Power in Place

By Jess Clarke

In this issue of RP&E, we explore how the places we call home are being transformed by development and globalization. Community organizing and the environmental justice movement have always been about place, starting in our own neighborhood and taking on the big issues where they impact our daily lives. Whether it’s housing affordability, access to quality education, cultural continuity or a healthy toxin-free environment, we are repeatedly called to take on a neoliberal economic model that unequally distributes costs and benefits via class, race and gender. Underlying today’s debates about gentrification and displacement are long histories of segregation; unequal incentives and subsidies by government agencies; and corporate profiteering based on cycles of investment and disinvestment in the cities, suburbs and countryside of the United States.

Place is more than just a location defined by geographical coordinates of longitude and latitude; it’s a social and material reality that interweaves relationship, culture, and ethnicity. In San Francisco the acute crisis of housing affordability has spawned yet another wave of displacement. The African American population of the city continues to move outward—part of the 21st century’s “great migration.”

In a special section, Correspondent Jarrel Phillips shares excerpts from I Am San Francisco; Black Past & Presence (I Am SF; pp. 48-64). This in-depth look at how African American residents understand the racial geography and history of San Francisco is an ongoing oral history and art project that so far includes more than 40 interviews with Black artists, activists and community leaders who live or work in San Francisco. 

This first-hand, first-person reporting from the frontlines explores what Phillips describes as “the depth, beauty, complexity, and abundance prevalent within ‘Black life’ in San Francisco—culturally, communally and individually.” It reveals the deep and lasting contribution African Americans have made and are making to the cultural fabric of the city and indeed the nation. It affirms Black love as a counter-narrative to the mass media’s promotion of victimization and celebrates the reality of people’s daily thriving—even in the face of economic exclusion and police murder.

Cultivating cultural integrity is a core survival strategy for oppressed people in moments of migration and displacement and also for creating and sustaining community when we have settled into our new place. This issue includes two articles about writing workshops with women whose voices are often silenced—sexually exploited girls and immigrant domestic workers (pp. 71, 74). On these same lines, Web Editor and Designer Christine Joy Ferrer’s article The Moving Art House explores the role of art in creating community and connection among the diverse cultures of southeast San Francisco (p. 64).

Know Your Place
“Knowing one’s place,” as a euphemism for “accepting one’s rank in the social order,” was used to chastise African Americans and women who broke the limits defined for them. But in a more literal sense, it can also mean understanding the history and relationships that define where and who we are. 

In one of the interview excerpts from I Am SF, history professor Aliyah Dunn-Salahuddin discusses how the shame and pain of living through racism was often hidden from their children by the 20th century in-migrants from the American South —and how telling those stories now can be an act of liberation. 

The I Am SF art exhibition is being presented at City College of San Francisco (CCSF), one of the Bay Area’s great working class institutions, which has taught generations of residents and new immigrants since its founding in 1935. Contributing Editor Marcy Rein has put together a multi-part series delving into how the complex intersection of real estate interests and “school reform” has come close to destroying the college—and how the community is organizing to defeat the effort (p. 8-25). 

“School reform” is another euphemism for something much uglier. Globalization has created a labor market split between a small number of highly skilled managerial and knowledge workers, and a large reserve of less skilled sales and service labor. Capitalist economics dictate reducing the supply of highly educated people to the number needed to run the system profitably. 

At the community college level, this “reform” means downsizing: casting aside immigrants learning English and workers seeking retraining in order to focus on students bound for four-year schools or narrow vocational programs. The attempt to shrink City College coincides with the real estate boom, so the school faces pressure to surrender “surplus” property for still more high-end housing development, further driving up the cost of housing. Students are being pushed out of CCSF as their families are being displaced from the city.

Some families manage to retain stability by moving to the exurbs, but those at the bottom of the economic ladder can end up homeless. Working collaboratively with our sister publication Street Spirit, we have put together a cluster of articles in this issue that demonstrate just how grave the consequences of low-wage no-wage labor are for homeless residents of the area—and how those residents defend their rights with often-overlooked strategies for survival: street newspapers, intentional community and mutual aid (pp. 26-46). 

And of course, the environmental justice movement has always been about protecting our homes from the impact of toxic waste and pollution. In the final section of this issue we take a look at how California communities are being impacted by fracking and fossil fuel development. Lucas Zucker, from Central Coast Alliance United for a Sustainable Economy, describes how Oxnard residents have been battling the siting of a power plant in their city (p. 78), and Contributing Editor Eric K, Arnold takes a closer look at how Governor Jerry Brown’s environmental policies are protecting California gas and oil investors (p. 84). Last but not least, an analysis of the dangers of the Paris climate agreement (by the “It Takes Roots” delegation to the UN climate talks) gives us an update on the status of perhaps our most important place—Mother Earth (p. 92). 

Please support these crucial reports from the grassroots and help us to reimagine how we can make a media that supports and challenges our movements. You can join in our open meetings and community events by sending an email to rsvp@reimaginerpe.org. We can’t do this without you. Please have your organization subscribe or sponsor. n

Onward!
Jess Clarke is project director/editor of Reimagine! and a web producer at Street Spirit.

Right to Education / Right to the City

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Raimagine!

“School Reform” and Land Grabs Threaten SF’s Community College

Who Wants to Kill City College?

By Marcy Rein

The door to Edgar Torres’s office stands open on the first day of the 2016 spring semester, as it has on the first day of every semester for 14 years. “I do that for the students who get lost and need directions,” says Torres, head of the Latin American and Latino/a Studies Department at City College of San Francisco (CCSF). “I love the hustle and bustle of the first day. But today I’m sad, because it’s so quiet.”

Founded in 1935, City College has long been the school for second-chance and first-generation students. Torres himself was the first in his family to go to college, and started at CCSF. “This school is dear to me because I’m the son of immigrants,” he says. “I never saw a Latino teacher till I came here.”

City College students support their teachers and connect the dots at the rally supporting the April 2016 faculty strike. ©2016 Marcy Rein

In July 2012, the Accrediting Commission for Community and Junior Colleges (ACCJC) slapped City College with a “show cause” sanction, one step short of yanking its accreditation, which would have effectively shut down the school by making it ineligible for federal funding. The commission, a private body authorized by the federal government to evaluate community colleges, sanctioned City College despite the fact that academically it ranks close to the top of California’s 113 community colleges. A year later, the commission announced that CCSF would lose its accreditation, and the California Community College Board of Governors—a board appointed by the California governor—put the school under emergency management.

But this story isn’t just about a hostile and aggressive accreditation agency. At its heart, it’s about how education “reform” and gentrification intersect and relate, and how the fight against reducing public education to corporate workforce training fits in the broader resistance to racialized displacement in San Francisco.

A Pillar of SF’s Working Class
With more than 100,000 students in 2008, City College was the largest community college in California. More than three-fourths of its students are people of color, most of them low-income or working class. The school has trained the city’s chefs, firefighters, nurses and medical technicians; taught English to some 20,000 immigrants each year; and been a home for lifelong learners needing new careers and exploring new passions.

Determined organizing by the students, the faculty and their union, and the broader community saved City College from closure, but the crisis continues. The number of students enrolled in classes has fallen to 67,000, down by a quarter from what it was before the ACCJC sanction;1 the majority of the displaced are students of color. The workforce is shrinking, and three parcels of college property are on the real estate market, or may be soon. (See “Development for Whom?” on p. 12.) More than 1,200 courses have been slashed, and the administration recently announced a new 26 percent cut in classes over the next six years. Because the school receives state funding based on enrollment, this will make the downsizing permanent if it is not reversed.

“City College is a lifeline. There’s no just reason for mangling or shrinking it,” says Tarik Farrar, the chair of the African American Studies department.

Weakening the college may have been the goal all along. In K-12 public education, emergency managers have been imposed on school districts to smooth the way for charter schools, notes City College student organizer Lalo Gonzalez. “With the Special Trustee at City College, we saw the same thing,” Gonzalez says. “The threat of closure was used to force the school to implement policy changes. The accreditation process was hijacked and used as a vehicle to downsize and strip out valuable real estate,” he says.

Preview from Chicago
In Chicago, the proving ground for K-12 education “reform” and hometown of President Obama’s former education secretary Arne Duncan, the city systematically closed more than 150 public schools in gentrifying neighborhoods, destabilizing Black and Latino communities and opening privately run charter schools. In most of the closed schools, students of color made up 99 percent of the student body.2 The charter schools filter out many English language learners and students with special needs; divert funding from traditional public schools; and haven’t delivered the academic benefits that were supposed to come from competition. They also helped make the neighborhoods more appealing to the wealthier—and whiter—new arrivals.

Chicago’s gentrification was part of its transformation into what Professor Pauline Lipman calls a “global city,” a central marketplace for finance, information innovation, and production systems.3 The global city is highly stratified. Global capital floods its real estate market, and highly paid workers drive up prices, resulting in displacement. This description could as easily apply to today’s San Francisco, center of the tech economy, and one of the most unequal cities in the country.4

Education ‘Reform’ Goes to Community College
The education model developed to serve the global market emphasizes measurable standards, testing and “competence-based skills.” In K-12 it has evolved as a package of high-stakes testing, privatization schemes, and attacks on teachers and their unions; it has shaped federal education policy and roiled K-12 schools for most of the last two decades.

The Student Success Task Force, which was convened by the California Community College Chancellor’s Office in 2009, and chaired by a former president of ACCJC, adapted this project for California’s community colleges. Taken together, its recommendations aimed to tailor the colleges’ work to better meet industry needs by focusing on narrow workforce training, basic skills, and transfer to four-year schools; instituting new, more quantitative “student learning outcomes;” and emphasizing “productivity.”

The Task Force recommendations were rolled into the Student Success Act, S.B. 1456, passed by the California legislature in 2012. Supporters of the bill—including the ACCJC, which lobbied hard for it—applauded the measure’s potential to bolster student college completion rates and the California economy. Critics, with CCSF in the lead, charged that it would effectively end the open access promised by California’s 1960 Master Plan for Higher Education.

City College’s Academic Senate, Board of Trustees, student government, and chancellor spoke out against the act; the school’s award-winning newspaper, The Guardsman, editorialized against it, and about 50 people caravanned to Sacramento for a State Senate hearing. In their testimony they argued that core parts of the bill would ice out the working students and lifelong learners who make up the overwhelming majority of the City College student body, and slice the safety net for the most vulnerable. These provisions included giving enrollment priority to full-time students who could graduate quickly; eliminating fee waivers for students whose grades fall below a C for two semesters; and sending students with more than 100 units to the back of the registration line.

Accreditation as a Weapon
City College was due for its regular accreditation review in 2012. The 17-member team ACCJC picked for the job included Commission President Barbara Beno’s husband and 10 people who either participated in the Student Success Task Force or came from schools that endorsed it. In the heat of the debate over the act, the commission came down with its sanctions.

“We were put in the crosshairs because of our stance on the Student Success Task Force,” says Wendy Kaufmyn, an engineering professor and activist with Save City College, a coalition of students, faculty, staff and community.

AFT 2121’s Alisa Messer and CCSF Trustee John Rizzo (left) at a Fall 2012 demonstration protesting sanctions against the school. ©2012 Peter Menchini/Maya Media.The Commission’s sanctions set off years of upheaval and chaos at the school. The six top administrators who churned through over the next four years made a series of decisions that drastically downsized the school—all justified, explicitly or implicitly, by the need to meet ACCJC mandates. From July 2013 – December 2015, these decisions were made by a Special Trustee With Extraordinary Powers (STWEP), an emergency manager who operated with neither transparency nor accountability. Neither students, nor faculty, nor the elected Board of Trustees had any say.

Some of the policies put in by the takeover administrators pushed students out in obvious ways, notably the requirement for advance payments of student fees, and the closure of Civic Center campus.

The requirement for up-front payment took effect in January 2013. Students who couldn’t pay their full fee at registration, even before they received their financial aid, were referred to the predatory student loan company Nelnet5 and “robo-dropped” from their classes by the school’s computer. This policy pushed out more than 9,000 students over four semesters. “At $4,676 per student in lost state reimbursements, the school lost around $40 million,” says Gonzalez. (After two years of student-led protests, the harsh payment policy was suspended in January 2016.)

The administration closed the Civic Center campus on a half day’s notice, just before the 2015 spring semester classes were due to start. They claimed a “seismic emergency” existed at the 750 Eddy St. building, though the structure had been flagged for retrofit in the 1970s. Classes for new immigrant English-language learners were cancelled with only a note on the door, in English; some 2,000 students were displaced. A strong community mobilization forced the college to find replacement space, but around 1,700 students lost their semester. (See “Labor and Community Alliance Saves a City College Campus,” p. 20.)

Other policies undermined the supports that help students stay in school. Student resource centers have seen their budgets cut by 25 – 50 percent, says Edian Blair Schofield, who works at the Women’s Resource Center and at Tulay, which serves Filipino students. The college’s array of resource centers and special programs serve Latino/a students, Black students, veterans, LGBTQ students, undocumented, disabled, homeless and formerly incarcerated students, among others.6

New “productivity” standards demand larger classes and defy teachers’ experience of what works. “I lose at-risk students in a class of 40 who I could keep in a class of 25 to 30,” says Edgar Torres.

And narrowing the course offerings deprives students of the very things that might draw them in, according to Joe Drake, a formerly incarcerated student who is preparing to transfer from City College to a four-year school. “They want to cut music, Poetry for the People, a lot of the ethnic studies classes—the classes that help a person find out who you are, that help people be interested in staying in school,” says Drake. Diversity studies—ethnic studies classes, women’s and gender studies, labor and LGBTQ studies—have been particular targets since the crisis began. Tarik Farrar recalls Interim Chancellor Pamila Fisher telling him on more than one occasion in 2012, “Your diversity departments are in our sights.”

Students Gone Missing
“We’ve lost a generation of SFUSD graduates,” says Leslie Simon, who teaches Women’s Studies at the college and founded Project SURVIVE, the school’s sexual violence prevention program.

The 10 percent decline in new SFUSD graduates entering City College in 2014 mirrored the percentage of students who didn’t go to college at all.7 Without CCSF, their options are limited, according to Shanell Williams, who was the student representative on the Board of Trustees when the crisis hit. “What do they want low-income students to do? Either be stuck in a low-wage job, or in the underground street economy where they may end up in jail or prison—or go to a for-profit trade school, where they will be saddled down with debt and have little to show for it,” Williams says.

The most vulnerable and least mobile students have been hit hardest by what activists call “the racist push-out policies”; a majority of the displaced students are students of color.

“Consistently since I started in 2012 the population of African American students has gone down, and many of the students who are there are struggling with housing issues, which makes staying in school hard, or with economic issues that affect their staying in school,” says African American Studies Professor Aliyah Dunn-Salahuddin. She grew up in the Bayview-Hunters Point neighborhood in San Francisco, and has seen her whole family pushed out of the city.

“City College is San Francisco’s most important working class institution,” says American Federation of Teachers (AFT Local 2121) Political Director Alisa Messer, a San Francisco native. “This [the downsizing of the school] is a case study for who’s leaving San Francisco, who’s being pushed out, another way we’re making San Francisco inhospitable for working class students and students of color,” says Messer, who teaches English at CCSF.

Students, Faculty and Community Push Back
Hundreds of people turned out for a community meeting in July 2012, shortly after the sanctions hit. Many channeled their energy into the campaign for the parcel tax to support City College; the tax, Proposition A, passed with 73 percent of the vote. San Franciscans also turned out en masse at numerous marches, rallies, and trustees’ meetings. Students, most militant of all, occupied the administration building and the mayor’s office.

AFT2121, and the California Federation of Teachers, played a key role in the Prop A campaign, in securing state funds to stabilize City College during the crisis, and in legal and regulatory challenges to the ACCJC. By March 2016 the commission was facing loss of its federal license, and the California Community College Board of Governors voted to reform and replace the commission. Although the ACCJC is still scheduled to render its final decision on accreditation in January 2017, with no appeals allowed, City College supporters are cautiously optimistic.

“We’re moving forward,” Messer says, “but there are no guarantees. We must stay vigilant and remain organized.”

Now activists must win support for rebuilding CCSF as an open access institution for 100,000 students, rather than as a half-size workforce training school. The shock treatment handed down by the Accrediting Commission and the state takeover replaced almost all the senior administrators at the school with people committed to an austerity agenda. Like most austerity regimes, this one includes an all-out attack on unionized workers. (See box, “Faculty Fights For Fairness” p.10.) Turning the college around will require, in part, an aggressive Board of Trustees and supportive city government.

 “Gentrification and education reform are part of a coherent vision of a future world,” says Tarik Farrar, and that vision is being contested on many fronts in San Francisco.

Major elected offices will be in play this year. Seats on the Democratic County Central Committee will be up for grabs, and in this bluest of cities, these endorsements can make or break campaigns. Four spots on the City College Board of Trustees will come open, though incumbents are expected to run for three of those. The three progressive stalwarts on the San Francisco Board of Supervisors—John Avalos, David Campos and Eric Mar—will be termed out, and much rides on the races to continue their politics on the board.

Proposition K, passed by San Francisco voters in November 2015, commits the city to using surplus land for affordable housing; Proposition C on the June 2016 ballot would more than double the amount of affordable housing required in large, market-rate developments. Developments at CCSF’s 33 Gough St. site and the Balboa Reservoir will be moving through the public process as anti-displacement activists battle the huge “Beast on Bryant” development at 18th and Bryant Streets, and remain on alert in the fight over luxury housing development at 16th and Mission.8

Detail from a poster calling on high school students to walk out in protest of San Francisco police murders of Alex Nieto, Amilcar Perez-Lopez, and Mario Woods. Nieto and Perez-Lopez studied at City College. Poster design by Adrea Ledet, portraits by Oree Originol.

City College student activists are also making links to the organizing against police brutality they see escalating with the gentrification in the city.

“Anti-gentrification, anti-police brutality, the fight for City College—all these struggles are connected, tightly tied together,” says Win-Mon Kyi, a core student organizer with Save City College.

The new proposal to make City College free to San Francisco residents and workers could address both the school’s enrollment drop and the city’s deep inequities. Supervisor Jane Kim introduced the “Free City” proposal April 19, with the strong backing of AFT2121 and several community groups. The cost of the plan could be offset by a luxury real estate transfer tax, which would go before voters in November 2016.

“Free City has everything to do with who’s being pushed out, and gives San Francisco an opportunity to reclaim the promise of public higher education,” Messer says. “To make this part of our next steps in the struggle—it’s like a phoenix rising from the ashes.” ◼︎

 

Marcy Rein is a contributing editor to Race, Poverty & the Environment.

 

The Research Committee serving the movement to Save City College contributed reporting to this story. The contact person for the committee is Allan Fisher at ResComm11@gmail.com.

 

Endnotes

1.    California Community College Chancellor’s Office Datamart, http://datamart.cccco.edu/Students/Student_Term_Annual_Count.aspx, accessed March 23, 2016.

2.    Chicago Teachers Union, “The Black & White of Education in Chicago’s Public Schools: Class, Charters & Chaos,” Chicago Teachers’ Union, 2012, http://www.ctunet.com/root/text/CTU-black-and-white-of-chicago-education.pdf

3.    Pauline Lipman, High Stakes Education: Inequality, Globalization and Urban School Reform, RoutledgeFalmer, 2004, pp. 7 – 8.

4.    Ibid.

5.    NelNet overbilled the US Government by at least $278 million between 2003 and 2006. See Alan Michael Collinge, The Student Loan Scam, Beacon Press, 2009, p. 70.

6.    These supportive programs include Disabled Students Programs and Services, EOPS, Transitional Studies, the multi-cultural retention programs and the Resource Centers (Family, Women’s, Queer, Multicultural, Veterans, SCube, VIDA, the Bookloan Program, HARTS, Guardian Scholars, Project SURVIVE, the Gender Diversity Project, Second Chance, WAYPASS, the Writing Success Project, Peer Case Management.

7.    SFUSD Graduates: https://prezi.com/ix1fwlambaqc/copy-of-ccsf-colloquy-april-24-2015/ Postsecondary Attendance Rates: http://gardnercenter.stanford.edu/resources/publications/JGC_IB_SFUSDPostSecondaryTransition2010.pdf

8.    For more on the 16th and Mission development fight, see “Who Gets To Live Near Transit,” by Dyan Ruiz and Joseph Smooke, RP&E Vol. 20-1, 2015, http://www.reimaginerpe.org/20-1/ruiz-smooke

 

Endnotes “Faculty Fight for Fairness”

1.    Budget document provided in bargaining. Interview with AFT Local 2121 President Tim Killikelly, April 14, 2016.

2.    For an example of the ACCJS’s anti-union bias, see Vice President Steven Kinsella’s exchange with San Mateo Community College Chancellor Ron Galatolo, archived at http://aft1493.org/chancellor-galatolo-speaks-out-on-accjc/, accessed April 24, 2016.

3.    ACCJC Eligibility Requirements for Accreditation, #21, p. 7 http://www.accjc.org/wp-content/uploads/2015/07/Accreditation_Reference_Handbook_July_2015.pdf, accessed May 2, 2016.

 

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“Anti-gentrification, anti-police brutality, the fight for City College—all these struggles are connected, tightly tied together,” says Win-Mon Kyi, a core student organizer with Save City College.

Labor and Community Alliance Saves a City College Campus

By James Tracy

More than 450 people rallied at City Hall in March 2015 to press for the re-opening of CCSF’s Civic Center Campus. ©2015 Nathaniel Y. Downes, The Guardsman.

City College of San Francisco abruptly shut down its only campus in the Tenderloin neighborhood in January 2015 with less than a day’s notice. The Civic Center campus primarily served recently arrived immigrants and offered nationally recognized English as a Second Language classes. Citing seismic safety concerns with the aging building, the college administration acted as if students would simply accept the loss of their classes, even though no dates for a rebuild were offered. They were wrong about that.

Several respected community organizations (La Voz Latina, Community Housing Partnership, the Vietnamese Youth Development Center and Glide Memorial Church) and American Federation of Teachers (AFT) Local 2121 organized a rapid response to the closure. The coalition, which came to be known as the Central City Coalition for Public Education, followed a simple strategy: undermine the administration’s messaging that portrayed the closure as an unfortunate but necessary safety measure.

The coalition organized a march from the campus to City Hall on March 5 that attracted more than 450 people. It used a hearing called by Supervisor Jane Kim to expose the fact that the seismic issues had been known for years. Instead of making plans to relocate the lost classes, the administration chose to close the campus with no consultation with staff or students. The hearing also revealed that while brass informally discussed some reconstruction plans, no concrete steps were in place to return the classes to the community.

Over the next month, the coalition continued with a series of actions, accountability sessions and press work designed to provide the outside game while Supervisor Kim directly negotiated with the college. In early April the college announced that it would reopen the campus nearby in a building owned by the Academy of Art. In Fall 2015, the new site opened up with a six-year lease, pending the completion of seismic work on the old campus.

For Sergio Lopez, an organizer with La Voz Latina, the campaign was very personal. Living near the campus allowed him to study English and other subjects and work at the same time. “It is a place where I go to practice and develop one of my important skills, to be a bilingual speaker to support the community in translations and communications in different levels. The City College has been a support place for my second language and the future for my work and the other students that are out there in the community.”

Several factors led to this organizing victory. The foremost was that City College of San Francisco, still reeling from its accreditation crisis, needed to preserve political goodwill with members of the city’s Board of Supervisors. It was a rare moment in organizing when bad publicity, together with the mobilization of sympathetic politicians, actually amounted to real leverage.

Another key to the win was the labor-community alliance. The community groups provided students willing to speak out and reframe the issue through the lenses of immigrant justice and bridging the digital divide. The union mobilized teachers and staff and dedicated a community organizer to the effort. There were some complications along the way, as one partner was reluctant to be seen in alliance with a labor union. But the coalition as a whole stayed together, and is still pressing the college for a voice in programming and supporting the union’s current campaigns against downsizing and layoffs.

“City College has been so central to the experience of so many in our community,” says La Voz Latina organizer Kelly Guajardo. “Particularly when you’re looking at La Voz members who are largely low-income, immigrant families, City College presents an affordable and realistic opportunity to get ahead, to learn English, to get a degree. It’s worth fighting for.” ◼︎

 

James Tracy is a San Francisco housing activist, part-time teacher at City College of San Francisco, and author. His most recent book is Dispatches Against Displacement: Field Notes From San Francisco’s Housing Wars (AK Press, 2014).

 

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"The City College has been a support place for my second language and the future for my work and the other students that are out there in the community.”⏤Sergio Lopez, La Voz Latina

Corporate Media Writes the Sound Track for the Attack on City College

By The Research Committee of Save City College

Crowds turn out to support City College despite reams of negative coverage by the San Francisco Chronicle. ©2013 Peter Menchini/Maya Media

The San Francisco Chronicle became the main sound track for the long-running accreditation crisis that hit City College in 2012, publishing scores of articles that set a narrative frame for the San Francisco public, and for other mainstream media. An analysis of Chronicle messaging can serve as a Rosetta Stone for decoding the corporate interests at play in the attack on this top community college.

Closing the Open Door
Since 2012, state laws and regulations have been undermining the “open door” promise of the California Master Plan of 1960—“access, affordability and quality” for anyone age 18 or over. The rationale for this shift was first laid out in a report produced in 2006 for the California Business Roundtable, the powerhouse lobby for the state’s two-dozen largest multi-national corporations, and its allies. “Keeping California’s Edge: The Growing Demand for Highly Educated Workers” was essentially a work order for the California community colleges and the California State University system, specifying businesses’ workforce needs in great detail.1

The report reflected the corporate view that the purposes of education are “meeting the needs of industry” and “maintaining a competitive edge.” With this frame, educational priorities begin to shift. Training in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) is elevated. Broader community-centered offerings get cut, including ethnic studies, women’s and LGBTQ studies, arts, languages and humanities, specialized art classes for people with autism, and beginning English classes for new immigrants.

A 2011 report from the Student Success Task Force convened by the California Community College Board of Governors largely reflected this business agenda. Follow-up state legislation, the “Student Success Act,” passed in 2012 despite vociferous statewide opposition led by City College’s students, chancellor, faculty and trustees. The act puts community colleges under 22 new restrictive regulations. As the new policies come on line one by one, they spell drastically narrower college access, mainly limited to 18- to 24-year-olds enrolled full-time in degree, certificate and transfer programs, geared for the corporate workforce.

These reports shaped the themes of the Chronicle’s coverage of the City College crisis, which would sound eerily familiar to readers who follow news of emergency managers taking over school districts and city governments in Detroit, Flint, New Orleans, Memphis, and Oakland, or news about the epidemics of closures of “failed public schools” in Black and Latino neighborhoods across the country.

Preview Tips the Paper’s Hand
More than a month before the Accrediting Commission for Community and Junior Colleges (ACCJC) issued its “show cause” sanction of City College in July 2012, the Chronicle published a preview article. The headline for that June 1, 2012 story read, “S.F. City College can’t afford all its campuses: Trustees may have to close sites to save money, academic standing.” The article quoted the president of the college’s Board of Trustees saying, “I think we’re going to have to close some. They [the accreditation team] think we have too many campuses.” Nanette Asimov, the main reporter on the City College beat, made no mention of the fact that it was highly unusual for an accreditation agency—charged with assuring educational quality—to suggest that a college recoup its academic standing through campus closures.

The June 1 article set up a percussion line that would echo in scores of follow-up stories: City College was simply too big, “a behemoth,” “a vast college,” “a huge school” “that must shrink to an affordable size”; City College had a deadline to step up from being “a bloated, slow-thinking system of nine campuses into a lean, sharp-minded institution of higher learning.” 2

Several weeks after the July 2012 accreditation bombshell, a consultant with the Fiscal Crisis and Management Assistance Team (FCMAT) issued a report on City College’s financial status, echoing the ACCJC’s narrative about the college’s “profligate finances,” and sparking a new wave of negative news coverage. The Chronicle lent an aura of unassailable legitimacy to both the ACCJC and to FCMAT—“all the experts agree.” A far more critical analysis appeared in Beyond Chron: “Errors, Exaggerations and Bias of the FCMAT Report on CCSF.”3 FCMAT’s official description gives it an air of neutrality. Established by state legislation in 1991, the agency says it exists “to help California’s local educational agencies fulfill their financial and management responsibilities.” But its interventions can be highly political, as in this case; FCMAT also provided the rationale for the 2003 state takeover of the Oakland Unified School District.4

The Chronicle’s coverage unleashed the equivalent of a shock and awe campaign, breathlessly conveying that City College could be closed down by the accreditation commission at any instant, save for the heroic rescue effort now underway by the state takeover. The college had “failed in 14 fiscal and managerial areas.” (October 23, 2012)5 It was near bankruptcy, “so badly managed and fiscally unstable,” “it typically spends more than it has.” (June 29, 2012)6 The Chronicle gave a megaphone to spokespersons who dramatically underscored the need for the swiftest compliance with ACCJC demands: “The clock is ticking,” warned corporate media consultant Larry Kamer, brought in by the state takeover to speak on behalf of the college.7

The newspaper consistently linked management issues to City College’s commitment to open access, bad-mouthing the breadth of the school’s offerings: “Now City College trustees have revised their mission statement, dropping the emphasis on enrichment classes, such as music appreciation, memoir writing and other free classes enjoyed by many older adults.”

This depiction of the college’s adult school program, repeated dozens of times, badly misrepresented the non-credit division that made up 40 percent of the student body.8 While “enrichment classes, music appreciation and memoir writing” conjure up an image of leisured upper class students, in reality City College’s adult school division overwhelmingly serves the most low-income and marginalized residents of San Francisco, at no charge to the students. The largest offering is an exceptionally successful English as a Second Language program. City College ESL had for decades been an essential first stop for new immigrants in this gateway city that is over one third immigrants; the Bay Area still has the highest rate of linguistic isolation9 of any region in California. The college ran a high school equivalency program; offered more than 30 health, safety and nutrition classes for low-income elders at congregate eating sites; tai chi classes for elders in Chinatown; and classes for 2,300 disabled students, including those struggling with autism, PTSD and other psychiatric conditions.

Chronicle of Land Grabs Foretold
With remarkable prescience, the Chronicle’s June 1, 2012 preview story listed campuses that could be closed, among them Castro-Valencia, Civic Center, and Downtown. The article ended with interim chancellor Pamila Fisher saying, “Everything is on the table. [Closures are] a very legitimate question for us to be considering.” Four years later, the Castro and Civic Center Campuses were closed, and the trustees were looking at plans to develop 33 Gough St. for luxury housing on a 75-year lease, over the protests of members of the college community.

In November 2015, the Chronicle reported that the huge 5M (Fifth and Mission) development had been approved by the Planning Commission, despite a nine-hour storm of protest from neighbors and community organizations. City College’s Downtown Campus, serving large numbers of ESL students, is located squarely in the middle of the footprint for the 4.6 million square foot development for luxury housing towers and tech offices. The land for 5M is owned by the Chronicle’s parent company, the Hearst Corporation. City College advocates expect a new wave of articles in the Chronicle, reiterating that the school can no longer afford all its campuses, and that the sale of Downtown Campus (possibly to the Hearst Corporation?) could certainly help rescue the college and restore its academic standing.

Sins of Omission
The stories the Chronicle failed to cover were as important as the errors and distortions in its coverage. For example:

The Chronicle never saw fit to mention that City College’s financial reserves were at a low point during the ACCJC visit because the state of California was a month late in a routine transfer of $25 million in appropriations. Even so, City College’s reserves had never for a moment fallen below the California Community College Chancellor’s Office guideline of five percent.

The system-wide Chancellor’s Scorecard showed that City College had some of the best student outcomes in the state, and the college’s scores surpassed those of every single one of the twelve colleges affiliated with the ACCJC. The Chronicle buried this story in a blog post, turning it into a joke with the lead, “Living well is the best revenge.” (April 23, 2014)10

When the fraudulent for-profit school Corinthian/Heald was finally closed down by the US Department of Education in 2014, in the wake of multiple lawsuits from nine states’ attorneys general, the paper did not touch the story that the ACCJC had fully accredited that school for 30 years. The irony of the ACCJC fully accrediting a for-profit school with a well-documented history of blatant large-scale fraud, while accusing an excellent public college of “fiscal mismanagement,” somehow escaped the Chronicle.

Stories Have Power
The Chronicle’s slant on the City College crisis percolated into the national media, and seemed to become a force in the downsizing of the school. Both the Washington Monthly (September 2013) and the Wall Street Journal (November 2013) ran hit pieces, with the Monthly’s actually titled, “America’s Worst Community Colleges.”

In San Francisco, as early as December 2013, “Many people mistakenly believed that it [City College] is already in the process of closing,” according to a report by Image Research. The report, based on four focus groups, also noted that people trusted information from City College students and workers more than that they received from the media—but that even those trusted sources expressed “negativity and speculation.” Small wonder, when so many Chronicle stories hammer home the paper’s dismal view: “City College is so badly managed and financially unstable, it should shut down if its extensive problems aren’t addressed.” ◼︎

 

The Research Committee Serving the Movement to Save City College can be reached c/o Allan Fisher, ResComm11@gmail.com.

Endnotes

1.    Dr. Robert Fountain, “Keeping California’s Edge: The Growing Demand for Highly Educated Workers,” prepared for the California Business Roundtable and the Campaign for College Opportunity by the Applied Research Center at California State University, Sacramento, 2006.

2.    Nanette Asimov, “S.F. City College submits action plan,” San Francisco Chronicle, Oct. 15, 2012, http://www.sfgate.com/education/article/S-F-City-College-submits-action-plan-3951356.php, accessed May 16, 2016

3.    Rick Sterling, “Errors, Exaggerations and Bias in the FCMAT Report on CCSF,” Beyond Chron, July 11, 2013, http://www.beyondchron.org/errors-exaggerations-and-bias-in-the-fcmat-report-on-ccsf/

4.    Robert Gammon, “Phone Logs Link “Politics” To School Takeover: Records show FCMAT officials made repeated calls to city’s leaders before Chaconas’ ouster,” Oakland Tribune, August 18, 2003, accessed at http://www.safero.org/perata/news/phonelogs.html, May 1, 2016.

5.    Nanette Asimov, “City College SF’s ‘Special Trustee’ Picked,” San Francisco Chronicle, Oct. 23, 2012, http://www.sfgate.com/education/article/City-College-SF-special-trustee-picked-3976120.php.

6.    Nanette Asimov, “City College accreditation in jeopardy, report says,” San Francisco Chronicle, June 29, 2012, http://www.sfgate.com/education/article/City-College-accreditation-in-jeopardy-report-3675075.php.

7.    Nanette Asimov, “CCSF cuts protested as deadline nears,” San Francisco Chronicle, March 7, 2013, http://www.sfgate.com/education/article/City-College-accreditation-in-jeopardy-report-3675075.php,

8.    San Francisco Chronicle, Aug 1, 2012.

9.    According to the US Census Bureau, “A household is linguistically isolated if all the adults speak a language other than English, and none speak English ‘very well’. Adult is defined as age 14 or older…” https://www.census.gov/hhes/socdemo/language/data/census/li-final.pdf

10. Nanette Asimov, “CCSF beats accreditors on academic playing field,” April 23, 2014, http://blog.sfgate.com/education/2014/04/23/city-college-of-sf-beats-accreditors-schools-on-academic-playing-field/.

 

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An analysis of the San Francisco Chronicle's coverage of City College of San Francisco can serve as a Rosetta Stone for decoding the corporate interests at play in the attack on this top community college.

CCSF Faculty Fights for Fairness

By Marcy Rein

City College teachers went on strike on April 27, 2016. Their one-day walkout—the first in the school’s 80-year history—denounced the administration’s bad-faith bargaining, and the persistent, poisonous influence of the ACCJC with its downsizing agenda. “We’re not going to stand for the corporate-style school reforms this administration sees as the solution,” Latin American and Latino/a Studies Professor Marco Mojica told a student-led teach-in the week before the strike.

On strike day the teachers were earning 3.5 percent less than they did in 2007, although the cost of living in San Francisco has shot up 21 percent. Faculty took multiple pay cuts over the crisis years, some negotiated, some imposed. Layoffs, mostly due to class cancellations, have fallen especially hard on part-time instructors; 174 have lost their jobs, with nearly 350 threatened by the 26 percent cut in classes announced by the administration in late 2015. The paperwork and meetings required to comply with the ACCJC demands, on top of teachers’ regular workload, amounts to speedup, according to AFT Local 2121 Political Director Alisa Messer. “The faculty feel demoralized, not just disrespected but ground into the dirt,” she says.

Contract talks between AFT2121 and the Community College District began in February 2015; negotiations and mediation have proven fruitless. Under the administration’s proposal, most faculty would still be earning less than their 2007 wages by end of the contract in 2018, according to AFT2121 Vice President Alan D’Souza—although the college, by its own figures, has $57 million in reserves.[1] The divisive proposal also undermines 30 years of union negotiations aimed at reducing the gap between full-time and part-time faculty.

Labor and community supporters joined City College faculty for a rally in front of the Financial District law office of the college’s outside labor negotiator on March 11; 25 people were arrested for sitting in at the building entrance. Seven members of the San Francisco Board of Supervisors and representatives from two-dozen community groups signed a letter calling on City College to negotiate with the teachers in good faith. The Executive Council of the Associated Students at City College passed a strike-support resolution by an 11 – 1 vote. Students and community members swelled the teachers’ picket lines on April 27, and packed into a noontime rally at Civic Center.

Meanwhile, the administration appears to be under pressure to maintain its intransigent stance. The Accrediting Commission has a well-documented history of anti-union bias.[2] In July 2015, the Commission placed City College under “advanced financial monitoring.” A letter from the Commission to CCSF Chancellor Susan Lamb cited “Settlement in excess of COLA” as a key cause for concern. Accreditation standards include a requirement that schools “comply with Commission requests, directives, decisions and policies,”[3] which gives this letter considerable weight, even though it isn’t part of the official ACCJC sanctions. The unfair labor practice charge AFT2121 filed with the State Public Employment Relations Board contends, “The unwillingness of the District to engage in good faith, give-and-take negotiations… is clearly driven by ACCJC hidden or ‘underground’ criteria.”

Update: In August 2016, the members of AFT2121 ratified a new contract, which restores lost wages and provides raises for both full-time and part-time faculty. The San Francisco Community College District Board of Trustees approved the agreement Sept. 8.

 

 


Endnotes

[1] Budget document provided in bargaining. Interview with AFT Local 2121 President Tim Killikelly, April 14, 2016.

[2] For an example of the ACCCJ’s anti-union bias, see Vice President Steven Kinsella’s exchange with San Mateo Community College Chancellor Ron Galatolo, archived at http://aft1493.org/chancellor-galatolo-speaks-out-on-accjc/, accessed April 24, 2016.

[3] ACCJC Eligibility Requirements for Accreditation, #21, p. 7 http://www.accjc.org/wp-content/uploads/2015/07/Accreditation_Reference_Handbook_July_2015.pdf, accessed May 2, 2016.

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Development for Whom?

By Marcy Rein

“City College is a mirror for what is happening in the city,” says Kevine Boggess, a San Francisco community organizer and former CCSF student body president. “People are experiencing fear of being pushed out, or vanishing into the ether,” he says. Evictions increased in 2015 for the sixth year in a row,1 as inequality in the city hit third-world levels.2 The influx of personal wealth and investment capital has fed the housing crisis,3 and transformed not only the face of the city, but the space as well.

750 Eddy Street, site of CCSF's closed Civic Center Campus. Photo by Marcy Rein

The changes show starkly in the neighborhood around City College’s Mission Campus. The corner stores, Hunt’s Donuts, El Mahahual Salvadoran/Colombian Restaurant, and the fabulous Latin@ drag bar “Esta Noche” up the street have all shut down, replaced by trendy watering holes and boutiques selling pricey home furnishings and clothes. As you head towards City College on the #49 bus, the upscale retail gives way to neighborhood businesses—but around the corner from the main Ocean Avenue campus, the Avalon condos just went up, with a Whole Foods next door.

“That’s another small metaphor for the reality,” says CCSF African American Studies Professor Aliyah Dunn-Salahuddin. “There’s new housing built up right near the school that the teachers can’t afford to live in, and a Whole Foods where students can’t afford to buy their lunch.”

The changes in the physical space that come as people are displaced are part of breaking communities, Fernando Marti of the Council of Community Housing Organizations observes. Communities lose all kinds of resources—cultural spaces, non-profits, stores. “The downsizing of City College fits that pattern,” Marti says.

City College Real Estate Speculation
When the crisis hit in 2012, City College had 12 campuses in neighborhoods around San Francisco, as well as an administration building at 33 Gough St.

As early as September 2012, the Board of Trustees began thinking about closing Downtown Campus and 33 Gough and leasing them to raise funds; students at Downtown spotted Interim Chancellor Pamila Fisher touring real estate investors through the building, according to Student Trustee Bouchra Simmons, who attends classes there. The Board did shut down the rented Castro-Valencia campus.4

“While the [elected] trustees were still suspended, the “Special Trustee” put 33 Gough St. out to bid to develop as housing. The Board of Trustees had no say in the project description,” says John Rizzo, one of the longest-serving trustees. “All these things happened while there was no public oversight.” Profits from the project will go to the developer and the bank that arranges financing, with a 6 percent commission for the real estate broker, CBRE,5 and a cut for City College.

In October 2013, Special Trustee (emergency manager) Robert Agrella unilaterally canceled plans to build the Performing Arts Education Center (PAEC), although San Francisco voters had twice approved the project, and it was “shovel ready,” says longtime Music Department Chair Madeline Mueller. City College has no large auditorium, and only seven broken-down practice rooms for music students. The PAEC could both boost the school’s music and theater offerings, and serve as a performance venue and cultural anchor for the community, an alternative to the elite opera, ballet and symphony.

The site for the PAEC is part of the 17-acre Balboa Reservoir parcel; City College owns about 40 percent of the reservoir, and the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission (PUC) owns the rest. The PUC is considering declaring the land surplus, and San Francisco Mayor Ed Lee’s Office of Economic and Workforce Development has begun making development plans. The city has offered little hard information on the project, but in one scenario, only 15 percent of 500 planned housing units would be truly affordable for low-wage workers and new teachers.6 City College activists hope to secure more affordable housing and a smaller footprint that would hold space for a revival of the PAEC, and preserve the parking at the site that hundreds of commuting faculty, staff and students rely on.

Since power was restored to the elected Board of Trustees in January 2016, development of 33 Gough St. and the closed Civic Center campus at 750 Eddy St. have been on the Board’s public agenda. But public input is tightly managed and purely advisory. The debate centers on whether public land should be used for private profit and luxury housing, with the lure of getting a bigger cut for the cash-strapped school. Any development the trustees decide on will need to go through San Francisco’s planning process, and ultimately be approved by the Board of Supervisors. ⏤Marcy Rein  ◼︎

 

Endnotes
1.    San Francisco Residential Rent Stabilization and Arbitration Board, Annual Report on Eviction Notices, March 8, 2016, http://sfrb.org/sites/default/files/Document/Statistics/2016 AnnualEvctRpt.pdf; Jack Morse, “Ellis Act Filings Up 36% As Evictions Hit Six-Year High,” sfist, March 29, 2016, http://sfist.com/2016/03/29/report_evictions_continue_to_increa.php, accessed May , 2015

2.    Lydia O’Connor, “Bay Area Poverty Rate Still Near Record High Despite Tech Boom,” Huffington Post, April 2, 2015, http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2015/04/02/sf-bay-area-poverty_n_6994990.html, Accessed May 20, 2016.

3.    Richard Walker, “Why Is There a Housing Crisis?” East Bay Express, March 23, 2016, http://www.eastbayexpress.com/oakland/why-is-there-a-housing-crisis/Content?oid=4722242, accessed May 1, 2016.

4.    Andrea Koskey, “CCSF to Shut Two Campuses,” The Examiner, Sept. 28, 2012, http://archives.sfexaminer.com/sanfrancisco/ccsf-to-shut-two-campuses/Content?oid=2127304

5.    Richard Blum, the husband of US Senator Dianne Feinstein, served as chair of CBRE’s Board of Directors for 12 years; he retired in 2014 but remains a major shareholder.

6.    Memo from Emily Lesk, Office of Economic and Workforce Development, to the Balboa Reservoir Community Advisory Committee, October 9, 2015, accessed at http://208.121.200.84/ftp/files/plans-and-programs/planning-for-the-city/public-sites/balboareservoir/balboareservoir_CAC_ParameterUpdates-011116.pdf accessed May 1, 2016.

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For-Profit Piranhas

By Marcy Rein

“The forces that stand to gain from the downsizing of City College are the San Francisco real estate developers, the student loan industry, the for-profit schools that our students will go to and take on horrendous debt, because they’re so expensive, and our administrators who are paying themselves inflated salaries,” says Wendy Kaufmyn, an engineering professor and Save City College activist.

For-profit schools stand to gain from the downsizing of City College. Here, an ad on a kiosk for the CCSF newspaper. The other side of the kiosk displays a recruitment poster for the US Army. ©2016 Marcy ReinFor-profit colleges compete with community colleges for the same pool of students. These operations cost 17 times as much as parallel programs at City College,1 prey on students of color,2 and drive students to predatory loans: 96 percent of students at the for-profits must take out loans, in contrast to 13 percent at community colleges. In the Bay Area, less than 4 percent of all two-year students attend for-profit schools. The rest go to the public community colleges. If the for-profit schools are to grow, the public community colleges must shrink.

The for-profit sector has a strong presence in the US Department of Education, with key officials cycling through the revolving door to take lucrative positions with for-profit colleges and their lobbyists.3

Corporate philanthropy, another major instigator of education “reform,” played its part in the City College story. Lumina Foundation, a major funder of corporate education reform, was started with $770 million dollars from the nation’s largest student loan company, the Student Loan Marketing Corporation (“Sallie Mae”), and the current chair of its board is Sallie Mae’s former CEO. Lumina gave $200,000 to the Student Success Task Force, and $450,000 to ACCJC. The foundation then gave a lucrative state-level post to the director of the Student Success Task Force, Amy Supinger, who wrote the restrictive new regulations that create pressures on students to go to school full-time. This generally means they cannot work their way through college but must take out student loans.

Major players in the California Democratic Party have ties to the for-profit education world, and to the real estate industry that feeds off the epidemic of displacement. Party Chair John Burton was on the board of trustees for the University of Phoenix, and that for-profit is now in the process of being transferred to new management under the second highest-ranking official in Obama’s Department of Education from 2009-13.4 California Governor Jerry Brown is a major booster of charter schools. During his years as mayor of Oakland, he raised funds for two charters, and helped bring about the state takeover of the Oakland Unified School District; some 20 charters mushroomed in Oakland during the six years of the takeover.5,6

Richard Blum, husband of US Senator Dianne Feinstein, has been a major shareholder in Career Education Corporation and ITT Educational Services, two of the largest for-profit college operators. Both companies have been investigated and sued for their business practices—including, in ITT’s case, predatory lending.7 Blum also served for 12 years as chairman of the board for CBRE, the world’s largest real estate brokerage; he retired in 2014 but remains a major shareholder. (CBRE is the firm that CCSF Special Trustee Robert Agrella hired to steer the development of 33 Gough St.)

The top ranks of the Democratic Party in San Francisco are enmeshed with real estate as well; the various arms of the real estate lobby are major contributors to the Party.8 The San Francisco Association of Realtors hired Mary Jung, chair of the Democratic County Central Committee, as its chief lobbyist in June 2013.

Mayor Lee, with his strong pro-development agenda, shepherded bills through the Board of Supervisors giving tax breaks to Twitter and others; the first three years of the Twitter deal alone cost the city $56 million.9 The Hearst Corporation, owner of the San Francisco Chronicle whose slanted coverage has contributed to the City College crisis (See “Corporate Media Writes the Sound Track for the Attack on City College,” p. 22.), is a major real estate power. The Chronicle Building at Fifth and Mission Streets anchors the multi-million dollar 5M development—going up just a block from City College’s Downtown Campus. And enticing these companies to move to San Francisco without planning housing for thousands of new workers has contributed to the epidemic of skyrocketing rents and displacement.10  ⏤Marcy Rein     ◼︎

Endnotes

1.    San Francisco Board of Supervisors Budget and Legislative Analyst, “Evaluation of the Potential Impact of the Closure of San Francisco City College,” Sept. 16, 2013, http://www.sfbos.org/Modules/ShowDocument.aspx?documentid=46531

2.    Jorge Rivas, “For-Profit Colleges’ Mostly Black and Latino Students Face Higher Debt and Unemployment,” Colorlines, Jan. 4, 2012, accessed at http://www.colorlines.com/articles/profit-colleges-mostly-black-and-latino-students-face-higher-debt-and-unemployment

3.    David Bacon, “The Corporate Roots of the Attack on Community Colleges,” in Perspective, publication of the Community College Council of the California Federation of Teachers, Vol. 46, No. 2, February 2015, accessed at https://issuu.com/cftpub/docs/cft_perspective_march2015_7, April 23, 2016.

4.    “The university and its owner, the Apollo Education Group, have been subject to a series of state and federal investigations into allegations of shady recruiting, deceptive advertising and questionable financial aid practices.” Patricia Cohen and Chad Bray, “University of Phoenix Owner, Apollo Education Group, Will Be Taken Private,” The New York Times, Feb. 8, 2016, accessed via https://dianeravitch.net/2016/02/10/obama-friends-take-over-for-profit-higher-education-group/

5.    Robert Gammon, “Phone Logs Link “Politics” To School Takeover: Records show FCMAT officials made repeated calls to city’s leaders before Chaconas’ ouster,” Oakland Tribune, August 18, 2003, accessed at http://www.safero.org/perata/news/phonelogs.html, May 1, 2016.

6.    Jill Tucker, “Oakland Charter School Battle Rages,” SFGate.com, Nov. 19, 2013, http://www.sfgate.com/education/article/Oakland-charter-school-battle-rages-4992242.php, accessed May 1, 2016.

7.    For a summary of actions against Career Education Corporation, see https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Career_Education_Corporation; On ITT Educational Services, see the federal Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, http://www.consumerfinance.gov/newsroom/cfpb-sues-for-profit-college-chain-itt-for-predatory-lending/ and the Securities and Exchange Commission, https://www.sec.gov/news/pressrelease/2015-86.html

8.    These included the San Francisco Apartment Assn., Building Owners and Managers, BOM Independent Expenditure PAC, San Francisco Alliance for Jobs and Sustainable Growth, Shorenstein Realty, SF Realtors Legal Action Fund, and Air BNB. Data from the California Secretary of State, cal-access.sos.ca.gov

9.    James Tracy, Dispatches Against Displacement, AK Press, 2014, p. 12.

10. Richard Walker, “Why Is There a Housing Crisis?” East Bay Express, March 23, 2016, http://www.eastbayexpress.com/oakland/why-is-there-a-housing-crisis/Content?oid=4722242, accessed May 1, 2016.

 

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Homeless Residents Build Intentional Community in Berkeley

By David Bacon

The camp outside the old Berkeley City Hall, called by the residents an occupation. It was a protest against the Berkeley City Council passing an anti-homeless ordinance.Michael Lee started living on the streets of San Francisco last May. He had traveled from Las Vegas to seek medical treatment. When he arrived, he searched for cheap, temporary housing in some of San Francisco’s most affordable neighborhoods, but he had seriously underestimated the cost of living in the nation’s most expensive city.

“I was under the impression the rent was $300 a month, and I brought the resources for 60 days,” he said in an interview. “I was going to go back to Las Vegas afterwards and go back to work. But the first place I walked into, they told me it was $300 a week. The next was $400 a week, and then $500. People were laughing at me—$300 a week is actually cheap on Skid Row. So I wound up living on the streets.”

Lee soon heard of a large encampment in Berkeley that homeless activists had set up to protest the US Postal Service’s (USPS) plan to sell Berkeley’s historic downtown post office building. So he moved across the bay and quickly became a leader of the Berkeley camp, advocating for a plan to transform the building into a community resource—“a homeless contact center run by homeless people.”

“Without community resources we can’t get a hand up,” said Lee. “There’s just no place to go. This is where we live, unfortunately—on the sidewalks. [But] we’re not going to be homeless forever. Eventually, we will recover from homelessness because we’re pretty determined individuals. That’s something that people with houses truly need to understand. We are going to be rejoining the community.”

After a federal judge granted the City of Berkeley a temporary restraining order against the sale and the buyer backed out, the USPS finally announced that it was shelving its plans to sell the building and by April 2015 the legal battle was suspended.

Half a year later, in December 2015, some of the people from the post office homeless encampment set up another larger camp a block away, on the lawn of the old City Hall, to protest a new city council plan to establish stricter rules targeting homeless people. This encampment, known as “Liberty City” or “Liberty Village,” while comparatively short-lived it was much larger and drew support from across the community. The city swept the away during the Christmas to New Year holiday season, scattering its occupants throughout the Bay Area. 

Next, the USPS, working in collaboration with the Berkeley Police Department, dismantled the encampment on the post office steps on April 15, 2016, ending a 17-month experiment in ‘peaceful coexistence.’

Defenders of the old post office and homeless organizers are now strategizing next steps to create a self-organized community in Berkeley.

Dimitri is a homeless man, living in the Berkeley Post Office Camp.Occupied with Intention
Over the years, Berkeley, like most liberal communities, has been comfortable with the idea of the homeless as victims. But many Berkeley residents and business owners grow uneasy when homeless people organize and use the creative tactics of labor and civil rights movements.

Last year, Berkeley’s homeless people did just that. They created “intentional communities” or “occupations” like Liberty City and the post office camp, not just as a protest tactic, but also as places where they could gain more control over their lives and implement their own ideas for dealing with homelessness. Many drew on previous experiences with other movements.

“A lot of us are older activists,” Lee explained in an interview given while Liberty City was still operating. “Our ideas come out of the 1960s and even before, from the 1930s. Homeless people have always formed communities, whether we were considered hoboes, homeless people, or just bums. Hobo jungles were intentional communities too, based on an unconscious understanding of the need for mutual aid and voluntary cooperation.”

Moreover, the homeless police themselves, Lee said. “I see people out there in the middle of the night with flashlights picking up trash. I see them chase off anti-social elements. If you want to talk about the solution to homelessness, all you have to do is walk down [here]. Is it a perfect solution? No. Housing is the permanent solution to homelessness. But this is a helluva good start. We’re creating the new world in the shell of the old. What we’re doing in terms of mutual aid and cooperation can be applied anywhere. They’re going to have to finally see that organizing is the solution to homelessness.”

City Councilmember Jesse Arreguin, who is running for mayor this year, agreed that the residents of Liberty City did a good job of keeping it safe and well-run. “Liberty City shows that homeless people can create a community,” he said, but cautioned against such communities being completely removed from the city. “There should be an ongoing city presence that might include homeless outreach staff, mental health workers, or others.”

The camp outside the Berkeley Post Office, originally established to protest the sale of the Main Post Office building.No New Housing in Sight
Nearly everyone agrees that the answer to homelessness is permanent housing but state and federal governments do not provide the necessary funding to build it. In fact, over the decades, national policies have eliminated housing for poor people and cost hundreds of thousands of jobs.

Local governments provide homeless shelters and services but they are unable to meet the needs of the huge numbers living on the streets for lack of money. Berkeley alone has 1,200 homeless residents, according to city officials. Furthermore, many homeless people don’t like shelters because they can’t bring their pets, or because they require you to be in and out by certain hours of the day. Consequently, cities like Portland and Seattle have approved the creation of tent cities as an alternative form of temporary housing. Berkeley’s own experience with Liberty City revealed that a tent city has the potential to work in the East Bay as well, but while Berkeley views itself as a progressive community, it remains to be seen whether it would ever approve a tent city plan.

At first, the fight against the USPS brought together homeless people, city authorities—including Mayor Tom Bates and Councilmember Linda Maio—and local legal and political activists in a loose-knit coalition. While rallies and court actions sought to block the building’s sale, the encampment on the post office steps became a visible evidence of resistance. The coalition, however, didn’t last beyond the post office battle. Some months after the USPS withdrew its plans to sell the building, Bates and Maio brought the homeless-crackdown ordinance, sought by the Downtown Business Association, before the council.

Muzik and Kevin set up a new tent in the Liberty City Camp.The new ordinance—passed on December 1, 2015—prohibits people from lying in planter beds, tying possessions to poles or trees or keeping them within two feet of a tree-well or planter, taking up more than two square feet of space with belongings, and keeping a shopping cart in one place for more than an hour during the day. It also further penalizes urinating and defecating in public, which are already against the law. Arreguin, who voted against the new ordinance, believes that homelessness has become an overly polarized issue in Berkeley, not one in which different parts of the community can find common ground.

“The business community would like to see people not camping out in doorways,” he noted. “Business people want a long-term solution. Homeless people did a good job on changing perceptions of homelessness at Liberty City. They set ground rules and enforced them. They had a process for that, where everybody participated in the meetings.”

West Coast Cities Consider Tents
A homeless protest and occupation in Portland last year evolved into Dignity Village, which now exists with the city’s approval. Portland, in fact, is debating the creation of new, similar encampments. The Seattle City Council has already approved three new tent cities, each housing one hundred residents, although they will be run by service providers, rather than the homeless themselves. They’re estimated to cost $200,000 per year in trash collection and portable toilets, but that cost is less than a traditional shelter. In Honolulu, which has also passed multiple ordinances cracking down on sitting and sleeping in public, Mayor Kirk Caldwell has set up a new homeless camp that is made up of shipping containers.

“Reptile” lived in the Liberty City Camp and fixed bicycles and scooters.Berkeley had an earlier experience with a homeless camp, the Rainbow Village, in Cesar Chavez Park at the Marina. Mostly, it consisted of an area where people could park and live in their cars. After an incident in which someone was killed, however, the city closed it down.

“I do not believe that the Rainbow Village should be evaluated solely on that tragedy,” said Paul Kealoha Blake, director of the East Bay Media Center on Addison Street. “A close and collaborative relationship between homeless leadership and the City of Berkeley can work and was in fact working at Liberty City.”

One big question is where such a camp could be located. Rainbow Village was far from transit and services needed by homeless people. When Liberty City was in operation, Arreguin said his office got complaints from neighbors living near the old City Hall. “The camp had a spillover of people who were attracted to it and who engaged in inappropriate behavior,” he said. “Not everyone respects our laws, and the perception of homeless people is often based on those examples. But we need to be sensitive to the concerns of neighbors.”

For their part, most homeless people complain that they are demonized, and they established Liberty City partly in response. Many homeless people are also veterans and have to reconcile the irony of having fought for their country with finding themselves social outcasts in the nation they had defended.

“I spent ten years in the Navy upholding the Constitution, from 1979 to 1989,” said James Kelly, a former resident of Liberty City. “I believe a person should not have to worry day-to-day where they’re going to lay their head or get their next meal. That should just be a given.”

Andre Cameron, another Liberty City resident, said his experience here was dramatically different from the time he spent in Los Angeles. “In LA, they don’t have anything like this; they have Skid Row,” he explained. “A huge amount of people live on the street in downtown LA. There’s no help for them. Here, there’s a community. I feel the love here... there’s at least some hope. If I had to choose to be homeless anyplace in the world, it would be here in Berkeley.”

“It’s embarrassing, if you’ve never been homeless,” he continued. “People in LA look at homeless people like [they’re] a plague. Here, there’s more acceptance of this subculture of homeless people. I think it’s a tribute in some small cultural way to the community as a whole. I’ve never gotten that sense anywhere else.”

Michelle Lot is a homeless woman, living in the Berkeley Post Office Camp.Ultimately, Arreguin says, the city needs to hear from the homeless themselves and treat them as normal members of the body politic. “When the city passed a law last year that criminalizes homelessness, there was no conversation about what the homeless need; the city didn’t have any input from them. But it can be done,” he said. “We do have a crisis, and all options should be on the table. Berkeley should consider a temporary encampment until we have more permanent housing. People need a place to go.”

Another Liberty City resident, Michael Zint, said that that he and other homeless activists were attempting to develop “an actual city. We have a community here. And if we can pull it off properly, we can use this as a model to be done all over. They’ll begin listening to our message, and that is that we should be able to take care of ourselves.”

Cameron added, “They should have a park, some sort of a space where people can set up tents and live peacefully, with port-a-potties and showers and trash pickup, and that’s organized. We need a place for people to be human—eat, sleep, utilize restrooms. That need doesn’t stop because of a law.”

And, warns Lee, “Homeless people can vote.” He’s aiming to put that proposition to the test and has launched his own campaign, running for Mayor of Berkeley.

David Bacon is a writer and photojournalist based in Oakland and Berkeley, California. For more articles and images, see dbacon.igc.org.

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Street Spirit and the Homeless Human Rights Movement

Street Spirit

Movement Making Media
Street Spirit and the Homeless Human Rights Movement

An interview with Terry Messman by Jess Clarke

Terry Messman has been organizing for peace and social justice since the late 1970s when was arrested at a civil disobedience protest in Montana. For the past 25 years he has worked for human rights for homeless people, organizing direct actions and legislative change, and editing and producing one of the longest-lived poverty rights publications in the United States.

Jess Clarke: Big picture, when and why did you found Street Spirit?

Terry Messman: We put out the first issue in March of 1995. It’s one of the most long-lived media of any kind to document the history of poverty, homelessness and economic injustice. I’d been an activist for many years on homeless issues in Oakland and Berkeley doing housing takeovers, mobilizing homeless people to demonstrate at welfare offices, and other human rights struggles for their rights. We got a lot of positive media attention but I was more and more concerned that the corporate media was completely denigrating poor and homeless people. It was kind of a form of character assassination in the news columns, and we got really fed up with that. I became the editor and Sally Hindman organized the first team of homeless vendors who sell Street Spirit on the street.

Clarke: At that time, Street Sheet was being distributed out of San Francisco. Why did you think another street paper was necessary for the Bay Area?

Messman: Because they were focused on San Francisco and I was based in the East Bay. We wanted to cover issues in Oakland, Berkeley and further inland in Contra Costa County—Concord and Richmond. We felt those issues were vital and we knew them best. So Street Spirit was formed to cover those issues. The Coalition on Homelessness was really glad we were doing that because there hadn’t been a paper here. Even though it’s a very different newspaper, we followed the model of the Coalition on Homelessness. I think it’s the best model in the country for three reasons: (1) It’s hard-hitting advocacy journalism that never apologize for being on the side of homeless and poor people; (2) We accept no advertising because it can really distort editorial freedom and independence; and (3) We give it for free to homeless vendors, unlike virtually all of the homeless newspapers in this country and in Europe which charge their vendors.

Street Sheet in San Francisco and Street Spirit in the East Bay have always been given for free to our vendors. So when people buy them, they know the homeless person is getting all of the money. It’s like economic redistribution from the middle class commuters to the homeless people and no nonprofit gets a cent from it. We want everyone who buys [the paper] to have a one-on-one encounter with a homeless person, hoping it’ll begin to erode this terrible division in American society between homeless people and the general public.

It’s also modeled on the early days when a revolution was brewing in America and Thomas Paine distributed revolutionary pamphlets through street vendors on street corners to get the word out that we needed a revolution against England. Paine’s pamphlet, Common Sense and all those other great writings were distributed that way. That’s important for us because we want to get out of the corporate chokehold on publishing. If you publish a normal magazine or newspaper you’re dealing with corporate advertisers, corporate media and corporate stores that sell these things. And we just want nothing to do with any of that. That’s always been our vision.

Clarke: I think one of the things people can come to appreciate is that this is a subversive form of journalism that actually has a real deep political intent. Can you talk about some of the other historical antecedents?

Messman: Well, there is a long and really beautiful history of advocacy journalism and radical social justice journalism in this country. I went to a very good journalism school for four years and we never heard about it. Today, the only form of journalism [taught] is so-called objective journalism where the reporter pretends to not have a conscience, and that’s ridiculous. Every reporter has a point of view and a conscience but they’re not supposed to. Basically, there’s a corporate bias in all newspapers today. They don’t attack very hard the Wall Street system and the bankers and the Pentagon and the White House. They’re part of that system. That is their bias, but they don’t acknowledge it.

To do advocacy journalism in this country, the first thing they’ll say is, “That’s not legitimate because you’re not objective.” And no, we’re not. We’re on the side of poor and homeless people. We see a great injustice being done. We see historic levels of violations of human rights that would not be tolerated for any other minority. Those human rights violations are being unleashed on homeless people and the mainstream media just doesn’t get it. So our advocacy journalism is important and, as you said, it has long roots. I look back at Thomas Paine and his pamphlets and Common Sense as a great inspiration. An even greater inspiration for me has been William Lloyd Garrison and his fiery abolitionist newspaper, The Liberator. He attacked the system of slavery in his news columns in such a profound way that there were often riots of proslavery forces when he spoke. They often laid siege to Garrison and the other abolitionist reporters and attacked them physically because they saw how powerful these kinds of advocacy newspapers were.

Another great example from that same era is Ida B. Wells, who was a crusading African American writer and editor who published an expose of lynching in the South and went around the country denouncing lynching. She too was attacked and had to find the courage to keep telling people that lynching was a massive crime and had to be ended and the way to end it was to give a voice to its victims. I really take that to heart today. The way to end human rights violations against homeless people is to give a voice to its victims.

In the 20th century, there are all these beautiful models of advocacy journalism, these wonderful writers who took on Standard Oil, who took on American big business. Exposes in The Jungle by Upton Sinclair of the meatpacking industry created reforms. In England, Charles Dickens was an advocacy journalist through his novels. He got untold reforms of child labor laws and workhouse abuses through his work. In this country, during the Civil Rights Era, there were wonderful crusading advocacy journalists that risked everything to tell the truth. In my generation, the anti-war movement of the 1960s had an incredible array of underground newspapers in dozens of cities all over the country that were a mouthpiece for the counter-culture. They denounced the war machine of Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon, spoke out for civil rights, spoke out for human liberation.

When those underground newspapers were silenced a really terrible thing happened. About the only legacy of the underground newspapers are these weekly papers that are basically doing a lot of yuppie reporting on gourmet restaurants and books and things and have a lot of advertising and a little bit of political reporting. I’m not going to name their names.

Clarke: With the upsurge of activism in the past several years, young African Americans and young people in general who have become more politically conscious are ready to receive alternative information in new ways. What are the issues and the continuing coverage that you’ll bring to this new millennial audience, to the Black Lives Matter audience, to the engaged, young, uninformed, and really passionate activists who are coming of age?

Messman: That’s been a remarkable development. Who would’ve predicted that? Everyone thought that young people were apolitical and were buying into the consumer society. Instead, beginning with the Occupy movement, continuing to the Black Lives movement, all the movements that have risen up against police brutality and police murders, all these things are incredibly heartening examples of the human spirit. They show us that organizing is never defeated. It never, ever will stop. As long as there are human beings there will be human rights movements. That’s what I love about it. In terms of Street Spirit, our job is not to be an all-purpose movement paper. Our job is to do what seemingly no one else in society wants to do, which is to stay covering poverty, homelessness and disability rights. Even movement people generally ignore those issues.

Still, there are many connections, as you say, between Black Lives Matter, the anti-police abuse movements and the Occupy movement. When the Occupy movement began we did article after article covering that in a positive way virtually every month. We interviewed people about Occupy and what kinds of nonviolent strategizing might enhance its ability to affect the powers-that-be. I went on the Occupy marches and was just amazed and overjoyed, even though there wasn’t a great sense of strategy. There was a great sense of vital, anti-corporate, economic rights kind of organizing from very young people. It was wonderful, so we gave it a lot of coverage. The same with the Black Lives Matter movement.

We are constantly covering the criminalization of poverty, the way that poor people are turned into criminals. Many of the same patterns in law enforcement that turn African Americans into criminals and treat them as criminals also are in play against poor people to treat them as criminals. So we speak out against that kind of political repression. We’ve covered many demonstrations. In the current issue we have a long, great article by Carol Denning, who covers the police review commission hearings in Berkeley that look at why the police erupted in fury against the Black Lives Matter demonstration in December of 2014. We’ve covered that over and over.

So, in those areas where the criminalization of poverty meets the criminalization of other people in society, Street Spirit covers the issues. The other thing we’ve done that I think is most important is, we have tried to resurrect the incredible wisdom, courage and visionary brilliance of the Civil Rights movement by reminding this new generation of how great that organizing was and how much it can teach us today, through a series of interviews.

Clarke: What are some movement-building possibilities you want to cultivate and bring to light using the newspaper and the other media you’re building?

Messman: We try to build connections with tenant movements because there are millions of tenants that face eviction, poor living circumstances and skyrocketing rents. Many of those tenants become homeless people. We’ve always tried to build connections with people fighting for the rights of those on Welfare, people fighting for living wages and being screwed over by the corporate powers that will not pay a livable wage. We’ve also made common cause with people who have a vision of economic justice, like Reverend Phil Lawson, who’s always worked on these larger issues of economic justice. When the Occupy movement came along, there was an incredibly heartening uprising of young people. I always used to say, “If you go to an Occupy march, read the signs that these young people have created.” It’s a primer on economic justice. It’s a primer against the banks, the corporate powers and Wall Street. It’s like a class on economic justice in America just to read their signs.

All these middle class activists could make common cause with homeless people. I thought that was going to happen when Occupy hit the streets, but it still has not happened to this day. Someday it will happen. Someday there will be a movement—I predict—where the tenants will join with the homeless people. Those evicted will join those about to be evicted. They’ll join the low-wage workers and all these idealistic young people that care about human rights, and there will be a movement. That will be the movement that I’m waiting for.

That’s the movement Martin Luther King tried to organize in 1968. And what baffles me endlessly is why people don’t want to resurrect the poor people’s movement that King did. Everybody gives lip service to what a great leader he was. He was more than that. He was a brilliant strategist, him and his whole team. The Southern Christian Leadership Conference and SNCC (Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee) were brilliant organizers, and King’s last message—his last prophetic message—was a blueprint for social change.

He said we have to fight racism, and militarism, and poverty all at once. And where it begins is a poor people’s campaign that also peace activists, labor union activists and religious activists join and together force a movement for economic justice. Then we’ll see social change. People think King was a prophet. Why don’t they look at what the prophet was doing when the prophet was assassinated on April 4, 1968? He was building up to the poor people’s encampment in Washington, DC. The only echo of that beautiful legacy I have seen in my lifetime is in all the homeless sleep-outs and protests and housing takeovers that I’ve witnessed.

Clarke: Like Resurrection City—that happened after King was shot.

Messman: You’re right. After King was gunned down people were broken-hearted and despairing, and yet they carried out Resurrection City anyway with 50,000 people in Washington, DC. Many positive strives forward for hungry people were made in Resurrection City. It also helped kick-start a welfare rights campaign. But King’s assassination and Bobby Kennedy’s assassination right afterwards tore the heart out of people, but we should’ve recovered by now. There should be a resurrection of Resurrection City because it was King’s last best dream. He was right, people.

If you want to do the right thing in America, look at Martin Luther King right before his assassination and ask what he was doing. He was in solidarity with striking sanitation workers in Memphis, TN and he was building a poor people’s movement in Washington, DC. Those are the things that need to be resurrected.

Jess Clarke is project director/editor of Reimagine! and a web producer at Street Spirit. This is an edited excerpt of a podcast interview available at www.thestreetspirit.org/category/podcasts.

 

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Fight or Flight

Protestors at Oakland City Council hearing on homeless emergency.  ©blog.oaklandxings.com/

Oakland’s Homeless and African American Residents Face Uphill Battle Against Pro-Gentrification City Government

By Kheven LaGrone

One of the more visible signs of the growing income inequality in Oakland is the sprawling encampments of homeless people building tents and other shelters to escape this year’s rains. Not surprisingly, most of those who are homeless in Oakland are African American, and sadly, it’s also not surprising that this is a direct outgrowth of city policy.

In 2013, then Mayor Jean Quan riled many African Americans by telling Atlantic Magazine that Oakland’s reputation as a Black city was a liability to marketing it. In her paraphrased comments, she appeared to promote a “new” Oakland with fewer African-Americans.[1]

Unfortunately, Quan was simply following through on policies put in play by former mayor Jerry Brown (1999-2007). Brown’s 10K plan to bring market-rate housing and entertainment options to downtown Oakland and his close alliances with developers like Forrest City and Phil Tagami[2] set the stage for today’s massive dislocation. The new residents would overshadow and eclipse the existing, mostly African American, residents and make them disappear. Mayor Ron Dellums (2007-11) did nothing to reverse those trends, often shying away from using the “b-word” (Black) in public speeches. [3]

Today, the City of Oakland’s official website (www2.oaklandnet.com) boasts national articles on the “new” Oakland, none of them featuring Oakland’s rich African American people or culture. WalletHub celebrated Oakland as the second most ethno-racially diverse city without addressing the African American’s recent history of displacement that created that new diversity.[4] Business Insider called Oakland “the new hipster hotspot in the Bay Area.” It included a picture of white, not African American, hipsters.[5] Jetsetter listed Oakland as one of its 10 best food cities. They mentioned none of Oakland’s soul food restaurants that had been in the city for years.[6]

In the “new” Oakland, more and more landlords stopped renting to Section 8 tenants, many of whom were African American. Some landlords even evicted their Section 8 tenants by not renewing their contracts. African Americans on Section 8 had fewer opportunities to relocate in Oakland. I know of at least one Oakland native who had to move to a homeless shelter in Richmond because he couldn’t find a new place that accepted Section 8. In contrast, a white man told me that he had relocated from the east coast to the Peninsula. He had mentioned in a casual conversation to a friend that he heard West Oakland was “cool.” He wasn’t looking for an apartment, but he soon got an unsolicited phone call from a landlord offering him an apartment in West Oakland. New residents have also filed noise complaints with the city, attempting to shut down drumming in public, and even some Black churches that had been in Oakland for generations.[7]

“New” Oakland’s Refugee Camps
In 2015, Oakland produced a report showing that in the “new” Oakland, the African American population plummeted between 2000 and 2010. In contrast, white, Latino and Asian populations increased (p. 8).[8] According to the report, “not all displaced Oaklanders can relocate to other communities and, instead, some remain homeless in Oakland, living on the streets and in emergency shelters for months, even years” (p. 7). The report even added, “a recent study found that 41 percent of homeless individuals surveyed in Oakland became homeless after the age of 50 years—with skyrocketing housing prices and the loss of safety nets to blame.”

Many of the homeless settled in illegal encampments that resemble refugee camps. The encampments are very visible and obvious. Some people hide and sleep among trash in tents and on sleeping bags on the cold dirt or concrete sidewalk. Some people hide and sleep under tarps either on the ground or on benches. While the people settled in the encampments try to keep their spaces clean, outsiders come to illegally dump trash there. People living in the encampments see rodents. Encampments are often under noisy, dusty freeways. Some live on dirt that turns to mud in the rain; passing cars splash water on them. Police and other city workers harass the people living there.[9] Most of the people in the encampments I’ve visited have been African American. Some I knew from years ago. (See Miss Raynel’s Shanty, p: 44)

“New” Oakland Treats Animals Better Than People
Near the encampments I’ve visited are several businesses catering to pampered pets. This “new” Oakland dehumanizes the people in the encampments while humanizing pets and treating them like spoiled children.

Happy Hound Play and Daycare is near an encampment in a dusty, dirty industrial part of West Oakland. It’s a doggy play, daycare and spa. According to its brochure, it offers super-suite boarding, pedicures and manicures, and “overnight cuddle time.” Sitters monitor the play area which includes colorful equipment for dogs to climb and jump.

Just Pet Me in downtown Oakland is near another encampment. It calls itself a pet “country club” with “doggy daycare, pet hotel and spa.” The brochure states that dogs can play in an “engaging environment” all day. When the dogs want to sleep, they can sleep in the hotel and “reminisce about their friends.” Cats can enjoy a “private immaculate condo.” Another site promises “secure indoor” and “safe drop-off and pick-up.”

Cat Town, also located downtown near another encampment, states that it’s “helping Oakland’s vulnerable cats.” It advertises that “through foster care and adoption, Cat Town finds homes for at-risk cats who are struggling in the animal shelter environment [. . .] Help us save some of Oakland’s most distressed cats and kittens.” Such wording for cats seems to mock, dehumanize and trivialize Oakland’s homeless, at-risk youth and is either clueless or insensitive. On the front door, its kitty cat café claims to be the first of its kind in the US. Does this make Oakland the first city to be so dehumanizing?

Treating animals like people is cartoonish and infantile. Yet, the City of Oakland website brags that Trulia ranked it No. 4 among most pet-friendly rental markets.[10]

Can Oakland Fix the Homeless Crisis It Created?
While the city official website touted accolades for the “new” Oakland in the national media, homeless encampments popped up throughout downtown. This should have raised a red flag for city officials that Oakland was in a shelter crisis. According to state law, declaring a shelter crisis means that a city proclaims that a significant number of its residents have no ability to obtain shelter, which results in a threat to their health and safety.[11] In theory, declaring the crisis frees the city to take immediate action to address it. For example, the city can designate public property a temporary shelter without bureaucratic entanglements.

In January 2016, the Oakland City Council finally declared a shelter crisis in Oakland but it was merely symbolic because there was no immediate or decisive action taken to address the crisis.[12] Instead, the City Council handled the “crisis” with debates, stalemates, bureaucracy, more meetings, and reports. It voted to open the Lake Merritt Garden Center as a temporary shelter within 15 days but did nothing about it. The “new” Oakland did not respond to homelessness as an emergency. A little more money would be added to the City’s existing, but obviously inadequate, homeless program. A few beds, not enough to impact the crisis, were temporarily added to shelters. But the Council did vote to include the shelter crisis as a regular agenda item for its meetings!

Meanwhile, between these Council discussions of the “crisis” in January 2016, Oakland was hit by a rainstorm and strong winds that blew away the tents and tiny houses of people living in a homeless encampment, exposing them to the cold rain, standing water and mud.

Fortunately, the City did stop the harassment of people living in encampments.

At one of the Council meetings in January, several homeless people spoke, making these abstract discussions real. Everyone at the meeting finally seemed to realize that Oakland really had a crisis and that homeless people were real and had the right to be heard.

One homeless African American man, born and raised in Oakland, told the Council: “Oakland puts more emphasis on gentrification than the people who live here. They’re trying to give Oakland some new identity.” He’s right. Removing him—a homeless African American—was very much a part of the creation of the “new” Oakland. Can he change that by exercising his right to vote?

Kheven LaGrone is an Oakland-based writer and artist.

Endnotes
1.           The original article had Quan saying: “One challenge is to let people know what the new Oakland looks like. [People think] that more than 50 percent of Oakland residents are black. Well, no, we’re pretty evenly divided between blacks, whites, Latinos, and Asians.” The unedited quote subsequently published says: “…my challenge is to let people know what the new Oakland looks like. Somebody just sent me an email saying, ‘Oh, you should have more black police since more than 50 percent of your residents are black.’ And I’m like, ‘Actually, no, 28 percent of my residents are black, but we’re pretty evenly divided between blacks, whites, Latinos, and Asians these days.’ http://www.theatlantic.com/business/archive/2013/10/can-oakland-escape-san-franciscos-shadow/425652/, http://blog.sfgate.com/politics/2013/10/08/mayor-jean-quan-tells-national-journal-that-oaklands-challenge-is-racial-perception/ 2.           http://www.mercurynews.com/nation-world/ci_26755131/jerry-browns-investments-belie-monastic-image
3.           http://www.reimaginerpe.org/20years/allen-taylor
4.           https://wallethub.com/edu/cities-with-the-most-and-least-ethno-racial-and-linguistic-diversity/10264/#city-size
5.           http://www.businessinsider.com/the-13-hottest-us-cities-for-2016-2015-12
6.           http://www.jetsetter.com/feature/next-great-food-cities
7.           http://www.eastbayexpress.com/oakland/oaklands-culture-clash/Content?oid=4536327
8.           “A Roadmap Toward Equity: Housing Solutions for Oakland, California” produced by the City of Oakland Department of Housing and Community Development’s Strategic Initiatives Unit and PolicyLink.
9.           According to the Los Angeles Times, on March 14, 2016, the homeless community filed a civil rights lawsuit against the city of Los Angeles, accusing the city of having a “criminalization” campaign that included: endangering homeless people by seizing and destroying their tents, bedding and shopping carts; arresting homeless people; and releasing homeless people from jail into the cold without protection. (www.latimes.com/local/lanow/la-me-ln-homeless-el-nino-lawsuit-2016314-story.html)
10.           http://www.trulia.com/blog/trends/pet-rental-markets/
11.           California State Codes/Government Code/Title 2. Government of the State of California/Chapter 7.8 - Shelter Crisis [8698 – 8698.2]
12.            For more details, see my story in the February 4, 2016 issue of Street Spirit. www.thestreetspirit.org/can-oakland-fix-the-homeless-crisis-it-created/
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Miss Raynel’s Shanty

Miss Raynel’s tent. Courtesy of Wanda Sabir.

By Wanda Sabir

The structure, if you can call it that, is made from heavy plastic tied to a fence facing a field where freight and passenger trains speed by more than a few times a day.

I know that Miss Raynel lives here. I was by last week when it was a lot dryer.

When Delene, Kwalin and I look inside the open structure, two sets of pretty eyes peak back at us. Two girls are under a blanket beneath the heavy plastic structure.

There’s nothing behind them but fencing.

I see a wild dog running in the field. I wonder if he’s lost or trapped and how he got in there.

We can’t tell how old the girls are, they just look young, really young. We learn that they are Miss Raynel’s nieces, visiting with her for the weekend.

It’s not safe. Anyone can walk up on them. She’s fortified the perimeter with shopping carts and bags full of trash, but these could easily be removed.

At the structure’s core, are piles of recyclable items—Miss Raynel’s ready cash when she needs it. I suggest RJ and I hire a truck to help her get the items to a recycling place, that she recycle everything and save the money. But lying in a place like this, she says, they are as safe as money in the bank, her Certificates of Deposit.

Miss Raynel knows the value of the items. She made $51 dollars last week. But often, when she brings them to the recycling center, she’s unable to see the scale. She and the others have to settle for a fraction of their haul’s worth. Her story reminds me of the days when the cash crop was cotton, not cans. Different crop, same methods.

Just as slavery was replaced with sharecropping when the North and South united, West Oakland is about to go through some big changes. The recycling plant is shutting its doors soon to make way for condos. Where will discarded people with discards, toting a devalued cash crop, cash in then?

Seeing children sleeping outdoors, of course, stuns all of us. Miss Raynel’s neighbor confirms that the teenagers are here only on weekends. Wow! They must really love their Auntie Raynel to hang out in a homeless encampment in wet weather. This female-headed family’s lives are open to the elements both natural and unnatural.

I am really happy that we catch Miss Raynel on a day when her situation allows us to gift her a tent. Maybe it’s the tears she sees in Lisa’s eyes, the compassion in RJ’s heart or what we saw when we looked into the shelter. Just a week earlier, she had told me that for two years she hadn’t wanted a tent, because a tent represents the permanence she’s resisting.

RJ and Miss Raynel start organizing her things. Surrounded by debris for so long, just the idea of order probably overwhelms her. But RJ goes inside the tarp enclosure and helps her sift through what is precious and what is trash. There are bugs and vermin and RJ is working without gloves (not something I recommend). They remove recyclable items and trash to make space.

Miss Raynel has a lot under her awning; years of possessions she can’t let go of. I understand. These items are all that is left of a life she lives in her memories, a time when there was shelter, privacy and perhaps safety.

Before we can set about assembling the tent, we have to level the ground. RJ digs up the dirt, then he and Lisa place the wood pallets. In some way, the wet weather makes fitting the pieces together easier. It’s like a jigsaw puzzle.

We then put down tarps which blow away as we wrestle with the poles. The box says we can assemble this tent in ten minutes. It takes us about an hour and there’s still more to do.

A crowded tour bus drives by and stops so tourists can take photos. They don’t get off the bus or ask permission to take the photos. Then they leave with waves and smiles.

Miss Raynel is really disgusted. She says she doesn’t want her family to know she’s on the streets. All day, we’re splashed by speeding cars and nearly run off the road by others who see us working, yet disregard us.

Several hours later, RJ and Lisa have placed wooden platforms where the water is worst: at the front and rear entrances. No longer does she have to wade in water to get in and out of her dwelling. We lift the heavy black plastic so the settled rainwater can run off. RJ cuts the excess plastic off and places another piece at the front of the shelter.

When we finish our work, we are all pretty dirty, wet and hungry. It has been a long day—7:30 a.m. to 5 p.m. It’s not a fatigue that grabs you all at once; it sort of creeps up on you. When I get home, I just step out of my clothes at the door.

After I shower, I lie down and try to empty my mind, close my eyes. All I see are the brothers and sisters left behind.

The following morning, when I wake up, the pile of clothes is right where I left it.

Wanda Sabir writes for the San Francisco Bay View and lives in Alameda, California.

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What Does Home Mean to You?

Art by William Rhodes

By William Rhodes

Family roots run deep in my neighborhood, but nonetheless, for a variety of reasons, many people are homeless.

I begin this art series, “Out Migration,” by conducting a series of interviews with homeless residents in my community: mothers, fathers, former teachers, some who have served in the armed forces. Listening to their life stories, I feel a strong connection to them as if they are old friends or family.

I ask, “What does home mean to you?” After the interviews, I begin a series of works, using materials such as photos, found objects, paint, and neon lights. The pieces are made from weathered and travel-worn luggage. Each suitcase contains an interpretation of one story. Upon opening each suitcase, the inside reveals a shrine.

Mother
Tina lives in a shelter or on the street. She has a lot of pride and doesn’t like to take handouts. She goes to the library early in the morning, loves to read and can finish an entire book in one day.

All of her life Tina wanted to be a mother. She was a good mother. She took care of her two daughters and a son. She had a pretty little house, a cute back yard with a garden.

Tina takes out her son’s picture from her suitcase. “Isn’t he a beautiful boy?” she says. She carries him with her everywhere she goes.

Her son was killed 10 years ago, shot 16 times. She got a call one night and someone told her he was killed. After that she could never answer the phone at night.

When her son was a little boy, she used to take him with her to the restaurant where she worked. He wanted to help her cook He wanted to help his mother do everything. He liked helping people and working hard.

Tina says to me several times: “I know I will be with him again soon. I just keep praying and trust in God.”

Art by William RhodesFather
John talks about feeling blessed to be alive and praising God. I hear stability in his voice, like a classic Dad. Originally from Illinois, he moved to the Bay area over 40 years ago. John has been on the street for more than five years. He is a father, grandfather and shoemaker. His wife died 24 years ago. He doesn’t know where his kids live. He says they are “a little crazy.” One day, they just stopped communicating with him.

John lost his home and business. Soon after that he had to live in his truck. He worked odd jobs here and there to keep things going. Once, when John went to work, he came back to the parking lot where he parked his truck; it was gone. It got towed away by the city. His whole life was inside that truck. He had several unpaid tickets. He did not earn enough money to get it back. After that he began staying in shelters. But living in a shelter can be rough—like going to prison. It became easier for him to live on the street. John would just find a quiet place to sleep under a tree. He got a tarp and rain jacket to keep warm. He prefers to be alone without any complications from other people. John told me that he doesn’t like thinking about the future. He is just thankful for what blessings he has.

Art by William RhodesSoldier
Man is very charismatic, like a great stage performer. He can make his voice get soft or deep depending on his choice of words. He has style regardless of his current circumstances. He explains to me that his real name is Man. It was given to him at birth by his parents. His Father told him that they chose that name because they got tired of hearing White people referring to Black men as boys.

Man was born in Arkansas and then he moved to San Francisco in 1958. He went to high school in the city. After high school, he joined the service and served in Vietnam. He worked as a Military police and made the rank of sergeant.

Man told me in a deep voice that his life got harder after the war. He explained that he lost his wife and family once he came back to the USA. He felt like his life has been like a war and sometimes he doesn’t know if he would ever win.

William Rhodes is a San Francisco artist.

 

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Black Past and Presence - Curated by Jarrel Phillips

Part 2. I AM SAN FRANCISCO: Black Past and Presence
City College of San Francisco—Rosenberg Library

April 16 - November 3, 2016
Part of Our San Francisco Spring 2016 Library Exhibitions
3rd & 4th Floors #IAMSF #IAMSANFRANCISCO

I AM SAN FRANCISCO: Black Past and Presence first shown in the 3rd and 4th floor atrium galleries of the Rosenberg Library of the City College of San Francisco (CCSF) at 50 Phelan Avenue from April 16 to November 3, 2016. 

Created and curated by Jarrel Phillips, the exhibit explores how black life presents itself through culture, art and organization, both historically and currently, using visual art, commentary and personal reflections from city residents and community leaders. It features art from the Three Point Nine Collective, an association of black artists, curators, and art writers based in San Francisco whose members include Phillips and Sidney “Sage” Cain.

This exhibit is a continuation of I AM SAN FRANCISCO: (Re)collecting the Homes of Native Black San Franciscans, inspired by conversations on diversity within blackness and curated by Kheven LaGrone. It was featured earlier this year at the San Francisco Main Public Library and in ReimagineRPE—the national journal for social and environmental justice. Both exhibits seek to make visible the significance, depth and diversity of black life and culture in San Francisco in response to the overwhelming impression that it has faded away. In the words of James Baldwin, “We are the San Francisco that no one talks about.”

“San Francisco has always been a city in transition, characterized by its commitment to cultural diversity and creative communities. Our intent is to share our insight on our ever-changing city by recognizing the depth, beauty, complexity, and abundance prevalent within ‘Black life’ in San Francisco—culturally, communally and individually. I am a product of San Francisco and San Francisco is a product of me,” says Phillips.

I AM SAN FRANCISCO, a recipient of Southern Exposure’s 2016 Alternate Exposure grant, is presented by the social justice-focused City College Library Exhibition Program, which addresses the interests and concerns of the CCSF community. Project collaborators include the CCSF African American Studies Department and Reimagine!.

This project will unfold with a short film, a print version, and a culminating event collaboration with Reimagine!

Featured Artists/Storytellers:
Jess Clarke; Christine Joy Ferrer; Kheven LaGrone; Dr. Amos C. Brown; Ahmad Jones; Aliyah Dunn-Salhuddin; Alma Robinson; Dr. Andrew Jolivette; Emory Douglas; Sophie Maxwell; Dr. Joseph Marshall; Thea Matthews; Virginia Jourdan; Kali O’ray; Stewart Shaw; Blanche Brown; Bongo Sidibe; Ras K’dee; Carol Tatum; Edward Jackson; Isaih Ball; Joanna Haigood; Maya Rogers; Liz Jackson-Simpson; Marco Senghor; Megan Dickey; Sydney “Sage” Cain; Sabrina Lawrence; Dr. Toye Moses, Theo Ellington; Thomas Simpson; Wanda Holland-Greene; Jacqueline Francis; Wanda Sabir; William Rhodes; Michael Ross; Rhiannon MacFayden; Devorah Major; Gregory Harden; Virginia Marshall; Xavier “Chavi Lopez” Schmidt; Tania Santiago; Samoel “Urubu Malandro” Domingos; Halima Marshall; Careem Conley; Mohammed Bilal; Kristine Mays; Michole “Micholiano” Forks; Katherine Connell; Mark Harris; Assata Conley; Jamila Turalba-Khalil; Malik Turalba-Khalil; Seneca Jackson; Ruby Jasmine; Madison Moody.

Jarrel Phillips is a curator, youth worker, capoeira instructor, and storyteller who uses performance, writing, photography, and film as his medium. Learn more about his work at www.avesidea.org. For exhibition details, contact Jarrelp@gmail.com or visit www.ccsf.edu/en/library/library-services/exhibitions.html

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Introduction

By Jarrel Phillips

Collage by Mark HarrisI am a product of San Francisco and San Francisco is a product of me. San Francisco has always been a city in transition, characterized by its commitment to cultural diversity and creative communities. It was once home to a significant and vibrant African American population. San Francisco State University started the nation’s first Black Studies Program in 1968 and the Fillmore District was often called the Harlem of the West. But according to the last census, San Francisco has had one of the largest declines in Black population of any large city since the 1970s when Blacks made up 13.4 percent of the city. By 2013, the Black population was less than half of that and it has declined visibly since then. The African American middle class has almost disappeared and San Francisco’s public schools reflect that continuing decline in population. According to the San Francisco Unified School District, its African American student population plummeted almost 60 percent from 2001 to 2015.

I Am San Francisco: Black Past & Presence makes visible the significance, depth and diversity of black life and culture in San Francisco in response to the overwhelming impression that it has faded away. In the words of James Baldwin, “We are the San Francisco that no one talks about.” IAMSF explores how black life presents itself through culture, art and organization, both historically and currently, using visual art, commentary and personal reflections from city residents, community leaders and artists, most born and raised in San Francisco.

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Art of Living Black

An interview with Aliyah Dunn-Salahuddin by Jarrel Phillips

Aliyah Dunn-Salahuddin is a professor at City College of San Francisco where she teaches African American history in the United States.

Aliyah Dunn-Sa;ahuddin c. 2016 Jarrel PhillipsJarrel Phillips: Talk about your experience in San Francisco. Are you from here?

Aliyah Dunn-Salahuddin: Yes, I’m definitely from San Francisco. My family migrated to San Francisco between the second and third waves of the Great Migration. They came from Kilgore, TX, which is a small railroad town that built up around the 1870s. My grandmother and her sisters came here pretty much just like a lot of other African American people, looking for new opportunities and a different way of life. They were sharecroppers… born on a farm. They didn’t have birth certificates. They did not know how to read. So they wanted to give new opportunities to my mother, who was born in San Francisco.

Phillips: Why do you think the past is sometimes hidden or not so easily accessed?

Dunn-Salahuddin: There are several reasons, most simply, it’s because it’s a painful past. A lot of our ancestors were leaving and escaping things that they didn’t want us to experience, things that they didn’t want us to know. In my classroom, when I’m teaching about the Great Migration I ask, “How many of your families are from Louisiana or Texas?” Over half of the African American students raise their hands. I know that that history is there. I also know that a lot of the students, like myself when I was their age, don’t know a lot about how their families came to be here. I think it has to do with its being a very painful past.

Our ancestors had to find some way to go on every day, to continue to survive in the best way that they could. Not talking about it, putting on “the face,” presenting yourself respectably, building a life, that was what they had to do. But in doing that, we lose a lot of our story. I think it is my job to recover my family story.

Phillips: What is Black culture? What is Black presence? Were they intertwined in your childhood?

Dunn-Salahuddin: Culture is everything. For my family, culture is the way that they cooked, the dishes that they made, the blues that they listened to, the communities that they built at the churches here that they transplanted from the South. Culture is what held the family together. Black culture is a very wide net.

From an American perspective, the word “Black” (to me) encompasses all the people of the diaspora. There is not one single type of Black culture. If I go to Columbus, GA to visit my grandmother or I go to New Orleans to visit someone else, I’m going to experience different cultures, different elements of African American culture. But if I go to Jamaica, I’m going to see another element of that Black diaspora, so I think that we have to make a distinction between Black culture and African American culture.

Black culture is a medium through which we understand who we are as a people. I think that it’s particularly important for African American people because so much of that identity was stripped away through slavery. That culture is the way that we reinvent ourselves and pass on information.

Ella Hill Hutch Community Center mural in S.F. Fillmore District c. 2016 Jarrel PhillipsPhillips: How important do you think it is to acknowledge your heritage? How important is it to see and understand that Black culture links back to before slavery and the African Diaspora?

Dunn-Salahuddin: Very important. My mom grew up during the era of the Civil Rights Movement in San Francisco. My parents were a part of the Nation of Islam but then became orthodox Muslims and were part of this large Black Muslim community, so I’ve always had a sense of my African heritage. The Black Panthers started in Oakland. Ethnic studies started in San Francisco State.

I understood that my family and my upbringing gave me a different sort of lens, a third eye. So I think in San Francisco it was very easy for me to tap into the diaspora and have a broader sense because at my elementary school we were doing capoeira, or being a part of the Black Muslim community here, being around all these other African American people fasting, praying, going to school together. So I always had a sense of my African heritage, and that was just a part of my upbringing. It was important to my parents, not so much my grandparents, but my parents who were coming of age in the ‘60s and ‘70s and starting families.

Phillips: What do you think is the importance of our cultural art forms? Of us embracing them and being a part of them?

Dunn-Salahuddin: The arts and the performing arts—dance, music and song—those things can be used to transmit and preserve knowledge, to preserve history, to pass down traditions. It’s a part of our West African heritage. When 90 percent of our ancestors were trapped in an institution where they were discouraged from reading (even though we did find ways to learn), where their intellect wasn’t something that the slave masters wanted them to build up, the arts took on a whole different purpose.

So when I’m telling my children a story, or when I’m teaching them a song, or if we’re working and we’re singing a work song, that’s a way to get through, to get by—that’s where the blues come from. Look at how deep of an impact the blues and jazz have had on America music.

We brought our cultures with us when we migrated and that helped us to sustain identity in place. It’s pivotal and vital to our survival and to our healing. Unfortunately, for a lot of people, our goals and motivations for engaging in the performing arts are, “I’m going to make it big. I’m going to get rich.” But before, people did it to heal themselves, to release, for community. And that’s what hip-hop is, right? Before it was a musical form, it was people coming together with music and building community.

Phillips: History. Why is it important?

Mural in San Francisco's Bayview District c. 2016 Jarrel PhillipsDunn-Salahuddin: Wow. History is everything to me. Of course, I’m a historian saying that, right? But, for me as a Black woman, history gave me my sense of self. A lot of historians, particularly historians who study the antebellum period and slavery in the civil war, are white men. As an African American woman, I wanted to understand the story for myself. I wanted to also take up that space. To be in front of the classroom because I thought, “If I’m not teaching history, then who else is going to be teaching that class? What can I bring to that class?”

James Baldwin says, “History is in everything that we do.” We are unconsciously and consciously driven by it, right? Our history is a story of survivors. This is not a story of victimhood.

If I can give a Black student, a young Black student, a sense that this is not just a tragic story, this is actually a story of resilience, beauty and grace beyond what most people even understand, it helps them get through their daily life. It helps them survive… feel important. So then, maybe they’ll think twice about taking the life of somebody else.

Phillips: You draw a picture of a great correlation between past and present/presence. What are some of the things for our generation to do?

Dunn-Salahuddin: People really sacrificed and fought so much for us to inhabit these spaces. This African American Studies Department is a product of a student strike at San Francisco State, right? It’s still a struggle, but I think it’s up to us to utilize all the resources that we have attained by inhabiting these spaces, by building communities and institutions, and preserving the ones that are already built. We don’t even have to build new ones.

I think our challenge is self. It’s not about this external stuff. It’s about us looking inward, deciding for ourselves what success is, trying to draw real connections between each other—men and women, mothers and daughters, fathers. We can’t go anywhere unless we start to look inside of ourselves. We’ve got all this information. As unequal as the system is, we’ve got a lot more wiggle room, so to speak, than a generation or two before. I’m not saying, it’s all good, I’m saying that we have to not take for granted what was sacrificed for us. That’s a journey of self-healing that every Black person has to go on.

We have all these material things about us, but we are still unhappy, we are depressed, we take it out on our loved ones, we abuse one another, we kill each other, and we sell drugs to one another. I think that until we can start to have a sense of self-love and respect for ourselves as a generation, all that work that was done before is going to be undone. Our challenge is to look inside of ourselves and find that happiness despite everything because the system can’t take you down if you have that light inside of you already.

So, it’s just about finding that light and giving the young people another mind frame to see and understand who they are, so that they can see things are possible. It’s make-or-break right now. So many Black men are in prison. It’s because we don’t have a sense of self and community that they’re forced into these situations that put them at the end of a gun or put them in prison, and then they think this is who they are. It’s so sad when I talk to young Black men or women and they’re surprised they made it to 30 years old. We should not be having that outlook on life, you know? I just think it’s that self-healing that’s really our job, working within our own communities and finding that love for ourselves because if we can’t find that love for ourselves… I don’t know.

 

Redefining Blackness

Featured quote by Rask K'dee c. 2016 Christine Joy Ferrer

“There are as many ideas and identities as there are Black people. We have never been a homogenous group. Black presence is fluid. Acknowledging Black presence is acknowledging Black diversity."

Thea Matthews, Artist, Poet, Activist

“All Black people, we are brothers and sisters. We can feel the same thing because your ancestors are my ancestors. It doesn’t matter that I’m from Brazil and that you’re from the United States, Haiti, or Cuba. We still feel the same thing that our ancestors experienced. The racism still happens. I want to see us come together and support each other.”

Tania Santiago, Afro-Brazilian Dance Teacher and Aguas Artistic Director

“One of my favorite words that I wish we still used is “Afro-American,” because it’s not just talking about Africa. Yes, I have an identity there. But it’s Afro-Brazilian, or Afro-this that tells about the flavor, the history and my more ancient connections. It feels more authentic and I have always really liked that. It represents the seasoning of who I am, and that is a connection. Africa is a huge place with many countries and languages. When you say “African American,” it’s like saying I’m from a whole continent that I’ve never been to. Afro-American speaks of my lineage.”

Rhiannon Evans MacFadyen, Curator and Project-based Artist

“The culture and expression of Black folks: self-determination, the suffering, the pain and the love. If you can capture that in your artwork, you’ve made the connection with the community and the broader community as well. We were talking about revolutionary culture for transforming society. Our art was a reflection of what was going on in the world.”

Emory Douglas, Minister of Culture for the Black Panther Party

Mixed Media by Sydney "Sage" Cain c. 2016 Christine Joy Ferrer

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Our San Francisco

Illustration by Seneca Jackson c. 2016 Christine Joy Ferrer

“It’s important to understand where you live. There is indigenous culture from where you are. If you live in San Francisco, learn about the Ohlone people. They are the true natives of this land. Learn about their traditions and their culture. Learn about what this used to look like before it became covered with concrete. Think about that when you’re walking down the concrete street. This used to be a rich marshland, a bird paradise where millions of birds used to flock. San Francisco has a lot of history. If we look at the indigenous communities that lived here and still live here, we could learn some of the ways in which they maintained their survival for hundreds of years."

Ras K’dee, Musician, Youth Worker and Producer
Audiopharmacy and Seventh Native American Generation

“San Francisco has really produced some of the most radical changes that we’ve seen in our society in modern times. How many firsts has San Francisco accomplished in terms of political mobilization or organizing? I believe there still remains a place where we can produce radical change. The question is: will we do it bringing everyone along for the ride or will we displace so many people that it will no longer be that place of radical transformation but yet a new place of neoliberal bullshit? I don’t think there’s any nicer way of putting it. Will the city turn into this unimportant or insignificant political space?"

Andrew Jolivette, Chair of American Indian Studies, San Francisco State University

“A huge piece of what I teach to my daughter is about differences and respecting what you have and knowing that you’re blessed even if you don’t live in a multimillion dollar house. We talk about homelessness because those are very real things that she comes in contact with every day. I don’t ever want her to be able to ignore these societal issues, no matter what her position in life becomes."

Maya Rodgers, Community Advocate and Social Worker

Graphic by Sabrina Lawrence

 

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Xavier Estrella Schmidt

 

Xavier Estrella Schmidt. ©2016 Jarrel Phillips

Let me tell you a story. I was 15 years old. I was a quiet dude and I was dorky. I wasn’t hood and I wasn’t in your face. That wasn’t me. I liked golf. I liked little toy models and I liked graffiti. There was this Armenian kid who used to love wearing Southpole jeans, which was cool back then and I’ll never forget what he told me. This white kid says, ‘Man, I’m blacker than you.’ I just sat there quiet. I didn’t know what to say to that at the time. I’m thinking, ‘What does that mean? What did he mean by that? I’m blacker than you?’

That North American pop culture contemporary perception of blackness is influential and present everywhere in the world. We’re seen through that lens and we’re supposed to fit into that mold… that box. Neither being mixed, nor my deep appreciation and love for soul and funk music mattered at that moment because I wasn’t that box. I didn’t sag my pants. I didn’t cuss out my teachers. I didn’t act tough. I wasn’t the stereotypical Black male. I didn’t fit that construct.

To him, blackness was a way of dressing. It’s a way of speaking. It’s the music you listen to. I’ve always tried to understand that mentality. You can be in hip hop culture and identify yourself with hip hop. But that’s not the same as someone who thinks they’re Black.

 ‘I’m blacker than you.’

Xavier Estrella Schmidt
Muralist and Graffiti Artist

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Wanda Marie Holland Greene

Courtesy of Wanda Holland GreeneWelcome to America. We were not invited in. We were systematically kept out. We were not even considered people. We were listed as property: a table, a chair, ‘African American female,’ and ‘African American male.’

Someone said to me the other day, ‘Who says we want to be included?’ I said, ‘Hmm. If you don’t want to be included because you’d rather be left alone, is that a healthy psychological state? Have you become so frustrated by what goes on in the mainstream, so discouraged by the lack of access, so hurt by every overt or covert act of racism, sexism, homophobia, and oppression? Are you so undone by what’s going on in the mainstream that your desire to be immersed is actually a retreat into a refuge? If that’s the case, should I be insisting that you come out of that space of safety?’

I believe we should heal ourselves in community and then move into the mainstream because I’m an agitator. I think other people get better when diverse communities are together. Diversity is a component of excellence. I’ve always thought of inclusion and integration as the goal. But there are people that are questioning whether or not they want to be included. They’re like, ‘You don’t want me to be in your city? I’m going to build my own city. You don’t want me to patronize your business? I’m going to create my own.’

I worry about the rhetoric that’s going on in America right now. As an educator my job is to help children recognize these lies about who people are, what their contributions have and have not been, and who is moral and who’s not. As parents and educators we must interrupt this cycle of inferiority so that they feel that America belongs to them. Langston Hughes said it best, ‘I, too, sing America.’

Wanda Marie Holland Greene
Head of The Hamlin School

 

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Sophie Maxwell

Sophie Maxwell ©2016 Jarrel Phillips

I remember this educator came. They had a meeting, and asked, ‘What do Black people want for their kids?’ I was so insulted. Of course we want the same thing you want. We want everything everybody else wants. We want healthy communities, healthy places for our families and our children, and great schools so they can be well educated. We want good, decent policing so that we’re not afraid of, not only the gangsters, but also the police. They’re gangsters too, in some ways. We want the same things other people want. We want what you have. You have an education. Your children go to school and they have music lessons. That’s the same thing we all want. We want to take our kids fishing. We want to take them on Saturday afternoons to the show and to church on Sunday. Then after church we want to take them for a ride. We want them to be healthy. We want to be happy.

Sophie Maxwell
Former member of the San Francisco Board of Supervisors, District 10

 

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Dr. Amos Brown

Dr. Amos Brown. ©2016 Jarrel Phillips

Too many people make a lot of bad decisions choosing to see evil and wrong in things because they don’t know or understand it. Nobody has a monopoly on spirituality. Spirituality is what you do with the totality of your being and treating others with respect. What Dr. King valued was personalism. Personalism means every individual has worth and dignity. Your religion is not to be dumped on someone else.

Slavery, the Crusades, and the witch-hunts were done in the name of religion. I visited this beautiful chapel in Ghana. The chapel is up top, but under the chapel was a dungeon where our forbearers were stacked like sardines to prepare them to be corralled onto slave ships. That is the contradiction of America. The church needs to have a renaissance of its best beliefs and practices. There was a holistic concern about what happened to the group, to the people. What happened to us, as a group, was enslavement.

Many of the elders were intimidated, threatened and even killed for holding on to the best of our African traditions. Any Negro who was educated, really educated, was a dangerous Negro. They were mutilated and whipped. Their fingers were chopped off. Our forbearers were afraid to raise questions. Hence, we did not stay put in terms of embracing the best of our spiritual traditions that came from Africa. Our slave masters saw it to their advantage to cut our ancestors off from their roots.

One of the factors that has enabled the Jewish tradition to survive is that they’ve always had a ritual of remembrance. They never forgot the fathers: Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. We so easily forget or we’re so easily told by our oppressors: don’t remember. We don’t have rituals of remembrance in our black community. Once a year is not enough. We need repetition and daily rituals.

Dr. Amos Brown
Pastor of the Historic Third Baptist Church
President of the San Francisco Chapter of the NAACP

 

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Mohammed Soriano Bilal

Mohammed Soriano Bilal. ©2016 Jarrel Phillips

African Americans built San Francisco and I don’t just mean the bricks. In its earliest origins, historian John Templeton said that there were four Black men involved in what San Francisco was going to become. Look at people like William Leidesdorff Jr., whose statue is in the Financial District. He’s one of the key architects to decide whether San Francisco was going to be called San Francisco or Yerba Buena. He was a multiracial brother of African descent. And, Pio Pico was Mexican, African American and Spanish. These were some of San Francisco’s architects.

San Francisco is an estuary. It’s a place where things grow, flourish and spread out. It’s the energy from this geographical region that established a fertile ground for artistic creation. They talk about San Francisco making Richard Pryor into the Richard Pryor we all know because of our art scene.

The African American Art & Culture Complex in particular has been serving the community for almost 40 years. When San Francisco had over 100,000 Black people in its population, it was where people went when they needed a place to grow their creativity and professional experience so they could find more opportunities. Many historic and significant Black leaders and artists got their start here. Delroy Lindo and Danny Glover were part of the Black writers workshop hosted here with Buriel Clay. This center has functioned not only for preserving culture but also for elevating Black arts.

Today artists are fleeing San Francisco in record numbers. They have been for the last 10 years. But, this complex is one of the few places that subsidizes Black art and Black art companies—Cultural Odyssey, African American Shakespeare and Lorraine Hansberry Theatre—making it even more important because thousands of artists go through Black art companies. If we lose a center like this, we lose pretty much the last place where Black art is allowed to exist in San Francisco in a real way. We need Black art and culture because it’s the social fabric of San Francisco, a place known for its multicultural diversity. The idea of multiculturalism has been here since the Gold Rush.

We did a study recently with Hewlett Packard and found out that 42 percent of our audience is from Alameda County and 42 percent from San Francisco. The African American Art & Culture Complex is not just important to the city of San Francisco, it’s important to the Bay Area and Black culture from both sides of the Bay. Pretty soon we are going to depend on places like this to connect us to Black culture. It’s not going to be in a lot of other places.

Mohammed Soriano Bilal
Executive Director of the African American Art & Culture Complex

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Alma Robinson

Alma Robinson. ©2016 Jarrel Phillips

The intersection of art and politics started in the Constitution with the First Amendment, which is about freedom of expression. From that idea, we embrace expression, and sometimes you have to be political about it in terms of artistry.

How do the arts and culture contribute to economy and social well-being? How is the history of art important to people in terms of their cultural well-being? For example, during colonial wars, when the Europeans were taking over large swaths of the African continent, they also claimed a lot of the cultural property of Africans. If you go to the British Museum, you see shelves of dolls, iconic instruments and masks that were taken wholesale from villages in Africa up and down the west coast. People were deprived of a part of their cultural heritage, and maybe in a way that made it easier to colonize them because you could then come in with your own system of education, values and language and replace all the things that were grounding people in their own culture and history.

I think if you applied that to our situation in San Francisco you would say, ‘Are we managing our cultural resources so that they can’t be taken away and are we using them? Are we celebrating our culture enough?’

People were starting to say, ‘We need to recover our past. We’ve been ripped off. We need to get some of these things back that are really important.’ The takeaway from that is: What do you owe for removing something more than a hundred years ago? Do you need to return that? And, on the other side, if you get it back, how do you reintegrate it into your society? How do you care for it? Do you have the cultural infrastructure in place—the museums, the thought leaders, the art historians—to really manage collections and can that information be transferred in an effective way?

Alma Robinson
Director of California Lawyers for the Arts

 

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Healing and Heritage

“Don’t forget who you are. Don’t forget the people who brought you here. Learn about your ancestors, what they had to go through so that you can do the things that you do now. I always tell the stories of my grandmother because she was doing things to get away from the South long before the Civil Rights marches. Then when my husband and I were younger, we took part in the Civil Rights marches and marched in the streets. We have to let the younger generations know that what they have now, they haven’t done anything to get. It’s the people who came before that pushed us to where we are now. So what are you going to do for the future?"

Blanche Brown, Haitian Folkoric Dance Teacher and Yoruba Priestess

“Art definitely heals. When I was younger, seeing art that was a reflection of me made me feel good. When art is removed from a community, you can tell its soul is lost. It’s not healing. It’s sad and hurtful. I guess it’s called art gentrification: creating something that just doesn’t fit. It doesn’t help the community. It just continues to perpetuate whatever issue was already there."

Sydney “Sage” Cain, Graphite Visual Artist and Muralist

“You didn’t get here by yourself. Other people paved the way for you. You’re part of a continuum. Honor them and honor yourself. Most importantly, do not collude in your own oppression. We didn’t do all this work for you to fall into the trap. We did it for you to continue to prosper and to do well, And don’t forget that the more you know, the more you owe."

Dr. Joseph Marshall, Jr., Founder of Alive & Free Movement and S.F. Police Commissioner

“Most people’s definition of ‘making it’ is a little different than mine. My definition of making it is being in communication with my people, respecting the ancestors, and being an overall positive person, specifically for Black men and Black people. I try to do things that won’t degrade our culture. But people see me on the street and they think, “Wow! He’s really good. Why is he on the street? He should be on Broadway.” I’ve never been interested in that.

Edward V. Jackson, Sr., Urban Funk Machine, Street Performer and Tap Dancer

Art by William Rhodes

 

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Stardust

Stardust

Dust to dust they intone

Out of clay they say

From earth you came,

and to earth you will return they admonish.

They remind us we are human

and subject to death yet insist on their eternals.

Demons and angels, paradise or purgatory,

merely human with a finite number of days.

But we have exploded as novas.

Burned through countless galaxies,

danced on the edge of asteroids, rode on the tail of comets

Until in a dizzy frenzy of passion, we fell through the viscous ozone

passed cooling clouds to settle on the ocean floor.

It was there that we grew arms and tongue,

all the while remembering our origins.

Calcium, magnesium, iron…

We are the stuff that stars are made of.

It’s a scientific fact, a cosmic truth.

We hold grades of the divine inside ourselves and we always have.

Stardust

We are stardust.

Devorah Major
San Francisco Poet Laureate

I Am San Francisco Exhbition c. 2016 Jarrel Phillips

 

 

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Raimagine!

Making Art Move

Book Mo/Biblio Guagua event at the Portola Branch Library, July 2015. ©2015 Sibila Savage

The Moving Art House

By Christine Joy Ferrer

On board the 5.5 Mile Road House, participants play Porto-Lotería, a game made by Connell and Melara about the Portola District. ©2015 Sibila SavageBlanca Gotchez Melara remembers it well. The potent fragrance of basil, black melons and geraniums adorning Nativity dioramas in her hometown of Santa Ana, El Salvador.

The Nacimientos or Nativities were never just Mary, Joseph and the Baby Jesus but a more elaborate arrangement of clay, wax, wood, metal, fabric, and beads depicting the Christ birth. The main focus was the replication of a whole town with three-dimensional illustrations from one’s daily life in a variety of scales, symbolizing one’s connection to one’s environment relative to the Nativity. The dioramas could include, among the biblical scenes, figurines of women making tortillas, farmers milking cows, vegetable merchants, even waterfalls.

One day, the fresh scent of basil leaves in her garden made Blanca relive those memories. So, with the help of her son Oscar Melara and Kate Connell, cofounders of the Moving Art House, Blanca set about building a Nacimiento at their house in the Portola, integrating her own life story. She began shaping her life story—her work as a teacher and the move from her village to California—with clay figures, along with scenes of the three kings and their steeds. She even crocheted a diaper for the Baby Jesus.

Blanca’s project started in 1996 but even after she passed away, Connell and Melara kept the tradition alive by inviting friends to come over and create their self-portraits and other scenes in clay every year until 2006. They created simulations of a skyline at sunset with pink and yellow lights and cotton balls for clouds and angels. Angels hung above Blanca’s memorial. Blue lights and tons of fabric set the backdrop with a few animals and many candles. To date, Melara and Connell have collected over 300 of these creations in clay in boxes stacked to the ceiling in their closet.

This is how Connell and Melara’s living art union and cultural community work began.

The Moving Art House
It’s a mobile cultural space featuring dynamic programming that represents Southeast San Francisco and its multicultural working-class neighborhoods. Launched in July 2015, it’s a space where the community can see each other’s cultural and creative works and connect with one another. The original exhibition ran from December 4, 2015 to March 31, 2016 at the Portola Public Library as a public art project by Connell and Melara (Book and Wheel Works) in collaboration with Richard Talavera and the Mexican Bus. Photographer Sibila Savage documents the Moving Art House and fills its exhibition panels with her images.The Nite Life mural mounted on the side of the Mexican Bus for an event at El Toro Night Club. ©2015 Sibila Savage

“Our neighborhood is just so rich and really undocumented,” says Connell. “Our goal is to establish a cultural identity and a neighborhood visual vocabulary that appeals to everybody. We welcomed as many people that were willing to be involved in vetting [Moving Art House]. But it’s not about isolating and or making our neighborhood ‘precious.’ We want to foster conversations about commonalities in this historically working-class part of the city and build our resilience. There are many different parts of our common culture that we need to identify, protect, strengthen and then see ourselves, so we can be in dialogue with it.”

The Portola Public Library is at the heart of the neighborhood’s cultural life. Throughout the year, Book and Wheel gave out booklets at the library acknowledging different aspects of the Portola and its history. One graphic novel told the story of two women growing up in the neighborhood 50 years apart: Bonnie, in the 1940s, and Shirley who is now in her 20s. Shirley’s parents were both from China, but met in Hawaii. Her family owned a liquor store in the Richmond district where, sadly, her father was shot.

Melara and Connell, both from San Francisco, have lived and thrived in the Portola district for about 20 years and have been creatively investing their hearts and souls in this community. They are, in a sense, real life superheroes serving their city. It may not be Central City, Star City or Gotham… but southeast San Francisco is their Metropolis. But unlike comic book superheroes, they give their community tools to save themselves by facilitating artistic neighborhood projects to engage and activate the community.

On the 5.5 Mile Road House tour aboard The Mexican Bus (bookandwheel.org/moving-art-house/5-5-mile-road-house/), which took place on September 19, 2015, parent advocate Mildred Coffey and Yensing Sihapanya, associate director of Portola Family Connections, and some other speakers, explained: “Southeast San Francisco is filled with innovation and creativity. An equal distribution of educational and arts activities are necessary for southeast San Francisco to reach its full potential.”

Moving Art House has brought together dozens of artists from the Bayview to the Excelsior, from Bernal Heights to Ingleside and the Portola—musicians, composers, poets, and visual and performing artists—to create new work that’s presented on The Mexican Bus, at sites in the Portola District.

“We performed for 30 minutes at the Portola Public Library… a multicultural performance reflecting the diversity of the neighborhood, by and for fellow artists, poets, photographers, and kids from the Portola,” said Saichi Kawahara, leader and founder of the Kapalakiko Hawaiian Band, about their Moving Art House project. “Through stories, mele and hula, we were able to touch and warm the hearts of the many people gathered there that evening. We even received several requests for ukulele lessons. It’s really nice to perform our schtick in fine concert halls and venues, but I prefer to perform here because this is where the most exciting musical action is located.”

For this project, collaborators from southeast neighborhoods worked together to build a united, vibrant cultural life experience for their communities. In response, hundreds of neighborhood residents and other San Franciscans took part in its growth, learned about the history of the Portola and enjoyed living culture at three Moving Art House events:
(1) Book Mo/Biblio Guagua block party with the Portola Public Library; (2) Nite Life with El Toro Night Club on San Bruno Avenue; and (3) 5.5 Mile Road House which traveled to vistas high in McLaren Park.

A Rich History Brought to Life
Each event presented historical knowledge through games and generated diverse exchanges and cultural immersions that harnessed community solidary and creativity.

Book Mo/Biblio Guagua was inspired in part by Biblioburro, a mobile library on the back of a burro led by his owner, teacher Luis Soriano, to children living in the remote hills of Colombia. Participants each received their own “design your own adventure” copy of the Book Mo Book, a silkscreened book that could be personalized with text or drawings. On the Mexican Bus, you could play Portola Cootie Catcher, read handmade books about the neighborhood and build live stories. Visitors calligraphed Chinese poetry in sand. Las Hermanas Pena-Govea played and sang. Dr. Jose Cuellar blessed the day with a five directions benediction. Food from La Placita, Fancy Wheatfields Bakery and Ling Ling Restaurant filled bellies.Book Mo/Biblio Guagua event at the Portola Branch Library, July 2015. ©2015 Sibila Savage

“It was wonderful to see young and old alike thoroughly engaged and fascinated by all the activities—calligraphy, bookmaking, printing, music, poetry, art, guagua, story-telling—something for everyone in the community,” said Elena Andrade, a participant. “[Connell and Melara] thought of everything. So much thought, heart, imagination, and collaboration.”

Nite Life celebrated Southeast San Francisco and El Toro Night Club’s 80 years of musical history. The sounds of the ukulele, guzheng, accordion, mandolin, sax, bass, and flute resonated from the stage. On board The Mexican Bus, you learned about the musical history of the Portola District—live Klezmer in the 1920s, to Maltese music in the 1930s, to recorded music by Frank Sinatra and Perry Como in the 1940s and ‘50s, to Latin Rock in the 1970s, to present day Banda music. Book and Wheel Works created a five-panel mural on canvas window shades and a game that reflected this musical history. Of course, music by Banda Universal, El Toro’s house band, and dancing filled the bill. Dr. Loco and La Familia Pena-Govea played “Adios Angelito” to honor Alex Nieto who was shot by the police in Bernal Heights in 2014.

San Francisco’s Hop-On Hop-off bus tours may have the most comprehensive coverage of popular tourist areas like the Golden Gate Bridge, Chinatown and Fisherman’s Wharf, but they are woefully lacking when it comes to presenting San Francisco’s historical and cultural context.

5.5 Mile Road House Tour
We boarded the green Mexican bus, the “Iguana,” near McNab Lake for the 5.5 Mile Road House Tour, hitting various vistas in McLaren Park of interest to artists. McLaren Park was the site of the incredible San Francisco Artist’s Soapbox Derby in 1975. On board the bus, rounds of Porto-Loteria, a game designed by Book and Wheel Works, were led in Spanish, English and Mandarin. Porto-Loteria images depicting the Portola, its history, community heroes, flora and fauna, and cultural traditions were lined above each window of the bus.

We travelled past Alemany Island up to the La Grande Water Tower. Although I’ve lived in San Francisco most of my life—specifically Southeast San Francisco—I had never been to this place. As I meditated on the cityscape from La Grande Water Tower, I saw the Ingleside/Lakeview district where I grew up. I realized that I had only travelled between points A and B within a 5-mile radius in all those years and that opportunities like Moving Art House can expand our boundaries and bring awareness to the undocumented areas that truly breathe life and bring a rich culture into all of San Francisco. Without these communities, there would be no cultural foundation to San Francisco. Later that day, I shared my experience of working on creative projects in the Excelsior/Ingleside district and heard about other people’s projects in Visitacion Valley and Bayview Hunter’s Point.

The Moving Art House is Book and Wheel Works’ third public art project in the Portola and it grew out of the other two. The first, Portola at Play (2009), was a collaboration with filmmaker Gustavo Vazquez and musician and composer John Calloway. The second was Crossing the Street (2010), an artists’ book reference collection for the Portola Branch Library. Book and Wheel were also commissioned to do a project in Havana, Cuba, for which they designed a map showing the organic farms in the neighborhoods around Havana. It could be folded into a book, and posed questions like, “What would you preserve for the future?”

Connell and Melara’s Porto-Loteria was made for Portola at Play and eventually served as the base design for the panels created by Portolans for Alemany Island, a mural site at the gateway into the Portola district. Forty-four households, three classrooms and one firehouse were involved in painting the Alemany Island panels. People in the community personalized the murals they created, made suggestions about how the game should be played and decided on all the images, how they should represent the neighborhood.

“People were insistent, ‘No possums, only skunk,’” Connell remembered, laughing.

In an art room of her home, Connell organized a chronological masterpiece, documenting some of Book and Wheels projects over the years for me to see. My favorite piece was called Looking Up: Portola Skies, digitally printed on silk. Each page of the book depicted a San Francisco skyline layered one on top of the other. With just the right amount of sunlight, you could see through them all. Some pages had inspirational quotes in Chinese, Spanish and English.

I left the room asking myself: How do I continue to help sustain our evolving city?

“It’s not just about the Portola. It’s about communicating our shared heritage in San Francisco and protecting our place. Making our nutrients so rich, they can’t afford to take it away,” says Connell. ♦

 

Kate Connell (Book) and Oscar Melara (Wheel), collaborating as Book and Wheel Works, map edge neighborhoods—especially their own Portola District—document working people’s lives, make murals and produce collaborative cultural events. They create intimate libraries, often of artists, and books for public use. Their handmade games engage fellow urbanites with humor and play in order to discuss the possibilities inherent in our shared environments. Connell is a librarian who worked for many years at the Galeria de la Raza. Melara co-founded La Raza Silkscreen Center and served as a driver on public buses. They have collaborated for more than 20 years, twice receiving the Creative Work Fund and participating as invited artists in the 11th Havana Biennial. Christine Joy Ferrer is the designer and web producer for Reimagine!, contributing editor to RP&E, and founder of EO MVMNT, Media + Design, eomvmnt.org.

 

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"We want to foster conversations about commonalities in this historically working-class part of the city and build our resilience." -Kate Connell

Diaspora

By Maketa Smith-Groves

My mind has a landscape that could not form

anywhere except America.

 

This is the Diaspora

the vastness in my soul

like an African desert

forever roamed:

 

This Detroit memory of

my father’s

twelve gauge blasting

away wall/and blood splattered rats

my father’s rage that he could not prevent

this horror/this poverty/cleaving

as

Mississippi mud and

KKK raids

cleaving.

 

Shooting rats late at night

rats the size of footballs

scampering over sleeping bodies of

siblings and I

this profound rage and

desecration by the rats

(for sleeping children are sacred ground)

filled me with my father’s rage

and

I have raged ever since.

Maketa Smith-Groves is a native of Detroit, Michigan, lived in California for many decades and currently divides her time between the U.S. and Europe. This poem is excerpted from her new collection of poems, Class Encounters, published by Freedom Voices (freedomvoices.org).

 

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Mujeres Mágicas

Illustration from Gloria Anzaldúa’s “Speaking in Tongues: A Letter to Third World Women Writers” from This Bridge Called My Back: Writings by Radical Women of Color.The Power of Storytelling and the Right to Write

By Karina Muñiz

Who gets the right to write? To share stories with the world in written form? To create fictional characters or a poem, to take us back to a memory, once buried, through a scene that awakens the senses? I often ask myself that question as an MFA student in creative writing at Mills College. Maybe I ask this because I’m also the political director at Mujeres Unidas y Activas (MUA), a Latina immigrant and worker rights base-building organization in the San Francisco Bay Area. My worlds seem far apart from each other as I drive from our office in the Fruitvale district filled with people involved in participatory workshops and campaign organizing to the gates of Mills with its quiet walkways and manicured lawns.

I’m learning a lot about prose, sharpening my craft and developing as a writer. As a Community Engagement Fellow, I have not only been given the opportunity to attend school, but also the ability to share the power of la palabra (the word) and storytelling with women with so many moving stories to tell who may not get the same access and privilege of a formal writing program.
For six weeks, I taught a creative writing class to friends and colleagues at MUA, mostly women leaders of the immigrant rights movement. We began each class with ceremony, bringing a gift for the altar that reflected our intention for writing. On the first day of class we read Gloria Anzaldúa’s “Speaking in Tongues: A Letter to Third World Women Writers” from This Bridge Called my Back: Writings by Radical Women of Color. This letter, written 36 years ago and not long after I was born, contains all the reasons why I write.

 “Who gave us permission to perform the act of writing? Why does writing seem so unnatural for me?” Anzaldúa asks. “How hard it is for us to think we can choose to become writers, much less feel and believe we can. What have we to contribute, to give? Our own expectations condition us.” Anzaldúa reminds us—radical women of color—of our right to write what has been miswritten about us, our right to make ourselves. Her call is clear: “Write with your eyes like painters, with your ears like musicians, with your feet like dancers… Write with your tongues of fire.”

In the creative writing class, we let our tongues of fire unleash and we laughed, cried, and surprised ourselves. The stories ranged from childhood games with a neighborhood burro, to the painful passing of that friend who saw and understood, to the teacher whose shaming left indelible scars. Other times the stories were about life in the maquilas, bodies on the side of the road during the war you prayed were not family, the grandmother who rocked you to sleep at night, or how you held your child close while the helicopters flashed bright lights from above.

“There are things that have happened in our lives that we are learning how to tell,” said class participant Lulu Reboyoso. “This workshop has allowed me to look inside myself to give birth to my own creativity. Through the writing exercises we wrote out our memories of happiness, pain, frustration, and learned to take in our surroundings. The writing released things that were painful for me and we finished the workshop knowing that we as women, immigrants and Latinas can write. We are artists filled with creativity and much to say. And instead of others writing our stories about what happened to us, we are writing with our own voices.”

Maria Hernandez said, “I came to the workshop feeling insecure that I wouldn’t be able to write my own story. But being in this space, it was easier for me to be able to express myself… it allowed our writing to come from our hearts. I didn’t believe that an immigrant woman without a formal education could call herself a writer or a poet. I was impressed with myself and this discovery of my own ability to express myself. I can tell my own story and did so in front of a group of people who didn’t really know us. We showed the audience, while our stories are not easy to hear sometimes, you can learn a lot more about us.”

On our final evening last summer we showcased our work at Laurel Bookstore in downtown Oakland and we closed the class the same way we opened it, by reading in Spanish excerpts from the letter Gloria Anzaldúa wrote to all of us. In unison we declared: “I write to record what others erase when I speak… mujer mágica, empty yourself. Shock yourself into new ways of perceiving the world, shock your readers into the same.”

 

To Live in the U.S. You Need...
By Mujeres Unidas’ Writing Workshop

 

Self-worth, strength, power, reasons, circumstances, necessities, assimilation,
    resilience, bravery
Balls to blindly try and achieve, and imagination to mask the solitude
Hope, desire to better the conditions of our community
To breathe, dream, have a voice, worthiness, courage, work, love, papers
Desire for a better life
Dollars
Courage, desire to get ahead in life
Solidarity with other communities so we can unify and fight together
Strong lungs, a sea of tears, sweat and strength, and a heart that can break and
    resuscitate in one deep breath
To be around family, have pictures of my loved ones,
and have no fear of the police when passing a checkpoint
Strength to leave your home
Desire to give your family a better life

To live in the US you need...
To leave children, to cross three borders
To hug your dreams, practice acceptance, and have an open mind
To know why and for what you are here
To believe in the worth and strength of principles

To live in the US you need...
To have a car so everything can be done faster and easier
A job to pay the rent
To pronounce your name in a Gringo way
To communicate your feelings and value the feelings of others
To not feel the pain of not belonging
To hold onto the stories of your ancestors
Mexican music
To speak Spanish at home
To integrate yourself and to understand the convictions of others
To feel safe, and be able to support your people,
for an American dream

Karina Muñiz is the political director at Mujeres Unidas y Activas. She has worked for over 15 years as an organizer and activist for racial and gender justice, household worker rights and immigrant rights, as a Xicana ally.

Thanks to Cherrie Moraga, Patricia Powell, Carolina de Robertis, D’lo, Claire Calderón, and Amanda Muñiz, and to the Voices of Our Nations Arts Foundation (VONA) network (Elmaz Abinader, Sara Campos, David Maduli, Susan Ito, and Tara Dorabji) for sharing curriculum ideas and support for the project, and to Luan at Laurel Books.

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“There are things that have happened in our lives that we are learning how to tell,” —Lulu Reboyoso.

Rysing Womyn: Art. Activism. Transformation.

Cat Brooks. Courtesy of blog.oaklandxings.comBy Cat Brooks

My entire life has been dedicated to art and activism. As a racially-mixed child from a broken home full of various substances—I could have ended up anywhere. But in 4th grade, fate landed me in the classroom of Ms. Barbara Gerhardt. I was angry. I was troubled. I was a disturbance in the classroom. Rather than throw me away—as happens to so many Black and Brown young people in our schools—Ms. Gerhardt found a way to channel all of that misdirected energy into something else. She directed me toward a local theater conservatory. My course was set.

The theater became my refuge. It literally saved my life.

Simultaneously, I was growing up amidst living room conversations about war, sexism and race in a racist, segregated town that let me know I was a “nigger” at every turn. I watched my mother get arrested at actions; sacrifice her life to the struggle. My mother taught me how to fight back, to value resistance.

What this has meant for my life is a deep commitment to the arts, an overstanding of their power to change, heal and save lives, and a passion for the intersection of art and social change.
Rysing Womyn is the manifestation of that intersection.

The Idea
Rysing Womyn works with the women that society is prone to throw away: the angry, the rageful, the sad, the traumatized, the oppressed, the exploited.

When we first conceived of the idea, my co-creator Anna and I had never worked with the commercially sexually exploited (CSEC) population before. We had experience working with youth in juvenile halls or schools, but this would be our first foray with young people who had either been, or ran a very high risk of being sexually exploited. And to put things into perspective, our program was based in Oakland, CA—the Number Two city in the country for trafficking. Among other things, Oakland is known for its ostentatious real-life pimps, major motion pictures about even flashier pimps, and celebrated pimp-tongued rappers, who have made our “tracks” famous for catchy rhymes and hypnotic beats, obscuring the reality behind the tracks in the process.

Anna and I had a lot of preconceived notions about what teaching these classes would be like. We entered into the process with a set schedule, a plan and a performance date. We learned quickly that was a mistake. Working in this environment, with these girls, meant being flexible and responsive to the sometimes highly dramatic and emotional situations which arose. In addition to teaching theater, we needed to be a shoulder to cry on, or an ear to listen.

Sometimes, the entire class became about one young woman who simply needed someone to hear her. Other times, we taught classes where just one girl showed up, or where we had more girls than we knew what to do with!

The Rysing Womyn curriculum uses political education as a tool of empowerment and theater exercises and journaling as tools of creative expression to help girls and womyn find–and utilize–their voice. We offer a megaphone to amplify voices that society drowns out with judgment and condemnation. We unearth their stories and provide a platform to tell them. We arm young womyn with the truth—about their history, strengths and power, interrupting the dialogue of “you are not enough” or “you don’t belong.”

The Work
Class consists of grounding and meditation, followed by an introduction to a political or artistic figure they can relate to. We have covered everyone from Audre Lorde to Assata Shakur. We want them to see themselves in these giants and know that they can aspire to be their own versions of these womyn.

Following the grounding, we read a poem or listen to a song. We analyze the lyrics and words, identifying the pieces that resonate. We have spent a lot of time with Maya Angelou’s Caged Bird. When have they felt like a caged bird? What does freedom feel like? That is the writing prompt. Don’t think. Just write. Don’t judge. Just write.

Next, it is time to get up and do improv exercises in which the young womyn create scenes related to their writing, performing for each other. We have a segment on police brutality where we learned about Natasha McKenna, Guadalupe Ochoa and Kayla Moore—women who look like them who were murdered by police. There is often no room for women in society’s conversations about police brutality. While Black and Brown women–especially these women–know they are walking targets for law enforcement, there is little room for them to sit in their fears and share their experiences.

The group closes with a check-out. The work can be traumatic, triggering feelings, fears and flashbacks. We find ourselves asking: How are you? Who needs extra time? How can we support the internal work you were so courageous to push through today?

Each class ends with a bonding exercise–their favorite is “pass the pulse.” A circle of strong Black womyn, holding hands passing the energy around and around and around.

 It’s pure beauty when these young womyn walk into the room every week. Laughing. Cussing. Fussing. Playing. Ready to work. Happy for this refuge.

It has been an incredible journey with ups and downs. There is one young woman, the youngest in the group. I only know bits and pieces of her story. I remember her first day. She wore her rage like a fashion statement. Long, red nails. A perfectly painted pout. She didn’t want to be there. She had already done these exercises. She didn’t want to talk about her feelings.

But she came back.

Little by little, she came out of her shell. Writing. Performing. Wearing her pride now like a fashion statement. Showing us the cute white sweater and perfectly ripped jeans she bought that day with her case manager.

Then one day—she went there. Out of the blue, this guarded girl suddenly became an open book. Pouring out her story, gritty detail after gritty detail, after painful moment. It was a breakthrough; we had earned her trust.

The Learning
We were not prepared for the impact it would have on her. We’re actors and teachers. We hadn’t thought about the fact that she had to go home with all of that, to an environment that didn’t support her and people that couldn’t be bothered. The next week she showed up, triggered. The thought of being in class triggered her. She didn’t want to go there again. She just wanted to watch. But we are not there to watch. Everyone has to participate so everyone feels safe. We gave her three choices: She could go home. She could do the writing prompt at home or she could stay and push through. She chose to stay. We knew she could. She produced some of the most beautiful work that day. More importantly, she learned that she didn’t have to run away from her darkness. She could work through it. With writing. With acting. With her sisters.

Over the last few months, we’ve seen the young women bloom. The same women, who at the beginning of the program didn’t even want to participate, have turned into the young ladies who make sure to never miss a class. Young women who walk into class angry and righteously frustrated show up and work hard not just for themselves, but for their sisters. Young women who before the class didn’t know who Maya Angelou is can now quote facts about her life. They now know she was a prostitute who became a prolific writer and civil rights activist.

I have been blessed to experience young women who write and read some of the most beautiful, raw and heartbreaking words I have ever heard.“You wouldn’t know cause you don’t walk in my shoes. You don’t know my pain. So f@$$ that ‘this is what I would do’. How would you feel if he took his gun and aimed it at you?”

It is an honor to work with these womyn. It demands we show up to every class with our best selves, our whole selves. Is it working? Will theater and writing save their lives? Will it give enough meaning to their lives to change their existence? We don’t know. All we know is for two hours a week, they have somewhere safe to go where they are guaranteed to be seen, heard and loved.
In Rysing Womyn, they are making good decisions, experiencing healthy relationships with other women, earning money in a safe and productive way, and learning about people and events and history they never would have learned about in school. That’s got to count for something. It has to make a difference. I think sometimes of my old 4th grade teacher, and the difference she made in my own life—just by nudging and encouraging my creative side. Hopefully, we are their Ms. Gerhardt.

Dazed and Confused
My stepdad told me God was the most mad at me well fuck it cause I’m mad at him too
He playin tricks with my mind but mad I’m stuck in the loop
Then wanna send me straight to hell cause Adam tossed me his fruits
He let em rob me of my innocence at the tender age of two
They saw my walls wouldn’t fall snuck in and pillaged and looted
They tried to end my revolution but I made it right through
I tried to end my revolution my brother walked in the room
I don’t wanna feel the pain mama I need weed I need booze
I wanna feel everythang daddy I need dick I need you
I been a loner since my twin lost his life in the womb,
I ain’t no stoner just a lover of that flower perfume
Niggas claim they’ll stick around but they ain’t tape they ain’t glue
My soul is calloused
You wouldn’t know cause you don’t walk in my shoes
You don’t know my pain
So fuck that “this is what I would do”
How would you feel if he took his gun and aimed it at you
How would you lie just to cover up the scratches and bruise
How would you cope if yo soul was still stuck in that noose
Fuck you cause you’d be just as dazed and confused

Cat Brooks is the co-founder of the Anti Police-Terror Project, co-chair of ONYX Organizing Committee and an active member of the Black Lives Matter movement.

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The Rysing Womyn curriculum uses political education as a tool of empowerment and theater exercises and journaling... to help girls and womyn find–and utilize–their voice.

Frontline Communities Fight Dirty Power

Indigenous Environmental Network delegation to Paris climate summit. ©2015 Allen Lissner/IEN

Oxnard Battles Dirty Power Plant

Existing Oxnard Power Plant. Photo courtesy of VLULAC http://vclulac.org

By Lucas Zucker

It would be fitting for Oxnard to be the last stand of fossil fuel power plants in California. Like so many other low-income communities of color who live in the shadow of power plants, oil refineries, and drilling sites, burdened by the nation’s insatiable appetite for dirty energy, the residents of Oxnard are fighting back, pitting high school students from farmworker families against Fortune 500 company lobbyists in a power struggle whose effects could ripple across the state. "This could be a battle over the last fossil fuel power plant in California,” says Matt Vespa, senior attorney with the Sierra Club. And it’s beginning to look like a battle we might win.

Oxnard is the largest city along California’s Central Coast—a sweeping rural region stretching along the Pacific Ocean between Los Angeles and the San Francisco Bay Area—with an economy built on agriculture, the military, and the oil industry, dotted with beach towns and farmworker enclaves. The coastal city of 200,000 sits atop some of the most fertile soil on Earth, and is bordered by the last major free-flowing river and the largest wetland habitat left in Southern California. Oxnard’s population is 85 percent people of color (74 percent Latino) with nearly half of all adults having less than a high school education. As a low-income, predominantly immigrant community, Oxnard has long been used as the dumping ground for the Central Coast’s most polluting industries. The city ranks in the top 20 percent of the most environmentally burdened communities in the state, with some parts of the city ranking within the top 10 percent, according to the California Environmental Protection Agency (CalEPA). Oxnard’s beaches are home to three gas-fired power plants and an EPA Superfund toxic waste site. California Department of Public Health data shows that Oxnard has more students attending school in close proximity to the highest levels of toxic pesticide use than anywhere else in the state.

After Years of Pollution, Resistance
In recent years, community members have organized to push back and demand an end to the environmental injustices facing Oxnard. In 2006, when BHP Billiton, the largest mining company in the world, proposed a liquefied natural gas (LNG) terminal off the coast of Oxnard, which would have run a hazardous pipeline beneath densely populated low-income residential neighborhoods and been the largest source of pollution in Ventura County, more than 3,000 residents turned out for a State Lands Commission hearing to oppose the project, resulting in its rejection. The overwhelming outpouring of community voices speaking against the LNG terminal was a turning point for a city with a history of being targeted by polluters.

The defeat of the LNG project came in the wake of a $13 million grant from the California Coastal Conservancy to conduct a massive environmental restoration of Oxnard’s coastal wetlands. It was followed by the United States EPA putting an abandoned toxic waste site on Oxnard’s beaches on the Superfund National Priorities List (NPL) for cleanup. For many residents, it felt like Oxnard was finally seeing a gradual dismantling of the wall of pollution and industry between the community and the ocean, and that a legacy of environmental injustice was beginning to come to an end.

In 2014, NRG Energy, the largest power generation company in the United States, proposed yet another gas-fired power plant on Oxnard’s coast. Burdened as it has been for decades by fossil fuel power generation for all the surrounding cities and the smokestacks of three power plants along its coastline, Oxnard was not surprised at being targeted once again by polluters. But this time, after nearly a decade of environmental justice awareness, Oxnard residents were organized and ready to fight back.

The Central Coast Alliance United for a Sustainable Economy (CAUSE), which had led the protests against the LNG terminal, sprang into action, bringing together community groups and leaders to oppose the project. When outraged residents packed city hall chambers, the city council moved quickly to pass an emergency moratorium blocking any new power plants along Oxnard’s coast.

“The people of Oxnard will no longer just accept further industrialization of our beautiful, but abused coast,” said Carmen Ramirez, Oxnard’s Mayor Pro Tem. “We want the same economic, recreational and aesthetic opportunities that other California coastal cities enjoy. Our future is at stake and state agencies and private industry must respect the wishes of the people who do not want yet another power plant on Oxnard’s shore.”

CAUSE protests oxnard power plant on 7/15/15. Photo: Lucas Zucker

NRG Tries “Astroturfing,” Threats of Abandonment
NRG immediately began to campaign furiously to undercut the staunch local opposition to the power plant. The company conducted an “astroturfing” campaign, inviting residents to a free dinner and presentation about the “new and improved” power plant, trying to persuade them to speak in support of the project at the city council meeting. NRG also ramped up contributions to local nonprofits and offered local veterans free tickets to the Ventura County Fair. They dubbed the proposed power plant “Puente” (bridge, in Spanish), as in, “bridge to a better future.” But above all, NRG’s strategy focused on the two ancient power plants on Oxnard’s beaches that they already operated.

The two old power plants use an obsolete technology called “once-through cooling,” which is deadly for local marine life. Both plants will have to be turned off by the year 2020—along with 17 other once-through cooling power plants along California’s coast—following a state water board mandate[i]. If the city refused to support NRG’s plans, the company threatened to abandon both plants to rust on the reach. NRG representatives ominously pointed to Morro Bay, a town farther up the Central Coast, where the operators of a once-through cooling power plant put a padlock on the door and walked away, leaving the city unable to afford the tens of millions of dollars in cleanup costs. NRG insists that they have no legal responsibility to remove the power plants after they are shut down, even though they bought the plants after the water board ruling, knowing they would eventually have to cease operations.

Oxnard residents are all too familiar with irresponsible corporations whose shareholders profit for decades and then abandon their harmful sites in the community: the city’s Superfund toxic waste site is courtesy of Halaco, a metal smelter who left behind a radioactive slag heap at Ormond Beach.

When the city refused to blink, NRG resorted to hardball tactics. The company withdrew its public relations staff from Oxnard and sent a letter to the California Coastal Commission, asking them to pull back funding they had granted to the city to complete its Local Coastal Plan, which set out a long-term vision for a de-industrialized and restored Oxnard coastline.

Ultimately, NRG had no need to persuade Oxnard to accept the power plant. The city’s tenuous position could have been easily cast aside by two state agencies with the power to approve or deny power plants: the California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC) and the California Energy Commission (CEC). The CPUC is notoriously inaccessible, opaque and beholden to industry. Its president was forced to resign in 2014 following a scandal around inappropriate dealings with utility giant PG&E.[ii] Central Coast Alliance United for a Sustainable Economy (CAUSE) , represented by attorneys with the California Environmental Justice Alliance (CEJA), challenged the power plant proposal at the state level alongside the City of Oxnard and the Sierra Club (Los Padres Chapter).

PUC hearings packed by community opponents to new power plant in Oxnard on 7/15/15. Photo: Lucas Zucker

Oxnard: Engaged, Informed and not Afraid to Speak Out
Environmental justice and traditional environmental groups were armed with two maps that laid out the core of the legal argument against the NRG power plant. The first was a groundbreaking sea level rise map[iii] by The Nature Conservancy, which has several major environmental restoration projects in Ventura County, and took a special focus on mapping the impact of climate change on the Ventura County coast, especially low-lying Oxnard. The Nature Conservancy’s projections showed the proposed coastal power plant directly in the path of sea level rise, with potential flooding threatening the reliability of energy for the region. The second was the Cal Enviroscreen,[iv] a first-of-its-kind environmental justice map produced by the California EPA, which mapped the nexus of environmental health hazards and vulnerable populations, showing Oxnard’s status as one of the most negatively- impacted communities in the state. Utility companies in California are required to consider environmental justice when looking at proposals for new power plants to ensure that they are not concentrated in low-income communities of color, a requirement which Southern California Edison ignored when picking NRG’s power plant proposal for Oxnard.

Both state agencies held public participation hearings in Oxnard. Hundreds of residents turned out for each, overwhelmingly speaking against the NRG power plant and stunning observers. In a low-income immigrant community like Oxnard, residents are expected to be unaware, uninformed, unengaged, and afraid to speak out. Many of the speakers were from Oxnard’s predominantly Latino and politically-progressive younger generation. Dozens of local high school and community college students showed up to oppose the project. Many of the youth, organized through local chapters of CAUSE, Future Leaders of America, and the Mixteco/Indigena Community Organizing Project, also rode a midnight bus to San Francisco to speak directly to the CPUC and rally outside the agency’s offices.

“The Oxnard power plant exemplifies a fight where the community is demanding that the California Public Utilities Commission consider environmental justice over fossil fuels and profits,” said Strela Cervas, co-director of CEJA. “Everytime we build another polluting power plant, we take a step away from the growing potential of renewable energy that can power up California. California needs to stop plugging into dirty energy and power up our communities with clean renewable energy. Local renewable energy brings health, good jobs and economic investments into communities that need it the most.”

The organizing efforts and legal arguments against the NRG power plant made an impact on Regina DeAngelis, the judge assigned to the case at the CPUC. In January 2016, she issued a precedent-setting proposed decision recommending that the project not be approved until the energy commission conducts further analysis of the sea level rise and the environmental justice impacts of the proposed power plant. This was the first time the CPUC had ever declined to approve a power plant based on either risks stemming from climate change or a disproportionate burden on a disadvantaged community. Because of the statewide precedent that would be set if the utility commissioners approved the judge’s proposed decision, NRG and the energy and utility industry immediately pushed back hard, putting immense pressure on the commissioners to overturn DeAngelis’ proposed decision and consider instead an alternate proposal by Commissioner Carla Peterman, which would approve the plant. After several postponements, the community still awaits a final decision from the commission in March.

A Certain Poetic (Climate) Justice Will Prevail
The battle over a power plant in Oxnard has attracted such widespread attention not just for its legal significance, but also as a turning point in the state’s energy future. In the midst of the CPUC’s Oxnard proceeding, the California state legislature passed the historic SB350, a groundbreaking climate change policy that included a mandate for utilities in the state to achieve 50 percent of their energy from clean, renewable sources by the year 2030. This ambitious target pushes California’s energy industry to ramp up the construction of a renewable energy infrastructure and brings into question the value of building another new gas-fired power plant anywhere in the state.

“Clean energy resources like solar and energy storage continue to decline in cost and can provide dependable power without the health and climate impacts of gas plants," says Matt Vespa of the Sierra Club.

Perhaps poetic justice will prevail, as power plants shortsightedly built along the Pacific Ocean long ago are removed in anticipation of the rising seas caused by their own emissions. Whether or not Oxnard’s environmental justice activists are able defeat NRG’s power plant this year, the tide seems to be turning. The question is no longer whether children growing up in Oxnard will one day see a shoreline free of smokestacks, but how long before they do.

Lucas Zucker does policy research and advocacy, youth organizing, and communications for CAUSE.  He was born in Brooklyn, NY and raised in Oakland and Ventura, CA. 


Endnotes

[i] http://www.swrcb.ca.gov/water_issues/programs/ocean/cwa316/policy.shtml

[ii] http://www.sfgate.com/bayarea/article/CPUC-head-Michael-Peevey-to-step-down-5812009.php

[iii] http://coastalresilience.org/project-areas/ventura-county-challenges/

[iv] http://oehha.ca.gov/ej/ces2.html

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"This could be a battle over the last fossil fuel power plant in California.” — Matt Vespa, senior attorney with the Sierra Club.

Governor Brown is Not Green

California EJ Communities Bear Brunt of Bad Policies
By Eric K. ArnoldGovernor Brown at 2014 press conference on budget allocations. Courtsey of business.ca.gov.

At the Paris climate summit, California Governor Jerry Brown played up his reputation as a progressive visionary—one of America’s most experienced politicians on environmental issues. He met with world leaders, did a photo-op with Arnold Schwarzenegger, and gave a speech to graduate students about climate awareness, saying, “we’re talking about a different kind of life, a life not based on oil, and a life not based on so much emphasis on the individual as opposed to the common good.”1

Prior to leaving on the trip, he signed an executive order2 aligning California’s greenhouse gas (GHG) reduction goals with EU standards, noting that “California is on track to meet or exceed the current target of reducing greenhouse gas emissions to 1990 levels by 2020, as established in the California Global Warming Solutions Act of 2006 (AB 32). California’s new emission reduction target of 40 percent below 1990 levels by 2030 will make it possible to reach the ultimate goal of reducing emissions 80 percent under 1990 levels by 2050.”

But even as Brown received accolades from mainstream journalists and government leaders, frontline community members, climate experts and activists held a protest against the Governor’s support of offset credits for polluters and broader use of fracking technology in California—right in the midst of the climate talks.3

Back home, Brown is also often at the receiving end of criticism from environmental justice advocates.

“As much as Jerry Brown likes to talk about California being a leader in addressing climate change and other environmental justice issues, he has a real blind spot for oil and gas. As a result, California has seen a series of environmental catastrophes, including toxics in water and the rampant spread of fracking across the state,” says Hollin Kretzmann, attorney for the Center for Biological Diversity (CBD), a group that is suing the Brown administration for polluting the water in Kern County.

Even the right-wing blog Breitbart reports:4 “Despite Brown’s tirades against fossil fuels, he has been very supportive of the California oil industry while governor.”

Pumpjacks in Kern County, CA. 2014 Sarah Craig/Faces of FrackingOnce an Environmental Champion
Brown first rose to political prominence in the 1970s. As California’s Secretary of State he challenged Big Oil on campaign finance, which resulted in the Political Reform Act of 1974. That same year, he was elected California’s governor at the young age of 36. Given the sobriquet “Governor Moonbeam” for his pledge to expand California’s space program, he was way ahead of the curve on renewable energy and energy efficiency, signing a groundbreaking tax incentive for rooftop solar in 1977. He established a moratorium on nuclear power, addressed air pollution in Los Angeles by creating the South Coast Air Quality Management District, blocked offshore coastal drilling through the California Coastal Act, and pushed for five California rivers to be added to the federal Wild and Scenic River System.

After failed runs for President and the US Senate and a stint as a KPFA radio talk show host, Brown returned to politics in 1999 as mayor of Oakland, where he pursued an ambitious plan to draw 10,000 new residents to the city, in the process, some say, accelerating gentrification. Brown used his connections to developers to propel himself into the Attorney General’s chair in 2006, and ultimately, the Governorship five years later. To his credit, as state Attorney General, Brown pursued emission limits under the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA). His advocacy contributed to California’s becoming a national model for federal fuel-economy standards during the Obama Administration.

Ironically, California’s strongest piece of environmental legislation, AB32, was enacted not by the Democratic Brown, but by his Republican predecessor, Schwarzenegger. Yet Brown has been happy to take credit for being proactive on climate change when it suits his purpose. As governor, Brown opposed the controversial Proposition 23, which would have rolled back AB32 until unemployment levels reached a 5.5 percent threshold. In the process, he pushed back directly at Big Oil, earning platitudes from environmental organizations like the Sierra Club.

Until recently, national media has often seemed in awe of Jerry The Environmentalist. In 2010, the New York Times noted, “Brown’s record on the environment is so deep and wide that he is probably the most experienced candidate on this set of issues running anywhere in the country.”

Three years later, Rolling Stone magazine gushed, “Brown’s first gubernatorial legacy was one of pathbreaking environmental reform,” and “A generation later, Brown has picked up where he left off.”6

While Brown may go down in history as one of the most celebrated politicians when it comes to climate change, he has undermined his own environmental legacy with a series of moves supporting oil, gas and big developers. As BuzzFeed stated, “…many environmentalists, farmers, and others have questioned an array of his policies and his apparently close relationship to the oil industry.”7 One prominent Democratic environmentalist told The Nation, “…climate leaders don’t frack.”8

Undercutting His Own Legacy
Environmentalists, and particularly environmental justice advocates, have long been frustrated with Brown’s contradictions. One recent controversy erupted over Brown appointees to the Coastal Commission who have reportedly taken pro-development stances and may have orchestrated the ouster of former Executive Director Charles Lester last February. Brown reportedly refused to intervene on behalf of environmentalists to influence the vote on Lester.

The same year Rolling Stone called Brown “arguably the most accomplished progressive governor in America,” Alternet reported on his “10 Worst Environmental Policies.”9 As it turns out, Governor Moonbeam isn’t quite as green as he might seem.

The article noted that Brown fast-tracked a $54 billion plan which would “divert massive quantities of water from the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta to corporate agribusiness, developers and oil companies,” imperiling salmon, steelhead, smelt, sturgeon, and other freshwater marine life populations. Other environmentally-dubious policies included Brown’s support of: (a) hydraulic fracking; (b) the REDD+ (Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation), which would sidestep California’s GHG emission reduction laws by allowing polluters to buy offset credits from Brazil and Mexico; (c) record exports of Delta water to corporate agribusiness; (d) the weakening of CEQA “…to fast-track big developments for giant corporations;” (e) clear-cutting in the Sierra Nevada; and (f) implementation of the controversial Marine Life Protection Act (MLPA) initiative, denounced as “…one of the worst examples of corporate greenwashing in California history.”

According to environmental journalist Dan Bacher on the Daily Kos, “Under Brown, the Department of Conservation has become known as a virtual subsidiary of the oil and gas industries.”10 Oil industry regulators have been fired for refusing to violate the Clean Water Drinking Act by expediting oil drilling permits, and former oil industry executives have been appointed to high-ranking positions in state departments and commissions dealing with natural resources and fossil fuels.

As former Coastal Commissioner Steve Blank told KQED, “Under Schwarzenegger, there was an extended effort to reach out to a constituency he didn’t own. And now, with Brown, there is benign neglect of the constituency he’ll own forever.”11

Conflicts of Interest Fuel Policy
Charges of conflict of interest and nepotism have arisen from Brown’s delaying of a declaration of emergency in the horrific Porter Ranch natural gas leak caused by Sempra Energy—a company which paid Brown’s sister, Kathleen, almost half-a-million dollars to serve as a board member in 2013-14 and made $26,000 in campaign donations to Brown in 2014.12 Another Sempra board member, Lynn Schenk, also serves on the board of the California High Speed Rail Authority and was the state’s Secretary of Business, Transportation and Housing (1978-83) during Brown’s previous stint as governor.

The buck doesn’t quite stop there. Kathleen Brown is also a director of the Forestar Group, a Texas-based oil and gas company who have aggressively lobbied against expanding regulation of fracking. Her stock in Forestar was valued at almost $950,000 as of December 2015. Coincidentally (or not), Forestar owns a 285-acre luxury condo development adjacent to Porter Ranch. The governor’s sister is also a partner in Manatt Phelps, a law firm used by the state’s biggest fracking lobby, the Western States Petroleum Association, which spent more than $13 million on lobbying in 2013-14.

It gets even stickier. As the East Bay Express reported, special interest groups poured almost $22 million into supporting a 2014 Brown-backed water bond, Proposition 1, a $25 billion project which exports Sacramento River water to agribusiness and oil companies engaged in fracking, endangering central valley chinook and delta smelt. According to the Express, “The contributors are a who’s who of Big Money interests in California, including corporate agribusiness groups, billionaires, timber barons, Big Oil, the tobacco industry, and the California Chamber of Commerce.”13 The proposition, which outspent its opposition exponentially, passed easily.

Challenging the grip of corporate lobbyists on California hasn’t been easy under Brown’s governorship. His reputation has served him like a Teflon shield. Public awareness campaigns about Brown’s support of hydraulic fracking proved informative, but failed to provoke any sort of mass outrage. Ditto Brown’s abrupt reversal of a campaign promise not to use Proposition 1 money to pay for habitat migration of marine species impacted by the construction of two underwater tunnels. But there are signs of a widening crack in Brown’s façade as a green guru.

Breaking Point for Environmentalists
Two recent lawsuits charging government collusion with oil and gas interests represent a break point for the environmental movement. Like much of the criticism against Brown’s administration in regards to the environment, they have to do with hydraulic fracking.

The fuel-extraction process of fracking has been linked to toxic hazards and science suggests that fracking can actually trigger earthquakes. In fracking states like Texas and Oklahoma, 7.9 million people are in danger from man-made earthquakes, according to CNN14—a prospect made more dangerous in the seismic fault-saturated California.

Both lawsuits originate out of Kern County, which accounts for approximately 99 percent of the fracking in California and one-tenth of all US oil production. Almost a quarter of the county residents—49 percent of whom are Hispanic or Latino, mostly of Mexican descent—exist below the poverty line, and more than two-thirds live within one mile of an oil well. The solidly Republican-leaning county holds the dubious distinction of having the most deaths by police shooting per capita in the US with 13 police shootings in 2015.

Kern is also a big agricultural producer, responsible for almost 50 percent of California’s fruits, vegetables and nuts. Agribusiness and fracking both require copious amounts of water and the expansion of fracking raises serious concerns about the contamination of groundwater with benzene and other hazardous chemicals; fracking has also been linked to respiratory problems, skin rashes, nosebleeds, and coccidioidomycosis, also known as “valley fever.”

The first lawsuit,15 filed in 2015 on behalf of Kern County farmers, alleges that the Brown administration colluded with the oil industry to avoid groundwater contamination laws. Specifically, it16 alleges that government officials entered into a criminal conspiracy with oil companies to subvert the Safe Drinking Water Act “to achieve through illegal means the goal of increasing oil production and maximizing profits and tax revenue by allowing the Oil companies to inject salt water into fresh water.” It also notes that permits approved by the State Oil and Gas Supervisor Tim Kustic rose from 50 to 1,575 in 2012 alone, after Kustic promised oil companies a “flexible” approach to permitting. Injecting contaminated water into aquifers increased sodium chloride levels in underground water to the extent that some orchards were damaged, threatening the livelihoods of farmers. To avoid public scrutiny, Brown and his co-defendants “suppressed research, destroyed documents, and refused to provide all information requested under the California Public Records Act,” said lead attorney R. Rex Parris in a statement.

The Kern county lawsuit was followed by a similar suit17 filed by Earthjustice on behalf of the Sierra Club and Center for Biological Diversity (CBD), challenging injections of leftover fracking waste into protected aquifers. According to the CBD, “California regulators allowed oil companies to drill more than 2,400 illegal injection wells for waste disposal or oil production into protected aquifers.”18

CBD’s Kretzmann says Brown “can’t be counted on” and that he, “hasn’t been an ally” of environmentalists concerned about the contamination of aquifers. The pervasive influence of the oil and gas industry, Kretzmann claims, has led Kern officials to sidestep comprehensive environmental impact report (EIR) requirements by changing them to allow for “one [environmental impact] review for all oil and gas projects for the next 25 years”, thus evading CEQA guidelines. Additionally, exclusionary tactics, such as not providing public materials about the proceedings in Spanish, negatively impacted Kern’s monolingual population of rural farmers, he says.

Then there is the fact that California is in a drought. Expanding fracking operations during a time of water conservation “is a remarkable obscenity,”19 said a Los Angeles Times op-ed. “Trucks line up on rural roads in Kern County, not to deliver water to those communities where wells have run dry, but to deliver it to drillers who inject it underground. What they bring back up is polluted wastewater.”

Silence on Oakland Coal Train
Brown was also strangely mum about a controversial plan to run coal trains to an Oakland port terminal. In addition to climate change concerns, the coal shipments would have exacerbated existing health risks in the area around the terminal, which has some of the worst air pollution and highest concentration of asthma in the state. The plan was strongly opposed by environmentalists and on June 28, 2016 the Oakland City Council finally gave in to public opinion and public health experts, voting 7-0 to block the shipments. Other opponents of the plan included state EPA employees and numerous elected officials, including State Senator Loni Hancock, Congresswoman Barbara Lee, Assemblymen Tony Thurmond and Rob Bonta, and Oakland Mayor Libby Schaaf, a former Brown aide.

“For [Brown] to be quiet on this coal issue is stunning,”20 San Francisco State University professor and political commentator Joe Tuman told the San Francisco Chronicle.

Brown’s public silence may have been evidence of a personal conflict: the project’s developer is his good friend, Phil Tagami. Their relationship is well-documented. As mayor of Oakland, Brown appointed Tagami to the Port Commission, and as governor, appointed him to the state’s Lottery Commission. Tagami also contributed $11,000 to Brown’s campaign for Attorney General, and Brown’s nuptials took place in the Tagami-owned Rotunda Building in Oakland.

As Oakland Magazine reported,21 Brown has financial ties to Tagami’s California Capital and Investment Group (CCIG) through a stake in the Edgewater Park Plaza business park in East Oakland. Though representatives of the governor have denied a conflict of interest, Brown declined to meet with opponents of the coal plan and hasn’t responded to their emails and letters, although Tagami himself acknowledged he talked about the issue with Brown.22

But Brown may not have the option to maintain his silence forever. State Senator Loni Hancock’s Senate Bill 1279 would prohibit the use of public funds to build or operate any port that exports coal from California. It also applies to any port near disadvantaged communities. It passed its initial policy committee vote in late June and is awaiting fiscal review. If that bill and several others Hancock has introduced make it through the legislature, Brown will be presented with a clear choice—sign or veto—and may finally reveal his position on the dirtiest of fossil fuels.

According to Kretzmann, Brown’s overall environmental record has been “very disappointing… The reality is, California has a lot of problems: air quality, water contamination in the midst of a drought… Brown has a lot to be accountable for.”

Some advocates, however, have a more balanced view of the governor. Alvaro Sanchez, environmental equity director for the Greenlining Institute, concedes that Brown’s stance on fracking and water has hurt his legacy in some capacity. But he emphasizes that Brown has been a global leader in forwarding environmental policy models. Perhaps more importantly, he adds, Brown has not stood in the way of environmental equity bills advanced by elected officials, such as Kevin De Leon. And the fact that there is robust funding for AB32 goals speaks for itself, he adds.

While Brown’s overall status with the media remains high, California journalists on an environmental beat are less likely to dole out untempered praise. Robert Gammon, Oakland Magazine senior editor and former editor of the East Bay Express, finds Brown’s stance on GHG reduction commendable, but “most environmental groups believe [Brown’s plan for water tunnels] will destroy the Delta,” he says. “If you look at his past record, and public rhetoric, he hasn’t really lived up to it.”

Eric K. Arnold is a contributing editor to Race, Poverty & the Environment and the founder of the oakculture.com blog.

Endnotes
1.          www.latimes.com/politics/la-me-pol-ca-climate-jerry-brown-doomsayer-20151210-story.html
2.           www.gov.ca.gov/news.php?id=18938
3.           www.desmogblog.com/2015/12/11/california-governor-jerry-brown-s-climate-credentials-question-massive-methane-leak-threatens-health
4.           www.breitbart.com/big-government/2015/11/28/governor-big-oil-brown-jets-off-paris-climate-summit/
5.           www.nytimes.com/gwire/2010/10/08/08greenwire-jerry-browns-environmental-record-runs-deep-44334.html?pagewanted=all
6.           www.rollingstone.com/politics/news/jerry-browns-tough-love-miracle-20130829
7.           www.buzzfeed.com/jimdalrympleii/jerry-browns-environmental-record-questioned-as-he-takes-cli#.mpN163k7q
8.           www.thenation.com/article/if-jerry-brown-so-green-why-he-allowing-fracking-california/
9.           www.alternet.org/environment/governor-jerry-browns-10-worst-environmental-policies
10.           www.dailykos.com/story/2016/3/25/1506146/-Govenor-Jerry-Brown-Celebrates-World-Water-Day-As-He-Promotes-Salmon-Killing-Delta-Tunnels
11.           ww2.kqed.org/science/2016/01/28/jerry-browns-complicated-relationship-with-environmentalists/
12.           www.redgreenandblue.org/2015/12/19/jerry-browns-big-bad-ties-to-oil-and-gas-industry/
13.           www.eastbayexpress.com/SevenDays/archives/2015/04/29/why-governor-brown-broke-his-prop-1-promise-big-money-interests-dumped-218-million-into-the-prop-1-campaign
14.           money.cnn.com/2016/03/29/investing/earthquakes-fracking-usgs-oil-gas/
15.           https://globenewswire.com/news-release/2015/06/03/741916/10137097/en/Kern-County-Group-Files-RICO-Lawsuit-Against-Governor-and-Oil-Companies.html
16.           http://rrexparris.com/wp-content/uploads/2015/06/Complaint-FILED.pdf
17.           http://earthjustice.org/sites/default/files/files/Kern%20121015%20EndorsedPetition.pdf
18.           www.biologicaldiversity.org/publications/maps/highlighted_maps/enhanced_oil_recovery_wells.html
19.           www.latimes.com/opinion/op-ed/la-oe-0505-mckibben-california-fracking-20150502-story.html
20.           www.sfchronicle.com/bayarea/article/Developer-planning-Oakland-coal-shipment-an-ally-7116423.php
21.           www.oaklandmagazine.com/Governor-Jerry-Brown-Has-Financial-Link-to-Oakland-Coal/#
22 www.sfchronicle.com/bayarea/article/Developer-planning-Oakland-coal-shipment-an-ally-7116423.php

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"Governor Brown has a real blind spot for oil and gas.” - Hollin Kretzmann, attorney for the Center for Biological Diversity (CBD),

Paris Agreement is a ‘Dangerous Distraction’

Members of Grassroots Global Justice march against the G-20 meetings in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. © 2009 Orin Langelle GJEP-GJEPClimate Justice Groups Release Report

Three major climate justice organizations—the Grassroots Global Justice Alliance, the Indigenous Environmental Network, and the Climate Justice Alliance—organized a delegation to the December 2015 United Nations climate talks in Paris. The delegation, called “It Takes Roots to Weather the Storm,” included more than 100 leaders and organizers from US and Canadian grassroots and Indigenous groups. “It Takes Roots” delegates took part in the talks and helped to lead two weeks of direct action in the streets of Paris. The actions brought the broader movement against climate change into the streets, and also developed new ties among grassroots groups around the world who are united behind the call for “system change, not climate change.” The text that follows comes from the It Takes Roots report on the Paris talks, We Are Mother Earth’s Red Line: Frontline Communities Lead the Climate Justice Fight Beyond the Paris Agreement.

The Paris Climate Agreement of December 2015 is a dangerous distraction that threatens all of us. Marked by the heavy influence of the fossil fuel industry, the deal reached at the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) never mentions the need to curb extractive energy, and sets goals far below those needed to avert a global catastrophe. The agreement signed by 196 countries does acknowledge the global urgency of the climate crisis, and reflects the strength of the climate movement. But the accord that came out of the UNFCC’s 21st Conference of Parties (COP21) ignores the roots of the crisis, and the very people who have the experience and determination to solve it.

Our analysis of the Paris Agreement echoes critiques from social movements around the world, led by those most impacted by both climate disruption and the false promises that governments and corporate interests promote in its wake.  In order to effectively develop and support our next organizing steps, we must have a clear and honest understanding of the challenges and conditions we are facing. We have five core concerns with the content of the Paris Agreement:

The Agreement relies  on voluntary versus mandatory emission cuts  that do not meet targets scientists say are necessary to avoid  climate catastrophe. The Paris Agreement is not  based on what is scientifically necessary to address the  climate crisis .  The accord contains no binding mandatory emissions reductions—only voluntary pledges from each country, called “Intended Nationally-Determined Contributions .” Taken together, all these pledges would still allow an average global temperature increase of between 3 – 4 °C above pre-industrial levels . Scientists warn that this  level  of warming would be catastrophic  In fact,  the  agreement allows emissions to continue to increase without setting a date by which they need to begin to decrease .  The actual language states, “Parties aim  to reach global peaking of greenhouse gas emissions as soon as possible .”

The Agreement advances pollution trading  mechanisms that allow polluters to purchase “offsets” and continue extremely dangerous levels of emissions. The agreement allows countries to claim reductions through pollution trading schemes written in the  agreement as “results-based payments,” rather than requiring actual reductions of pollution emissions at the  source. The underlying approach of these trading schemes is to create a market for emission credits that allows polluters to continue releasing greenhouse gasses if they can  produce a certificate attesting that they have contributed toward preventing a similar amount of emissions elsewhere, and thus avoid taking action against burning fossil fuels .  An example of what is being traded is a mechanism called “Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation”4 (REDD+) .  Within climate negotiations, deforestation has become a global issue .  Forests provide vast amounts of carbon sinks that when destroyed emit CO2 into  the  atmosphere .  The loss of these forests, especially in the  Global South, is a major driver of climate change, accounting for roughly a fifth of global GHG emissions .  The Paris agreement approved REDD+ for implementation despite continued debates on how to make forests fit into  a financial carbon market regime with no real guarantee there would be progress in reducing the underlying causes of forest loss .  These carbon market regimes allow for the  privatization of the  carbon in the  forests, and tree plantations, wetlands, agriculture and soils to be used as sponges for mitigating greenhouse gases .  This allows governments and polluting corporations to offset their carbon and other GHGs,  to meet emission reduction targets rather than cut emissions at the  source .

Offsets and pollution trading have a double-edged impact: They  give  polluters in the  industrialized countries of the  North cover so they can  continue to poison the  air and water in the  communities  alongside refineries, coal  mines and fracking wells, and at the  same time in the  global South, including Mexico, these projects can  fail to secure the  rights of local  forest-dependent communities, peasants and Indigenous Peoples to their lands .  Even  where land titles might be recognized on paper, implementation of REDD+ projects that generate carbon credits is likely to lead to these people losing control of their lands, land evictions, and restrictions on entering forested areas .  Current safeguard mechanisms developed have no guarantees for being implemented at the  national or subnational areas of developing countries .  Tradable REDD credits are  a form of property title—privatization .  Those who own the  credit do not  need to own the  land nor  the  trees, but  they do own the  right to decidehow that land will be used. They also usually have the contractual right to monitor what is happening on the land and request access to the territory at any time they choose as long as they own the carbon credit.

The Agreement relies  on dirty energies and false  promises including hydraulic  fracturing  (fracking), nuclear  power, agro-fuels, carbon  capture and sequestration and other  technological proposals that pose serious ecological risks. While  the  fossil fuel industry has tried to position natural gas as a “transitional fuel” and nuclear energy as a green energy alternative, both of these industries carry tremendous risk to surrounding communities .  In 2015,  the  state of Oklahoma was forced to impose a ban on fracking, due to more than 5000 earthquakes in one year, sometimes more than 20 in a single day, directly resulting from extensive fracking operations. The nuclear power industry has seen similar disasters, such as the Fukushima meltdown of 2011. The Paris Agreement focuses on national voluntary pledges of emissions reductions, but not reductions in the extraction of fossil fuels, allowing contradictory practices such as the  Obama administration on the  one hand pledging net  emissions reductions, and on the  other proposing a five-year expansion of offshore oil drilling across the  Arctic and Gulf of Mexico .  A genuine Just Transition requires rejecting dirty  energy and investing in clean and renewable energy sources .

The operating text  of the Agreement omits any mention of human rights  or the rights  of Indigenous Peoples and women. Despite vocal objections from Indigenous Peoples, allies and human rights NGOs, the  operative text  of the  Paris Agreement is void  of any  language on the  recognition of human rights, with  limited language in the  preambular and addendum text .  The language on human rights and Indigenous Peoples’ rights within the  preamble is purely aspirational text  and not  legally binding or enforceable in any  way .  The preamble text  has no mention of the  rights of women .  The US, Norway, the  UK and the  EU have been key players in this  removal of language around human rights and the  rights of Indigenous Peoples .

The Agreement weakens or strips  the rights  of reparations owed to the Global South by the Global North.  The Paris Agreement dilutes the  language that until  now has been critical for establishing the expectation that countries that have greater historical responsibility for causing climate change must be held to higher standards for reducing emissions and addressing impacts .  Furthermore, the  Paris Agreement denies the  possibility for compensation or liability for loss and damage done, thus limiting rights of countries or communities impacted by climate change to use legal methods to hold entities accountable for causing their suffering.

The leadership of social movements of Indigenous Peoples, Black, Latina, Asian and Pacific Islander communities, small-scale farmers/peasants and women, and all communities on the frontlines of extraction who have been defending lands, territories, water, forests, the health of their communities and Mother Earth as a whole, is more critical than ever..

In the report, these quotes appeared at the beginning of the section:

“The harsh reality we face is that the very people who have already been experiencing the most frequent and severe climate impacts to date—Indigenous Peoples, small-scale farmers/peasants, women and low-income communities of color, especially in the Global South—will now face even more difficult life-or-death struggles as their lands, territories, waters, and forests could be increasingly privatized and taken away under the mechanisms of the Paris Agreement.” —Chung-Wha Hong and Sara Mersha, Grassroots International

“The Paris Agreement is a trade agreement, nothing more. It promises to privatize, commodify and sell forested lands as carbon offsets in fraudulent schemes such as REDD+ projects. These offset schemes provide a financial laundering mechanism for developed countries to launder their carbon pollution on the backs of the global south. Case-in-point, the United States’ climate change plan includes 250 million megatons to be absorbed by oceans and forest offset markets. Essentially, those responsible for the climate crisis not only get to buy their way out of compliance but they also get to profit from it as well.” —Alberto Saldamando, Human and Indigenous Rights Expert & Attorney

*A version of this story posted earlier today (4.22.16) included text from a pre-release version of the report's 5 points of concern.

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United Nations climate agreement never mentions the need to curb extractive energy and sets goals far below those needed to avert a global catastrophe.

Rebecca Solnit on Climate Change

Interview by Dayton Martindale

A sense of wonder can be a revolutionary tool.

In a dispatch from Paris for Harper’s, writer and activist Rebecca Solnit called the recent climate agreement negotiated there “miraculous and horrible.” This tension between the exciting and the awful, the transformative and the terrifying, motivates her book Hope in the Dark: Untold Histories, Wild Possibilities. Initially written in response to the Iraq War, the book will be re-released this month with a new section on climate change.

Solnit’s numerous books and essays cover a wide array of topics from environmentalism to feminism (famously, “Men Explain things to Me” helped inspire the concept of “mansplaining”). Her history of activism includes Nevada’s anti-nuclear testing movement in the 1980s and the protests around corporate globalization of the 1990s. Today we see another corporate trade deal—the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP)—on the table, American bombs falling across the Middle East and climate change accelerating.

This interview was originally published at In These TImes and is reprinted here as part of a collaboration sponsored by the indpependent media organization The Media Consortium.

What are your thoughts on the election?

The current hate-fest on the Left is just…kind of sad. The Left is famous for tearing itself apart. I’m not sure the purpose of that exercise. Hating on people has never been a great form of social change, so far as we know. I have preferences and they’re probably not that hard to guess. But with Obama, people so completely put their faith in: “Oh, we’ll elect this magic, amazing super-human and then we’ll all go home and do absolutely nothing.” The movement that put Obama in office was powerful enough to make really profound change, but everyone went home because they thought he’d do it.

That’s what you see with Bernie Sanders: this infatuation with an almost savior-like figure who will do it all. No, actually, massive grassroots movements need to exist the day after the election. Electoral politics are dismal; I’m more interested in grassroots power, popular power.

How has your activism influenced how you think about social change?

I’ve had a front-row seat in how change gets made, and I’ve seen that it’s often slow, indirect, unpredictable and sometimes incredibly wonderful. But I’ve also seen people who don’t perceive it if it’s not quick and direct. The incredible nuclear freeze movement in the early 1980s was driven by fear of Armageddon. I remember one guy being like, “I went to a rally and it didn’t change anything and I didn’t do anything more.” Really? You thought the Kremlin was going to fall to its knees because you went to an upstate New York rally? But the movement had tremendous power. When the Soviet Union collapsed there was this incredible moment where powerful movements could’ve pushed forward total disarmament, but there were no powerful movements. It’s sad.

Six years ago, the climate movement decided to stop the Keystone pipeline. As David Roberts at Vox has said, it was not just about changing one pipeline but changing the culture. Watching that process take place up close is boring. There were bad meetings and demonstrations that aren’t always triumphs.

But then you pull back and, oh my God, six years later, we defeated the northern stretch of the pipeline and we’re in a completely different place with the climate movement. A lot of people don’t have the long-term memory to see that—not that six years should even count as long-term. Also, hanging out with people who are passionate idealists and deeply devoted has made my life incredibly richer—this heroic sense of what it means to be a member of civil society, a person with a commitment that’s bigger than themself.

There’s this idea that political engagement is some sort of horrible, dutiful thing you do, like cleaning the toilet or taking out the garbage. But it can be the most fantastic thing you do. It can bring you into contact with hope, with joy, with a sense of deep connection, with what Martin Luther King called the “beloved community.” Disconnection from a larger sense of purpose and agency, from community and civil society, and from hope are huge factors in unhappiness.

How do you keep hope amid climate change?

It’s tough because we know terrible things are happening and are going to happen. Hope is that we can steer toward the best-case scenarios instead of the worst. Hope is not like saying, “Let’s pretend I don’t have cancer.” It’s saying, “Let’s hope this treatment has survivability. Let’s work for the best-case scenarios.” Things are changing fast. If you said three years ago that Congress was going to introduce a bill to prevent all fossil fuel extraction on public land, people would be like, “You’re out of your mind,” and that just happened. The science is changing, politics are changing, technology is changing, and we don’t actually know what they’re going to look like in three or 10 years.

The proposed solutions for climate change require large-scale state planning, but you’re very sympathetic to a local or anarchistic approach.

Paris was about nation-states, and they have a role. But at the same time, San Diego decided to go 100 percent fossil- free by 2035 and San Francisco finally implemented its clean-power program. Things are happening on a lot of scales.

We do need legislation and agreements. As Naomi Klein points out, one of the reasons the Republicans are furious about climate change is that it does require large-scale cooperation and regulation. But a lot of the systems are on smaller scales. My solar roof. Your transit alternative. Our statewide building code. New York’s fracking ban.

In Hope in the Dark you argue that the environmental movement should reach out and form alliances with rural communities.

It’s really funny talking just after Cliven Bundy got arrested and charged. He represents the far-right fringe of rural culture. A lot of what rural people who were suspicious of big government think isn’t that different from what radicals on the Left think, but right-wing outreach was awesome and left-wing outreach was somewhere between pathetic and nonexistent. How do you convince them that the world government they should fear is not the U.N., it’s the TPP? How do you get outside the stereotypes where people assume, “Oh, I have nothing in common with feminists or labor organizers”? We have a lot of divides that are artificial or not carefully examined. People on both the Right and Left are operating with a lot of stereotypes about each other.

What do you think of the argument that we need more women and people of color in power?

In a culture dominated by white men, often people succeed through allegiance to that white, male worldview, to those priorities. Thus: Margaret Thatcher, Clarence Thomas and so forth. I am not sure we will see what might be different about non-white and non-male governance until it’s more than a minority in a white-male system. I loved it that Ruth Bader Ginsburg, when asked, “Do you think there should be more women on the Supreme Court?” said there should be nine.

Can writing drive social change?

It’s important not to be prescriptive and say all writing has to have a political or practical end. Something I recall often is Lawrence Weschler’s Vermeer in Bosnia, about a human rights tribunal judge dealing with Bosnian war criminals. Weschler asks how he can bear to listen to stories of horrific atrocities day after day. The judge pauses for a moment and then his face brightens and he says, “After work I go to the museum and I go to the Vermeers.” That’s the best and most succinct description of how beauty, pleasure and joy help people do really difficult things. They often get dismissed as not part of the revolution. But I do believe that writing has and does and can change the world in direct ways, too.

You write a lot about walking, and about past writers like Thoreau and Woolf walking. Do you walk a lot?

Yes. Part of the solution to climate change is that we don’t need to rush around, we don’t need to consume as much, we don’t need to move around as much, because what’s up close can be pretty magnificent. I’ve been in San Francisco since 1980 and I still discover things all the time. A sense of wonder can be a revolutionary tool.

Dayton Martindale is a contributing writer for Rural America In These Times. He studied astrophysical sciences at Princeton University, where he wrote and edited for the student alternative paper The Nassau Weekly and student film/TV blog The Princeton Buffer. He tweets at @DaytonRMartind.

 

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"Massive grassroots movements need to exist the day after the election. Electoral politics are dismal..."

Clean Power — Our Power

A Perspective from NY/NJ Environmental Justice Groups

By Ana Orozco and Molly Greenberg

Climate Justice Alliance at the historic People's Climate March, 2014. Photo by Rae Breaux, ©2014 Our Power Campaign

In January 2016, members of  community-based and environmental justice groups across the US held simultaneous actions in all ten EPA Regional headquarter cities. The protests call for the adoption of the Our Power Plan (OPP) a comprehensive justice-focused response to reducing greenhouse gasses that flags the dangers of false promises like carbon trading, natural gas, and nuclear energy.

This national demonstration of solidarity was coordinated by the Climate Justice Alliance (CJA), which unites frontline communities hit hardest by climate disruption, pollution, and economic crises.

In New York and New Jersey members from UPROSE in Sunset Park, Brooklyn, and Ironbound Community Corporation in Newark, NJ personally delivered the Our Power Plan report to EPA Region 2 administrator Judith Enck and staff at their Manhattan office. The aim of the actions is to challenge the EPA to bring an environmental justice lens to Obama administration policies—chief among them, the Clean Power Plan (CPP), released in August 2015, by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).  This plan is an attempt by the US government to confront climate change and reduce the country’s carbon pollution.

The CPP demonstrates that the Obama administration and the EPA take seriously the issue of climate change and have finally developed a plan to reduce this country’s greenhouse gas emissions (GHGs). The plan addresses carbon emissions from coal-fired power plants, which is a start. But the plan does not go far enough. It still allows for hazardous energy facilities, completely neglects co-pollutants, accepts extractive energy sources and fails to address disparate siting of power plants in low income communities and communities of color.

The Our Power Plan highlights some of the shortcomings with the CPP and proposes justice and equity based solutions. One of the most glaring shortcomings of the CPP is accepting natural gas, nuclear energy, and incineration as satisfactory alternatives to coal-fired energy. Unfortunately the NJ Energy Master Plan shares these shortcomings. If we really want to reduce our GHG emissions by 80% by 2050, a goal of the De Blasio administration’s OneNYC plan and the CPP, we need to stop relying on false solutions such as natural gas. It is a non-renewable fossil fuel resource and releases co-pollutants like methane, nitrogen dioxide and sulfur dioxide. Exposure to these pollutants has severe respiratory effects, especially in those who already suffer from asthma, resulting in increased hospital visits.

Another problematic proposal in the CPP, is relying on the carbon market (cap and trade) as an incentive for coal-fired power plants to reduce their GHGs. To think within the framework of our current economic system, is not sustainable and further exacerbates the climate crisis. Any form of pollution commodification like carbon trading is no solution, and must not be entertained as such. Impacts of our current fossil fuel based economy, built on overconsumption, are heavily felt in low-income communities and communities of color, where climate change has had catastrophic effects, cost us lives and our cities millions of dollars in reconstruction and infrastructure costs.

In Region 2, environmental and public health injustices from dirty fossil fuel industries continue to overburden our most vulnerable communities, low-income communities of color. Environmental/Climate Justice leaders in NY and NJ demand that we go beyond the CPP and address issues of co-pollutants, natural gas facilities such as the Newark Energy Center, and three peaker power plants in Sunset Park, garbage incinerators, and aging coal fired-plants. We need to begin addressing real emissions reductions at the source and stop looking to false promises, which only allow for business as usual. The three peaker plants in Sunset Park are natural gas power plants and expose nearby residents to co-pollutants such as NOx and SOx, GHGs which can cause or worsen respiratory diseases and increase asthma related hospital visits. Not only is our community affected by daily exposure to these co-pollutants, but communities impacted by fracking suffer the disastrous consequences of this natural gas extraction process.

What is truly shocking is that even with the weakness in the CPP to really go after the dirty fossil fuel industry, the Supreme Court of the United States (SCOTUS) has halted any progress by issuing a stay. This move sheds light on the essence of the up-hill battle we are up against. The decision also deflects and takes away from the climate justice argument that the CPP does not go far enough in efforts to reduce GHGs. If we have to put our efforts into getting a weak proposal back on the table, our movement for a radical change away from a fossil fuel based, extractive economy is interrupted and further delayed.

So while we await the results from the recent Supreme Court decision as environmental justice advocates we continue our efforts to implement the Our Power Plan and support real solutions to the dirty energy industry. We look to EPA Region 2 to commit to a continued conversation and actions to address dirty energy affecting the health and well-being of our communities. The EPA has an opportunity to do things differently, to really challenge climate change, why then propose weak solutions?

With real solutions like weatherization, wind and solar, within our reach let’s stop entertaining false promises that rely on business as usual instead of community-based solutions that can actually help us reach these very real goals of GHG reductions by 80% over the next 34 years. It is time to put into action a “Just Transition” away from an extractive economy and towards local renewable economies where communities struggling to hold onto homes, jobs, businesses, and livable ecosystems benefit from all at once. This is the real potential of the Clean Power Plan.

In order to ensure survival, communities who are currently at the frontline of the climate crisis know that we need to move away from the fossil fuel driven economy. While the EPA is taking small steps in the right direction, this glacial pace towards progress is dangerous for our communities. We cannot afford to entertain climate deniers or fossil fuel based industry representatives. Instead we need to be working towards a Just Transition, developing a system that is based on equity, based in real renewable energy solutions and not driven by profit over human and environmental health.

Ana Orozco is the Climate Justice Policy and Programs coordinator at UPROSE

Molly Greenberg is the Environmental Justice Policy Manager at Ironbound Community Corporation

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In order to ensure survival, communities who are currently at the frontline of the climate crisis know that we need to move away from the fossil fuel driven economy.