Van Jones

How Many Oil Rigs Will Explode Before We Realize the Future Lies with Clean Energy?

Failing oil rigs are like roaches — if you see one, it probably means that you have 1,000 more somewhere in your house.  So it is not surprise that another offshore oil rig exploded last week in the Gulf of Mexico about 100 miles off the Louisiana coast.

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It Is Time to Change from Fighting Against Something to Fighting for Something

This article is adapted from The Green Collar Economy, by Van Jones with Ariane Conrad.

My background is in the struggles for racial justice and criminal justice reform. As such, I've always felt an affinity for Cinque, the hero of the slave-revolt movie Amistad. In that film, based on a true story, the righteous, enslaved Africans fight back and take over the slave ship.

The people at the bottom rise up -- taking their destiny into their own hands. It's really a metaphor for the last century's version of racial politics. The slave ship is earth, the white slavers are the world's oppressors and the African captives are the world's oppressed. The point is for the oppressed to confront and defeat their oppressors. I took that as my mission and spent years fighting against superjails, rogue cops, the prison lobby -- against the forces that, to my mind and the minds of many, are the slavers of today.

Yet at a certain point it occurred to me that what we need is less investment in the fight against and more energy in the fight for: for positive alternatives to violence and incarceration. It was around that time that I got involved in the environmental movement. And I came to understand that the answer to our social, economic and ecological crises can be one and the same: a green economy strong enough to lift people out of poverty.

Society faces some huge challenges. The individuals, entrepreneurs and community leaders who will step up to make the repairs and changes are going to need help. They require and deserve a world-class partner in our government. The time has come for a public-private community partnership to fix this country and put it back to work. In the framework of a Green New Deal, the government would become a powerful partner to the problem solvers of the world -- and not the problem makers.

Now, we cannot achieve the goal of a Green New Deal just by wishing for it. The first step in getting the government to support an inclusive, green economy is to build a durable political coalition.

On the one hand, there are large and powerful constituencies of white, affluent, college-educated progressives active in the United States. They are passionate about the environment, fair trade, economic justice and global peace. Unfortunately, many do not yet work in concert with people of color in their own country to pursue this agenda; they champion "alternative economic development strategies" across the globe, but not across town. These people could be great allies in uplifting our inner cities if they are given encouragement and a clear opportunity to do so.

On the other hand, many groups of people of color do not want to work in coalition with majority white organizations and white leaders. Many fear betrayal; others resent chronic white arrogance. Cultural differences and power imbalances create tensions; some organizations are actually committed to a racially exclusive ideology. Even though such organizations could benefit from additional allies and outside assistance, the very folks who could most benefit from a green opportunity agenda are loath to get involved.

Taken together, this means that the various US social change movements today are still nearly as racially segregated as the rest of society. This is a moral tragedy. And it is a tremendous barrier to building sufficient power to advance a positive social change agenda for anyone and everyone. Breaking through this standoff is a critical first step toward building a New Deal coalition for the new century -- which would be the only thing dynamic, diverse and powerful enough to overcome the obstacles to progress.

In the New Deal period, it was a broad electoral coalition that moved the government onto the side of ordinary people, not FDR alone. Farmers, workers, ethnic minorities, students, intellectuals, progressive bankers and forward-thinking business leaders all joined forces at the ballot box to support FDR and his Congressional backers as they worked to revive the economy.

To accomplish our tasks today, we need a similar force: an electoral New Deal coalition for our time. Let's call it the Green Growth Alliance. Such an alliance would be a broad effort fusing wise, compassionate forces in civil society with the enlightened self-interest of the rising green business community.

On the civil society side, five main partners should make up the Green Growth Alliance:

Labor. Organized labor has been in steep decline over the past few decades, but it remains the best and most stalwart defender of working people's interests -- in the workplace and beyond. Policies that lead to the retrofitting and green rebuilding of the nation will give unions a tremendous opportunity to expand and diversify their ranks. If the unions and green business leaders can identify win-win compromises on wages and other issues, they can work together to pass legislation that will help both sides.

Social justice activists. Legions of people have committed themselves to the ideal of opportunity for all. Advocates for economic justice, civil rights, immigrants' rights, women's rights, disability rights, gay rights, veterans' rights and other causes should seize the opportunity to ensure that the new, green economy has the principles of diversity and inclusion baked in from the beginning.

Environmentalists. With their large organizations, broad networks, Beltway savvy and large budgets, the mainstream environmental organizations have tremendous assets to bring to bear in the effort to green the country. Now they have a chance to turn the page on decades of perceived elitism by working as better collaborators with other sectors of society. An exchange of knowledge, experience and even personnel between the mainstream environmentalists and social justice groups would be healthy and invigorating for everyone.

Students. Students' energy and enthusiasm have already turned up the heat in the movement to prevent catastrophic climate change. Just a few years ago, it was considered outlandish for anyone to call for an aggressive target like an 80 percent reduction in carbon emissions by the year 2050. But youth-centered efforts like Step It Up, Focus the Nation and the Energy Action Coalition have already made "80 by '50" a mainstream demand -- accepted by presidential candidates and even energy-company CEOs. As more racially diverse groups like the League of Young Voters, the Hip Hop Caucus, the Environmental Justice and Climate Change Initiative and Young People For (YP4) join the movement, the sky is the limit for the next generation's leadership role.

Faith organizations. The moral framework suggested by the three principles of social-uplift environmentalism (equal protection, equal opportunity and reverence for all creation) should attract faith leaders and congregants. Many are looking for alternatives to the divisive fundamentalism that has taken up a great deal of airtime lately. The idea of "creation care" is a positive alternative frame that can help faith communities move into action as part of the Green Growth Alliance.

These five forces, in alliance with green business, can change the face of politics in this country. Their goal would be straightforward: to win government policy that promotes the interests of green capital and green technology over the interests of gray capital (extractive industries, fossil-fuel companies) in a way that spreads the benefits as widely as possible. The idea would be to resolve the economic, ecological and social crises on terms that maximally favor green capital and ordinary people.

Fortunately, the Green Growth Alliance is not just a theoretical necessity. It is already becoming a practical reality. National organizations like the Apollo Alliance and the Blue Green Alliance have come on the scene, promoting good jobs in the clean-energy sector. The Apollo Alliance incudes labor unions, environmental organizations, community-based groups and businesses; the Blue Green Alliance is a partnership of the Sierra Club and the United Steelworkers, recently joined by the Natural Resources Defense Council and the Communications Workers.

Former Vice President Al Gore's Alliance for Climate Protection is also reaching out broadly to engage new sectors in the battle to avert catastrophic climate change. And the new kids on the block -- 1Sky and Green for All -- are engaging important constituencies like PTA moms and African-American ministers.

Despite these developments, the notion that a politics centered on green solutions could build a muscular governing majority in the United States still seems doubtful. That is because the "green movement" seems to be the cushy home of such a thin and unrepresentative slice of the public.

The fact is, when many ordinary people hear the term "green," they still automatically think the message is probably for a fancy, elite set -- not for themselves. And as long as that remains true, the green movement will remain too anemic politically and too alien culturally to rescue the country.

Enlightened, affluent people who embrace green values do a great deal of good for the country and the earth -- and they are making an important difference every day. But nobody should make the mistake of believing that a small circle of highly educated, upper-income enviros can unite America and lead it all by themselves. Eco-elite politics can't even unite California.

If you doubt me, let's examine a recent statewide election in California to see how eco-elitism can actually set back environmental initiatives -- even very thoughtful and well-financed ones, even in places where the overall support for environmentalism is relatively high. Everyone loves to praise GOP Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger for signing global-warming legislation in 2006. Yet few discuss the fact that just a few months later, the majority of California voters rejected a clean-energy ballot measure called Proposition 87.

This defeat holds many lessons for us going forward. The idea for Prop 87 was brilliant in its simplicity: California would start taxing the oil and gas that oil companies extract from our soil and shores. This state-level oil tax would generate immense revenues that would go into a huge "clean-energy" research and technology fund -- totaling $4 billion over ten years.

At first, the measure was polling off the charts. Victory seemed certain. But in the end, Californians rejected the measure, 55 percent to 45 percent. Why? Mainly because Big Oil convinced ordinary Californians that the price tag would be too high for them to bear. The oil and gas industry spent $95 million warning that the tax would be passed along to consumers. It suggested that the tax would push gas and home-energy costs through the roof and hurt the poorest Californians. And in the end, the biggest clean-energy ballot measure in the country went down.

The defeat of Prop 87 should sound a clear warning for all of us as we work to birth a green, postcarbon economy. We must recognize and celebrate the fact that well-off champions of the environment will be indispensable to any coalition effort. In fact, it is their business smarts, monetary resources, social standing and political savvy that have propelled the green wave to this point. But at the same time, the eco-elite cannot win major change alone. After all, if a Prop 87-style collapse is possible in the Golden State, what do you think will happen in the other forty-nine?

To change our laws and culture, the green movement must attract and include the majority of all people, not just the majority of affluent people. The time has come to move beyond eco-elitism to eco-populism. Eco-populism would always foreground those green solutions that can improve ordinary people's standard of living -- and decrease their cost of living.

But bringing people of different races and classes and backgrounds together under a single banner is tougher than it sounds. I have been trying to bridge this divide for nearly a decade. And I learned a few things along the way.

What I found is that leaders from impoverished areas like Oakland, California, tended to focus on three areas: social justice, political solutions and social change. They cared primarily about "the people." They focused their efforts on fixing schools, improving healthcare, defending civil rights and reducing the prison population. Their "social change" work involved lobbying, campaigning and protesting. They were wary of businesses; instead, they turned to the political system and government to help solve the problems of the community.

The leaders I met from affluent places like Marin County (just north of San Francisco), San Francisco and Silicon Valley had what seemed to be the opposite approach. Their three focus areas were ecology, business solutions and "inner change." They were champions of "the planet" -- rainforests and important species like whales and polar bears. Many were dedicated to inner-change work, including meditation and yoga. And they put a great deal of stress on making wise, earth-honoring consumer choices. In fact, many were either green entrepreneurs or investors in eco-friendly businesses.

Every effort I made to get the two groups together initially was a disaster -- sometimes ending in tears, anger and slammed doors. Trying to make sense of the differences, I wrote out three binaries on a napkin:


1. Ecology vs. Social Justice

2. Business Solutions (Entrepreneurship) vs. Political Solutions (Activism)

3. Spiritual/Inner Change vs. Social/Outer Change
People on both sides of the equation tended to think that their preferences precluded any serious consideration of the options presented on the opposite side.

Increasingly, I saw the value and importance of both approaches. I thought, What would we have if we replaced those "versus" symbols with "plus" signs? What if we built a movement at the intersection of the ecology and social justice movements, of entrepreneurship and activism, of inner change and social change? What if we didn't just have hybrid cars -- what if we had a hybrid movement?

To return to the metaphor of the slave ship Amistad, the question in my mind has become, What if those rebel Africans, while still in chains, had looked out and noticed the name of their ship was not the Amistad but the Titanic? How would that fact have affected their mission? What would change if they knew the entire ship was imperiled, that everyone on it -- the slavers and enslaved -- could all die if the ship continued on its course, unchanged?

The rebels suddenly would have had a very different set of leadership challenges. They would have had the obligation not just to liberate the captives but also to save the entire ship. In fact, the hero would be the one who found a way to save everyone on board -- including the slavers. And the urgency of freeing the captives would have been that much greater -- because the smarts and the effort of everyone would have been needed to save everyone.

For the sake of the ship -- our planet -- and all aboard it, the effort to go green must be all hands on deck.

We can take the unfinished business of America on questions of inclusion and equal opportunity and combine it with the new business of building a green economy, thereby healing the country on two fronts and redeeming the soul of the nation. We must.

Three Things Obama Should Do First

The following is adapted from Van Jones' new book The Green Collar Economy.

There are precedents -- FDR's Civilian Conservation Corp and JFK's Apollo Project, to name a couple -- for government support of paradigm shifts and massive world-changing projects. And so, today, the U.S. government must again make a fundamental shift. Right now, the government is spending tens of billions of dollars supporting the problem makers in the U.S. economy -- the polluters, despoilers, incarcerators, and warmongers. The time has come for the nation to give greater support to the problem solvers -- the clean-energy producers, green builders, eco-entrepreneurs, community educators, green-collar workers, and green consumers.

***


In fact, at the very beginning of his inaugural address, the new president would be wise to fully embrace the agenda of the climate solutions group 1Sky. That organization has fashioned an ambitious set of goals based strictly on what the world's scientists say is minimally necessary to avert a global climate catastrophe.

Following 1Sky's lead, the forty-fourth U.S. president should stand before the American people vowing to enact policies that will: (1) create five million green jobs as a part of a plan to conserve 20 percent of our energy by 2015; (2) freeze climate pollution levels now, then cut them to at least 25 percent below 1990 levels by 2020 and 80 percent by 2050; and (3) ban the construction of new coal plants that emit global-warming pollution, promoting renewable energy instead. Better yet, the new president should publicly pledge to meet Al Gore's challenge of making the United States 100 percent free of fossil fuels by 2018. Such bold proposals would immediately signal the end of the status quo, stun the pro-pollution contingent, and begin to rally the nation to meet our crises head-on.

To begin making good on those commitments, the administration would then need to implement multiple policies aggressively, immediately, and at various levels. The task of meeting these challenges would do more than determine the administration's environmental policy. It would also shape America's core economic program, foreign policy agenda, urban and rural policy, and manufacturing agendas as well.

With Bracken Hendricks of the Center for American Progress, I have outlined three policy tracks the new administration must pursue simultaneously to make dramatic, politically sustainable progress on the climate, energy, and jobs policy. The first track involves exerting immediate leadership within the executive branch, taking measures to coordinate U.S. climate and energy policy across all federal agencies and using executive orders, public communications, and other presidential prerogatives to manage carbon, capture energy savings, and promote renewable technologies.

Second, the White House must engage Congress to pass a suite of global-warming and energy legislation, including both a cap-and trade bill that limits emissions and complementary policies that strengthen standards and drive investment in clean energy. The third track will entail a vigorous diplomatic effort to reclaim U.S. moral leadership abroad through progress on international climate negotiations, clean development, and addressing adaptation and energy poverty.

1) The next president should take bold and immediate action.

He should use climate solutions to frame a positive domestic economic agenda. He must place the issue at the center of his agenda for economic opportunity and reconstruction and link it to job creation, rebuilding cities and rural economies, and restoring global competitiveness. He can use the pulpit of the presidency to signal serious commitment to climate solutions, then build a leadership structure within the White House to sustain this focus. This leadership structure should have strong links to economic and national security advisers and clear pathways of communication with all agencies and White House offices to ensure that a unified strategy is employed across the executive branch.

In the spirit of comprehensive action, the president should enlist all federal agencies in building climate solutions, utilizing the power of executive orders and presidential leadership. The president can show immediate leadership by instructing agencies to reduce their carbon footprint through improved purchasing and acquisitions, vehicle fleet management, and facilities management.

If the president launches a signature initiative, the Clean Energy Corps, he will distinguish himself as a true leader in the footsteps of Franklin D. Roosevelt and John F. Kennedy. A national Clean Energy Corps would combine service, training, and employment efforts, with a special focus on cities and neglected rural communities, to combat climate disruption. The work would focus on retrofitting homes, small businesses, schoolhouses, and public buildings; preserving and enlarging green public spaces; applying distributed renewable energy production technology to underserved communities; strengthening community defenses against climate disruption; upgrading infrastructure; and educating children and communities on how they can contribute to ending global warming. These efforts could pay for themselves through energy savings, making the CEC program largely self-financing, while generating enormous demand for new jobs in communities that need them.

2) The next president should have a comprehensive legislative agenda.

Capping carbon emissions, collecting taxes/profit from permits, and investing in our clean-energy future should be an immediate goal. An indispensable component of cap-and-trade policy is the auction of a substantial portion of emissions permits available to greenhouse-gas emitters. The Congressional Budget Office estimates that the monetary value of these permits would range from $50 billion to $300 billion each and every year (in 2007 dollars) by 2020. This money can be invested in the public interest -- to equitably transition the country to a low-carbon economy.

The president should help America's infrastructure mirror its clean energy goals. Establishing a clean-energy smart grid would network a series of smart devices, all communicating with each other, to do real-time balancing of energy need and production. As waste is greatly reduced, carbon reduction and cost savings would follow. Investing in worker training, supportive employment ser vices, manufacturing extension, and community development will be essential to ensure we meet our climate goals.

Carbon caps and green economy infrastructure work best with high-energy efficiency. To achieve immediate efficiency gains, the next administration should implement a National Energy Efficiency Resource Standard to require utilities to cut energy use 10 percent by 2020. A number of simple tasks would also have an enormous impact: increase production of renewable electricity, invest in low-carbon mass transportation and rail infrastructure, increase vehicle fuel economy, block new coal plants that can't safely capture and store emissions, provide sustainable/low-carbon fuels, and eliminate federal tax breaks and subsidies for oil and gas. The combined impact of these measures would speed the United States toward an energy efficient future.

3) The next president should show leadership in international negotiations.

Rebuild international credibility through strong domestic action -- allow the US to reengage international climate negotiations. Connect global warming and trade policy. Climate provisions should be given significant weight in international trade policy. Promote adaptation and confront energy poverty. The goal of international development assistance should be to alleviate the crippling energy poverty that denies much of the world's population basic energy ser vices, without increasing carbon emissions.

***


Whatever the next president does, he must act quickly. Diplomatic, scientific, and economic timetables are all running out. The next president must hit the ground running. On energy and climate policy, it is critical that significant efforts be undertaken in the early days of the administration. A hundred-day strategy is key to making real domestic commitments and advancing stalled international climate talks that will result in meaningful global reductions.

The full power of the presidency, both its political leadership and moral authority, is needed to build deep public support to sustain smart climate policies over a generation. Climate solutions must be at the center of the agenda for the entire administration. This effort will also require broader constituencies in support of action and new strategies for public education. Solving global warming should become a centerpiece and organizing principle for the next administration's program for economic revival.

The Unbearable Whiteness of Green

This article is reprinted by permission from Grist. For more environmental news and humor sign up for Grist's free email service.

Once again this year, the spring season brought a flood of green-themed magazines to super-market checkout stands and airport news racks all across the country.

And once again, the faces of non-white and non-affluent Americans were almost entirely missing.

Our new environmental movement is rapidly gaining visibility and momentum. That is very good news. Life-or-death ecological issues finally are starting to get the attention they so urgently deserve. And we can all celebrate that.

But now we would be wise to start paying closer attention to the kind of coverage that we as environmentalists are getting. Because I see a disturbing pattern of exclusivity that is starting to set in. And that kind of elitism can sow the seeds for a very dangerous, populist backlash, down the line.

To see what I mean, just flip through the pages of Vanity Fair's recent green issue (the one with Leo DiCaprio and that cute polar bear cub on the cover).

Vanity Not Fair: Where are Americans of Color?

Now, count the non-white Americans in the whole magazine. Okay. Now try to find the working-class environmentalists, the ones trying to protect their kids from pollution at the fence-line?

Go ahead. Keep looking. See what I mean?

I am sure that Vanity Fair and the others mean well. But nobody is doing our new green movement any favors by continually portraying it solely as the playground of a white, affluent "eco-elite."

To turn this country around environmentally, we are going to need super-majorities in every demographic group.

It would be easy for green proponents to get cocky and be over-confident now. It would be easy to say, "Why bother working for race and class diversity, when the environmental movement is growing faster now than at any time in its history?"

Such misguided thinking would be trading short-term gain for long-term pain. This year -- right now -- is precisely the smart time to start worrying about a future anti-green backlash. If we let our movement be portrayed as solely a "white thing," it will be easier for demagogues to forge an alliance between polluters and the poor -- to derail our success.

Do you think I am being paranoid?

Well, then please heed a cautionary lesson from California, the supposed leader in all things green.

California Provides Cautionary Tale to Eco-Elite

Everyone loves to brag on Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger for signing our global warming legislation. But nobody talks about the fact that a few months earlier, the majority of California voters here rejected a clean energy ballot measure.

That's right. Elected officialdom might be willing to take major green steps. But six months ago, when Californians got to speak up in the ballot booth, ordinary people said no.

It is important that we study this defeat -- and pull out the lessons going forward. The idea for Prop 87 was brilliant in its simplicity: California would start taxing the oil and gas that we extract from our soil and shores. And those dollars would go into a huge, "clean-energy" research and technology fund.

Many states and nations have similar excise taxes. But California would have been alone in dedicating the revenues to inventing alternatives to carbon-based energy sources. Had it passed, money from oil would have been used to find a replacement for oil.

It was a brilliant idea. And at first, the measure was polling off the charts. Silicon Valley and Hollywood put $40 million on the table to ensure the measure passed. Al Gore and Bill Clinton campaigned for it. Victory was certain.

The Polluters Will Organize Everyone We Exclude

But in the end, Californians voted the measure down. Why? Because big oil convinced ordinary Californians that the price tag for them would be too high for them to bear.

The oil and gas industry warned that the tax would be passed along to consumers -pushing gas and home fuel costs through the roof and hurting the poorest Californians.

It was a predictable line of attack. It was also a false argument. Our local oil and gas prices are fundamentally set by the huge, global energy market. A teeny local excise tax in one state, in one country, would have had a miniscule or negligible impact on California consumers.

And to the contrary, the benefits of a shift to cleaner energy would have helped the poorest in the state -- significantly improving both their health and their wealth.

For one thing, disproportionate numbers of low-income people live near oil refineries and other sources of dirty-energy pollution. As a result, they suffer from higher rates of cancer, asthma and other illnesses. Largely uninsured, they then pay through the nose for inferior medical care.

In other words, the dirty energy economy is literally killing poor people. A switch to cleaner energy could save untold lives.

Beyond that, a clean-energy economy actually is more labor intensive -- meaning, it creates more jobs. After all, somebody has to install and maintain all those solar panels, build all the wind farms, construct the wave farms, weatherize those millions of homes and office buildings.

Not Making Eco-Populist Arguments Hurt Us

So there was a strong, eco-populist argument to be made for Prop 87. Switching to clean energy would have cost individual Californians little -- but given working people improved health and better jobs.

But the campaign, led by the eco-elite, did not make these arguments with any force. Instead, Prop 87 commercials yammered on about "energy independence" -- which polling firms said was the best message.

Maybe so. But in some demographics, people needed that message to be bolstered by some reassurance on the kitchen table issues. And it never was.

Seeing the obvious opening, the polluters pounced. Big oil ran full-page ads in practically every African-American newspaper in the state. The ads showed a Black mom looking aghast at fuel prices while she tried to fill up her car. An NAACP official vocally opposed the measure, fearing economic damage to her constituency.

And the scare tactics didn't alarm only black Californians. Across the state, the initially sky-high poll numbers for the initiative proved surprisingly fragile. The support for the measure was completely hollow.

And in the end, the biggest clean-energy ballot measure in the country went down to defeat - in California!

The Eco-Elite Cannot Win By Itself

The defeat of Prop 87 should sound a clear warning for all of us in the effort to birth a green, post-carbon economy. The eco-elite cannot win major change alone, not even in the golden state.

To change our laws and culture, the green movement must attract and include the majority of all people, not just the majority of affluent people.

We must make it plain to the country that we envision a clean-energy future in which everyone has a place -- and a stake.

One way to do that is to speak to the economic and health opportunities that "ecological" solutions will also provide. Another way is to always show the many, many people of color and working-class Americans who are actively engaged in environmental struggles. Fortunately, the country has an abundance of such heroes or she-roes.

But if nearly every special "green" issue excludes them, we are essentially handing millions and millions of people over to the polluters.

We are essentially saying to big oil: "Please organize all of these people against everything green. Thanks!"

The nation has already passed a certain tipping point in eco-consciousness. But we should never underestimate the danger of a major backlash.

We can easily head one off, just by making sure that "green" includes all colors.

Green-Collar Jobs for Urban America

Union electricians hung out with Youth Against Youth Incarceration. A poet parsed words with a permaculturist. Two seniors and a spoken word artist debated the coming election. Community college students communed with a councilmember, while an architect broke bread with an immigration attorney.

On the third Thursday of September 2006, in a college auditorium in Oakland, California, 300 people came together to launch a new movement: a campaign for "green-collar jobs" as a path to economic and social recovery for low-income communities.

A "green-collar job" involves environment-friendly products or services. Construction work on a green building, organic farming, solar panel manufacturing, bicycle repair: all are "green jobs." The green-collar economy is big money, and it's booming. Including renewable energy and clean technology, "green" is the fifth largest market sector in the United States.

In the Bay Area, we have seen boom times before. The dot-com era rose and fell all around us, but for low-income people and people of color that wave didn't even register, boom or bust. The question we're asking here in Oakland -- that 300 people turned out to answer -- is, can the green wave lift all boats?

This question is not an abstraction, and the answer is non-negotiable. With murder rates soaring and employment rates plummeting, Oakland is in a literal do-or-die struggle to build a sustainable local living economy strong enough to lift people out of poverty. If this movement succeeds, the effort in Oakland can point the way forward -- to a new era of solution-based politics for cities across the United States. If this movement fails, a city with so much promise could fall further into despair. The stakes are high, and the next six months offer a once-in-a-generation opportunity to write a new story for Oakland.

The murder capital of California ...

Oakland is the working-class home to almost 500,000. One of the most racially and culturally diverse cities in America, Oakland boasts the nation's fourth largest port, and for decades was an industrial manufacturing hub.

The march of globalization and the changing world economy ended this prosperity. As small businesses shut down and good manufacturing jobs disappeared, there weren't many jobs left. The industries that stayed are largely pollution-based, feeding Oakland with one hand and poisoning it with the other.

In the poor parts of Oakland, neighborhoods of mostly black and Latino residents, 40 percent of young people suffer chronic respiratory ailments. There are no supermarkets. Ten thousand people on parole or probation lack opportunities for meaningful jobs.

Violence reached a boiling point on September 6 when Nicole Tucker, a 27-year old single mother with a beautiful four-year-old daughter, was shot to death in her car. Her family remembers her as a hardworking and loving parent who put herself through school and was saving to buy a house. The media cruelly remembered her as the one who broke the record: Nicole was the 95th homicide of 2006, passing Oakland's total for all of 2005 in just the first week of September.

Much of Oakland has been left behind, and it's falling deeper and deeper into despair.

...Or the global green city?

Against this backdrop, there is hope for a different Oakland.

In 2005, residents reached out to former Congressman Ron Dellums, a visionary black progressive who had ?retired from politics. They pleaded with him to run for mayor.

Dellums was done with politics, and he stood before a crowd of hundreds ready to say "thank you, but no." Looking out at the crowd, Dellums changed his mind. He knew people needed hope. He ran.

In his campaign, Dellums embraced big ideas and committed to making Oakland what he called a "model city": a place where visionary ideas like universal health care and education for all take hold, working on a local level and standing as a model of what is possible for the rest of the country.

Embracing ideas put forward by community leaders, including our organization, Ella Baker Center for Human Rights, Dellums promised to make Oakland "a Silicon Valley" of green capital, pledging to make the growth of the green economy central to Oakland's comeback. The choice of a "green" economy isn't random&ndashOakland has some real advantages:

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On Being Black at a Latino March

At Monday's "Dia Sin Inmigrantes/Day Without Immigrants" march in San Francisco, I saw a beautiful, exciting and hopeful vision of the future of this country. I also caught a glimpse of a familiar past, fading away. And I shed a few tears for both.  

From the moment I boarded the BART car, I knew this May Day march and rally would differ from the Bay Area's usual protest fare. The trains headed into downtown San Francisco were filled with working-class Latinos, all wearing white; most had kids in tow. There were few protest signs or banners, but the stars and stripes were everywhere. One tyke on my train kept trying to poke his cousin with a little American flag.  

Some of the teeniest kids were wearing their older sibling's white T-shirts with their shirt hems hanging down past their knees. The children were all well-scrubbed and happy ... and very proud.  

So were their parents. They knew they were part of something new, and big, and promising.  

The bright mood contrasted starkly with the dreary atmosphere that chokes most protests nowadays. On this march, I saw no resigned shuffling of already defeated feet. No sea of scowls. No pierced tongues, screaming. Nor could I spy a single person dragging behind her the weighty conviction that resistance -- though obligatory -- was futile.

To the contrary. Beaming, brown-skinned families walked off those trains with their heads held high. Sure, they may have been poor, facing tough challenges in the near term. But they stepped like they were marching into a future of limitless promise and potential.  

Their optimism brought tears to my eyes. And not only for the obvious reasons.  

Deep inside, I was grieving for my own people. I wished that my beloved African-American community had managed, somehow, to retain our own sparkling sense of faith in a magnificent future. There was once a time when we, too, marched forward together, filled with utter confidence in the new day dawning.  There was a time when we, too, believed that America's tomorrow held something bright for us ... and for our children.  

But those dreams have been eaten away by the AIDS virus, laid off by down-sizers, locked out by smiling bigots, shot up by gang-bangers and buried in a corporate-run prison yard. Now we cling to Black History Month for validation or inspiration. That's because Black Present Moment is so depressing -- with worse, almost certainly, on the way.  

When Katrina's floodwaters washed our problems back onto the front pages, the once-mighty Black Freedom Movement could not rise even to that occasion. Our legendary "movement" has collapsed, fallen apart. It is now a hollowed-out shell -- with our "spokespersons," both young and old, trying somehow to live off our past glories.  

Meanwhile, the white-shirted future was pouring itself down Market Street, chanting "Si, se puede!"  

My feelings of solidarity quickly trumped my sorrows. Thousands of people were standing up, here and across the United States, for their right to live and work in dignity in this country. Deep in my bones, I felt their pain, knew their hopes and affirmed their dreams. And just as non-blacks had supported our freedom movement in the last century, I was determined, as a non-immigrant, to give my passionate support to this righteous cause.  

So I joined the crowds in the street, trying to add my voice to the thunderous chants. But I quickly discovered that, good intentions notwithstanding, political solidarity is sometimes more easily felt than expressed.

My fellow marchers started roaring out: "Zapata! Vive! La lucha! Sigue!"  
I was like, Huh? What?
 
"Zapata! Vive! La lucha! Sigue!"
 
Say what?
 
Then louder, faster: "LaLuchaSigueSigue! ZapataViveVive! LaLuchaSigueSigue! ZapataViveVive!"  

Bewildered, but undeterred, I got myself a "chant sheet." I figured that I could use one of the official written guides to keep me in the know and on track. Sure enough, the handy leaflet spelled everything out very clearly: "Las Calles Son Del Pueblo! El Pueblo Donde Esta? El Pueblo Esta En Las Calles, Exigiendo Libertad!"  

Unfortunately, those words looked precisely like alphabet soup to me. I found myself desperately trying to remember back to 11th grade, wondering what sound an "x" makes in Spanish.  

Finally, I had to face the sad truth: I had B.S.-ed my way through all my high school and college language requirements. I had to admit that Mrs. Savage (from fourth-period Espanol) had been right, after all: I really hadn't cheated anyone but myself.  

Now I had to accept the miserable results: as an utterly monolingual English speaker, I wasn't even knowledgeable enough about the Spanish language to shout out simple phrases, during most of the protest.  

Okay, I told myself. Fine. I decided instead to just walk cheerfully along, clapping in time with the drummers. But even some of the Latin rhythms were unfamiliar, strangely syncopated. I couldn't always find the beat, despite my best efforts. (Suddenly, I was filled with love and sympathy for all those arhythmic white folks whom I used to make fun of at black rallies, parties and churches. I am so sorry, y'all!)  

Well, needless to say, I was on the verge of giving up. Then I found a solution: I would simply listen for any chant that had the word "Viva!" in it. For some reason, there were lots of chants with that word in it. And then, whenever appropriate, I would just raise my fist and shout "Viva!" along with the crowd, as loud as I could.  

And that was pretty much all I could do. I did it for a few hours, then went home. I hope it was enough. Because, despite feeling somewhat out of place, I was absolutely thrilled to see my sisters and brothers taking the future into their own hands. By simply standing up for their own kids and grandparents -- for their own dignity and futures -- activist Latinos today are pulling the nation to a higher level of fairness and inclusion.  

They are posing a simple and devastating question: should U.S. society continue to profit from the labor of 11 million people -- many of whom pick our fruit, nurse our children, clean our workplaces -- without embracing them fully, without honoring their work, without extending to them the same rights and respect we would want for ourselves?  

Can we countenance or tolerate a Jim Crow system -- in brown-face -- with a shunned tier of second-class workers, enriching society but lacking legal status and protections?  

Or are we willing to change our laws, and change our hearts, to embrace those upon whom our economy has come to rest? This is a simple moral challenge. The right answers are not easy, but they are obvious.  
I know there will be a backlash (there always is when people push for fairness), even coming from some black folks. But I also know that the Latino-led struggle for justice and inclusion offers hope to all of us. A national conversation about the true meaning of dignity, equality, opportunity and fair play in the modern economy can ultimately benefit every American community.  

I am confident that it will. Because during the two prior centuries, it was the African-American community that performed this service for the country. And we paid a high and awful cost in blood and martyrs. Unfortunately, we did not achieve all of our aims. But we did tear apartheid from pages of U.S. law books. And in the course of that struggle, we improved the lot of all Americans; expanding social programs, democratic rights and social tolerance for all people. And our efforts opened the doors for today's equality struggles. Our marching feet moved the whole nation forward.  

I cannot help but mourn the loss of a black community strong enough to put this nation on its back, and carry it forward, step by step, toward justice ... as we once did. But my pain only amplifies and underscores my joy that this marvelous new force has arisen, one that is capable -- in this tough, new era -- of deepening and extending the struggle to transform and redeem.  
Strong brown hands have grabbed hold of the U.S. flag. They are pulling it away from those who have monopolized it, from bullies who have abused the nation's symbols for their violent and illegitimate ends.  

I am glad. Because only a mass movement with broad shoulders -- and rough hands -- will have the power to win the coming tug-of-war for the heart and soul of this country. The Latino community has birthed just such a movement. If history is any guide, as Latinos and other immigrant communities raise core questions about their children's access to education, health care, jobs and safety, every American community will benefit hugely from their efforts. Including my own.  

A Better New Orleans is Possible

The best and the worst of America were on full display in the days following Hurricane Katrina. We are still seeing a desperate tug of war between two sides of the American character -- with the fate of New Orleans hanging in the balance.

As the Bush administration hands out reconstruction dollars, the clock is ticking: Will the response be politics as usual? Or will we be able to rebuild New Orleans as a model city and a beacon for possibility?

Looking Back: The Heartbreak -- And the Hope

The winds of Katrina blew back the curtain on some of the worst in U.S. politics. None of us can forget the heartbreaking images of our most vulnerable citizens abandoned to a horrific fate, trying to survive in a city underwater. Nor can we erase the image of a fly-over U.S. president, indifferent and detached during an unprecedented national catastrophe.

The better side of America also came into view. The media challenged the White House's preposterous spin that evacuation efforts were going fine. People of all classes and colors opened their hearts, homes and wallets to displaced families. And progressives led the way, through initiatives like HurricaneHousing.org -- our own "underground railroad" that housed tens of thousands of evacuees.

For the first time in more than a generation, caring deeply about the fate of the black poor seemed like the American thing to do.

The Moment at Hand: Profiteering or Possibility?

Charged with the monumental task of rebuilding, the government has squandered the hope and compassion of tens of millions. The same slowpoke White House that botched the evacuation is now moving at lightening speed to help its friends profit from the reconstruction:

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The Religious Left Fights Back

Rabbi Michael Lerner is stirring up trouble again -- thank God.

Earlier this week, Lerner was the main organizer of a national gathering in Berkeley, California, for the religious Left. His "Spiritual Activism" conference was intended to help launch a much-needed new initiative: the Network of Spiritual Progressives (NSP).

Lerner has been the spark-plug for many progressive, faith-based undertakings over the years, including Tikkun magazine. But this latest effort is an order of magnitude more challenging than anything he has attempted thus far. And given the stakes for our ailing would-be democracy, the birthing of NSP may prove to be his most important calling.

Lerner wants to help forge a new alliance of "religious, secular and spiritual, but not religious, progressives." This alliance will someday expose and challenge the cancer of American consumerism. And it will oppose the religious Right's abuse of scripture to promote war, intolerance and ugly corporate agendas.

By itself, those two goals would warrant full-throated support from all progressives. But don't be surprised if the good rabbi's efforts also draw some serious "boos" from many parts of the Left, as well. That's because Lerner's bravest and hardest work is aimed much closer to home.

He wants to do more than just minister to the mall-lobotomized masses or give the fundamentalists a well-deserved spanking. He also wants to challenge the Left's chronic and toxic bias against religious feeling, expression and people.

Lerner hopes to end "religio-phobia among progressives." And such efforts will not be welcome among a great many rabidly secular progressives.

As for me, I will be praying for the Rabbi's success. I am an African-American Christian who was raised in the American heartland. When I moved to the cosmopolitan coasts of Connecticut, and later California, I ran headlong into shocking levels of anti-religious bigotry among progressives.

I literally have had liberals laugh in my face when I told them I was a Christian. For awhile, I felt self-conscious about telling other activists that I preferred not to meet on Sunday mornings, because I wanted to go to church.

It is still commonplace to hear so-called radicals stereotyping all religious people as stupid dupes -- and spitting out the word "Christian" as if it were an insult or the name of a disease. I thought progressives were supposed to be the standard-bearers of tolerance and inclusion.

I certainly know the monstrous crimes that have been committed through the ages in the name of religion, or with the blessings of religious people. But I know a few other things about religion, too.

I grew up in the Black churches of the rural south, listening to the stories of my elders. As children, we heard about the good, brave people who had poured their blood out upon the ground so that we could be free. We learned how police officers had clubbed and jailed them. We learned how Klansmen had shot and lynched them. And how the G-men from Washington had just stood by and doodled in their notepads.

We learned of marches and mayhem, freedom songs and funerals. We saw images of billy-clubbed Black women on their hands and knees, searching for their teeth on Mississippi sidewalks -- crawling while still clutching their little American flags. We felt pity for the children who spent long nights in frigid jail cells, wearing clothing soaked by fire-hoses, while their bones -- broken and untended -- began to mend at odd angles.

We saw pictures of Black men, like our fathers, hanging by their necks -- their faces twisted, their bodies rigid, their clothes burned off -- along with their skin. And we saw photos of carefree killers, sauntering home out of Alabama courtrooms -- their faces white and sneering and proud.

We learned how the very best of humanity had faced off with the very worst of humanity -- each circling the other under the same summer sun. That epic struggle had elevated southern back roads and backwaters onto the Great World Stage. And the fate of a people -- along with the destiny of a nation -- hung in the balance, for all to see.

In the end, we children cheered, for the righteous did prevail. More than that, they performed one of the great miracles in human history: They transformed American apartheid into a fledgling democracy, tender and delicate and new.

All progressives today proudly celebrate that achievement -- and rightly so. But one key fact seems to escape the notice of today's activist crowd. The champions of the civil rights struggle didn't come marching out of shopping centers in South. Or libraries. Or high school gymnasiums.

To face the attack dogs, to face the fire-hoses, to face the billy-clubs, these heroes and she-roes came marching boldly out of church-houses. And they were singing church songs. They set an example of courage and sacrifice that will endure for the ages. And as they did it, they prayed on wooden pews in the name of a Nazarene carpenter named Jesus.

The implications are clear for those who seek today to rescue and redeem U.S. society. The facts are simple and profound: The last time U.S progressives captured the national debate and transformed politics, people of faith were at the center of the movement, not stuck in its closet.

As a descendent of enslaved Africans who were told that God (and not capitalist greed) required their degradation, I know the crimes of the Christian church as well as anyone. But as a child of the civil rights movement, I also know the power of Christian faith, the power of moral appeal and the power of spiritual strength -- to break asunder the bonds of servitude.

And in our do-or-die effort to set things right in America, it is time for U.S. progressives to return to the bottomless well of soul power that sustained the slaves and defeated Jim Crow.

That is why I applaud Rabbi Lerner's efforts. He is standing in a long tradition of faith-honoring Americans, who have helped lead the charge from barbarism toward democracy. In the 1800s, escaping Africans fled enslavement through the bedrooms and basements of Quakers, along the famous Underground Railroad. In the 1980s, religious congregations led the Sanctuary Movement. Their efforts opened up U.S. cities to Latinos who were fleeing U.S. President Ronald Reagan's violent and covert interventions in Latin America.

The Rabbi's new efforts also resonate today. Reeling from the steady string of recent defeats, even the most hard-core U.S. activists are seeking deeper meaning and spiritual sustenance in their lives. At the same time, previously apolitical "spiritual types" are getting involved as activists for the first time -- to defend the Earth and her people from the predations of the Bush agenda.

Rev. Jim Wallis' most recent book, God's Politics: Why the Right Gets It Wrong and the Left Doesn't Get It, struck a chord this year and became an instant bestseller. Rev. Frances Hall Kieschnick (spouse of Working Assets wunderkind Michael Kieschnick) is taking steps to start a Beatitudes Society, to give more voice to progressive people of faith. Similar efforts are springing up on smaller scales all across the country.

Somewhere, in all of these stirrings, I see the seeds of a wisdom-based, Earth-honoring, pro-democracy movement -- one that affirms and applauds religious and spiritual impulses, while opposing fundamentalism, chauvinism and theocracy. Over time, this kind of progressive movement has the potential to win -- and win big -- in the United States. To be honest: it is probably the only type of progressive movement that stands a chance in a country as religious as ours.

Such a movement is within reach. But progressives must abandon the old pattern of reducing the Great Faiths to their worst elements, constituents and crimes -- and then dismissing all other facts and features. It is not just stupid political strategy. At a moral level, it is a form of blindness and bigotry that is beneath all of us.

My prayer is that a critical mass of progressives can agree on two basic premises.

Number one: Any progressive approach to "faith in politics" that ignores the awful crimes of religiously-inspired people is dishonest, inauthentic and can never achieve emancipatory ends.

Number two: At the same time, any approach that fails to honor and embrace the positive contributions of religiously inspired people is also wrong-headed, and it foolishly and needlessly shuts progressives off from our own history, achievements and present sources of vital support.

I believe that Rabbi Lerner has come up with a thoughtful, sensitive and wise approach, worthy of broad-based affirmation. He aims to: "build an alliance between secular, religious and 'spiritual but not religious' progressives -- in part by challenging the anti-religious biases in parts of the liberal culture (while acknowledging the legitimacy of anger against those parts of the religious world that have embodied authoritarian, racist, sexist, homophobic or xenophobic practices and attitudes").

That is a formulation that the vast majority of progressives should be able to adopt, affirm and cheer about. And I proudly say to it, Amen, brother Lerner ... Amen!

From Jail Cells to Solar Cells

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.

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