cripple the budgets of poor families living from paycheck to paycheck.

Currently, Soulardarity has been sifting through the language of the latest budget bills to ensure they provide funding for renewable energy projects in communities like Highland Park. Specifically, Soulardarity is seeking funds from the Department of Energy’s Communities LEAP program, which provides “supportive services valued at up to $16 million for community-driven clean energy transitions.”

Soulardarity has also completed an analysis in partnership with the Union of Concerned Scientists to outline what a clean energy, net-zero future would look like in Highland Park in the future called Let Communities Choose.

“Ultimately, we want to break free from DTE, and in this analysis we found that it is doable,” says Mojica. “Not only that, but there are a number of community benefits that would come with the transition to renewable energy in the form of job creation and economic development, and our communities would be healthier and safer—basically, dramatically improving the quality of life for all community members.”

Internet Access for All American Communities as a Gateway to Democracy and Equity

While the replacement of fossil fuels with renewable energy sources like solar is essential to preventing further global warming and boosting local economies, power also comes in the form of information. When access to high-speed internet is controlled by corporations that operate in a similarly monopolistic manner as utility companies like DTE Energy, underserved communities suffer, especially during situations like the ongoing pandemic.

“If you aren’t fortunate enough to live in a place with affordable and reliable high-speed internet, you are essentially locked out of participating in modern society in so many ways, whether it’s distance learning, telemedicine, entertainment or even civic participation,” says Sean Gonsalves, senior reporter for the Institute for Local Self Reliance’s Community Broadband Networks Initiative. “These problems really came to the fore during the pandemic.”

Currently, the high-speed internet market and broadband infrastructure, especially in rural communities, are inadequate, according to Gonsalves. When internet service providers are for-profit monopolies, large segments of the country either can’t afford reliable internet service, or don’t have access to high-speed broadband.

“When a community is reliant on outdated technology like DSL, they can’t even have a Zoom meeting, and good luck sending an email,” says Gonsalves. “In a healthy functioning market, people have choices, but when it comes to broadband, there aren’t options, which leads to high prices, poor customer service and bad coverage.”

To gain more reliable and affordable internet service, cities across the United States have formed their own municipal broadband networks to compete with the existing monopolies. Cities like Longmont, Colorado; Wilson, North Carolina; and Chattanooga, Tennessee, have transformed their economies and communities after organizing to create their own municipal broadband networks.

“The golden child is EPB in Chattanooga, which is a city-owned utility,” says Gonsalves. “Not every community can do what Chattanooga has, but in terms of benefits, the return on investment was $2.7 billion in the first 10 years of operation.” With federal legislation like the American Rescue Plan and Infrastructure Investments and Jobs Act setting aside resources to increase and strengthen community broadband networks, Gonsalves and others at the Community Broadband Networks Initiative are hopeful that more communities will organize and take advantage of these opportunities and create their own broadband networks with the use of federal funding.

“The infrastructure bill represents a watershed moment in terms of the largest investment by the federal government in broadband ever,” says Gonsalves. “Even private investors are showing interest in community broadband, and now is the time for communities to start planning and pushing forward in an organized and strategic way.”

Aric Sleeper is an independent journalist whose work, which covers topics including labor, drug reform, food and more, has appeared in the San Francisco Chronicle and other publications local to California’s Central Coast. In addition to his role as a community reporter, he has served as a government analyst and bookseller.

This article was produced by Local Peace Economy, a project of the Independent Media Institute.

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