Reimagine! is pleased to announce the publication of Arise! the first volume of RP&E produced under our new collaborative editorial model.  To be independent and sustainable, we need your support.  Please use the tabs on the right to give a donations, subscribe, and to join our email list  where you can learn about our open editorial process and become a part of Movements Making Media. 

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by Jess Clarke

Dozens of U.S. cities erupted in direct action protests following the decision to grant impunity to police who killed Michael Brown in Ferguson and Eric Garner in New York. A new generation of organizers is arising, willing to take risks and break the rules to make social change. They are mounting effective action at street level and building broad coalitions, challenging existing institutions and creating new ones. Read more.

Arise! Introduction by Jess Clarke

Dozens of U.S. cities erupted in direct action protests following the decision to grant impunity to police who killed Michael Brown in Ferguson and Eric Garner in New York. A new generation of organizers is arising, willing to take risks and break the rules to make social change. They are mounting effective action at street level and building broad coalitions, challenging existing institutions and creating new ones. (Garza, p. 66)*

The organizing often has a pragmatic character. It seeks specific policy changes and demands prosecutions of police perpetrators and citizen review of police misconduct—but it doesn’t rule out any tactic in pursuit of democratic, accountable and popular power.

Blocking freeways and streets, boycotting businesses, occupying public space, symbolic and mass civil disobedience, and disrupting business as usual have become an integral part of the toolkit of contemporary movements.

The Flood Wall Street actions held in New York on the third anniversary of the launch of Occupy, the day after the Climate March, used these tactics, as well as the horizontal organizing practices that characterized Occupy. (Rein and M. Clarke, p .58) Popular assemblies, consensus, referenda, group autonomy, and mutual aid are being widely adopted as necessary ingredients to create new political spaces.

To hold those spaces once won, we also need to challenge power on the vertical axis with tried-and-true organizing that gives neighborhoods a voice in what sorts of development will be built in their communities (Ruiz and Smooke, p. 82, Wilson, p. 101, Ferrer, p.106); with allies in local, state and national government that can articulate support for movement demands (Levitt, p. 87; Clark p. 89); and with clear policy solutions that can meet our communities’ material needs and win resources to build accountable institutions. (J. Clarke, p. 18; Vanderwarker p. 27; Arnold, p. 31)

Rights organizing is another important dimension of how current political work is redefining the terrain on which battles for power are fought. The struggle of domestic workers to win the same sorts of legal protections that other workers gained in the 20th century has resulted in legislation in New York, California and other regions. (Rubiano Yedidia, p.72; Shekar, p. 77) A new campaign to secure rights for homeless people, “Right to Rest,” has been launched on the West Coast. (Messman and Boden p. 94)

All of these efforts are aimed at shifting the balance of power toward the interests of working people, women and people of color and out of the hands of the narrow corporate elite that threaten the planetary ecosystem and our very survival as a species. Living systems have rights as well, and we as communities have the right and responsibility to uphold and defend those rights (Movement Generation, p.9; Dayaneni-Shiva p.14)

Can we build a “movement of movements” that respects differences in political outlook and relative power in the racial, gender and class hierarchies of our stratified society? Can we accept and celebrate difference, not only culturally, but also in the pragmatic choices that we individually and collectively need to make for our day-to-day survival?

The Reimagine! project seeks to provide a platform for dialogue that does just that. Working from a grounded race, class and gender analysis to understand how the system operates, we can develop strategies that go beyond reacting to crises.

For example, police shootings and harassment are an integral part of how our economic and political elites stay in power. Violence against African Americans and other people of color in this country is not the accidental product of rogue officers, a bad district attorney or a backward county government. It is the systematic expression of the original colonial project that sought to kill, enslave or displace the indigenous population and used imported slave labor to build a nation.

To organize effectively against this power, and the structural inequality and racism of our economic system, we need to look deeper than the question of the innocence or guilt of the officers involved, and see beyond the false framing that poses the issue as merely a problem of community-police relations.

Environmental racism and gentrification choke and rip apart families as surely as police assault. Politics, policy and planning trap communities of color in segregated neighborhoods, segregated schools and racialized mass incarceration.

Transforming these broad structural conditions is what RP&E and the movements of which it has been a part has been about from the beginning.

Race, Poverty & the Environment was launched a year before the first national environmental justice summit in 1991 and from its humble origin as a photocopied newsletter became the journal of record for a movement. When Urban Habitat management eliminated funding for the journal in 2013, a group of employees, contractors, writers and editors began to organize and scheme for its revival. We are pleased to find a new home at the Movement Strategy Center (in our old building!)

In addition to fulfilling RP&E’s role documenting EJ and related movements, we identified a broader need for editorial collaboration and cross-fertilization among the many different constituencies and issue areas that the journal has connected over the years. We call this “Movements Making Media.”

In broad strokes, we envision reviving the founding model of RP&E as a co-published movement journal with multiple organizational co-sponsors. We aim to lift up a broad spectrum of movement voices to analyze conditions, reflect on experience, and shed light on our paths forward.

We are also re-launching Radio RP&E as Reimagine Radio, a monthly podcast available in iTunes. Edited transcripts from our podcast are included in this edition. This first “proof of concept” edition has been created using mostly volunteer labor and a distributed editorial model of contributing editors writing stories and soliciting related work from correspondents embedded in movement campaigns. A core production team has edited and designed the results into the new format you are reading (in print, online or in your ebook reader). We’re proud of this first harvest under collective management. Please subscribe, donate or join us using the form at the end of this issue.

Arise ye aspiring writers, editors, radio producers, photographers and web developers and join us in doing this work!


Jess Clarke is the project director of Reimagine! and was the editor of Race Poverty & the Environment from 2005-2013

* References are to authors’ last names and page number in the print edition.

Ecological Revolution

By Movement Generation

The central challenge of our times is the crisis of disconnection. Many of us see ourselves as apart from, rather than a part of the living world. We see ourselves as a collection of individuals, rather than a complex of living, interdependent relationships. It is this disconnection—of soul and spirit from soil and story—that drives the erosion of biological and cultural diversity; compromising our capacity to exist on planet Earth.

Social inequity is a form of ecological imbalance, and it inherently leads to ecological erosion. It is this inequity that allows human work to be concentrated, controlled and then wielded like chainsaw against the rest of the living world. The landscape of struggle, then, is the economy (the management of home) and our goal must be to remake economy in alignment with ecological regeneration, reverence for creation and social justice. We cannot effectively tackle ecological erosion without dismantling white supremacy, patriarchy and militarism. The ideology that seeks to dominate, subjugate, and enslave our earth is the same ideology that justifies mass incarceration, the criminalization of black communities, and the existence of a militarized police state. It is the same ideology that says women and their bodies exist primarily to serve the sexual desires of men.

To address the crisis of ecological erosion, we have to take on every single aspect of economic organization, from how we acquire resources and organize labor, to what we produce and why we produce it. The first rule of ecological restoration must be the liberation of our labor, language and lifeways (cultures) from the chains of the market and their restoration back into the web of life. Addressing this challenge also means healing from and transforming the cultural paradigm that portrays and treats black lives, indigenous communities and others as dispensable. We must liberate our imaginations from the cultural and cognitive concrete that has paved over both our memory and our vision. Only with this cultural shift, will the structural shifts that liberate labor, language and lifeways become possible.

Teetering on the Tipping Points

Failure to change the economic system will force the planetary ecosystem past multiple tipping points, beyond which core cycles that sustain life as we know it will become unstable. Collapse of ocean fisheries, massive degradation of topsoil, shortages in freshwater supplies for irrigation and drinking, are becoming more frequent and are the predictable consequence of an economy based on exploitation. As climate change leads to ever intensifying extreme weather and resource wars, even more of the systems upon which life depends will become unstable.

We are in the midst of the sixth mass species extinction experienced on planet Earth – unique in three ways: it stands to be the fastest, most complete and is the only one caused by the activity of a single species.

A critical dimension of this mass extinction is the eradication of cultural and linguistic diversity through the endless growth of the extractive economy – what Vandana Shiva calls “the monocultures of the mind.” At current rates of extinction, the planet stands to lose 90% of living languages within a generation – from 7,000 to 700. Indigenous peoples account for 80-90% of the world’s imperiled cultural and linguistic diversity—and it is often those very cultures that remain connected to the natural fabric and may contain the seeds for a sustainable path for the human species.

Extractive Economics

The destabilization of living systems has been an urgent crisis for hundreds of years. Colonialism, slavery, imperialism, and globalization have driven an economic assault on the integrated relationships, cultures and economies that indigenous, land-based, and subsistence peoples have had with the ecosystems they are a part of.

We have been alienated from land, food and water; and from our ability to control, direct and benefit from our own work. This has forced most of us to live and labor in ways that destroy and degrade the rest of the natural world. Therefore, to understand the ecological crisis we cannot simply look up at the atmosphere and count carbon. We must look down at the growth-at-all-costs economy. To solve the climate crisis and the broader ecological crisis we must replace it with a regenerative economy.

Governance of this degenerative economy facilitates extractivism in all its forms, from mining for calories and drilling for oil to forcefully removing human labor from right relationship with ecosystems, to systematically dismantling families using race-based discrimination. The very same borders that fragment ecosystems divide communities and separate families. The greatest beneficiaries of this extractive economy—call them the 1 percent for short—recognize that their economic system is in danger of collapse. But because their objective is unconstrained accumulation of wealth and power they are unwilling to move towards ecological regeneration.

While extractive economics and growth at all costs have set in motion the crisis, the solution is not, as some environmentalists have argued, for humans to have a smaller footprint. Quite the contrary, we must have twice as great an impact on the planet over the next hundred years as we have had over past 500, but towards very different ends. Because of human cognition and the opposable digit, we can perform diverse and redundant ecological functions. We can pollinate, compost, build soil, rip out concrete, tear down borders, undam rivers and free our peoples like no other living thing. We can accelerate, though our work, the restoration and regeneration of living systems – all the while repairing our relations with each other - if we engage in thoughtful, concerted action. We are actually the keystone species in this moment so we have to align our strategies with the healing powers of Mother Earth – not by ourselves, but in alliance with and honoring all other living things.

Rights of Nature

The assertion of new sets of ecological and economic rights is a first step in beginning this essential re-alignment. Living systems have rights and we as communities have the right and responsibility to uphold and defend those rights.

Local “Rights of Nature” ordinances can provide a framework for people to assert their claim to such basic rights as clean water, clean air, and the power to stop destructive development on the basis of the inherent rights of nature and of communities to self-govern.

In the United States, cities as large as Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania have passed Rights of Nature ordinances to reassert their sovereign rights to ban harmful activities such as hydraulic fracturing for natural gas. Shasta, California used a Rights of Nature strategy to confront Pacific Gas and Electric plans for “cloud seeding” to increase rainfall, and Santa Monica, California is currently pursuing a broad Rights of Nature ordinance that will provide the legal mandate to redesign their city towards ecological resilience.

On the world stage, Bolivia is often held up as the first country to enshrine ecological rights in its 2010 “Law of the Rights of Mother Earth.” But if Bolivia actually stood for the rights of nature enshrined in this law, the ramifications would be enormous. Private property would be subordinated to the right of a community to self-govern. Of course, such actions would be revolutionary. They would pit Bolivia, as a state and as a people, against the rest of the nation states, particularly the U.S. Empire. In fact, despite its recognition of the rights of mother earth and its bold international rhetoric on climate change, the Bolivian state continues its role in the global economy and enables the extraction of natural resources and the exploitation of labor within its borders.

Indigenous Autonomy

The assertion of new rights is being more successfully pursued without the power of a state in the Zapatista autonomous regions of Mexico.

Culturally, the Zapatista worldview and cosmology is rooted in indigenous traditions of connection to the land; a defense of the collective landholding system won in the Mexican revolution of the early 20th century; and a commitment to indigenous self-governance according to the “uses and customs” of the diverse peoples that live in Zapatista territory.

They have challenged the Mexican state through armed insurrection and have secured a degree of autonomy, but have not declared themselves a state. Their autonomous village system administers the communally owned lands and cooperatives. More broadly, the Zapatistas have resisted the land grabs and development schemes proposed in the “Plan Panama” promoted by the NAFTA combine.

The Zapatistas’ struggle has been, above all else, for territory. They want the simple right to work the land that they consider historically to be theirs. In this, their struggle has many parallels throughout the indigenous world.

While fighting for the Earth, the Zapatistas have never identified themselves, as “environmentalists.” Nor do they talk much, in their voluminous decade-and-a-half of communiqués, about “ecology” or “conservation.” And yet, as poet Gary Snyder once said, “The best thing you can do for the environment is to stay home.” As indigenous peasant farmers struggling for territorial autonomy, the Zapatistas’ struggle is precisely to “stay home.”


If it’s the right thing to do, we have every right to do it.”


 Occupying the Farm, the Gil Tract. Albany, California. Photo (cc) 2012

Occupying the Farm, the Gil Tract. Albany, California. Photo (cc) 2012

Economic Rights

The deeper problem of control of the land is at the root of capitalism, colonialism, and imperialism. Property inherently infringes upon freedom. Property represents the ability to create an enclosure; to restrict access or use or purpose. There are physical enclosures (fences, borders, property lines); financial enclosures (commodification of life, carbon markets, capital accumulation) and there are intellectual enclosures (intellectual property, internet search algorithms, etc.). The commons is exactly the opposite of an enclosure—it represents the preservation of shared use, rights, and access to the resources of the earth—and not just for humans.

Finance is currently organized to serve the ownership and accumulation of capital. If all peoples assert the right to the resources for a productive livelihood, then finance would have to be reorganized. Instead of paying interest and concentrating wealth in the hands of fewer and fewer owners, we would circulate capital into the commons so that it is a sustainable reflection of our collective wealth. Revolving community funds, for example, are an assertion of a new economic right, that when taken to scale and coordinated can challenge the existing interests of extractive finance.

Debt itself—as a form of control over future labor and future productive capacity of human beings and living systems—can be seen as a violation of our fundamental rights. Taken to its ultimate conclusion this reasoning could lead to a rejection of all debt service as theft, and lead to a refusal to pay the banks interest and the principal of the original loan—to challenge the very notion that private accumulation of wealth is wrong.

Up Against the State

There is no other way out of the ecological crisis. We either sit in the empire and watch the war happen someplace else, or we reorganize ourselves towards a revolution that puts us in direct conflict with state and corporate power. Because ultimately, that is the only way we’re going to ever assert any new rights.

And to win these clashes we will need to have developed our own economic basis. If we are still entirely dependent on the extractive economy, we will lack the capacity to move from passing resolutions to real revolution.

To transform this economy in a positive direction, we need to start at a very deep level.

The next revolution is going to be based on a vision of right relationship with each other and with the living world. It’s going to be based on the sacredness of our relationships—and that sacredness will be practiced through love in diverse ways that ultimately become the defining features of our identity.

For us, right now, our labor is organized through jobs and our identities are defined by our role in our job. However, if you ask people about their real identity, the vast majority will not name their job title as their primary identity. We identify in much more diverse ways: as parents, as queer, as artists, by our race, ethnicity or language. Through cooperative economics we will be able to embrace the diversity of roles we play in a community, the unique contributions of our labor and social identities that help us navigate the world.

When we say cooperative economics we are not simply talking about worker ownership. Cooperative economics needs to be implemented in the food system, in family life, in social organization.

The roles that will be needed to hold us through transition, the things that will matter the most, are actually the relational social roles: the healers, the mediators, the people who can hold space and facilitate social well-being in community. What has traditionally been thought of as women’s work and the role that women have played in societies as the holders of that—are going to be among the key roles of transition.

The question is: how do we spark this revolution?

If we only fight against what we don’t want, we will learn to love the fight and we will have nothing left but longing for our vision. Longing isn’t good enough. You don’t build a social movement around vision by talking about vision. We have to apply our labor towards directly meeting our needs. You build a social movement around vision by living it. You assert new ecological and economic rights by living those rights until you reach the limits of the system—and then break the rules that infringe upon that living vision. We must become ungovernable through our own loving, deeply democratic self-governance.

By building new centers of gravity in the economy based on resources acquired through regenerative practices and on labor organized through cooperation, we can build a broad movement with the common goals of creating social well-being and right relationship to each other and to home.


This article is adapted from Movement Generation Justice & Ecology Project’s ‘in progress’ book The Politics of Home.(


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New Majority Confronts Climate Crisis

By Jess Clarke

The 2014 climate assessment from the UN panel on climate change is the most dire ever issued.1 These climate impacts are hitting our communities now. California is in the grips of a multi-year drought—the worst since it became a state—that is already threatening water supplies, worsening air quality and beginning to drive up food prices.2 International climate policy has stalled. Symbolic agreements, such as the one the Obama administration made with the Chinese leadership in November 2014, have few if any enforceable limits. And while the federal EPA has only just begun rulemaking to limit carbon emissions, the decades-long struggle of California’s environmental justice communities to shape a climate policy that inserts equity into the climate conversation is a notable bright spot.

In the world, the US, and in California, climate change is hitting low-income people and communities of color first and hardest.3 But in California, the combined organizing and electoral power of Latinos, Asians, and African Americans has repeatedly tipped the balance in state and local elections to bring a more liberal if not yet progressive generation of political leadership onto the scene,4 and to push consideration of environmental justice into the calculations of state policy makers. This opportunity is still nascent. Policy victories require multi-year campaigns with multiple coalition participants. They also require the ability to challenge undemocratic planning processes with a political program based on input from impacted communities.

Results from California’s redistricting as well as the newly enforced California Voting Rights Act (which enables fair representation of communities of color at the local level) demonstrate that the raw electoral power of communities of color and low-income people is on the upswing.5 The campaign against the Dirty Energy Proposition 23 demonstrated that a political alliance of communities of color can engage with state-wide mainstream and environmental groups to defend progressive environmental policy. (See Sidebar on Proposition 23.) The victory in creating a Greenhouse Gas Reduction Fund (SB 535) with specific percentage targets for impacted communities shows that organizing can shape public policy in a positive and not just a defensive manner. (See article by Eric Arnold in RP&E  Vol. 20-1 "Can't See the Forest... Or the Trees.")

Similarly, the Municipal Energy and Climate Action Plans (ECAP), which set policies on how cities can engage in GHG emissions reductions and energy conservation, are another arena for incorporating environmental justice principles. (They are also a potential basis by which GHC reduction funds will be directed.) Since San Francisco first enacted its plan in 2004, other cities across California have done likewise. In Oakland, the community-based Climate Action Coalition (OCAC) engaged in a two-year campaign to institute an 18-point program now in place.6

Across the state there are hundreds of small-scale projects that are already moving ahead with climate resilience policies and practices that are equity-driven efforts from the ground up. Communities are finding intervention points in classic land-use battles such as the work of the Environmental Health Coalition in San Diego’s Barrio Logan.7 Transit organizing projects in Los Angeles8 and the San Francisco Bay Area9 are fusing concerns about climate with transit access organizing to force transit authorities to provide better service to low-income communities—and reduce carbon and other pollution. Urban greening projects, such as Urban Tilth in Richmond10 and Urban Releaf in Oakland,11 and the statewide coalition California Environmental Justice Alliance12 are building greener cities, strengthening community, and advancing policy positions on carbon reduction and sustainable agriculture.

What works? What doesn’t?

The most obvious defect in California’s climate policy is that the progressive thrust of legislation and climate planning achieved through community mobilization and democratic process has been channeled into unaccountable forums, such as the Air Resources Board and the Metropolitan Transportation Commission, where neither democratic process nor policy expertise determine outcomes. Vested interests in polluting industries, corporate lobbyists, and politicians who serve them often dominate such decision-making entities.

Another lesson learned is that even in defeat, policy proposals that are debated and contested in democratic or popular political forums, create opportunities for constituent education, alliance-building with other constituencies and regions, a public record of the deliberations, and a better jumping off point for the next round. Therefore, it’s important for environmental justice advocates to create a terrain of contention where democratic process can carry the day. While behind-the-scenes lobbying and relationships with politicians and policy-makers in the environmental and administrative agencies are a necessary ingredient for moving policy, they are simply not enough by themselves. It’s worth looking back at the origins of current policy to better understand what we can win and how we can win it.

Long-term Environmental Justice Organizing Shapes Playing Field

Beginning in the late 1980s, and throughout the 1990s, Environmental Justice organizers were engaging communities to fight pollution and toxic contamination. Kettleman City—still a site of contention between waste disposal companies and the community—was at the heart of a 1988 struggle that characterized organizing efforts of the time. The predominantly Latino residents prevented from participating in public hearings by government actions, organized a political campaign based on civil rights principles that halted the siting of that particular incinerator.13

Numerous other battles in Los Angeles, Oakland, and the Central Valley resulted in the first California State environmental justice legislation. In 1999, Governor Gray Davis signed SB 115 making California the first state in the nation to codify a definition of “environmental justice.” In the following years a number of related measures created state oversight boards for environmental justice in numerous departments.

As Manuel Pastor, Director of the Center for Justice, Tolerance and Community observed at the time, 14 it was often Latino politicians responding to their constituencies—key swing districts in California state politics—that moved environmental justice principles into state law. As climate change has become ever more important in California, it’s often been pressure from communities of color that ha pushed the state to the national forefront on climate mitigation and adaptation legislation.

Cities Break National Climate Policy Paralysis

In 2005, over 50 mayors from cities, such as London, Rio de Janeiro, Tehran, Capetown, Sydney, and Shanghai came to San Francisco to sign the Urban Environmental Accords, a city-to-city compact to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.15 The Accords addressed seven environmental areas common to all large cities: water, energy, waste, urban design, transportation, urban nature, and environmental health.16 Parin Shah, a climate activist then working to implement the Accords,17 hailed the way that direct action by cities made it more likely that climate policy would take the needs of environmental justice communities into account. Bay Area environmental justice groups coordinated by the Ella Baker Center organized to create the first Social Equity Track at the UN World Environment Day and staged a dozen events during the three-day Accords conference to ensure that the voices of people of color were heard.18

Origins of AB32

Pro-environmental policy has always played well with the California electorate and Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger took the occasion of the Accords conference to sign an executive order that set non-binding statewide greenhouse gas emissions targets and ordered state agencies to begin planning toward those ends.19 But Schwarzenegger’s preferred methodology was “cap-and-trade.”

From the start, advocates on the ground and within the legislature knew that cap-and-trade would allow incumbent polluters to keep their facilities dirty while fenceline communities suffocated in the toxic effluents of power plants, refineries, industrial agriculture, and automobile exhaust. Direct regulations of carbon pollution or an actual carbon tax were both considered by many to be more effective ways of improving health and safety for impacted communities. Consequently, Governor Schwarzenegger lost his bid to force “market-based mechanisms” into the original AB32 legislation in 2006. Cap-and-trade policies were mandated to be considered only after “early action” measures—primarily direct regulation of carbon pollution—had been implemented.

Another key accomplishment of the lobbying by environmental justice groups was the explicit language in the law requiring the California Air Resources Board (ARB) to “ensure that activities undertaken to comply with the regulations do not disproportionately impact low-income communities and that these communities also benefit from statewide efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.”20 The legislation has numerous sections directing the executive branch to take environmental justice communities into account. The body responsible for monitoring the impacts is the Environmental Justice Advisory Committee (EJAC).21

California’s 21st century climate policy has seen a dynamic interplay between mainstream political leaders making ambitious and publicly popular promises—often with no implementation plan in sight—and environmental justice organizations struggling to include the interests of low-income people and communities of color in actionable policy language. True to pattern, on the eve of the 2006 election, Governor Schwarzenegger began undermining AB32 with an executive order pushing the state toward implementation of his original cap-and-trade agenda.22 In 2007, he fired ARB Chair Robert Sawyer who wanted to aggressively implement early action regulations to bring down emissions quickly. ARB Executive Officer Catherine Witherspoon resigned in protest.

Angela Johnson-Meszaros, co-chair of the EJAC, reportedly said that ARB was already ignoring their recommendations “not just for climate change, but for co-pollutants.” 23 (Co-pollution is the term for the emission of both toxic chemicals and carbon. Reducing those emissions is central to environmental protection of low-income communities, where the sources are usually located.)

The Governor’s order directing Executive Branch agencies to prioritize cap-and-trade and the firing of the ARB chair successfully forced cap-and-trade to the top of the agenda.24 Repeated expert testimony that called cap-and-trade an untested methodology for controlling carbon emissions, as well as Europe’s failure in implementing the model were ignored.25 Scores of policy recommendations made by the legislatively mandated EJAC went unimplemented. Unfortunately, the legislature provided practically no funds for the work of the EJAC and while the members had a clear grasp of the intricacies of climate policy, they lacked the leverage to alter the cap-and-trade program included in the draft scoping plan proposed by ARB.26

Several of the organizations represented on the EJAC (including the Center on Race Poverty and the Environment and Communities for a Better Environment) sued to block implementation of the cap-and-trade portion of the reduction and succeeded briefly because the plan violated the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA).27 Unfortunately, the ruling addressed only the procedures followed, not the merits of the program and ARB was able to proceed with the cap-and-trade program after formally considering and rejecting the legally required alternative plan.

Greenhouse Gas Reduction Revenues Could Fund Climate Action

Despite losing, the lawsuit against ARB provided significant media visibility for the environmental justice critique of cap-and-trade. Across the state, people were educated about the fact that carbon and toxic pollution were co-pollutants and that cap-and-trade permits allow emissions to continue at refineries, power plants, and other sources situated in low-income communities. Conversation around the lawsuit also helped build a persuasive argument that low income and communities of color need to be included in shaping policy on how mitigation efforts will impact them.

Community organizations that had tried and failed to establish an ambitious carbon trust fund (SB31) in 2009 28 came back to the legislature with a new plan and in 2012, two Green House Gas Reduction Fund measures (AB1532 and SB 535) were passed and signed by Governor Jerry Brown. Organizations both for and against cap-and-trade had reunited to support directing 25 percent of the proceeds from the carbon permit auctions towards improving conditions in impacted communities.29

After a decade of struggle, there is now in place a revenue stream specifically targeted at funding local and regional efforts to reduce GHG emissions and climate change impacts. In FY 2013-14, auctions yielded over $500 million in revenues and ARB estimates that within a few years the amount of money flowing through this channel will be substantial depending on market conditions. Revenues could rise to $1.5 billion in FY 2014-15 and to $2.4 billion in 2015-17.30

Gaining access to that money, however, is an on-going battle with the state as well as with regional and local agencies that make allocation decisions. In the first year, Brown blocked any spending on the required targets and used the money to fill the budget deficit in the general fund. But after the campaign to tax millionaires let Brown raise taxes sufficient to close the deficit in 2014, the Legislature and Governor Brown agreed on the first release Greenhouse Gas Reduction Funds.31

While the bulk of the fund went towards Brown’s own priorities—such as high speed rail—approximately $230 million (about 26 per cent) was allocated to aid environmental justice communities, including $75 million for weatherizing low-income homes, $25 million for transit and intercity rail networks in poor communities.32 and $130 million towards the Strategic Growth Council to fund local planning efforts across the state. According to an analysis by William Fulton in the California Development and Planning Report, “Local governments and their nonprofit partners are focusing on implementation of previous plans—especially climate action plans.” 33 If this prediction bears out, local governments should be more receptive than ever to partnering with grassroots organizations to promote climate resilience work developed with an equity framework. (See sidebar on SB375.)

Across the state, communities are now mobilizing to move this money, the product of a decade long fight by environmental justice advocates, toward real benefits for low-income people and communities of color. Though not much more than spillover funds from the vast resources controlled by the fossil fuel industry, they still represent an important win for our communities and we need to continue the fight even though it be a generations-long process.

In assessing the power of California’s communities of color in stopping Prop 23, Catherine Lerza34 characterizes people of color voters as “a climate firewall” that blocked the attempt by the fossil fuel industries to shut down AB32. Indeed, low-income people and communities of color continue to be our best hope for preventing the firestorm of extreme weather and extreme right political positions that dominate the national political and environmental landscape. Accepting the centrality of community-based leadership and decision-making in channeling climate adaptation and mitigation investments is also the best method of ensuring that the proceeds produce real community resilience. n


Jess Clarke is the project director of Reimagine! and was the editor of Race Poverty & the Environment from 2005-2013. This article is based on a policy briefing paper, “California’s New Majority Confronts Climate Crisis,” produced for the Movement Strategy Center. The original briefing is available at



Communities of Color Defeat Prop 23 with “Climate Firewall”

Just as the major provisions of AB32 were to take effect, two oil companies financed a campaign—the Dirty Energy Prop 23—to suspend implementation of the law until unemployment dropped below 5 percent, cloaking their argument in the classic “jobs vs. environment” format.

Despite its drawbacks, AB32 was California’s strongest piece of pro-environment legislation in a generation and clearly a leader in the nation’s climate policy. While the protection of impacted communities had been a struggle at each stage of implementation, AB32 was still considered a major step in working toward the environmental health of our communities. While mainstream environmentalists and business groups quickly formed a well-funded coalition to defeat the measure, some environmental justice created their own organization: Communities United Against the Dirty Energy Proposition. This statewide coalition, separate from but in collaboration with the mainstream grouping, laid the groundwork for future collective action and advocacy. It enabled a statewide conversation about the equity of environmental priorities and culture-specific organizing in impacted communities, and the creation of a strong state-wide network with equity concerns at its heart. In 2010, the measure was defeated by a clear majority 60 percent vote.35

Catherine Lerza, analyzing the campaign and the results in a post-election review, “A Perfect Storm,” published by the Funders Network for Transforming the Global Economy (FNTG),36 draws a number of important demographic and policy conclusions about the leadership role that communities of color can and are playing in California’s environmental policy battles.

From “A Perfect Storm”
by Catherine Lerza

“In framing messages about Prop 23, Communities United focused on two things: public health, particularly air pollution and respiratory diseases that are epidemic in CA’s low income communities of color, and the jobs and economic opportunity that will flow from an investment in a clean, sustainable economy.”

“In 2011, members of the California Environmental Justice Alliance (CEJA), partnering with the mainstream environmental community, played a key role in winning the nation’s most aggressive renewable energy standards, which increased California’s mandate for renewable energy from 20 percent to 33 percent by 2020. EJ organizations not only helped make the bill’s passage possible by securing three critical committee votes, but also added important components to the bill, including codifying into the law the “Garamendi Principles” (a set of principles aimed at reducing the negative environmental impacts of proposed new energy transmission infrastructure) and a commitment to distributive generation via local renewable energy projects.”Communities of color do not need to be “educated” about environmental and climate issues. They need to be recognized as environmental and climate activists and, most important, as leaders. Funding for organizations led by and rooted in communities of color should not be an “add on,” but should instead be a driver of strategy and mission for foundations and donors concerned about climate change.”

Download the full report at:




San Francisco Grassroots Participate in SB375 Planning

Equity, Environment and Jobs

One major channel for the funds will be regional transportation planning organizations mandated to reduce carbon emissions by another California state climate policy, the Sustainable Communities and Climate Protection Act, commonly referred to as SB375. This legislation supports the State’s climate action goals to reduce greenhouse gas emissions through coordinated transportation and land-use planning to create more sustainable communities.37

These planning agencies are critical sites for decision-making on a host of other issues, such as transportation access to jobs and economic opportunities and neighborhood streetscaping improvements. Broad-based community intervention in the San Francisco Bay Area plan attempted to ensure that benefits and impacts of such development would be shared by all communities. The alternative plan proposed by community forces demonstrated that by addressing the needs of low-income communities the plan could better serve the entire Bay area, both in terms of mitigating carbon emissions and improving health outcomes.

Richard A. Marcantonio and Alex Karner detail the course of one battle in their case study of the San Francisco Bay Area planning process, “One Bay Area”.38 Anticipating the possible opening SB375 could create for local organizations, in 2010, community groups across the nine-county San Francisco Bay region came together to create a regional policy and investment platform that would put the needs of disadvantaged communities first. The coalition of over 40 organizations that emerged—The 6 Wins Network—has been engaged ever since in shaping planning priorities.

Public Advocates, a key member of the 6 Wins Network, summarizes its important victories:

1. Launching the first ever community-built, equity-driven, alternative regional plan. Developed in 2011, the Equity, Environment and Jobs (EEJ) Scenario focuses on creating a more healthy, prosperous, and sustainable future for Bay Area residents of all races and incomes.

2. Showing that equity is better for everyone. In July 2012, 6 Wins succeeded in pushing MTC and ABAG to study the benefits of the EEJ scenario in their Environmental Impact Report (EIR) of the Plan. The April 2013 EIR concluded that the EEJ out-performed the Draft Plan and three other alternatives. In fact, MTC and ABAG called it the “environmentally superior alternative,” because the numbers show that the EEJ results in fewer greenhouse gas emissions and air pollutants; a broader distribution of affordable housing; $8 billion more to increase transit service levels; more opportunities for walking and biking; fewer injuries and fatalities from traffic accidents; the fewest renters priced out of their neighborhoods; and the lowest combined housing and transportation costs for low-income households.

3. Linking grassroots groups, academics, policy and legal advocates. We know that we’re stronger when we bring each of our unique skills to the table and work collectively across issue areas. The 6 Wins has also built bridges to groups that focus on environment, public health, good government and business. By May, 2013, more than 40 groups, including the American Lung Association, the League of Women Voters of the Bay Area, and the Natural Resources Defense Council, had joined 6 Wins in calling on MTC and ABAG to incorporate key elements of the EEJ in the final plan. n






2 Severe Drought Has U.S. West Fearing Worst Adam Nagourney and Ian Lovett, The New York Times, February 1, 2014

3 “Getting Ready for Change: Green Economics and Climate Justice.” B. Jesse Clarke, RP&E Journal, Vol.13, No.1. 2006. (

4 Public Policy Institute of California (PPIC) Statewide Surveys 2008-2012 ( and A Perfect Storm, Catherine Lerza, (

5 “Voting Rights are Local Rights.” Gil Cedillo, RP&E Journal, Vol.18. No.2. 2011. (

6 Oakland Coalition Charts New Course on Climate Strategy, Al Weinrub, Race Poverty & the Environment, Volume 16 #2, 2009


8 LA Bus Riders’ Union Rolls Over Transit Racism By Geoff Ray Vol. 12 No. 1, 2001;

9 TJ Youth Score Win for Free MUNI Passes By Rene Ciria-Cruz




13 California Environmental Protection Agency Environmental Justice Program Update February 2014. (

14 Environmental Justice: Reflections from the United States, Manuel Pastor ( Political Economy Research Institute)

15 “Mayors gather for climate change summit.” Associated Press, May 31, 2005. (

16 “Mayors Sign Historic Urban Environmental Accords.” Department of the Environment, City and County of San Francisco, June 5, 2005. (

17 Parin Shah on Urban Environmental Accords (transcript of audio interview). ( Shah was director of the Urban Accords Institute. He now works at APEN.

18 “Reclaim the Future: Striving for Restorative, Economic and Environmental Justice in Oakland.” Joshua Abraham, Left Turn Magazine.

March 01, 2006. (

19 Executive Order S-3-05 by the Governor of the State of California. Signed June 1, 2005. (

20 Assessing the Effects of AB 32 Climate Change Mitigation Programs in Environmental Justice Communities. ( ings/102213/tracking-indicators.pdf )


22 Executive Order S-17-06. Office of the Governor of the State of California. October 16, 2006. ( )

23 “Gov. Schwarzenegger’s Global Warming Act Called Hot Air.” Paul Rosenberg, Consumer Watchdog. July 27, 2007. (http://consumerwatchdog. org/story/gov-schwarzeneggers-global-warming-act-called-hot-air)

24 Wheeler, Stephen M. “California’s Climate Change Planning: Policy Innovation and Structural Hurdles.” 2009. In Davoudi, Simin, Jenny Crawford and Abid Mehmood, eds., Planning for Climate Change: Strategies for Mitigation and Adaptation. London: Earthscan. (http://its.

25 “Equitable Alternatives to AB 32’s Cap-and-Trade Program,” Recorded remarks of Adrienne Bloch, Senior Staff Attorney, Communities for a Better Environment. (

26 Recommendations and Comments of the Environmental Justice Advisory Committee. Proposed Scoping Plan. October 1, 2008. (http://arb. )


28 “A Trust Fund for California’s Poor Communities.” Evelyn Marcelina Rangel-Medina, RP&E Journal, Vol.16, No.2. 2009. (reimaginerpe. org/node/4921)

29 “California Cap-and-Trade.” Center for Climate and Energy Solutions. January 2014. ( nia-cap-trade)

30 “Politics of Carbon Auction Proceeds – The Battle Ahead.” Four Twenty Seven Climate Solutions. ( auction-proceeds-battle-ahead/)

31 AB-1532 California Global Warming Solutions Act of 2006: Greenhouse Gas Reduction Fund. (2011-2012) (

32 Calif. Earmarks a Quarter of Its Cap-and-Trade Riches for Environmental Justice

This year, $230 million from the Greenhouse Gas Reduction Fund will go to programs for low-income and minority people.

33 Will SGC money pay for planning or implementation? By William Fulton,

34 Perfect Storm” published by the Funders Network for Transforming the Global Economy (FNTG ). (;

35 Suspend Air Pollution Control Law (AB 23). Election Results by County, California Secretary of State. ( general/maps/prop-23.htm)

36 A Perfect Storm” published by the Funders Network for Transforming the Global Economy (FNTG ).


38 Disadvantaged Communities Teach Regional Planners a Lesson in Equitable and Sustainable Development, by Richard A. Marcantonio and Alex Karner, Poverty & Race, Vol. 23, No. 1


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Moving the Money

CalEnviroScreen Debate Signals New Focus on Environmental Justice in State Policy
By Amy Vanderwarker

In 2014, there was a rare occurrence in California: a new revenue stream of hundreds of millions of dollars—$872 million, to be exact, with more anticipated in future years — being funneled to state agencies through the newly implemented cap-and-trade program to curb greenhouse gas emissions.

On October 31, 2014, the California Environmental Protection Agency announced that, as expected, it will use the statewide cumulative impact screening tool, CalEnviroScreen2.0, to define “disadvantaged communities” for the purposes of distributing climate change funding. The top 25 percent of communities identified by this tool will be considered “disadvantaged” for the purposes of the set-aside within the Greenhouse Gas Reduction Fund.  Suddenly, how “disadvantaged community” is defined took on a lot more importance to a lot more people than it ever has in the past.

CalEnviroScreen2.0 assesses what areas in California are most heavily impacted by 19 indicators of pollution burden, socioeconomic vulnerabilities, and public health risk factors. The tool ranks the roughly 8,000 census tracts throughout the state according to how many of these indicators are present and at what levels, and compiles it all into an online, interactive map. California Environmental Justice Alliance (CEJA) has been working on the development of CalEnviroScreen for several years now, but for many groups it has been a sharp learning curve to understand how it works and why we need it.

Defining “Disadvantaged”
 What we saw over the course of the last year—both in spring negotiations over the budget and then again during the summer when the state rolled out a public process to develop guidelines for distributing the climate revenues—has been a statewide fight over how to best define, essentially, environmental justice communities.
The conversation has been messy, but important.

We saw regions pitted against regions, each area trying to get the “most” money possible by ensuring the definition of disadvantaged communities contained as many census tracts in their area as possible. In the Central Valley and Los Angeles, there are many census tracts that show up on CalEnviroScreen2.0’s top 25 percent. In the Bay Area, there are a lot less, so local agencies and legislators from the Bay Area were pushing to throw out use of CalEnviroScreen and undermine the science behind it.

Meanwhile, Central Valley legislators in particular got incensed at the perceived “grab” of their potential resources, prompting such memorable quotes as: “The State made a promise to invest in the long-term health of our most disadvantaged communities, but at the last minute, a cash grab from the wealthiest areas of the state is letting politics trump that promise,” from Assemblymember Adam Gray.

“While coastal communities worry about freeing whales, we are worried about underweight births and childhood asthma,” declared Assemblymember Kristin Olsen, both reported in a June 2014 Turlock Journal article.

It is one thing for our legislators and local agencies to fight one another, but it takes a turn for the worse when community groups get pulled into the mix. As many groups became concerned that the communities where they work would not be eligible for funding, and local agencies, such as the Bay Area Air Quality Management District tried to organize groups to oppose CalEnviroScreen2.0, it started to look like a community vs community fight for funding, which never helps our movement.

25 Percent
The irony is that a full three-quarters of the climate revenues are available to any project that meets the guidelines in any part of the state. The funding process is competitive. Even if you live in a community that qualifies for the 25 percent set-aside, you still must compete with other applications across the state. There is no guaranteed  funding.The big picture: a statewide perspective to ensure environmental justice communities are accurately identified.

For CEJA, the bottom line has always been: Are the communities that we know to be “environmental justice” communities—criss-crossed by freeways, covered in a patchwork of factories, refineries and warehouses, saddled with high poverty and chronic unemployment—are these areas identified by CalEnviroScreen2.0? The question should NOT be: will my region get as much money as possible through this definition?
And the answer to CEJA’s question, unfortunately, is not 100 percent “Yes.” There are places that have long, rich histories of documenting and organizing against environmental injustices that are left out, such as Bayview-Hunters Point in San Francisco and Mecca in the Coachella Valley.

But as we have made the case many times over, CalEnviroScreen is an important step in the right direction. We need to identify areas that are most impacted and target these areas for statewide resources, investments and pollution reduction efforts. CalEnviroScreen gives decision-makers a clear, credible scientific methodology to do so.

In our five years of working CalEnviroScreen, we have also seen a commitment from CalEPA to continue improving the tool. Just recently, they have been working to address the complicated issues of gathering accurate data on pollution along the border. We will continue our work to ensure all environmental justice communities in California are identified by future versions of CalEnviroScreen.

Debate Reflects Progress
It has been exciting to see many more people and groups engaged in what CEJA considers one of the most important statewide conversations on environmental justice issues: How do we define overburdened areas accurately? More broadly, the 2014 CalEnviroScreen fight highlights a major shift in statewide policy around environmental justice issues. More and more, state policies are creating explicit commitments to the state’s most vulnerable areas, using the term “disadvantaged communities.” To the best of our knowledge, this term first showed up in state statute back in 2009 in an effort to target regional water planning money to communities most in need (SB626, Eng).

While we may not love the term (or even worse, its acronym: “DAC”) because it is, in essence, a sanitized reference to the low-income communities and communities of color where CEJA, our members, and our allies have been working for years, the growing prevalence of the idea in policy signals positive movement towards environmental justice on a statewide level.

Here are a few examples of where the concept is being considered to help ensure EJ communities are included in statewide policy:

  • The newly created “Green Tariff Shared Renewables” program (SB43, Wolk) requires a carve-out of new solar megawatts to be located directly in “disadvantaged communities”[1]
  • The big renewable program extension and electricity rate reform bill of 2013, AB 327, requires the California Public Utility Commission to ensure there are programs that benefit “disadvantaged communities” within the big utilities.[2]
  • The Active Transportation Program at the California Department of Transportation, which funds bike and pedestrian infrastructure projects among other things, requires a minimum of 25 percent funding for disadvantaged communities, thanks to the hard work of many allies.[3]
  • This year, the negotiated water bond contains dedicated drinking water and technical assistance funding for “disadvantaged communities” (though a different definition is used), again thanks to the hard work of our allies in the water world.[4]

We are optimistic that the overall trend of including our communities—whether you call them disadvantaged communities, overburdened communities, or environmental justice communities—in state funding decisions and other policies will ultimately lead to the biggest win of all: improved health and environmental conditions in communities most highly impacted by pollution and climate change across the state.

Amy Vanderwarker is co-coordinator of the California Environmental Justice Alliance (CEJA)  whose member organizations are: Asian Pacific Environmental Network,  Communities for a Better Environment, Center for Community Action and Environmental Justice,  Center on Race, Poverty, and the Environment, Environmental Health Coalition, and People Organizing to Demand Environmental and Economic Rights (PODER).

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Can’t See the Trees… or the Forest

Why Oakland Can’t Afford to Keep Ignoring Urban Forestry

By Eric K. Arnold

Ten a.m. on a spring day in March and the sun was already blazing with mid-day intensity as a circle of people gathered at Wo’se Church of the African Way/Ile Omode charter school—a center of spirituality and learning for the East Oakland community—for a tree planting ceremony. Greg Hodge, a former Oakland school board president and father of nationally-known poet and playwright Chinaka Hodge, led the impromptu congregation, which included local residents, volunteers, and tree stewards from the nonprofit urban forestry organization Urban Releaf.

The community had requested the tree plantings after a daytime shooting in front of the school grounds, which frazzled nerves and increased concerns about public safety. Young African American girls helped plant several trees in the schoolyard; then volunteers fanned out along the surrounding streets, picking up trash dumped in front of an AT&T substation, and digging holes for the tree stewards to plant in. Almost immediately after the first trees went into the ground, the mood on the streets seemed to lighten and become less dangerous. Residents cruising around the hood in muscle cars ceased mean-mugging pedestrians. Older folks came out on their front lawns to watch the proceedings.

All told, about 30 trees were planted that day, which is significant for a neighborhood whose sidewalks were almost bare of vegetation, but just a drop in the bucket for rebuilding Oakland’s overall tree canopy.

Despite its claim of being a “sustainable city,” Oakland has largely ignored urban forestry—a proven solution to both urban blight and greenhouse gas reduction—even when state funding for programs, such as tree planting, has increased. The claim is not entirely without grounds: Oakland was among the five U.S. cities recently selected to receive funding for a “Chief  Resilience Officer” from the Rockefeller Foundation; it’s home to a number of green businesses (e.g. solar installer Sungevity) and green NGOs (e.g. Bay Localize) and it was the launching pad for Van Jones’ infamous green jobs campaign.

But if the green revolution has truly taken seed in Oakland, evidence of it is hard to find in the city’s flatlands where more than half the population actually lives.

Pollution and Poverty: The Problem by the Numbers
To get a good sense of the scope of the problem, see California’s new pollution mapping tool, commonly referred to as CalEnviroScreen. Using pollution, poverty, and other socioeconomic factors, the database creates scores for each of the state’s 8,000 census tracts and presents them in publicly accessible color-coded maps. (See sidebar, next page.) On Google Earth’s satellite map, which can be overlaid on the EnviroScreen maps, the census tracts of the East Bay are revealed in three-dimensional images showing city streets as they actually appear. A close examination reveals an interesting detail: the clear border between San Leandro and Oakland. The demarcation point, however, is not any sort of landmark, but East 14th Street, which runs through both cities. On the San Leandro side, east of 109th Ave., bushy, adult trees line the sidewalks next to grassy parks. On the Oakland side, East 14th becomes International Blvd., which generally has no more than one or two trees per block.

International Blvd also marks the separation between the hills (where middle class and wealthy people live) and the flatlands (where the residents are predominantly low-income and people of color). On the EnviroScreen map, the closer you get to the hills, the greener the map becomes; whereas, below International Blvd., the colors range from orange (indicating a region within the top 20 percent of environmental pollution in the state) to red (within the top 10 percent). The entire length of International Blvd. is within an orange zone, indicating extremely poor air quality. This environmental hotspot, which extends throughout East Oakland’s flatlands to the estuary and includes the Oakland International Airport, is home to a predominantly ethnic population of approximately 140,000 people, or more than one-third of Oakland residents.

If you include areas off the International Blvd. corridor but still within the orange zone, the affected population is nearly 150,000. Add West and North Oakland’s EnviroScreen hotspots and an additional 27,000 people come into the high-to-severe risk zones, and 23,000 into the moderate-to-high risk zones. In other words, almost half of Oakland’s population lives in environmental hotspots. (See “Hotspots” sidebar on previous page.)

The Urban Heat Effect
East Oakland’s flatland communities are “disproportionately burdened by diesel pollution and have some of the highest cancer risks in the Bay Area,” noted Communities For a Better Environment in a 2010 study on diesel truck exhaust.[1] The lack of tree canopy exacerbates these risks, subjecting residents to greenhouse gas emissions and making them more vulnerable to heat risk-related land cover (HRRLC), also known as the urban heat island effect. A heat island is an urban area where surface infrastructure, such as concrete and roofing, stores and reflects heat, resulting in higher temperatures—as much as 20°F—than rural areas.

According to a 2013 report published in Environmental Health Perspectives, “Impervious surfaces, such as asphalt and concrete, contribute to urban heat islands and surface temperatures via their high heat capacity, thermal conductivity, and often low reflectance of solar radiation.”[2] The report goes on to note that one in five natural hazard deaths nationwide are due to HRRLC, which disproportionately impacts non-whites, and points out that “because of climate change, many cities are expected to become warmer,” as urban population centers grow denser.

The urban heat island effect is at its worst in the summer when overall energy demand increases, causing elevated levels of sulfur dioxide, nitrogen oxides, particulate matter, carbon monoxide, ground-level ozone, acid rain, and carbon dioxide. It can lead to negative health impacts, including respiratory problems, exhaustion, and heat stroke. Flatlands, such as East Oakland’s, are particularly susceptible to heat island impacts, which include “increased energy consumption; elevated emissions of air pollutants and greenhouse gases; compromised human health and comfort; and impaired water quality,” according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

For flatland residents, the combination of HRRLC and carbon emissions from vehicle traffic is a double whammy, adding to their existing problems of highest rates of crime and the lowest levels of income. But there’s a simple way to at least mitigate HRRLC: increase the tree canopy in urban areas.  

As the EHP study notes, “urban trees provide several environmental amenities,” ranging from shade on hot days, to reductions in wastewater and air and noise pollution. Urban trees also have positive mental and physical health benefits resulting in lower mortality rates and better pregnancy outcomes. Since minorities in the United States tend to live in areas with sparse tree canopies, planting urban trees could significantly reduce the disproportionate environmental health impacts these demographics suffer.

Environmental experts note that adding tree canopy to flatland areas is a preferred method of carbon sequestration. And California’s Air Resources Board, which monitors airborne pollutants, has identified urban forestry as one of five priority areas for greenhouse gas reduction.

SB535 Provides Funds for Urban Forestry
Under California’s groundbreaking 2006 environmental legislation, AB32, statewide standards for greenhouse gas reduction are now mandated by law. Further modifications stipulate that a portion of the cap-and-trade funds collected under AB32 be directed at disadvantaged communities, i.e. residents of low-income, high-pollution areas, also known as environmental justice communities (SB535); and that cities themselves be responsible for meeting the state’s mandated climate goals (SB375).

Given that much of Oakland’s flatlands are within the top 20th percentile of CalEnviroScreen’s pollution scores, one might think that mitigation would be a top municipal priority.

According to the city’s Department of Public Works, Oakland’s current tree canopy stands at just 12–15 percent—far below the 40 percent recommended by forestry experts—who estimate that between 750,000 and one million trees need to be planted to bring the city into compliance with statewide climate action goals. “Oaktown” could surely benefit from an urban tree-planting initiative, similar to the ones in Denver, Los Angeles, and other cities.

The city of Oakland, however, has been indifferent to urban forestry. The city’s Tree Services department doesn’t plant trees anymore and also refuses to contract local nonprofit groups to do the work. Assessing the needs of individual census tracts is impossible without an up-to-date tree inventory but Oakland’s last commissioned study was in 2006. California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection (CAL FIRE) officials say that they gave the city $200,000 to update its tree inventory a couple of years ago, but the work was never done.

Urban forestry has received far less attention from environmental advocates, compared to transit-oriented development and renewable energy. However, the reordering of the state’s climate change agenda under SB535, which reserves 25 percent of the state’s Greenhouse Gas Reduction Fund (GHGRF) for areas with the highest EnviroScreen scores, is starting to shift some of those priorities. Of the $872 million in the GHGRF’s budget for this year, $225 million has been earmarked for environmental justice communities. According to CAL FIRE, the allocation for urban forestry is $15.7 million for FY 2014-15, projected at $30 million for FY 2015-16, and expected to increase significantly in years to come.

In a move that has angered some urban and suburban forestry advocates, CAL FIRE announced that its entire allocation of GHGRF funds for FY 2014-15 would be directed at environmental justice communities with overall EnviroScreen scores of 75 percent or higher. Statewide, approximately 2000 of California’s 8000 census tracts fall in that category—25 of them in Oakland—representing most of the city’s flatland areas.
The news of CAL FIRE’s allotment to inner-city communities didn’t sit well with Gordon Piper, an Oakland-based environmentalist who chairs the Oakland Landscape Committee, an Oakland hills tree-planting and park maintenance group. Needless to say, Oakland hills communities have lower pollution, greater wealth, more white residents and EnviroScreen scores in the 6-20 range, hence would not be eligible for funds earmarked for disadvantaged communities.

In a letter directed at dozens of members of the forestry and environmental community, Piper (whose wife served as outgoing Mayor Jean Quan’s chief of staff) accused CAL FIRE of violating Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and California’s own Unruh Civil Rights law. In effect, Piper claims that the state’s mandate to benefit the top tier environmental justice communities amounted to racial discrimination against communities outside of the EnviroScreen threshold.

“This is a complex issue,” he wrote in a subsequent e-mail. “The 100 percent preference set forth by CAL FIRE for disadvantaged community project funding set forth in this Greenhouse Gas Reduction Fund Grant program for tree planting is far greater than the 25 percent standard set forth in SB535 for benefiting disadvantaged communities identified by the California Environmental Protection Agency.” It was unclear at press time whether Piper would file suit under alleged violations of civil rights statutes.
What is clear is that EnviroScreen, and the race-and-income-specific data it provides, is a game-changer for environmental policy in California. EnviroScreen data can help indicate whether mitigation efforts are working, and in which neighborhoods.

CAL FIRE’s decision was fully vetted, based on recommendations set forth by the Environmental Justice Advisory Committee, convened by the state’s Air Resources Board. It’s also in line with an August 2014 bulletin from the governor’s office, stating the criteria for environmental justice communities to receive state funds under SB535: “Areas disproportionately affected by environmental pollution and other hazards that can lead to negative public health effects, exposure or environmental degradation; Areas with concentrations of people that are of low income, high unemployment, low levels of home ownership, high rent burden, sensitive populations, or low levels of educational attainment.”

No Hidden Agenda, Just an Obvious Need
The challenges facing Oakland’s environmental justice communities were in full view during an October tree-planting and beautification effort on 85th Avenue and G Street, a neighborhood located within census tract 60001409400. According to EnviroScreen, it has an overall score of 80–85 percent, with scores in the 80th percentile or higher for diesel pollution, hazardous waste, and groundwater threats. At the site, it was clear what those numbers mean: brownfield industrial sites leaking contaminants into the soil and groundwater; illegal dumping on a mass scale; two auto towing facilities within a block of each other; and little or no tree canopy. Rusted signs from long-closed businesses and graffiti tags on abandoned buildings only add to the depressed appearance. Given that level of blight and decay, it is no wonder that illegal drugs continued to be sold from inside foreclosed houses covered with tarps and a car did a doughnut in the middle of the street as Urban Releaf and about 20 volunteers planted trees and picked up litter. About ten trees went in the ground that day, making an immediate aesthetic difference. As the trees grow in the years to come, the environmental benefits will be further realized.

Expanding urban forestry in Oakland could mitigate greenhouse gas emissions (like diesel exhaust) from increased carbon sequestration and heat-related hazards and mortality associated with HRRLC. It could also improve energy efficiency in the flatland areas due to a reduced demand for air conditioning to counter the urban heat island effect. A growing body of evidence, including Kuo and Sullivan’s 2001 study3 suggests urban forestry can yield benefits in crime reduction and decrease fear of crime— a major concern in Oakland, which consistently ranks among Forbes’ most dangerous U.S. cities.4 For sure, urban forestry can create green jobs for youth of color living in areas with high levels of poverty and low levels of employment—i.e., the majority of Oakland’s flatlands. Furthermore, tree-planting has a high cost-benefit ratio compared to other greening initiatives which require greater investment and study before they can be implemented.

The city’s apparent disinterest could cause it to miss out on potentially larger sources of funding for environmental mitigation in its poorest, most toxic neighborhoods—areas already indicated as priorities by the state funding agency. One can only hope that Mayor Quan’s successor, Libby Schaaf—whose first statement upon election was that she wanted to make East Oakland a priority—will wake up and smell the acacia trees, actually study state-supplied data, and recognize that creating an urban forestry master plan could make a significant difference in mitigating Oakland’s environmental hotspots.

It’s rare for a state agency, such as CAL FIRE, to take the lead in meeting the needs of environmental justice communities. If the city of Oakland doesn’t rise to the occasion, our communities will need to turn up the heat on the politicians, or we will continue to live under hot, dirty, polluted and unsafe conditions.

Eric K. Arnold spent 20 years as a music journalist and documentarian before expanding his repertoire to include community-based reportage on topical issues, from energy to environment to police accountability. A contributor to RP&E since 2010, he’s currently the communications director for the Oakland-based urban forestry organization Urban Releaf. Eric also works with the Community Rejuvenation Project and blogs at Oakulture.

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Despite its claim of being a “sustainable city,” Oakland has largely ignored urban forestry—a proven solution to both urban blight and greenhouse gas reduction.

As the South Goes; Organizing, Healing and Resilience in Gulf Coast Communities

We need folks to value our difference and to value our uniqueness and to say that there just might be something as innovative as jazz to come out and solve this climate change problem.”

An Interview with Colette Pichon Battle by Marcy Rein and Jess Clarke

This interview was recorded at the Our Power Convening in Richmond, California in August 2014. The meeting drew community organizers, scholars, and activists from all over the nation together to consider new approaches to ecological restoration, social justice, and paths towards ending the extractive economy. Listen to the podcast at


Colette Pichon Battle: I am from Slidell, Louisiana. I’m the executive director of the Gulf Coast Center for Law & Policy. We work with communities of color throughout the Gulf Coast, from Houston to Pensacola. We take a regional approach to building community and we specifically work with what we call frontline communities who are often people of color and low-income folks living on the coasts.

Our job at the Gulf Coast Center for Law & Policy has really been to bring the subject of climate change to the community level and say, listen, when our 90-year-old matriarch has never seen this and when oil is washing onto our coast for five years straight, something is going on.

We are in the frontlines of climate disasters, of disasters by extractive industries. Meanwhile, the recovery for those industries in disaster is very quick and the recovery for the communities that we serve is very slow. Something is going on. There’s an imbalance, and it’s not about Republican or Democrat, it’s not about white or black, it’s about something that we’ve lost around our humanity and we’ve got to get that back.

Black Brown Unity

That’s what everyone talked to me about. “Colette, where’s the black-brown tension?” In my neighborhood it was really funny because I remember going home and my Uncle built a fire. There were some Latino folks who had moved into the neighborhood, and my Uncle can hardly speak great English. He can’t speak a lick of Spanish, but it was a holy day. It was a Catholic holy day that in my community is celebrated with fire, good conversation, good food, some beer, a lot of laughter, and a lot of love. It happened that these Latinos who were visiting were also Catholic. They come from a Catholic tradition, I’ll say like that. So they knew to celebrate this day, we knew to celebrate this day, and it turns out that the Vietnamese community also comes from this Catholic tradition. So here we have these folks who don’t speak the same language, but they come from a religious tradition that is familiar to each other. On top of the religious tradition, regardless of what you think about that, they come from cultures that really value family, they value joy and laughter, and they value food and a good time. These are people who sit under trees to talk and exchange stories. These are people who make music from limbs and grass blades. These are people who understand and love the environment they live in. Even through language barriers they had cultural connections that you couldn’t make up if you tried. You couldn’t teach that. These were people who had been rooted in something and there was a connection that they all could find, and we do our work based off of those connections. We don’t feel like we need to go create new connections for you to engage in.

Listen, if you celebrate All Souls Day, and I celebrate Día de los Muertos, and we all got to go to church and have a feast afterward, well, let’s have that feast. Let’s celebrate together and let’s also talk about what’s happening in our community and how we’re all being impacted. This is how we build those alliances. We can’t build those alliances because I like you and you like me. It rarely works like that. It usually works with: I identify with what you’re doing and who you are and you can identify with what I’m doing and who I am—that’s a little bit of trust. We can go from there.

Marcy Rein: Can you talk a little bit more about having established that trust and some of the work that you did together in this alliance?

Battle: Sure. Well, I want to be honest and say there were a lot of attempts. There had to be a lot of learning. Our first attempt was getting everyone in a room and having everyone talk about the issue as we saw it. Well, that doesn’t work even when you have the right translation. People don’t know each other. They have to know each other. We found that the folks most willing to get to know each other were actually women. So we pulled together African American women, Latino women, and Asian American women, mostly Vietnamese, into a room and literally used some of their leaders and had those leaders talk about their communities. When women talk about their communities it’s sort of like women talking about their children. It’s pride, love, and some sadness and tears in a way that women can exchange with one another. It turns out women actually play very large roles, especially in Southern households, despite popular opinion. So a lot of the moral fabric and the moral movement of a family and of a community is done through the women. So we’ve worked with bringing these women together to just really sort of talk with each other and to each other. Then, from there, we actually used a People’s Movement assembly format. I don’t know if you’re familiar with that, but it’s basically a format that says, listen, we are experiencing our lives. What you experience is your truth. Let’s exchange and learn a little bit more about each other’s truth and let’s set an agenda. Let’s set a collective agreement together to move forward so that we can reach a collective vision.

We have some women coming together next week to talk to a senior senator in Louisiana who needs the people of color vote to win. So we’re actually going to talk to her about climate change and extractive industries as women, as mothers, as value holders in a community to say we need you to shift the economy from this oil-based economy that’s killing us, that’s poisoning our sand, our beaches, and our waterways, that’s hurting our seafood industry, that’s causing these storms that make us lose everything, including our traditions that we’ve held for generations. We need you to switch your viewpoint to an economy based in renewable energy and in energy that can make us stronger. I won’t be saying anything. These are women who have all the stories. They’ve got everything they need. The only thing I did was coordinate a ribbon. That was my job: coordinate the ribbon and let the women speak for the community.

Jess Clarke: Is this a state senator or a U.S. senator?

Battle: This is a U.S. senator.

Clarke: So what do you think that Senator could help move within Louisiana?

Battle: I live in a state where all of our elected officials still deny climate change. Louisiana is full of elected officials whose main contributors are the oil companies. So we recognize that she’s in a predicament. She needs the money to win the race, and a lot of her money and a lot of her opponent’s money will come from the oil company and the Koch brothers, apparently. So all I ask is for her to actually reconsider her position specifically on the Keystone XL pipeline. She came out recently, just before they came into their recess, with the big Keystone fight. One of the only democrats voting for the Keystone pipeline to go forward was the democrat from Louisiana, and we know why but we have to tell her that’s not acceptable. It is said that people of color don’t care about environment and climate issues. It’s not true. Factually, that’s not how we vote. It’s not true, but we need to show her, and we will show her next week. A group of 50 women of color who care about the climate issues, who care about the environment. The specific ask is to acknowledge the climate crisis that the coastal communities are going through; to reconsider an economy based on oil to an economy based on renewable energy; and to make and stand up for policies that make Louisiana stronger, as opposed to making Louisiana weaker. They seem a little broad but we have a broad cross-section of folks.

Rein: Where have people taken their concern about jobs and education into actions? What are the obstacles to organizing in the Deep South?

Battle: I was asked yesterday to speak about a campaign I was working on, and I was like, “Oh, there is no campaign. I’m just working to get people to acknowledge climate change. That’s all I’m doing.” Over the last 10 years, there is an undercurrent that stops all progress, which is trauma. I think we’re not like some other communities where something bad is happening, and the response is “let’s all galvanize.” We’re actually in a different place: “Something bad is happening, let’s deal with everyone’s trauma first.” This trauma is something I’ve never experienced before.... I actually had a few Vietnam vets tell me that this was a lot like having to deal with some of their comrades after a really traumatic experience. It’s really hard to move. The first several years of our work have been to really kind of get people unstuck and to get people to really grieve. This is a mourning process and it’s a regional mourning process, so more than specific campaigns to get things done, we’ve been working on people’s trauma. There’s a broader trauma that the Deep South holds, which is around race. It’s been really interesting to try to address generations of race trauma on top of Katrina trauma, on top of BP trauma, and to get folks to sit in a room and trust each other and trust that there’s something we can do to stop this. Our work hasn’t really yielded what I would call “campaigns.” Instead, it’s yielded alliances. We know that more storms are coming. That’s the one thing that coastal communities know for sure. The question is: what are we going to do to get ready for them? What are we going to do to survive them? So, I would offer that ourdisaster planning work has really been, again, rooted in a lot of women, but rooted in these different coastal communities.

Survival Comes First

How do we communicate during a storm? How do we get fresh water during a storm? We’re working on a project now to get communities to harvest rainwater because it’s a storm and we’ve lots of wonderful rain coming down. It turns out people need water after a disaster so why not get these folks who are impacted to harvest the rainwater so that people who need it can have water? After Katrina, people went without water for days, and what was most sinister is that the nation was sending billions of dollars, donations, and they were going to churches, but these churches and other institutions go down race lines. So there were communities that got water and there were communities that didn’t get water. Those communities that didn’t get water were browner and poorer. The storm did not make that distinction, let me be clear. The storm was equitable. It hit everyone. But why can’t we get water to old people, to people who couldn’t get out of their homes because their wheelchair hasn’t been fixed in 20 years? So, little projects like: what do we do when the next storm comes? How do we communicate? How do we get water to people? How do we know who’s left and who’s not left? We’ve established lots of disaster preparedness strategies, tactics. We haven’t had to use them, thank God. Hopefully we’ll never use them, but the problem before was that they weren’t even there. They weren’t even there and we live on the coast. The climate is changing and we live on the coast. We’ve got to start getting ready for that.

Clarke: So you’ve made this progress in building these kinds of coalitions. First, your challenge has been to break through the climate denial but also break through the racism denial. Then the process of healing people’s trauma actually ends up being at the front end of all the constructive work. So, as you wrap it up, just add a little more about how doing positive self-reliant engaged activities is actually kind of a reciprocal building tool for trauma reduction.

Battle: When Hurricane Katrina hit, there was this very interesting fight around what to call the people impacted by Katrina. First it was: you’re a victim. Then it was: a refugee. That was crazy. You should’ve seen the people react to being called a refugee. Then it was being called a Katrina survivor. I think survivor stuck the longest. What struck me the most was the first one was the victim. The first name we recognized and understood for our region was the victimization. I think a lot of our livelihoods, not just our social livelihood but even the extractive industries that operate within our world, really lend itself to this victimization paradigm, and you have to be healed from that. You have to heal to switch from victim to survivor, and you have to heal in a real way to not pass that along to other generations. I think the race trauma in the South hasn’t actually been healed, so it just passes onto generation and generation. To see the Katrina trauma, I think for many of us, especially those of us who work directly around race, we came to value those who were working around the physical healing and the traumatic healing. The best remedy for healing, any doctor will tell you and so will my grandmother, is sunshine, movement, water, and happiness and laughter. These things are actual remedies. I know we take them for granted and we don’t think of them as such, but they’re actual remedies. We had to find reasons to laugh and reasons to love that water that destroyed our home again. I grew up loving that bayou. It wasn’t supposed to swell the way that it did and so I had to learn to love it again, to love it so much I’ll fight for it now.

So I think the trauma had to be healed, has to be healed, and the aggregate trauma has to be dealt with at some point. It’s going to take real mental health professionals to come in and do some real work. It’s going to take social structures like churches to allow their congregations to acknowledge their own trauma and what that does to your body and your mind to survive something like that. Then I think it’s actually going to take us to be gentle with each other a little bit. A lot of the organizing is: you should be here protesting and yelling! Everyone’s not ready to do that and so you have to be gentle with folks. When folks get strong enough they’ll stand up for themselves. So I’ve come to appreciate healing and the art of it in a way that I don’t think I ever had before. There’s this murder rate happening in New Orleans right now and this crime rate. What they’re finding out is it’s basically all these children who went through Katrina. They are now of age. They are now adults in our society who have never healed form this, who have never healed from this really awful thing that nobody even wants to talk about anymore. They don’t even say “Katrina” anymore, by the way. They say the “storms of 2005 in the Gulf Coast.”

Anyway, I would say the healing is something that I think I didn’t recognize was going to be so prominent, but it is there and it has to happen. Any community that experiences what we experienced in the Gulf Coast--twice--is going to have to heal twice as long. In closing, I would say I think we get thought of last. The South gets thought of last. We get laughed at, we get mocked, and we get no respect. But somehow, we’re the place people know to go for fun, for laughter, for food, for music, for the things that we really value as beautiful in our communities. I would say the kind of leadership and the kind of innovation that you see in food and music; it exists with the people in the Gulf Coast. I think the minute we lift that region up is the minute we change the world. The congressional leaders in the United States Congress are from the South. They’re a little ridiculous sometimes but they are ours and they’re from the South. Those policies that they enact impact the world, and we elect them. Why aren’t more folks engaging with the Southern constituencies who put these people in office?

The oil industry—it would fail if not for New Orleans and Houston. It would fail. The military industrial complex—you could take it down by taking down the Gulf Coast all at one time because of the military bases that we have there. We play an important role in the future of this nation and the future of the world. We can’t continue to be thought of as last, insufficient, or, “They talk too funny to put on the microphone.” We need folks to value our difference and to value our uniqueness and to say that there just might be something as innovative as jazz to come out and solve this climate change problem. So that’s what I would say. I would say the leaders are in the South. There are a million Colettes out there who didn’t have the opportunities that I had, but they’re still there. They survived that storm. They survived that oil disaster and they’re still there. I think with a little bit of help from our friends we could really lift up some real leadership and change the world. n


Marcy Rein is a freelance writer and Reimagine RP&E contributing editor. Jess Clarke is editor and project director of Reimaigine! Transcribed by Daniel Salazar.

The Lie of Growth and the Power of the Small— Vandana Shiva and Gopal Dayaneni

"The growing “bio-economy”   is based on control, manipulation and commodification of life… things like microbial factories that are producing industrial food products, that will make fuels and pharmaceuticals, seeds and now even species.” —Gopal Dayaneni

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Dr. Vandana Shiva, the internationally known author, scientist and advocate for small farmers and agroecology, spoke with Gopal Dayaneni of Movement Generation at the David Brower Center in Berkeley, California in September 2013. This conversation was part of a series of conversations hosted by the group that expose the growing “bio-economy,” which Dayaneni calls “an economy based on control, manipulation and commodification of life… things like microbial factories that are producing industrial food products, that will make fuels and pharmaceuticals, seeds and now even species.” U.C. Berkeley, The Lawrence Berkeley National Labs, and the private corporations that are subsidized by it, are central to this developing bio-economy. The federal government and multinational corporations see the bioeconomy as a new frontier to be conquered.

Vandana Shiva: I was trained as a physicist. The reason I started to work on agriculture in 1984 was the violence of the Green Revolution. Thirty thousand people were killed in Punjab. What was done there could be more appropriately named the ‘Brown Revolution,’ in terms of desertifying fertile land, or the ‘Red Revolution’ in terms of shedding blood. There was nothing green about it.

I started to look at how much the so-called green revolution farms were growing of what. They were only growing rice and wheat. We did a calculation. If we grew as much rice and wheat with that much land and that much irrigation, with organic and native seeds, would we have less or more? It was the same. So it wasn’t miracle seeds. It was land grabs. Since then we have been saving biodiversity and calculating the output per acre. It turns out when you intensify biodiversity and intensify ecological processes, you can double, treble, increase five-fold the nutrition and food output.

But authors of this system on which the Green Revolution, biotechnology and synthetic biology are based, don’t look at life. All they can see are commodities. So they have reduced the biodiversity of the planet to the four commodities that can be patented, genetically engineered. They are barely bringing us two to three percent of the food—that to unwilling consumers who don’t know they are eating GMOs. This is not food. It’s not a food system. It’s a commodity production system. And it’s a control system. In the Green Revolution they could own the plants, but they told us a lie that they would produce high-yielding varieties. There was nothing about the varieties. Because if you don’t have the chemicals, if you don’t have the irrigation, they give you nothing.

Green Revolution Increases Costs, Pests and Pesticides
What’s the result of biotechnology in agriculture in these 20 years of commercialization? Before they commercialized, they said we’ll grow food on the moon, in the Sahara Desert, and on toxic dumps. There will never be food scarcity again. And every trait we will be able to engineer.

All they have managed to engineer is herbicide resistance, and Bt toxic traits. None of the [engineered crops] have increased yields. There’s a very good study by the Union of Concerned Scientists about their failure. They haven’t reduced chemical use. They have actually increased it, because when you shoot a gene, you make the plant more vulnerable. And when you put the toxin into the plant, the toxin is doing the work and the plant isn’t doing its own resilience work. As a result of this, new pests emerge. And as a result, the old pest, the bollworm, becomes a super pest. So you’ve got to spray more and more. In India, [we see a] 300 percent increase in non-target species that have become pests.

These biotech patents result in seed costs that jump 8,000 percent, and pesticide use that increases thirteen-fold. You are talking about an unbelievable jump in the cost of production. Farmers can’t pay for it, and when the creditors who are the sales agents of the seeds and chemicals come to say, “You haven’t paid your debt, your land is my land,” that day the farmer will go to the field and consume a bottle of pesticide and end his life. And then the widow is told by some neighbor, “Your husband is lying in the field.” That’s when she comes to know she has lost her land, she has lost her husband, and they are still in debt.

This process has triggered, according to Indian data from the National Bureau of Crime Records, 284,000 farmer suicides from 1995 to 2012. And this is an under-estimate, because this is only the suicides that the police record; not the suicides that were attempted, taken to hospital and saved in time; not the suicides of the women. It doesn’t include the suicides of the tenants who didn’t own the land but were tilling, because they too are not treated as farmers. So this is a very small fraction of what’s really going on.

Growth as a category came from the war, because they had to mobilize finances for military processes. They worked out the system of national accounting based on GDP. And GDP doesn’t count as production that which you produce for yourself. When you produce what you consume, you don’t produce. That is the definition. So a forest working to maintain an ecosystem doesn’t produce. A community that grows its wheat, and processes it, and mills it, there’s a bakery, and there’s real food out there, there’s real work in those economies, but it doesn’t get counted.

So ultimately, growth only measures the destruction of nature and counts people’s economic output to convert it into commodities and cash. So far, the expropriation of nature has been done in some sectors here and there. The bio-economy would like to do it across the planet on a global scale, and do it using two sorts of power. One is violent invasion. The second is the power of money. Both of them are illegitimate because people have existed on these lands and have taken care of them. And to count them as non-existing is to go back to the old colonial category of “terra nullius.” When colonialism first started ,they created a jurisprudence of empty lands. If land was not occupied by white people, and ruled by white Christian princes, it was empty. So this land was empty because the Native Americans weren’t white! They were Red Indians. Our land was empty, Australia was empty. In a way, what they are doing is they are combining “terra nullius” with a “bio-nullius” That it’s all empty—till We do something to it.

Gopal Dayaneni: Even in our progressive movements we talk about the limits of growth. We talk about how you cannot have endless growth on a finite planet. But I think one of the things we are actually missing in that is that every bit of the planet is in use. And so growth inherently leads to a paucity of diversity. It has to convert what is already being used and what already exists, into something else. So growth by definition will erode diversity. It has to, because there’s nothing that is being used (Shiva interjects: by nature or people) by nature or people... so it must take land. Growth will always erode diversity.

Shiva: And it will create poverty, because there is such a tiny proportion of people who make a living in the global economy, and an even tinier proportion who hang around in Wall Street and play the casino. And the real economies are economies where local biodiversities provide for local needs. So I call these biodiversity economies. But by appropriating these biological resources, you basically deprive local people. Which is why the first movement I got involved in was Chipko—the “hug the tree” movement—because commercial forestry was robbing the local communities of their food and fodder, and the ability of the ecosystems to provide.

Dayaneni: Where do you see some of the most exciting, vibrant examples of social movement work, both north and south?

Shiva: Some of the very, very exciting work that’s been done is looking honestly at farming systems, and realizing that small farmers are actually the backbone of food security. They provide 72 percent of the food. When you measure commodities, they don’t count. But when you measure food, they are the primary reason that we get food. The 28 percent is industrial farms. GM corn and soya is less than five or ten percent. So when you start to honestly look at systems, you find that the solutions really come from the earth and the people.

The second thing that is very exciting to me is this deep convergence between new ecological knowledge, good science, and traditional knowledge. We now have the new ability, for example, to look at the soil and its living systems without the microscope. We didn’t have the capacity to look at interactions. Now we do, and every practice gets validated by ecological science. On the one hand you have bad science and failing technologies parading as a “science.” On the other hand you have all of people’s knowledge and the new ability of ecological science to give us the real answers.  And the real answers show us that, contrary to what is claimed, you have a project where the whole planet is needed to run five companies for a handful of people to push products that nobody wants, through subsidies.

You also have systems that use very few resources: You shrink your footprint, but you enlarge your output. But most importantly, you enlarge your solidarity, both with the earth and the beings, as well as the human community. What we should evolve towards is so clear. All we have to do is deal with the lies, the collusion with the state and its military and financial power, and these emperors with no clothes—and have the capacity to both speak the truth, and defend our commons.

Dayaneni: One of the questions we are always called on to answer is, “How does all this local economy, living right with the land, add up to dealing with ‘global warming’ or ‘climate change’ or all of the global-scale problems that are described?”

Shiva: The issue of scale also comes from a kind of blindness to seeing that multiples of the small are bigger than one giant. Let me give you a simple example of this. When I heard the biotech industry talk about their vision of the future, GMOs, patents, TRIPS, GATT, WTO, I said, “This is so wrong. But how do I deal with it?” And to my mind came Gandhi, pulling out a spinning wheel and starting to spin cloth.

What the Green Corridor [a collaboration of five East Bay governments] is to become, is the equivalent of the Lancastershire and Manchester of that time. And we were told that everything happened because of Manchester; it was a miracle, industrialism, etc. The reality was, people were captured in Africa, and brought here as slaves to cultivate cotton. Indian farmers were forced to grow indigo for their textile industry. And our master weavers, because they continued to weave better muslin than the factories in Lancastershire and Manchester, their thumbs were cut so they couldn’t teach the next generation to weave. So we have had this kind of violence to destroy the alternative.

Colonization...Gandhi took out the spinning wheel and everyone laughed at him and said, “How do you think some pieces of wood could bring you freedom?” because of the issue of scale. And his response was what inspired me to start Navdanya and seed-saving. He said because the spinning wheel is so small it can be in the hands of the lowest person, and being in the hands of the lowest person, the poorest of women and the smallest of huts, it can be part of the freedom movement.

So the multiplication capacity of the small is what made it large. There is the bigness of the big but that’s what makes it small. What we are talking about is the smallness of five biotech companies controlling seed, two or three guys.

Value resilience. This system has zero resilience, and it will take one little financial crisis, one climate catastrophe, one social upheaval for it to collapse. Resilience is both the ecological resilience in our biodiversity and seeds, and the social resilience of communities cooperating with each other to be able to ride out every kind of disaster that we are facing and will increasingly face, because that is the situation in which we live…We have a very urgent choice between extinction and survival. Survival was always made to look inferior, and tendencies for extinction were celebrated. And that is why we have this rule of stupidity. We need to push survival and sustenance, at the center, of how we think, how we relate to each other and how we relate to the earth. Survival is not a bad idea.

Based on a livestream broadcast hosted by and KPFA radio.
Transcribed by Preeti Shekar, edited by Jess Clarke.


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"Growth only measures the destruction of nature and counts people’s economic output to convert it into commodities and cash." — Vandana Shiva

With Our Own Might, Migrant Women Fight for Change

June 2015 Digital Edition #MigrantRights #DomesticWorkerPower

Edited by Jess Clarke & Preeti Shekar

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Domestic Worker Triumphs Over Trafficking, Wins $136K Back Pay

Migrant domestic workers

By Karina Muñiz and Claudia Reyes

When Francisca Vasquez first walked into the San Francisco offices of Mujeres Unidas y Activas (MUA) in late 2013, she had on her signature blue fishermen's hat with white trim, and her metal-rimmed glasses. She kept her eyes low to the ground and her hands tucked into her jacket; she would offer a faint smile, sip her coffee, and listen to the topic of the day at MUA’s general meetings. But soon she started to share her story—one that shows the link between domestic work and human trafficking, a connection at once too common and too often overlooked.

For more than 20 years, Vasquez had lived in isolation with a San Francisco family who had originally promised her opportunities to learn to read and write, and to adjust her immigration status. When she moved into their home, she had recently arrived from El Salvador, seeking work to provide for herself, her two daughters and other family back home. With each passing year, her conditions worsened.

For a full two decades, Vasquez worked around the clock, cooking, cleaning, and taking care of several elders in the home for a total of $500 a month—far less than she would have earned if she were paid the minimum wage and overtime required by California law. Her employers controlled her time tightly, barely even letting her go to the store to buy food. She lived in fear and isolation, made worse by the fact that her employer was a religious leader within the Latina/o community who painted a far different picture of her life to the outside world.

Vasquez’s case was referred to MUA by an ally organization, Asian Pacific Islander Legal Outreach (APILO), which heads up a referral network for human trafficking survivors in the Bay Area. With the encouragement of a co-worker, she bravely sought protection and a way out; she received a T Visa as a trafficking survivor, based on her work conditions.

But she was still owed wages due to her over the many years of wage theft by her employers. With help from the Legal Aid Society’s Employment Law Center, Vasquez filed a claim with the California Division of Standards Enforcement (DLSE), which enforces the state’s wage and hour laws. After a long investigation and negotiation process, she won $138,386.85 in back pay and overtime in a judgement issued May 7, 2015.

“The statute of limitations kept Francisca from receiving all that was owed to her, but this judgment is still a huge victory for her and for the domestic workers movement,” said Claudia Reyes, MUA’s lead organizer for workers’ rights. California has more than 200,000 domestic workers who provide services such as elder care, childcare and cleaning. The US as a whole has an estimated two million people engaged in such work, but given the numbers of undocumented immigrants who are involved, the real number is certainly higher. [1]

Vasquez’s case shines light on the plight of all domestic workers, who too often live isolated inside private homes, their vulnerability heightened when they are survivors of trafficking.  

Most often associated with sex work, “trafficking” has a far broader meaning, according to the US Trafficking Victims Protection Act of 2000: “The recruitment, harboring, transportation, provision, or obtaining of a person for labor or services, through the use of force, fraud, or coercion for the purpose of subjection to involuntary servitude, peonage, debt bondage or slavery.”

Though national data is lacking, a number of smaller studies point to the prevalence of trafficking for domestic work, according to the National Domestic Workers Alliance’s January 2015 report, “Beyond Survival: Organizing to End Human Trafficking of Domestic Workers.” For example, more than one-fourth of the reports to the National Human Trafficking Resources Center hotline involved domestic work, making it the most-reported type of trafficking, as of August 2014.[2]

Trafficking amounts to modern-day slavery: Employers may deprive workers of wages, food and sleep, keep them locked in and cut off from communications with their families and the outside world, abuse them physically and sexually, and threaten them with deportation.

“When we think about trafficking, we need to understand not just the ways that traffickers snare people, but the broader situations that make workers vulnerable, and push them to migrate—domestic violence, poverty caused by global inequality, the violence of civil war and its aftermath,” Reyes said. “Our approach to solving the problem must involve basic workers’ rights, women’s rights, and immigrants’ rights, and solutions shaped by workers and trafficking survivors themselves.”

The International Labor Organization, a division of the United Nations, acknowledges the complexity of the situation facing the world’s 52 million domestic workers, most of them migrant women. The ILO’s Convention 189, “Decent Work for Domestic Workers,” calls for domestic workers to be recognized as equal to other workers, entitled to the same rights and respect. The Convention was adopted in 2011 after years of organizing by domestic workers around the world.

“Seeing this convention passed that recognizes our work, and leads to policy changes in countries that have ratified it, is tremendously encouraging for our work here,” said MUA Co-director Juana Flores, the US representative to the ILO, herself an immigrant domestic worker.

Today Francisca Vasquez wears a bright smile under her fisherman’s hat, and offers a warm embrace as she welcomes new members to Mujeres Unidas y Activas. She has spoken to an audience of hundreds about her case, and her story. She is an active leader that you can find at the front of May Day marches, actions against deportations, and is a strong voice in the fight for greater protections for domestic workers in California, and across the globe.

“I tell domestic workers they should demand their rights, and not stay in an abusive situation like I did,” Vasquez said. “They are not alone; other domestic workers and our organizations are there for support.”



Karina Muñiz is the political director for Mujeres Unidas y Activas; Claudia Reyes is MUA’s lead organizer for workers’ rights.


[1] Williams, Tiffany, “Beyond Survival: Organizing to End Human Trafficking of Domestic Workers,” National Domestic Worker Alliance, January 2015.

[2] Ibid



By Karina Muñiz and Claudia Reyes

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Domestic workers too often live isolated inside private homes, their vulnerability heightened when they are survivors of trafficking.

Scenes From Domestic Worker Organizing

Shifting Consciousness, Sharing Power, Shaping Policies
Photo Essay by Rucha Chitnis

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Collective Leadership & Movement Building
“I am a home care worker, and I save lives. So why am I paid poverty wages?”  LaTanya Cline demanded of an ebullient crowd of domestic workers, unionists and their families at the Justice for Homecare Tribunal in Sacramento. In March 2015, more than 200 members of the California Domestic Workers Coalition traveled to the state capital to demand a living wage, overtime pay and dignity for homecare workers and workers who take care of seniors and people with disabilities.

The coalition’s contingent included several worker-organizers from Mujeres Unidas y Activas (MUA), a powerful grassroots organization of Latina immigrant women in the Bay Area. MUA members are raising their voices and asserting their leadership to demand dignity, safety and recognition of the vital services they provide as housekeepers, nannies and caregivers.

Domestic Work is Invisible Work
“There is an entrenched devaluation of immigrant women workers. Domestic workers are breadwinners of their families throughout Latin America and Asia. In so many ways they are uplifting the economies of their countries through remittances,” said Katie Joaquin, campaign director of the California Domestic Workers Coalition. “We see this as an international struggle that is critical to the leadership of women,” she said.

There are nearly two million domestic workers in the United States, more than 90 percent of them women, mostly low-income immigrant women from diverse ethnicities.  Over the past 25 years, MUA has built a worker-center model of sharing power and harnessing workers’ collective bargaining rights.  MUA builds the personal and collective leadership, and power of immigrant Latina women, many undocumented, who are disproportionately affected by economic and political marginalization, racism and violence.  MUA also works to create safe pathways to citizenship, preventing deportation of immigrant women and their families.

“I learned that I have value.”

“For the first time, I learned that I have value,” said Lupe.  “I walk with my head high.” She is now determined to refer other women to MUA, especially those who are battered from domestic violence.  Her employer at the panaderia ended up being sued for violating wage and hour laws, and after being underpaid for nearly 12 years, Lupe is now receiving a minimum wage of $12.50 an hour and lunch breaks.  “I want to keep learning and developing myself.  I am learning to trust myself, and I would love to study law or teach,” she says.MUA is rooted in the belief that every woman who walks through its door is a leader.  The leadership program is designed to ensure the self-determination of women at home, and through policies which are being shaped by rigorous organizing by domestic workers from coast to coast in the United States.  “For the first time I learned that I have value,” said Lupe Zamuldio, an undocumented worker from Mexico who recently completed MUA's leadership training.  “All my life, I walked with my head down. I didn’t know about my rights as an immigrant worker. Today I walk tall and realize that I have value in the society as well.”

Claudia Reyes, MUA’s lead organizer for workers’ rights, explained that this program also offers a place for women to talk about the various traumas they have experienced and begin the process of healing in a safe space of sisterhood.  Issues of racism, patriarchy, legal and economic rights are also part of the leadership curriculum.  Many members have survived domestic violence, including MUA’s resilient co-director, Juana Flores, and receive counseling and advice from certified domestic violence advocates and sexual assault crisis counselors. 

Claudia’s mother, Maria Huerta Reyes, is an iconic elder in the space—a former domestic worker who joined MUA nearly 17 years ago, and became a powerful advocate for the rights of immigrant women.  Maria has recruited hundreds of women to join MUA, participated in hunger strikes for immigrant rights, traveled countless times to Sacramento to organize for the California Domestic Worker Bill of Rights and served as president of MUA’s board of directors.  Maria’s leadership journey has inspired and energized other domestic workers, and this year she was honored with a special “movement leader” recognition at MUA’s 25th Anniversary Celebrations in San Francisco.

The Future of California’s Domestic Workers
In 2013, MUA members played a key role in winning the passage of the historic California Domestic Worker Bill of Rights (AB 241), after an eight-year process of movement- and coalition-building.  This significant legislative victory extends overtime protections to women who care for and support hundreds of thousands of individuals and families in California.  MUA and its allies at the California Domestic Workers Coalition are now gearing up to introduce a 2016 bill to make these protections permanent; provisions of the bill passed in 2013 are due to expire in 2017. 

“There is tremendous strength to link with other organizations.  We knew that in order to win, we had to be grounded in the leadership of immigrant women and build the strength of coalitions.  A lot of worker organizations have worked hard to shift the visibility and consciousness of domestic work… and the Bill, and the organizing of immigrant women also helped to shift the consciousness of policymakers,” said Katie Joaquin.

Rucha Chitnis is a writer and photojournalist. You can follow her on Twitter @RuchaChitnis.

Lupe Zamuldio migrated to the United States from Mexico in 2001.  “The first job that I was offered was working as a full-time nanny, housekeeper and cook for a family for $100 a month,” Lupe says. “This seemed very unreasonable to me, and I refused the offer. I ended up working at a panaderia (a bakery) as a cook and cleaner for a starting hourly wage of $6 an hour.”

Lupe Zamuldio migrated to the United States from Mexico in 2001.  “The first job that I was offered was working as a full-time nanny, housekeeper and cook for a family for $100 a month,” Lupe says. “This seemed very unreasonable to me, and I refused the offer. I ended up working at a panaderia (a bakery) as a cook and cleaner for a starting hourly wage of $6 an hour.”

s an undocumented immigrant worker, Lupe says she was unaware of her economic and legal rights. After a family dispute arose, someone suggested she contact Mujeres Unidas y Activas (MUA), and visit their offices in the Fruitvale neighborhood of Oakland. “At MUA, I received legal advice for my personal family matter, as well as legal counseling for my immigration status. I now have filed my papers, and I am on track to get legal status,” Lupe said. She ended up participating in MUA’s leadership program, where she learned about her labor and legal rights and recognized her personal leadership potential.

As an undocumented immigrant worker, Lupe says she was unaware of her economic and legal rights. After a family dispute arose, someone suggested she contact Mujeres Unidas y Activas (MUA), and visit their offices in the Fruitvale neighborhood of Oakland. “At MUA, I received legal advice for my personal family matter, as well as legal counseling for my immigration status. I now have filed my papers, and I am on track to get legal status,” Lupe said. She ended up participating in MUA’s leadership program, where she learned about her labor and legal rights and recognized her personal leadership potential. 

“For the first time, I learned that I have value,” said Lupe.  “I walk with my head high.” She is now determined to refer other women to MUA, especially those who are battered from domestic violence.  Her employer at the panaderia ended up being sued for violating wage and hour laws, and after being underpaid for nearly 12 years, Lupe is now receiving a minimum wage of $12.50 an hour and lunch breaks.  “I want to keep learning and developing myself.  I am learning to trust myself, and I would love to study law or teach,” she says.

“For the first time, I learned that I have value,” said Lupe.  “I walk with my head high.” She is now determined to refer other women to MUA, especially those who are battered from domestic violence.  Her employer at the panaderia ended up being sued for violating wage and hour laws, and after being underpaid for nearly 12 years, Lupe is now receiving a minimum wage of $12.50 an hour and lunch breaks.  “I want to keep learning and developing myself.  I am learning to trust myself, and I would love to study law or teach,” she says.

The MUA leadership program affirms the holistic self-determination of immigrant Latina domestic workers—at home, at work, and in state policies.

The MUA leadership program affirms the holistic self-determination of immigrant Latina domestic workers—at home, at work, and in state policies. 

UA believes in the power of networks and alliances. In March 2015, MUA members headed to Sacramento to offer solidarity at the Justice for Homecare Tribunal, and advocate for labor rights, fair living wages and the right to overtime compensation.

MUA believes in the power of networks and alliances. In March 2015, MUA members headed to Sacramento to offer solidarity at the Justice for Homecare Tribunal, and advocate for labor rights, fair living wages and the right to overtime compensation.

“If you care about women’s rights, you should care about home care workers, the majority of whom are women,” said Ai-jen Poo at the tribunal. “My grandmother can age in dignity because of her caregiver,” said Poo, director of the National Domestic Workers’ Alliance.  

UA and its allied labor unions believe that people with disabilities and elders benefit when the rights of homecare workers are protected. “In-Home Supportive Services allows so many families like mine to keep going even when the unexpected happens. Not only do our clients and loved ones get to stay at home, where studies show they are happier and healthier, but homecare also keeps them out of costly institutions and nursing homes—saving the government billions of dollars every year,” home care worker LaTanya Cline said in her testimony.

MUA and its allied labor unions believe that people with disabilities and elders benefit when the rights of homecare workers are protected. “In-Home Supportive Services allows so many families like mine to keep going even when the unexpected happens. Not only do our clients and loved ones get to stay at home, where studies show they are happier and healthier, but homecare also keeps them out of costly institutions and nursing homes—saving the government billions of dollars every year,” home care worker LaTanya Cline said in her testimony.

“My mother was a kitchen girl, my father was a garden boy, that’s why I am a unionist!” sang domestic worker organizers from South Africa, Jordan, Morocco and Hong Kong. “We see this as an international struggle that is critical for the leadership of women,” said Katie Joaquin, campaign director of the California Domestic Workers Coalition.

“My mother was a kitchen girl, my father was a garden boy, that’s why I am a unionist!” sang domestic worker organizers from South Africa, Jordan, Morocco and Hong Kong. “We see this as an international struggle that is critical for the leadership of women,” said Katie Joaquin, campaign director of the California Domestic Workers Coalition. 

“There is an entrenched devaluation of immigrant women workers. Economic justice is important to have freedom and dignity for women.  At the heart of the issues of domestic violence is the inability for women to leave a partnership that is abusive if there is no way to economically sustain themselves and their children,” said Joaquin.

“There is an entrenched devaluation of immigrant women workers. Economic justice is important to have freedom and dignity for women.  At the heart of the issues of domestic violence is the inability for women to leave a partnership that is abusive if there is no way to economically sustain themselves and their children,” said Joaquin.

Two generation of domestic worker organizers and leaders: Claudia Reyes (left) has followed in the footsteps of her courageous mother, Maria Reyes (right).  Claudia is the lead organizer for the workers’ rights program at MUA and played and important role in passing the Domestic Worker Bill of Rights in California.

Two generation of domestic worker organizers and leaders: Claudia Reyes (left) has followed in the footsteps of her courageous mother, Maria Reyes (right).  Claudia is the lead organizer for the workers’ rights program at MUA and played and important role in passing the Domestic Worker Bill of Rights in California.

Maria Reyes is an iconic elder in the space—a former domestic worker who joined MUA nearly 17 years ago and became a powerful advocate for the rights of immigrant women.  Maria has recruited hundreds of women to join MUA, participated in hunger strikes for immigrant rights, traveled countless times to Sacramento to organize for the California Domestic Worker Bill of Rights and served as President of MUA’s board of directors.

Maria Reyes is an iconic elder in the space—a former domestic worker who joined MUA nearly 17 years ago and became a powerful advocate for the rights of immigrant women.  Maria has recruited hundreds of women to join MUA, participated in hunger strikes for immigrant rights, traveled countless times to Sacramento to organize for the California Domestic Worker Bill of Rights and served as President of MUA’s board of directors. 

Sisterhood and solidarity are important offerings for MUA’s members, many of whom have survived violence and racism, and experienced deep marginalization based on their identity as immigrant women.

Sisterhood and solidarity are important offerings for MUA’s members, many of whom have survived violence and racism, and experienced deep marginalization based on their identity as immigrant women.

The graduation ceremony of MUA’s leadership program is a space for domestic workers and their families to celebrate and honor every woman who has begun a new chapter in her personal transformation and leadership journey.  Here, Elena’s daughter runs to embrace her mother as she receives her certificate.

The graduation ceremony of MUA’s leadership program is a space for domestic workers and their families to celebrate and honor every woman who has begun a new chapter in her personal transformation and leadership journey.  Here, Elena’s daughter runs to embrace her mother as she receives her certificate.

Armael Bulawin Malinis and Edgardo Pichay, male allies and community organizers at Migrante International, an advocacy group that defends the rights and welfare of overseas Filipino workers, raise their fists in solidarity with the rights of home care workers.

Armael Bulawin Malinis and Edgardo Pichay, male allies and community organizers at Migrante International, an advocacy group that defends the rights and welfare of overseas Filipino workers, raise their fists in solidarity with the rights of home care workers.

MUA offers wellness and self-care for its members. Here, members participate in a weekly yoga class offered by a volunteer at the group’s Fruitvale office.

MUA offers wellness and self-care for its members. Here, members participate in a weekly yoga class offered by a volunteer at the group’s Fruitvale office.


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“All my life, I walked with my head down. I didn’t know about my rights as an immigrant worker. Today I walk tall and realize that I have value in the society as well.”

Domestic Workers Celebrate Bill of Rights

©2014 Mujeres Unidas y Activas

Outreach, Educate, and Dance
By Dalia Rubiano Yedidia

 An estimated 250,000 domestic workers throughout California—mostly immigrant women of color who clean and care for homes and children—began receiving overtime pay when the California Domestic Workers Bill of Rights took effect in 2014.

After two vetoes, dozens of mobilizations to Sacramento, and countless press conferences and legislative visits, the diverse coalition of workers, employers, and interfaith, labor and community groups—who had developed their leadership through a multiyear campaign—as well as the children and families of workers that had endured, strengthened, and grown tremendously through a seven-year struggle, could finally claim victory when Governor Jerry Brown signed the bill in September 2013. The win may be considered inevitable, given the growing visibility of the importance of domestic work nationally and the simple yet poignant truth that every single one of us has needed, currently needs, or will need care at some point in our lives. Nevertheless, the victory is historic as it is owed in large part to the domestic workers’ tremendous leadership, vision, and perseverance.

This end to an arduous seven-year fight to be granted basic labor protections, which included convincing elected officials, the labor movement, and even our own families just how precious and fundamental the work that makes all other work possible is, deserves to be celebrated. In fact, domestic workers and allies highlighted the importance of this victory by celebrating the one-year anniversary on September 26, 2014, proving they know how to party just as hard as they fight.

“It’s so beautiful to have such a party after fighting for so long, after so much struggle,” said Luz Sampedro, domestic worker leader and member of the California Domestic Workers Coalition. “To get to our first anniversary, to see our leaders and allies shine, to be able to hug each other and congratulate each other personally—it’s that human connection that makes us strong.”
Domestic workers and children demand passage of the California Domestic Workers’ Bill of Rights. (cc) 2012 National Domestic Workers Alliance.Last year, the Coalition dedicated itself to building a base and deepening domestic worker leadership through organizing. This year, the Coalition’s steering committee made up of seven domestic worker member-based grassroots organizations—three from Los Angeles and four from the Bay Area and Sonoma—began planning the work of implementation and education.
As Claudia Reyes, lead organizer at Mujeres Unidas y Activas (MUA), explained: “This law that we worked so hard to pass means nothing if we do not understand it. It is our responsibility to learn its ins-and-outs and educate ourselves and our community so that we can be sure our struggle and victory is truly realized.”
The Coalition developed “Know Your Rights” materials in partnership with the Women’s Employment Rights Clinic, finalized an outreach strategy for the year, including coordinated statewide efforts, and launched the Dignity in the Home campaign aimed at organizing 10 percent of the state’s domestic worker sector by 2017 when the law sunsets (expires). The Coalition currently has its eye on future campaigns to make overtime pay permanent and push for even stronger protections for California’s domestic workers. To this end, it conducted several trainings in both Los Angeles and San Francisco for domestic worker leaders to get educated on the complex and often (intentionally) confusing legal code which includes different wage and hour protections depending on the type of domestic work performed (caring for property, e.g. cleaning and gardening, vs. caring for humans as a personal attendant) and whether the worker is a live-in (residing with the employer) or a live-out.

Organizing from a Legacy of Racism and Slavery
Central to every training is an analysis that roots domestic workers within the legacy of racism and slavery in the United States, which continues to cast its shadow through the current devaluation and invisibility of this gendered, racialized, and often status-based workforce. Last spring, a strong team of 30 domestic worker leaders completed a “Know Your Rights Training-for-Trainers” where they learned the intricacies of the legal protections and gained a nuanced understanding of the historical and political underpinnings that keep domestic workers divided and unorganized, with minimal protections. This was followed by another training in early summer on how to conduct outreach. Then on International Domestic Worker Day (June 16, 2014) the Coalition launched its first three-week organizing blitz in the Bay Area.
Organizations, such as the Women’s Collective (San Francisco), Mujeres Unidas y Activas (San Francisco and Oakland), Filipino Advocates for Justice (Alameda County), and ALMAS-Graton Day Labor Center (Sonoma County), participated in intensive outreach to domestic workers on the job and at bus stops. The trained worker-leaders targeted childcare providers at playgrounds in the neighborhoods of their employers, educating them about the new law guaranteeing their right to overtime and spreading the word about organizing efforts to build a movement for Dignity in the Home.
“I was nervous at first,” said Martha Herrera, one of the worker-leaders, of her experience, “mainly worried that the women wouldn’t trust us enough to confide in us. But after getting out there and doing the outreach, it filled my heart and truly motivated me to see the looks on their faces after we let them know about the Bill and their rights!”
The pilot program helped Bay Area groups learn key lessons about planning and strategy, which informed their second statewide organizing drive launched on the first anniversary of the signing of the Bill.
In the planning process during the first half of the year leading up to the pilot, it became clear that not all of the Steering Committee groups had been doing systematic outreach and follow-up with domestic workers consistently while fighting for statewide legislation. During the campaign for the Domestic Worker Bill of Rights, Steering Committee groups developed member leadership by training spokespeople to interview with the media and potential allies, draft and share strong testimonies at press conferences and in legislative visits, and build relationships with unions, community groups, and interfaith congregations. While those skills were invaluable and essential to the victory, they were different from the skills needed to expand the base and reach 10 percent of the workers. For collective bargaining, consistent outreach to domestic workers was necessary and had to be added to the organizational scope of work.
Within the specific challenge of building systematic outreach into the work plans and assessing the skills needed to both conduct the outreach and bring in new workers in a post-campaign time, a host of other unique challenges presented themselves. At the most basic level, the Coalition had to map out the areas where the workers were most likely to be in order to do outreach because there is no shop floor where all domestic workers gather daily. It got help from students at Stanford University who used GIS mapping systems and Census data to project likely hotspots—i.e. areas where high income households (marked red) overlapped with children under five years old (marked yellow). Within these hotspots (marked orange), the Coalition set out to identify the parks and libraries where the nannies and the children they cared for would gather.
Over the summer, Bay Area groups prioritized these hotspots for outreach with varying degrees of success. But even before the maps were created, a few specific playgrounds proved to be goldmines in terms of outreach because dozens of nannies who knew each other would meet there frequently. Ultimately, the Coalition realized that their members’ street knowledge and networking on the playgrounds was far more accurate and productive than the computer-generated maps. While seemingly minute, this was a key lesson for Steering Committee groups, which have limited resources and strive to invest the time of their domestic worker leaders, many of whom have tight schedules between work and families, wisely.
“One of the main challenges for me, doing the outreach, was just being able to make time for it,” admitted Emily, a domestic worker and Coalition member. “I loved being able to support other women by telling them about their rights, and hear them thank me from their hearts. But in order to do the outreach, I really had to plan my schedule, preparing meals in advance for my son and me, rescheduling my housecleaning gigs, and just managing my own schedule.”
Member leader and outreach coordinator Martha Herrera worked at her cleaning job from six to nine in the morning and came straight to the MUA office afterwards to meet other members and do outreach during the drive. “The truth is, I wasn’t tired when I got off work and came to MUA, even though I’d been up since 5am,” she admits. “I was actually excited when I would get off work a little early, to rush over and meet the others, so we could go out together and talk to workers.”
Another challenge the Coalition currently faces is how to engage new contacts during a time when there is no Bill of Rights or legislation to promote. While letting new contacts know about their new rights to overtime is an excellent start, the Coalition’s goal is to organize these contacts into the movement. Hooking in domestic workers hungry for change on the job was relatively straightforward when there was an active fight in which to plug new contacts. Now, without a mobilization to Sacramento to meet with legislators, or a march to draw attention to a needed legislation, the Coalition is assessing potential trainings and services it can offer to foster long-term engagement in the domestic worker movement.
Organizing 25,000 workers will be no small feat for the seven Steering Committee organizations, most of which are worker centers representing low-wage immigrant workers who typically cannot access formal labor unions. During this period of assessment and outreach, the Coalition is not only investing in organizing to scale in order to build real political power within a broad base for 2017, it is also considering the importance of developing and deepening worker leadership so that the work is sustainable. In addition, the Coalition sees a need to deepen existing member leadership to ensure long-term commitment and dedication to the movement. The goal is to develop domestic worker leadership that can expand the work as paid organizers with long term vision. Unimaginable in the past, it is now made more possible by the recent recognition of the importance of domestic worker organizing from the MacArthur Foundation.
With its ambitious goal of organizing 10 percent or 25,000 domestic workers across the state over the next couple of years, the California Domestic Workers Coalition has its work cut out for itself. Hard as that may be, this groundbreaking work will help to build power and position the domestic worker movement to launch another legislative campaign in 2016. The Coalition recognizes that the base-building work in California is just a part of a growing national strategy of organizing to scale and is anchored by the National Domestic Worker Alliance. As domestic workers continue outreaching, meeting, and connecting more workers and allies to this infectious, humanizing, and growing movement, they are truly transforming our relationships to one another and our political landscape.
“Fighting against the grain for the improbable can be so isolating,” mused Sampedro following the first year anniversary celebration. “But remembering that we are each the voice of countless invisible workers while hugging and congratulating each other on our collective anniversary—that is when you really get to see how the small work that each one of us does makes a huge change.”

Dalia Rubiano Yedidia organized with domestic workers at the Latino Union of Chicago, and worked on the campaigns to pass the Domestic Workers Bill of Rights in New York and California. She is currently the movement building manager for Forward Together in Oakland.

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“It’s so beautiful to have such a party after fighting for so long, after so much struggle.” — Luz Sampedro,

Who Cares? The Politics of Making Domestic Work Visible

Domestic Worker contingent at the Climate March © 2014 Preeti Shekar

By Preeti Shekar

There are nearly two million domestic workers in the United States today. More than 60 percent of them are immigrant women of color. It’s no surprise, then, that the struggle for domestic workers’ rights is at the intersection of diverse social justice issues—immigration, migrant labor, and gendered division of labor—in a context of growing feminization of poverty and globalization.
 The domestic worker movement, which started as a small group of women organizing against unfair exploitation and pushing for some basic rights, has grown to be one of the most exciting labor movements, both in the United States and globally.
“The domestic workers’ movement today is over a decade old and is one of the most cutting-edge movements in the ability of its leadership to forge alliances and partnerships both globally and locally, with unlikely allies, including various labor unions,” notes Sheila Bapat, author of Part of the Family? Nannies, Housekeepers, Caregivers and the Battle for Domestic Workers’ Rights.
In her book, Bapat summarizes the short but delicious history of this movement in the U.S. with her skillful policy expertise, drawing on the many individual stories she researched for the book. “Every case study points to the one stark reality that ultimately, how domestic workers are treated depends largely on their employers,” she says. “Families that hire and fire these workers at will can range from being quite compassionate and just, to downright cruel and unbearably exploitative…  many [of them] immigrant or diplomat families.”

Panelists and organizers at screening of the film  Claiming Our Voices. Diplomats and Domestic Workers: A Troubled History
“For every case of worker exploitation, abuse, and violation that makes headlines like this, there are thousands that go unreported,” notes Nahar Alam, a founder of Andolan, a collective in New York that has organized hundreds of immigrant South Asian women workers.
A leading figure in the domestic worker movement, Alam was talking about the infamous case of Devyani Khobragade, the Indian diplomat who was leveraging her diplomatic immunity to get away with exploiting her domestic help, Sangeeta Richard.
While this case held the headlines for a while, it is a sad reality that many more such heinous cases go unreported or under-reported, Alam emphasized. However, she went on to explain, the enormous publicity and media frenzy around such cases helps immensely to raise critical visibility and build solidarity on these issues that no one cares about when ordinary middle class families exploit or abuse workers.

Feminist Sheroes
Even as the domestic workers’ movement has been gaining momentum steadily through high-visibility cases, the stellar feminist leadership of young women has also helped pave the way for rapid mobilization and some concrete policy gains.
Ai-Jen Poo, a long-time labor activist and campaigner, is widely seen today as the face of the domestic workers’ movement and rightly so for her role in making it the highly visible, highly intersectional movement it is today. Under her astute leadership, the movement has forged strong partnerships with immigrant rights groups, labor movements, and even environmental movements focusing on the disproportionate impacts of climate change. This last was evident at the People’s Climate March in New York City ahead of the UN Climate Change Summit, where a domestic workers’ group showed up in full force to join the hundreds of thousands of grassroots environmental activists and their allies.
Last August, Ai-Jen Poo won the prestigious MacArthur Genius award for her work. While this is cause for celebration for both the domestic workers’ movement and young feminist leadership, we also need to reflect on who gets to lead the movement and be its face. Alam urges social justice activists to be truly mindful of a reality that often leaves workers unable to lead their own struggles because of their vulnerabilities. We need to examine how the nonprofit industrial complex has created “career-activists” who are professionally trained to be dynamic leaders and act as external catalysts of change, as opposed to leaders grown from within a movement. In this regard, the domestic workers’ movement is not dissimilar to others, such as the restaurant workers organizing.

From Slavery to Surefire Liberation: The Long Slow Arc of Justice
Slavery, author Sheila Bapat reminds us in her book, is deeply imbricated with the evolution of domestic labor in 20th century America. “The roots of domestic work are deeply connected to the history of slavery in the U.S. It’s no accident that a vast majority of domestic workers were African American women to begin with, and increasingly now, immigrant women of color.”
With a deep and long history of exploitation rooted in slavery, making domestic work visible as critical labor has been a decade-long struggle. But thanks to strong feminist analysis undergirding the movement, it has grown to be quite a formidable one. A shining example is Mujeres Unidas y Activas (MUA), an organization that both empowers domestic workers and enables them to find well-paid work in the Bay Area, where they are based.
According to Bapat, the domestic worker movement has organically drawn from the “best feminist theories out there—from intersectionlity to inclusiveness. But for all its theoretical underpinnings of feminism, labor economics, and human rights, its demands are quite basic: rudimentary overtime, breaks in the work day, and a decent wage rate. And as a labor movement, it’s unlike any other—women-led (with women caring for each other’s children at meetings)—and inclusive of the most silenced voices.”
“Groups like MUA and others have come up across the country—in the midwest and East Coast—to serve domestic workers,” she adds, having spent a considerable amount of time with various leaders in the movement. And in the last decade or so they have grown to be powerhouses of organizing, representing a new and radical model, unlike any union.

A Tale of Two Labors—One Not Valued
For all its successes and promise of changes down the road, the domestic workers’ movement raises stark questions about the larger issues of labor and how our economies are structured to value certain forms of it and not others, which are subject to exploitation.
It is hard to not get outraged or upset as you read and learn about the history of how domestic labor— that crucial work, which ensures that our children are taken care of, allows our elderly and disabled to live with care and dignity, and sends out the workforce everyday, clothed and fed and taken care of—is rendered invisible and valueless. The very struggle to have domestic work recognized as valuable labor mirrors the women’s movement’s struggle to make women’s voices heard. So it’s no coincidence that over the years, as the feminist movement has gotten more inclusive of women of color and is no longer dominated by white women, it has taken on complex issues involving labor rights, economic justice, and environmental justice.

Mapping the Local and the Global, the Personal and the Political
“At the end of the day, our movement needs to be not just local or regional—it has to be globally connected,” Alam notes. Her analysis stems from the reality that a lot of global economic shifts—brought on by neoliberal economic policies—have enabled this growing network of global migrant labor. Massive socio-economic changes have entirely transformed the physical landscape and triggered the global migration of labor, creating a new underclass of cheap, dispensable (and therefore exploitable) workers who are unprotected by the state because many toil in foreign countries with vulnerable temporary or even undocumented immigration status and long path or no path to citizenship.
Several countries in the global south have also made a deliberate shift to neoliberal models of globalization. While these models have benefited a few in the middle and upper-middle class strata, the vast majority have been left to fend for themselves in the informal economies of wage labor which sometimes come dangerously close to slavery. At the same time, countries like the U.S. have witnessed a steady decline in social services, health care, and other vital public spending which enabled the middle and lower middle class to have a decent quality of life on limited incomes.
Domestic workers organizing globally have drawn from U.S. domestic worker organizing and in turn, lent it enormous solidarity and strength. It’s a two-way street, remarks author Bapat. The International Domestic Workers Network based in Hong Kong has been pivotal in raising the visibility of basic domestic worker rights with the International Labor Organization, and also in tracking the successes of domestic workers’ groups in different countries—from India and Singapore to the United States. Minor though these gains may be, they are a tremendous boost overall to the movement that works for the rights of millions of domestic workers around the world.

Courtesy of AndolanPutting the Power into Empowerment!
As bleak as things seem in the U.S., “We need to remind ourselves that there is still tremendous hope, as you can see from the growth of the movement and its leadership and the gains made by legislation in the few states,” notes Bapat. In several Arab countries, where workers’ rights are non-existent, we cannot even begin to imagine what fighting for the basic rights of domestic workers would look like because there are no provisions in the law and the media is silenced. In that sense, it’s critical for international organizations like the ILO to be involved, in order to ultimately democratize these human rights that currently only exist in certain countries, such as the United States.
This is definitely an exciting time for the movement, both globally and domestically, where a handful of states have already signed a domestic workers’ rights bill. But that law needs to be implemented or actively enforced to make it a reality.
“We need political power, not just paper power,” Alam reiterated at a recent meeting in the Bay Area. “There have been hundreds of stories of immigrant women who toil away and put up with abuse not knowing their rights. We still need to fill that information and advocacy gap, lacking which, thousands of immigrant women remain trapped in their isolation and fear. Only the time-tested ways of old-school organizing and consciousness-raising can enable that. Not all your state-of-the-art technologies and social media campaigns can transform that ground reality.”

Preeti Shekar is a freelance writer and a contributing editor at RP&E.

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The struggle for domestic workers’ rights is at the intersection of diverse social justice issues—immigration, migrant labor, and gendered division of labor.

Claiming Our Voice Panel Discussion

“We have women power, people power, but we don’t have paper power.” Gulnahar Alam
“Unfortunately, the way the non-profit system is set up is that it does not affirm working class leadership, and I think that’s something that we have to really think about and reflect upon.”
Yalini Dream

Panelists and organizers at the screening of the film Claiming Our VoiceClaiming Our Voice Panel Discussion with Gulnahar Alam (lead organizer and founder of Andolan: Organizing South Asian Workers), Jennifer Pritheeva Samuel (filmmaker & director of Claiming our Voice), YaliniDream (performance artist featured in the film) and Sheila Bapat (author of Part of the Family? Nannies, Housekeepers, Caregivers and the Struggle for Domestic Workers' Rights) offer remarks on domestic workers' rights. Learn about the challenges and successes of South Asian worker organizing efforts in the United States. This discussion is moderated by Preeti Mangala Shekar. This event was co-sponsored by Reimagine Race, Poverty and the Environment and ASATA (Alliance of South Asians Taking Action) and held at Oakstop Coworking in the heart of downtown Oakland.

Claiming Our Voice is a film about South Asian domestic worker organizing. 

There are more than 1.8 million domestic workers in the United States, many of whom toil in often unregulated and exploitative work conditions hidden from view in the homes of employers. Immigrant women of color constitute a disproportionate number of these domestic workers.

Claiming Our Voice interviews the women of Andolan, an organization founded and led by South Asian immigrant low-wage workers in New York City who organize collectively against exploitative work conditions. The film joins the women as they prepare to share their stories in a multi-lingual theater performance directed by YaliniDream.

History of Exploitation: from Slavery to Domestic Work

An interview with Sheila Bapat
“The roots of domestic work are deeply connected to the history of slavery in the U.S. It’s no accident that a vast majority of domestic workers were African American women to begin with, and increasingly now, immigrant women of color.”


By Preeti Shekar

Sheila Bapat, author of Part of the Family? Nannies, Housekeepers, Caregivers and the Battle for Domestic Workers’ Rights offers remarks on domestic workers' rights. Learn about the challenges and successes of South Asian worker organizing efforts in the United States.

8- Strategies for Change: 

Gentrification is Making Us Sick

Envisioning Healthy Development without Displacement
By Zoë Levitt

Photo courtesy of CJJC

The Alameda County Public Health Department (ACPHD) has witnessed the health consequences of gentrification for years. As Oakland neighborhoods have become less affordable and housing resources have decreased, the health threats have increased for the county’s most vulnerable residents. Case managers in ACPHD’s home visiting programs have heard numerous stories of low-income clients being threatened with eviction if they complain about housing conditions that contribute to asthma and other health issues.[1] Many of our clients have been forced into areas where services are less accessible and still others have been pushed into homelessness—a devastating scenario for health.

Gentrification and displacement have also come up repeatedly in the work of Place Matters, a community-centered local policy initiative of ACPHD.* This initiative was built on the recognition that the places where we live critically shape our health. Social inequities drive health inequities,[2] and policies and institutions are largely responsible for the vastly unequal conditions faced by people based on race, income, and geography. Over the years, it has become clear that while Place Matters and our community partners were successfully engaging in housing, land use, and transportation policy to improve health, gentrification was undermining those efforts by displacing longtime residents and preventing them from benefitting from neighborhood and city-level policy change.

Gentrification is the profit-driven race and class remake of urban, working class communities and communities of color that have suffered from a history of disinvestment and abandonment.  This process is driven by private developers, landlords, businesses and corporations and supported by the state.[14]

Displacement is the out-migration of low-income people and people of color from their existing homes and neighborhoods due to social, economic, physical, or environmental conditions that make their neighborhoods uninhabitable or unaffordable.[15] 
—Definitions from CJJC’s report Development without Displacement

CJJC and ACPHD: The Power of Partnership
When Causa Justa::Just Cause (CJJC) approached Place Matters in 2012 to work on a report about development without displacement, it was a perfect opportunity to deepen our understanding of the causes and consequences of gentrification as well as the role of public health in responding to the crisis. Our organizations had built a strong partnership, starting with a joint effort to prevent water shut-offs in foreclosed homes in 2006 and leading to our ongoing work to improve tenant protections and code enforcement practices in Oakland. We had also co-authored a report on the public health impacts of foreclosure in 2010.
Our extended partnership taught us what was possible when we pooled our different powers. CJJC has people power, organizing strategy, and a deep political analysis of the housing crisis developed through years of resident and community organizing on the ground. ACPHD can bring public health data, access to technical resources, and institutional credibility to reach and convene a broad audience. Together, we could build stronger evidence and advance more effective policy campaigns.

When CJJC released their report, Development without Displacement: Resisting Gentrification in the Bay Area last spring, a number of reporters focused on the public health angle of the story. Through a year-long partnership between CJJC and Place Matters involving resident interviews, local data, and research, we had learned that gentrification has serious impacts on the health and well-being of longtime residents of gentrifying neighborhoods, individuals and families displaced, and eventually, on our broader society.[3] Some of these impacts include:

Rising rents cost fixed income and elderly residents over 50 percent of their income and force them into difficult budget trade-offs, such as paying for electricity but not heat.[4] Gentrification can cause overcrowding, increase tenant harassment and eviction, and exacerbate discrimination in the housing market. It can also lead to closures of vital community-serving businesses and institutions.

Foreclosures combined with gentrification have deeply affected black wealth and wellbeing. Between 1990 and 2011, Oakland’s black population decreased from 43 percent to 26 percent, the largest drop by far of any group. During the same period, more than 2,000 black households were displaced from North Oakland, while homeownership, a significant wealth-building opportunity, dropped and renters grew among the city’s black population.[5] Income and wealth are among the strongest determinants of health, as they enable access to multiple health-promoting resources and opportunities, which accumulate over generations.

Displacement is financially burdensome and psychologically taxing, particularly on the poor and elderly. Moving at any age reduces social supports and increases stressors, but the longer one has lived in a neighborhood, the more likely one is to experience anxiety or depression after a move, hence elderly residents are at greatest risk of social isolation and depression due to displacement.

Displacement disrupts access to education, employment, health care, and healthy neighborhood amenities. Residents forced to move may face longer commutes to work or school, leading to increased stress, loss of income, job loss or greater school dropout rate. Displaced residents may have trouble obtaining medical records, prescriptions, and affordable health care services. Displacement can also mean relocation to neighborhoods with fewer health-promoting resources, such as high quality jobs, healthy food options, accessible public transit, and safe and walkable streets.

Displacement fractures the social and economic supports that can save lives. In CJJC’s report, the case of the elderly resident saved from a diabetic coma by a neighbor who shared coffee with her on a daily basis[6] is a clear example of the neighborhood relationships and rituals that are disrupted by displacement and critically important to health. Displacement can also mean loss of political voice, as residents lose their ability to shape the future of the city from the place where they socialize, work, or pray. Gentrification is latest among a string of urban policies causing “serial displacement”[7] of communities of color through disinvestment and disruption.  This repeated upheaval and dispossession in the name of development has profoundly undermined the support systems needed to survive and thrive and impacted health and wellbeing across generations.

Displacement also harms society as a whole by increasing metropolitan segregation and inequality, which contributes to poorer health outcomes for all. As urban residents are forced into neighborhoods with less accessible public transit, displacement may also increase driving and greenhouse gas emissions for the whole region.

Photo courtesy of CJJCGentrification: Not the Same As Development
In their report, CJJC points out that development is the investment of resources, services, and infrastructure—something all neighborhoods and communities deserve but for decades has been denied to many based on the race and class of their residents. Whereas, gentrification is the profit-driven transformation of working class communities and communities of color that have suffered from a history of disinvestment and abandonment.[8] It’s not inevitable, but a result of decades of government policy and practice, which give private developers and incoming affluent residents more resources and political voice than longtime residents, compounded by policy shifts that have massively eroded funding for affordable housing and diminished the ability of public institutions to protect and provide for our most vulnerable residents.

In order to truly prevent gentrification and displacement, a new approach to development is needed, and public health departments have a role to play in this shift.

Reimagining Healthy Development without Displacement
Public health departments have long worked in partnership with other public agencies to initiate neighborhood change in the name of health. While many of these changes have been positive, too often government-supported neighborhood change has excluded and displaced existing residents. Public health departments have a history of involvement in destructive policies like Urban Renewal, which displaced thousands of black residents and businesses from urban centers in the name of “blight removal.”[9] Our historic role in this racialized period of mass displacement demands that we make displacement prevention central to current work to build healthier communities—including partnerships between urban planners and public health to increase opportunities for physical activity, public transit access, healthy food access, and safe and walkable streets. Otherwise, these efforts may simply reproduce the unjust patterns of the past. As Dr. Muntu Davis, County Health Officer and Director of ACPHD, stated in an interview last summer: “Preventing displacement may be the single greatest challenge and the most important task in our efforts to create healthy communities for all.”[10]

There is much work to be done to realize healthy development and public agencies cannot and should not do it alone. Community organizations, advocates, and residents throughout the Bay Area have advanced a powerful movement for development without displacement and secured a number of exciting victories in recent months.

Impacts of Gentrification and Displacement
At a recent discussion hosted by CJJC and Place Matters, a County employee and lifelong Oakland resident illustrated the unhealthy and unjust consequences of gentrification with this personal story: As a young person growing up in West Oakland, he and his friends wrote repeatedly to City Hall requesting improvements to a park where they played basketball but to no avail. It was only decades later that the City initiated major landscaping and improvements to that park—alongside the introduction of several market rate housing developments, the influx of whiter, wealthier, and more politically connected residents, and rising rents.  When residents who have lived, worked, and contributed to their neighborhoods for decades in the face of disinvestment aren’t able to stay and benefit from change, such development is neither healthy nor sustainable.
At a Baptist church in West Oakland recently I learned that 60 to 70 percent of the congregants had been displaced to other cities around the Bay, which meant that they could not vote in their city of worship, even though many of them would have liked to support increasing Oakland’s minimum wage.

CJJC and the Tenant Justice Campaign secured improvements to Oakland’s rent regulations last spring, and more recently, won the adoption of the Tenant Protection Ordinance, which will protect thousands of tenants from landlord harassment, a common cause of displacement. Together, these represent the only legislative advances for tenants’ rights in Oakland for over a decade. Other promising actions underway include a community-based planning partnership to create “Healthy Development Guidelines” for Oakland—a joint effort between East Oakland Building Healthy Communities,[11] (under the leadership of Communities for a Better Environment, CJJC, East Bay Housing Organizations, and HOPE Collaborative), ACPHD, and the City of Oakland Planning Department, with technical assistance from ChangeLab Solutions. This multi-year resident engagement process will result in a tool that city planners can use to ensure that new development meets community-identified priorities for health equity. Many other exciting efforts are happening across the region. In both Contra Costa and San Mateo Counties, local health departments are raising displacement as a health issue, supporting anti-displacement community organizing, and providing policy and technical support to cities facing displacement pressure.

Oakland City Hall. Photo courtesy of CJJC. Public health departments and community organizations can and should strive to be allies in community-led struggles for development without displacement. To support these efforts, public health departments can provide public health data, research, and analysis to document the significance of displacement and the health consequences it brings. This means addressing all the reasons residents are forced to move—including lack of opportunity, habitability, and affordability. We can also provide testimony at public meetings and convene institutional and community partners to advance needed policy change such as tenant protections and affordable housing preservation, among other solutions.[12] Ultimately, our healthy development efforts should focus on ensuring that existing residents have the voice, opportunities, and resources they need to shape and be healthy and thrive in the places and communities they already call home.

As Maria Poblet, executive director of CJJC, stated in a recent blog post: “The struggle for stable, habitable homes needs to be a collective one; a people-powered process that shows us our power as creators of community instead of as consumers; a process that city officials accompany us in as allies of the people they represent; a process that builds grassroots institutions through which we build long-term progressive political power and grow in community with each other in the city we call home.”13 In this collective struggle, the task of public health departments is to see our role as allies of the people and use our institutional powers to protect health and wellbeing for all—including the right to stable, affordable, and healthy homes and neighborhoods.

The information presented in this article represents the ideas, hard work, and expertise of many Alameda County Public Health Department staff, partners, and community members, especially the staff and members of CJJC.  Special thanks to editors and thought partners, including Katherine Schaff, Tram Nguyen, Robbie Clark, Anna Lee, Kimi Watkins-Tartt, Dawn Phillips, Alex Desautels, and Will Dominie. CJJC’s report, Development without Displacement is available at For more information on Place Matters:

Zoë Levitt is Local Policy Associate at the Place Matters Initiative of the Alameda County Public Health Department.

*    In 2006, at the invitation of the national Place Matters Initiative, now part of the National Collaborative for Health Equity, Alameda County Supervisor Keith Carson’s office and ACPHD launched Alameda County Place Matters. This initiative is dedicated to working in partnership with community organizations and residents to advance local policy change in the areas of housing, economics, education, criminal justice, land use, and transportation.
1.    Public Testimony, Amy Scholinbeck. Oct 14, 2014. Oakland City Council Meeting.
2.    Whitehead M, Povall S, Loring B. (2014). The Equity Action Spectrum: Taking a Comprehensive Approach. World Health Organization. Available at:
3.    For a full discussion of health impacts and sources consulted, see Causa Justa::Just Cause, Development without Displacement, page 41. Available at:
4.     Ibid, page 43.
5.    Alameda County Public Health Department with data from Census 1990, Census 2000, and American Community Survey 2007-2011.
6.    CJJC, page 43.
7.    Fullilove, M.T. & Wallace R. (2011). “Serial Forced Displacement in American Cities: 1916-2010.” Journal of Urban Health, 88(3):381-389.
8.    CJJC, page 8, for a full definition and analysis of gentrification.
9.    Lopez, R.P. (2009). “Public health, the APHA, and urban renewal.” American Journal of Public Health, 99(9): 1603–1611.
10.    Rivas J. “New Study: Being Gentrified is Bad for Your Health.” April 7, 2014.
11.    For more information about East Oakland Building Healthy Communities, see
12.    For a full list of policy recommendations, see CJJC, Development Without Displacement, page 59.
13.    Poblet, Maria. “The Struggle for the Flatlands: How Oakland Can Fight Gentrification.” April 22, 2014.
14.    CJJC, page 8, for a full definition and analysis of gentrification.
15.    Ibid

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As Oakland neighborhoods have become less affordable and housing resources have decreased, the health threats have increased for the county’s most vulnerable residents.

Tenant Rights Movement Wins New Law in Oakland

A Step Towards Healthy Housing for Oakland’s  Tenants
By Robbie Clark

ACPHD staff member speaking on the health impacts of displacement. Photo courtesy of APCHDOn November 5, 2014, the Oakland City Council approved the Tenant Protection Ordinance (TPO), a landmark policy victory that will protect thousands of Oakland’s tenants from landlord harassment.
The TPO resulted from the work that Causa Justa::Just Cause (CJJC) has been doing with the Alameda County Public Health Department’s (ACPHD) Place Matters program. It was a key policy solution highlighted in CJJC’s Development Without Displacement report released earlier this year. (See

Dan Kalb, councilmember for District 1, sponsored the ordinance, which was approved by five out of eight councilmembers last November.

The TPO is a major win for the Bay Area tenants’ rights movement and a critical step forward in ensuring that Oakland’s longtime residents are not displaced by new development. It’s part of a growing tenant justice movement, which includes establishing a rent cap and limiting rent increase pass-throughs for Oakland’s tenants. It was also the first tenant protection policy to be approved in Oakland in more than a decade. Previous protections, such as the rent stabilization program and just cause evictions, only applied to tenants in units built before 1983. The TPO extends to all rental units built up until 2014, with the exception of owner-occupied buildings and nonprofit-owned housing.

The TPO is also a win for immigrant rights and the fight for healthy housing conditions for all because it specifies 16 categories of harassment, including threatening to report tenants to ICE (Immigration and Customs Enforcement) and refusing to make basic repairs deemed critical for the health of tenant families, seniors, and immigrants. The TPO includes attorney fees for tenants forced to take landlords to court and obliges landlords to pay damages if found in violation of the ordinance. It also requires the City of Oakland to track tenant complaints across the board in order to accurately assess the scale of the issues faced by Oakland tenants.

The fight for healthy housing for Oakland tenants is far from over, but the TPO is a good start.  We will continue to demand that the city prioritize resources for enforcement of tenant rights and establish an administrative program to directly fine landlords who harass Oakland tenants and violate the existing tenant protection laws.

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The Fire This Time: Ferguson

By Alicia Garza

Since the first week of August 2014, a rebellion has grown in St. Louis, Missouri sparked by the murder of unarmed 18-year-old Michael Brown by a Ferguson police officer, Darren Wilson. This is a rebellion fueled by state and police violence in working class black communities and its character demonstrates some very important shifts. Black youth are working diligently to re-calibrate this country’s moral center: building from the Civil Rights and Black Power movements, they have created their own historical identity, rejecting respectability politics, embracing direct action, and tackling new forms of anti-black racism rooted in old forms of slavery. As the black youth in Ferguson are innovating movement vision, practice and purpose, will the rest of us in the progressive movement be able to catch up?

In 1963, James Baldwin, having returned from Europe to participate in the Civil Rights movement, penned the powerful narrative The Fire Next Time1 which offers poignant thoughts on how to bring forth a world free of racist terror and violence. Baldwin asserts that black people, given our social, economic, and political positions, are uniquely positioned to re-humanize America and predicts that we “can make America what America must become.”

As of November 2014, at least three black youth under age 25 had been killed at the hands of police in St. Louis over a 100-day period. Every 28 hours, a black person in this country is murdered by police or vigilantes2. There are more than one million black people in prisons and jails in the United States. The fastest growing population in prisons and jails is black women who are imprisoned at nearly three times the rate of white women.3 Over one million currently under state supervision—largely penalized for crimes of poverty and hetero-patriarchy. Among black transgendered people, one in three has been arrested or held in a cell.4
Even as black communities are targeted for state and vigilante violence, they are increasingly denied access to a strong democracy. Voting restrictions, redistricting, and segregation ensure that black communities do not gain sustained political power. In Ferguson, 68 percent of the city’s 21,000 people are black but only one official on the City Council is black, there are no blacks on the school board, and just three out of the 53 police officers are black.5

Against a state apparatus that targets black people in particular for profit and control, progressive movements and institutions are still largely ineffective. But young black St. Louis residents have been on the frontlines of a growing and unique rebellion providing uncompromising leadership that’s in sharp contrast to previous forms of leadership. Then, we fought for a seat at the table, now we are fighting for the table.

The Fire This Time Is Different

More than 40 years after Baldwin wrote those profound words, black people in America are creating new tributaries in the ebb and flow of the Black Freedom Movement. A generation of young blacks is becoming radicalized through its experiences of fighting white supremacy in the form of hyper-policing and criminalization of the poor and working -class communities. Black women in particular are standing at the intersections of white supremacy, hetero-patriarchy, and capitalism, leading the movement for a new democracy and a new economy. From underground, a rumble is growing and ruptures happening, demonstrating that a new movement is on the way. This movement will not look like the ones that have come before, but will build itself from the best strategies and tactics adapted to the realities of our time. St. Louis and the growing movement to end state violence in all of its forms is taking center stage.

The fire this time rejects respectability politics, values militant civil disobedience and direct action, unites across identities with black lives at the center, and is led by young people under the age of 35—from 15-year-old Low-Key of the Lost Voices to Ashley Yates and Tef Poe. Every night, newly formed black youth organizations, such as the Freedom Fighters, Tribe X, HandsUp United, Lost Voices, and Millennial Activists United (MAU), some of whose members are queer, demonstrate before the Ferguson police department and on the south side of St. Louis where Vonderrit Myers was killed. In fact, the founders of MAU became prominent on social media platforms like Twitter, through their participation in and documentation of the early stages of the Ferguson rebellion.

The rejection of respectability politics has accelerated in Ferguson, making it the only predominantly black city in the last 50 years to reject an assumption of leadership by traditional civil rights leaders and institutions. When Michael Brown was murdered, the Reverend Jesse Jackson traveled to Ferguson eight days later, allegedly to work with local clergy to increase voter registration in the area and join community members who were demonstrating, demanding justice. After talking with community members in a McDonald’s parking lot, Jackson made the grave mistake of asking for donations for “the church,” and was promptly booed. And Al Sharpton recently did an event in Ferguson with talk show host Iyanla Vanzant, which garnered little media attention, despite their recognized name brands. Neither Sharpton nor Jackson have assumed prominent roles in Ferguson, as they may have been accustomed to doing in other instances. As one man asked Jackson: “When are you going to stop selling us out?”

In contrast, on the day after Michael Brown’s death the Canfield Green community reportedly solicited donations for his family6 and had a large plastic bag full by day’s end. Today, a shrine to Brown remains in the middle of the street where his 18-year old black body lay for more than four hours just steps away from his home. Cars respectfully slow down as they pass. Residents passing by will upright a fallen teddy bear or clean up any debris around the memorial. In a city where the per capita income is around $20,000 per year, the community has clearly spoken about where its allegiances lie.

Even clergy are being radicalized by the young black leaders in St. Louis. During the initial stages of the Ferguson rebellion, many clergy and civil rights leaders advocated for “peaceful” resistance, and in doing so, implicitly and explicitly supported methods of resistance that they deemed appropriate. However, that type of leadership has been rejected, meaning that even some religious leaders have had to change their approach if their participation was to be accepted.

Young Blacks Re-Humanizing Society

The relative silence from some areas of the progressive movement is notable, but many of the young leaders—such as 15-year-old Shermale Humphrey and 18-year-old Jeanina Jenkins—on the frontlines of the nightly Justice for Mike Brown demonstrations, were also previously involved in the “Show Me 15” movement. Some organizations, such as MomsRising and the National Domestic Workers Alliance, have been vocal and visible in bringing together the impact of state violence on women and children. When AFL-CIO President Richard Trumpka delivered a groundbreaking speech7 at the Missouri convention of the AFL-CIO, calling for organized labor to step up and join the fight for justice and accountability and an end to racist policies and structures that keep people poor and disenfranchised, he also noted that Brown’s mother, a deli worker and member of UFCW, and Officer Wilson, a member of the police union, were a part of the same family, adding: “Our brother killed our sister’s son.”

Still, an overwhelming silence around anti-black racism envelopes an already fragile movement. A recent labor newsletter8 photograph showed the president of the Missouri AFL-CIO with the St. Louis Chief of Police, Sam Dotson—just days after Myers was killed—at the Ferguson October national convergence to build a movement against police and vigilante violence. In the newsletter, the state labor president praises Dotson for making sure that the demonstrators were kept safe, when just the night before, demonstrators were pepper-sprayed.

Johnetta “Netta” Elsie and DeRay McKesson have created a daily newsletter, This is the Movement, which carries news about the Ferguson rebellion and notable efforts in other parts of the movement. They offer analysis, humor, photos and videos and are clear about their reasons for being involved and about what comes between them and freedom. As one young woman involved in the Show Me 15 movement told me: “I used to think that all police were generally good with just a few bad ones. But since I became involved in this movement, I noticed that not one officer came forward to say that what Darren Wilson did was wrong. It really shows you how they think about us. What they think about us.” She begins to cry softly, adding: “I been tear gassed, been shot at, been arrested. But at the end of the day, I’ve spent more time in jail than Darren Wilson!” Given that viewpoint, it’s unlikely that we will see photos of demonstrators posing with police officers.
Black youth in St. Louis have certainly sparked the fire this time, breathing new life into James Baldwin’s words about black people being uniquely positioned to re-humanize this country. An uncompromising leadership, a new call for black power, an approach that has changed our hearts and minds—one hundred days after Brown’s death, they are blazing new trails that took the progressive movement more than three decades to wrap its head around. Those of us who are paying attention aren’t only asking what we can learn, but also, perhaps more importantly, how we can catch up! 

View From the Street: October 8th

Wednesday, October 8, 2014. Night has fallen in St. Louis. The air is electric with grief, rage, and tension. A few hours earlier, 18-year-old Vonderrit Myers was killed by an off-duty St. Louis police officer working a second job as a private security officer. Initial reports of yet another death of a black youth at the hands of the police spread like wildfire, quickly turning into calls for protests.

When I arrive at the location where Vonderrit was killed, there are approximately 150 people, mostly between the ages of 15-35, milling around. Some had come from Ferguson, the community where Michael Brown was killed just shy of a month earlier.

The tone is at once angry and somber. Vonderrit’s home is surrounded by yellow caution tape that has fallen to the ground. The crowd is comprised largely of black youth from Ferguson and neighboring areas, officers from the St. Louis City police department, Vonderrit’s grieving family and loved ones, clergy and religious leaders, and local activists and organizers. Across the street is the liquor store where Vonderrit spent the last moments of his life. The lights are on but the door is closed as the crowd grows and their impassioned murmurs crescendo into a determined call-and-response chant:

Hey hey! Ho ho! These killer cops have got to go!

The tone gets angrier and emotions intensify. Local clergy and religious leaders walk slowly through the crowd, shaking hands and consoling grieving family members and loved ones. A local community organizer moves through the crowd with a clipboard, stopping short of her plan to recruit. An older activist with another local organization attempts to calm the crowd, but a child has just been murdered. Some police officers are talking with a handful of clergy, while family members sob in each other’s arms.

Somewhere, the sound of glass shattering is immediately followed by cheers from the crowd whose intensity is increasing rapidly. The dull thud of feet kicking a police car gets louder as the number of feet increases. Police officers in the crowd surround the police chief and retreat to the nearest intersection, but not before being surrounded.

One black youth with his head turned to the sky is screaming and crying. He lowers his head, and staring directly into the face of an officer whose expression barely hides his disdain, yells: “Ya’ll got guns! I’m just talkin, but ya’ll got guns! What the fuck are YOU scared of? You gonna shoot me? Shoot me! Ya’ll got guns!“

Amidst the obvious tension, the chief gives the order for officers to leave the area and they walk slowly to their cars and start their ignitions. Other cars attempting to make it down the street are generally allowed to pass if they go slowly, or demonstrate some level of support for the crowd. The ones trying to move faster through the crowd are stopped by the bodies. One such is a police car with a black officer at the wheel. With windows rolled up, he inches forward too quickly for the crowd’s liking and a young black woman becomes incensed. “Where the fuck are you going?” She cusses at the car and a few others surround it. The woman circles around and lies down in front of the car, sayng: “Try to leave now. Ya’ll ain’t going nowhere!"


View From the Street: October 12th


Saturday, October 12, 2014. A few nights after Myers was killed, protests in both Ferguson and in Myer’s neighborhood known as “Shaw,” continue. The youth have decided to keep applying pressure by bringing demonstrations into communities that don’t normally see protests. They are committed to making people uncomfortable. On this particular evening, St. Louis City police respond with pepper-spray. As a result, at least one activist is hospitalized for shortness of breath and seizures.

My heart is pounding as I stand locked arm in arm with strangers who have become family.

Officers in riot gear line the streets, ostensibly protecting private property in the restaurant district. On a street off the main thoroughfare, a line of officers blocks a smaller group of demonstrators from joining another group across the street. A group of about 50 people is milling around, while another 20 or so form a line facing the police line.

Ashley Yates (29), Brittany Ferrell (25), and Alexis Templeton (20), pace back and forth between police and demonstrators. Both Ferrell and Templeton are wearing t-shirts that read “Unarmed Civilian,” and Ferrell tells the police: “We love you, even though you don’t show love for us. Did you think when you signed up for this job, that this is what you’d be doing?” Meanwhile, Templeton begins to lead the crowd in a call and response:

It is our duty to fight for our freedom

It is our duty to win

We must love and support each other

We have nothing to lose but our chains.

They are chanting the famous (at least in activist circles) quote from Assata Shakur. I watch the officers ever so slightly shift their stance and it seems that for just one moment they, too, are mesmerized by the power of this young leadership. Ferrell and Templeton lead the crowd through the chant, at times loudly, at times in just a whisper, 62 times—once for each day since the killing of Michael Brown. At one point, a single tear slips down the face of one of the black officers. Moments later, an armored car resembling a tank arrives and stops directly in front of an upscale fast food restaurant.

“This is the St. Louis police. This is an unlawful assembly."

Alicia Garza is the Special Projects Director of the National Domestic Workers Alliance. In 2013, Alicia co-founded #BlackLivesMatter, an online platform developed after the murder of Trayvon Martin, designed to connect people interested in fighting back against anti-Black racism.




1    Baldwin, James. The Fire Next Time.
4    chrome-extension://ecnphlgnajanjnkcmbpancdjoidceilk/


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"It is our duty to fight for our freedom / It is our duty to win / We must love and support each other / We have nothing to lose but our chains."
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"It is our duty to fight for our freedom.
It is our duty to win.
We must love and support each other.
We have nothing to lose but our chains."

Who Gets to Live Near Transit?

Latino Residents Battle New Condo Development
By Dyan Ruiz and Joseph Smooke

Plaza 16 protest ©2014 Dyan Ruiz

On a blazing hot Saturday afternoon, several hundred people marched through the streets of San Francisco’s Mission District as part of a growing movement against a developer’s plans for condo buildings at one of the Bay Area’s busiest transit hubs. The proposed development of two 10-story and one five-story buildings is on the plaza at 16th and Mission streets, which has an entrance to a Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) station. BART is a public transit system of heavy rail and subways that connect San Francisco with cities in the East Bay, such as Oakland, and northern San Mateo County. The protest on October 4, 2014 was organized by Our Mission No Eviction and the Plaza 16 Coalition.

The development is one of the most resisted and most watched in the City. On the one hand, it fulfills the City and County of San Francisco’s plans for transit-oriented development and the Bay Area’s regional agenda for focused growth near transit under state law SB 375. On the other hand, it will escalate displacement and gentrification in the Mission District—a decades-old Latino neighborhood—say residents and activists.

“This is the fight, not just because of that one building, but that building connected to all the other thousands of market rate units that they want to bring down,” said Oscar Grande, a community organizer with People Organizing to Demand Environmental and Economic Rights (PODER) and a speaker at the protest. “We got politicians that are pushing for transit-oriented development. They’re looking for smart growth. But it’s not smart if it doesn’t include folks like you and I. That’s why we gotta push!”

San Francisco often tops lists of U.S. cities for the most expensive rent, averaging close to $3,000 a month for a one-bedroom apartment. Rising rents and evictions are pushing out longtime residents. According to a recent analysis by the California Housing Partnership Corporation, median rents in San Francisco County increased by 22 percent between 2000 and 2012, while the median income declined by more than 2 percent, significantly driving up the percentage of income that households must spend on rent—more than 50 percent of income in the case of 59 percent of very low-income households.

“When my parents moved to this country from Nicaragua, this was their home,” said high school counselor Evelyn Ibarra, who participated in the “No Monster in the Mission” protest. “This is where my brother and I were raised. My parents still own a business here on Valencia and 21st and we’re seeing a lot of friends getting evicted… a lot of our families.”

“It’s just really sad to see a lot of people having to be dislocated to the East Bay,” she continued. “I work in Pittsburg and I see a lot kids who have to live all the way out there because they can no longer live here with their families.” Pittsburg, California is about an hour’s drive northeast of San Francisco.

Zoning for Developers or Communities?
The developer, Maximus Real Estate Partners, LLC is proposing buildings that would contain 345 housing units, most of which will be market-rate, with 32,000 square feet of retail space and an underground parking garage. The proposed site at 1979 Mission Street currently has a Walgreens, Burger King, a Chinese restaurant and a bar. The project is under review at the San Francisco Planning Department.

The City’s guiding principles for this project come from the “Eastern Neighborhoods Plan,” which emphasizes transit-oriented housing development and establishes zoning controls for large areas of the city that formerly housed significant numbers of blue collar jobs in manufacturing, distribution and repair. The areas include the Mission District, Eastern South of Market (SOMA), Potrero Hill, and the Central Waterfront. As the neighborhoods began to change with the changing economy, the City initiated a community planning process in 2001 for housing and other development in these areas. In 2009, the “Eastern Neighborhoods Plan” was approved, despite objections by community groups.

The Plaza 16 Coalition traces its origins to the Mission Anti-Displacement Coalition, formed during the first dotcom boom in the late 1990s. It led the creation of the “People’s Plan” to inform the eastern neighborhoods rezoning, but was largely brushed aside. The “People’s Plan” required all development over 10,000 square feet to be affordable housing to reverse family flight and set the limit on building height to five stories to reduce incentives to build luxury condos. Plaza 16 is demanding that the People’s Plan be used as a framework for all development in the Mission.

The “Green-Washing” of Race and Class Issues
The project at 1979 Mission shows how land use policy favoring transit-oriented development without a strong equity framework or protections against displacement can intensify race and class disparities. A 2010 study by Northeastern University on the impacts of newly transit-rich neighborhoods concludes that “the most predominant pattern is one in which housing becomes more expensive, neighborhood residents become wealthier and vehicle ownership becomes more common.” The study also says: “a new transit station can set in motion a cycle of unintended consequences in which core transit users–such as, renters and low income households–are priced out in favor of higher-income, car-owning residents who are less likely to use public transit for commuting.”

A further review of related literature on the subject, including “Public Transit’s Impact on Housing Costs” published in 2011 by the Center for Housing Policy, confirms the broad consensus in planning studies that “proximity to public transit does lead to higher home values and rents in many cases.” People who can afford higher housing costs are more likely to use their cars, whereas low-income households rely on public transit and will use it often. A 2014 study by the California Housing Partnership shows that “Higher Income households drive more than twice as many miles and own more than twice as many vehicles as Extremely Low-Income households living within 1/4 mile of frequent transit.”

While the development at 1979 Mission would not install a new transit system, it’s easy to see that the effects of building “luxury condos” would be similar to the effects described in the studies. The renters of these market-rate condos would more likely be wealthier than most existing residents in the neighborhood and less inclined to use public transit. A telling sign that the new residents are less inclined to use public transit are the luxury “Google buses” zipping along Mission neighborhood streets in service of tech employees commuting to their Silicon Valley offices.

In fact, the proposed development provides 163 parking spaces, even though the City does not require parking at this site. Basement parking adds significant cost to the development, making the base price for rent even more beyond the reach of local residents. The new parking garage will also bring additional car traffic to the area. While the developers have plans to improve the impacted streets and sidewalks they also intend to apply for a credit with the City to reduce their impact fees in exchange for the road improvements.

Affordability for Existing Residents
While access to transit is important, for many Mission residents and their advocates, the primary concern is affordability. Developments, such as the one proposed at 16th and Mission, should be affordable for people who live and work in the neighborhood, they say.

At the first action against the condo development on February 1, 2014, Guillermina Castellanos, a mother who lives in the Mission, said in an interview (translated from Spanish): “This building they want to build, it won’t be for our families. It will be for another class of families that have money. We don’t have sufficient money to pay for these condominiums.”

Between 1990 and 2011, Latino households in the Mission District decreased by 1,400, while white households increased by 2,900 during the same period, according to a 2014 study by Causa Justa::Just Cause.

Plaza 16 Protest ©2014 Dyan RuizWhen asked about their plans for affordable housing, a lobbyist for Maximus Real Estate Partners, Bert Polacci said in an email: “We are currently planning the inclusionary housing in the project as outlined by law.” The plans for affordable units within the new building will comply with the City’s minimum requirement—a total of 42 affordable units among the 303 market-rate units.

The city currently requires new housing developments to make 12 percent of the units affordable (also known as inclusionary housing). A developer can also opt to pay a fee instead, or build the below market rate units at another site. Community advocates, however, want all the housing units to be affordable.

“The existing residents of this neighborhood… need to be at the table when planning conversations are happening,” said Causa Justa Organizer Maria Zamudio. “They need to decide what kind of housing they want, what they want it to look like, where they want it to go, what kind of affordability levels [they] are going to be at.”

This reflects another tenet of the “People’s Plan,” which would require public input for all new buildings in the Mission District. Since the protest in February 2014, organizers have held community meetings, given public comment at City hearings, and held rallies to ensure public input on the development. On their part, Maximus has had over 100 meetings with community and city-wide organizations, merchants, City agencies, and labor groups since the late summer of 2013, according to the website for 1979 Mission Street.

The Domino Effect on the Neighborhood
Beyond the impacts on housing affordability, there are concerns about the development’s impact on surrounding businesses serving the area and especially, a Spanish immersion public elementary school. A merchant association leader said that in his experience, when a development like this goes up, the surrounding businesses will be priced out.

“What ends up happening is, you get realtors talking with the existing merchants trying to find out when their leases come due, trying to find out who the property owners are,” said Erick Arguello of the Calle 24 Merchant Association. The realtors then offer the property owners, “more money to bring in another business that’s going to be able to cater to this new market,” he added.

As the Mission District has become gentrified, Arguello has seen owners being forced to move out and go out of business because they can’t afford the rent. One of the best examples of rapid gentrification taking over many parts of San Francisco can be found one block away from Mission Street on Valencia Street. Low-key taquerias, discount stores. and Latino-owned mom-and-pop shops have been replaced with high-end restaurants, clothing boutiques, and luxury stores catering to the new demographic of tech-employed hipsters.

A report by the City’s Budget and Legislative Analyst published in October 2014, puts some stark numbers behind what merchants have been experiencing city-wide. In 1992, 518 established San Francisco businesses at least five years old closed or relocated. In 2011, that figure skyrocketed to 3,657—over 600 percent more! The price of commercial property has also gone way up: from $189.50 per square foot in 1999 to $675.10 per square foot in 2013.

Casting a Shadow on a Neighborhood School
The development has also raised the ire of parents at the Spanish-immersion public school located beside the proposed site. At a Board of Education hearing on June 23, 2014, the line of parents from Marshall Elementary and its neighbors waiting to give public comment extended from the podium to the back of the room. That evening, the developers formally presented their plans to the Board of Education members for the first time.

The parents’ major concerns center on dust and noise from construction, and the shadow the condo development will cast on the school yard. During her public comment on the construction plans, Bianca Starr, mother of a recent Marshall graduate and current student, said: “Not to sound dramatic, but it sounds like a war zone.” Both of her sons have asthma and she is concerned about how her younger son’s health will be impacted by the dust and the construction noise.

The developers estimate that the construction would last 21 months, impacting two school years. They have told the community about plans to mitigate the noise, dust, and shadow impacts, including offering to build an elevated playground for the school. According to developer spokesperson Christian Lampley, approval of any construction on school property would have to go through the School District and the State Architect.

In a recent interview, President of the Board of Education Sandra Lee Fewer said: “The School District cannot look at this development in isolation when there is rapid development in this one concentrated area.” She has concerns about how these developments will impact the Board’s ability to serve every school age child who chooses public education. “A generous offer from the developer would be not to build an elevated play yard, but to build a new larger school,” she told the developer at the June hearing.

The Board of Education is looking at the impacts of the development on the entire neighborhood, she said, adding: “It’s not about one school. Large market rate developments, such as this, have an effect on the neighborhood in general—the cost of neighboring rental units, ability to run a family business there. It’s also about being able to have a neighborhood that reflects the character and values of Mission District families that currently live there.”

According to City Planner M. Douglas Vu, the 1979 Mission Street project is currently undergoing its Environmental Review, which includes a transportation study and shadow analysis. Following that, there will be a conditional use hearing with the Planning Department at which there will no doubt be more community resistance and public comment offered to the City and developers.


Dyan Ruiz and Joseph Smooke are cofounders of [people. power. media] an online platform broadcasting community voices to impact public policy. This article is a co-publishing project of [] and Reimagine! RP&E and is also available in video and podcast form.

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"This is the fight, not just because of that one building, but that building connected to all the other thousands of market rate units that they want to bring down,” — Oscar Grande,
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"This is the fight, not just because of that one building, but that building connected to all the other thousands of market rate units that they want to bring down,” — Oscar Grande,

We Will Not Be Moved

Tenant Organizing for the Right to the City
By Dawn Phillips

Photo courtesy of CJJC

Working class urban dwellers are in crisis with growing numbers of evictions, an aging housing stock that is unsafe and in many cases uninhabitable, soaring housing costs, and the dramatic displacement of Black and Latino people.

U.S. Census figures show that San Francisco’s population has grown from 776,700 in 2000 to 817,500 in 2013. In that same period, the Black population dramatically dipped from 60,500 to just 48,000with Blacks currently accounting for less than 6 percent of the city’s total population.

For Latinos, the situation is growing dire as well. A study by the Mission Economic Development Agency and the Council of Community Housing Organizations found that the historically Latino Mission neighborhood went from being 50 percent Latino in 2000 to just 38.5 percent in 2013.

San Francisco may be ground zero for racialized displacement, but the problem is spreading. Skyrocketing housing costs are a key aspect of this phenomenon.

In Oakland, rents increased 12.7 percent last year, the second highest increase in the entire country, and the $2,412 median monthly rent is three times the national average. Further south, along the Bay Area Peninsula, in places like Redwood City and San Mateo, tenants report rent increases as high as 125 percent. According to the Metropolitan Transportation Commission’s 30-year projections, there will be a huge unmet need for affordable housing in the region.

There is a need for 34 percent of all housing produced to be affordable for very low-income residents, 22 percent for low-income and 15 percent for moderate-income people. Actual production, however, will meet only 10 percent of the very low-income need, 9 percent of the low-income need and 11 percent of the moderate-income need. This crisis of affordability is true nationally as well, where there are only 29 affordable units for every 100 low-income households.

Why is the state of affordable housing and the conditions facing tenants such a critical urban issue?

The Right to the City’s Rise of the Renter Nation report shows that the top 25 most populated cities in the country are all majority renter cities. 64 percent of San Francisco and 61 percent of Oakland’s population are renters.

At Oakland City Hall to push for the Tenant Protections Ordinance, 2014. Photo courtesy of CJJC.At Oakland City Hall to push for the Tenant Protections Ordinance, 2014. CJJC Photo Archives

Harvard’s Joint Center for Housing Studies projects that there will be 4.7 million new renters in the next decade and that half of them will be seniors and the vast majority will be people of color. Dramatic as these figures are, they do not fully reflect the depth of the situation.

The 4.7 million does not include people who would like to rent but are unable to do so, including homeless individuals and families, who number over 600,000 nationally on any given day. They do not include people living in Single Room Occupancy buildings, those who are doubled or tripled up with family and friends, and many others in various forms of precarious housing. Neither do they reflect the almost 2 million mostly Black and Latino incarcerated men, who will face tremendous housing insecurity upon their release.

Speculation in single family housing played a key role in the foreclosure and subprime crisis and it is doing the same with the rental housing market.

Gentrification has created a housing crisis for urban working class tenants of color, which is compounding historic racial and economic fissures. Cities are racially and economically more inequitable than ever before.

Causa Justa :: Just Cause’s Development Without Displacement: Resisting Gentrification in the Bay Area report defines gentrification as a profit-driven race and class reconfiguration of urban, working class, communities of color that have suffered from a history of disinvestment and abandonment.

The process is characterized by the replacement of working class people of color with higher income residents willing to pay more for the housing.

Gentrification is driven by private developers, landlords and corporations and facilitated by public sector policies and revenues. Gentrification happens where commercial and residential land is cheap, relative to other areas in the city and region, and where the potential to turn a profit either through repurposing existing structures or building new ones is great.

Photo of Ana Gutierrez, who successfully fought against her attempted Ellis Act eviction from her San Francisco Mission District apartment. Photo courtesy of CJJC.Enough is enough. We will not be moved. Our neighborhoods and cities are not for sale. Gentrification stops here and we are fighting back. Tenants are creating a new vision for urban development, one not driven by speculation but centered on human need. We are calling for tenant organizing for the right to the city.

Right to the City is a national formation of almost 40 community organizations based in 13 cities around the country. The alliance is dedicated to building a strong housing and urban justice movement nationally and internationally through an urban human rights framework and agenda.

The alliance has initiated a national Homes for All campaign to promote a new vision for housing justice based on the five principles of affordability, accessibility, long-term stability and protection from displacement, health sustainability and quality, and community control.

Based on the idea that tenants most impacted by gentrification and housing insecurity have to lead the creation of a new urban housing vision, Right to the City groups are organizing and supporting the leadership of working class tenants in cities across the country.

This year we will bring together a broad base of tenants and movement partners to Renter Assemblies nationally, where thousands of working families and individuals will share their stories, inspire each other and develop a plan for making change at the local, state and national levels. The Assemblies will build up through to 2016 where we hope to lift up the voices, vision and power of working class renters nationally to spark a national dialogue that will hopefully be a part of the presidential debates.

Here in the Bay Area, an emerging formation of faith, community and labor organizations is coalescing into a movement to expand protections, such as just cause laws, rent control and enforcement of healthy housing codes.Many are responding to the needs of their constituencies— the teachers, public servants and service workers struggling to find quality housing they can afford and increasingly being displaced out of the Bay Area. The existence of strong regional formations will anchor any successful effort to push for tenant rights at the state and national levels.

In California, there is an urgent need to repeal regressive laws like the Ellis Act and Costa-Hawkins, and to pave the way for real eviction protection and rent control. Dynamic local and regional organizing is the foundation upon which larger scale housing security will be achieved.

Tenant organizing and rights are a key aspect of a powerful anti-gentrification strategy. They are also necessary to an urban agenda centered on racial and economic equity and a healthy society for all people.

This is a call to action. Join us. Why? Because #HousingisaHumanRight @CausaJusta1

Dawn Phillips is the co-director of programs at Causa Justa :: Just Cause and is chair of the steering committee of the Right to the City Alliance.

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Gentrification has created a housing crisis for urban working class tenants of color, which is compounding historic racial and economic fissures.

The Right to Rest

Homeless Coalition Challenges Criminalization of Life on the Street
By Paul Boden and Terry Messman

Courtesy of

The Right to Rest Act of the Homeless Bill of Rights Campaign aims to end discrimination and the criminalization of the right to rest, and eliminate the violations of basic human and civil rights for all people, regardless of their housing status.

Already, 120 organizations in five states—housing developers, day-labor organizations, service providers and community organizations—have endorsed the Right to Rest campaign and are working together to promote this reform.

The right to rest and the ability to sleep are absolutely essential for human beings. No person can be required to forego rest or sleep—and when one is without a home, resting or sleeping in public places is often the only option available.

To make matters infinitely worse, city officials are attempting to criminalize rest and outlaw sleep at the very moment when affordable housing shortages and homelessness are rising to record levels.

Several cities in California, Oregon and throughout the country have enacted initiatives banning or restricting the right to rest, sleep, sit on sidewalks, or even remain in public places. Coupled with related attempts to ban food-sharing and meal programs that serve the poor, and aggressive efforts to drive homeless people out of public spaces, these measures add up to a comprehensive assault on the ability of poor and homeless people to even survive.

These initiatives that infringe on the most basic human and civil rights are, in fact, a dangerous and destructive attack on the only thing that very poor people have to call their own—their humanity.

Large Rise in Homeless Students
A major indicator of the rise in homelessness was recently announced by the U.S. Department of Education, which reported on September 22, that the nation’s public schools have enrolled a record number of homeless children and youth.

A staggering 1,258,182 homeless students were enrolled in U.S. schools in the 2012-2013 school year. “The number of homeless children in public schools has increased by 85 percent since the beginning of the recession,” according to the First Focus Campaign for Children.

Yet these alarming statistics only tell one small part of the story. The numbers of homeless people dying on the street are also increasing, and so are the numbers of hate crimes and violent assaults carried out against people on the streets. Judges have gone on record stating that the large increase in the numbers of homeless people in the jails are due to the “quality of life laws” enacted by city governments.

The Western Regional Advocacy Project (WRAP) and its allies recently surveyed 1,298 homeless people and found that 81 percent of those surveyed reported being harassed, cited or arrested for sleeping. Another 77 percent were arrested or harassed for sitting or lying down.

In response to these widespread human rights violations, our Homeless Bill of Rights Campaign stands on the shoulders of social justice campaigns of the past to alleviate poverty and homelessness while protecting homeless and poor people from unjust laws and ensuring all people’s right to exist in public spaces.

Dangerous Level of Intolerance
The growing climate of intolerance—fostered by political officials and business leaders—is creating a very dangerous world for poor and homeless people. We have seen this kind of intolerance before in some of the darkest moments of our nation’s history.

Time and time again, political leaders have passed laws that persecuted minorities— laws that segregated and discriminated, mean-spirited laws that kept select people out of public spaces.

In the segregated South, Jim Crow laws and “Sundown Towns” prohibited non-white people from being present at night. California’s “Anti-Okie” law, enacted in the 1930s, made it illegal to bring extremely poor people into the state. And, even though it seems unbelievable today, until the 1970s, several American cities had on the books “ugly laws” to prohibit people with disabilities from being seen in public.

We understand today that, far from protecting the public, these laws endangered the very basis of our democracy—equal rights for all. They threatened to destroy the very fabric of our society by transforming our fellow citizens into objects of hatred and intolerance.

Tragically, these laws based on prejudice and fear are not just sad relics of the past. Today, numerous laws infringe on poor people’s ability to exist in public space, to acquire housing, employment, and basic services, and to equal protection under the law.

With poverty and homelessness reaching record numbers and affordable housing vacancies at their lowest, our cities have begun enacting a wave of laws that target people without homes. These laws, commonly called “quality of life” or “anti-nuisance” ordinances, criminalize sleeping, sitting, food-sharing and even religious practice in public spaces. Just like the discriminatory laws from the past, they deny people their right to exist in their communities.

Courtesy of WRAPThese laws are designed to reduce the visibility of homelessness. Instead, they result in the frequent harassment of people, those with homes and those without. For low-income people, they inspire a cycle of citations and arrests that drive poor people further into poverty, which makes them more likely to be or become homeless, not less.

In a very real sense, we are fighting for The Right to Exist. We must ensure that people are not demonized again in our nation. The Jim Crow laws and Sundown Town laws no longer exist because dedicated people organized their communities to stop these discriminatory laws. Now, we have the chance to work together today to make sure that these cruel acts of prejudice never happen to anyone else.

Today, homeless people are being targeted by attempts to literally banish their presence. But they weren’t the first targets of intolerance, and they won’t be the last. That realization makes it all the more crucial that we prevent political officials from ever again banishing or criminalizing any other unprotected minority, anywhere.
We can learn from the disability rights movement and the inspiring Freedom Movement that overcame Jim Crow laws. The groups that fought segregation were not afraid to go up against popular opinion, and to resist the political officials who literally flooded the media with propaganda directed against minorities.

At times, the cost of conscience was high. Both black and white people who joined the struggle for freedom were often hated, vilified, beaten by police, and jailed. Yet, religious leaders and community activists, Freedom Riders and fearless marchers, all took a brave stand against the politics of prejudice and hatred, and found the courage to resist the power structure.

Can we do anything less today?
It has never been easy for people to stand up against the powers of the state and the weight of public opinion. But we celebrate today the people in our nation’s history who found the courage to march for justice—and won. They were able to overcome, and so can we today.

WRAP Survey Shows Full Extent of Repression
To ban rest for one of our most vulnerable communities is not only inhumane, robbing people of basic freedoms and civil rights, it is costly, wasting resources that should be used to secure housing, instead of on a revolving-door of misdemeanor citations and criminal prosecutions.
WRAP member agencies have sought to document the human impact of these laws by surveying people about their experiences with the police, business improvement districts and private security guards seeking to enforce them.

The findings of interviews with nearly 1,300 people have found that:
• 81 percent of respondents reported being harassed, cited or arrested for sleeping.
• 77 percent of respondents reported being harassed, cited or arrested for sitting or lying on the sidewalk.
• 66 percent of respondents reported being harassed, cited or arrested for loitering or hanging out.
• Only 26 percent of respondents said they knew of a safe place to sleep at night.
We can only expect these types of violations of human rights and dignity to get worse as inequality increases, affordable housing shortages go unaddressed and more local ordinances are enacted without any protection from state laws.

The “Right to Rest” Act
All people should be permitted to occupy and utilize public spaces, regardless of their housing status. Furthermore, some civil and human rights that are amply protected for people who have a home, have not been defined and applied in a way to equally protect people who do not have a home.
The Right to Rest Act of the Homeless Bill of Rights Campaign aims to redress this by protecting the essential right to rest of all people, regardless of their housing status. It further aims to prohibit discrimination, harassment or fear of arrest of those who have no place to rest except in a public space.
Specifically it will establish that all people have the right to:
• Use, and move freely in, public spaces, without discrimination and without a time-limit that discriminates based on housing status.
• Rest in public spaces and protect oneself from the elements, in a non-obstructive manner.
• Eat, share, accept, or give food in any public space in which having food is not prohibited.
• Pray, meditate, worship, or practice religion in public spaces, without discrimination.
• Occupy a motor vehicle for any purpose, provided that the vehicle is legally parked on public property or parked on private property with permission.

For more information about the Homeless Bill of Rights Campaign or the Right to Rest Bill, contact: Western Regional Advocacy Project, (415) 621-2533, Paul Boden is the executive and organizing director of the Western Regional Advocacy Project, a coalition of 10 homeless advocacy organizations on the West Coast who work to eliminate the human rights abuses of people experiencing poverty and homelessness. Terry Messman is the editor of  Street Spirit newspaper which publishes “Justice News and Homeless Blues in the San Francisco Bay Area.”

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The Beat of 24th and Mission

By Christine Joy Ferrer

If you stand at the corner of 24th and Mission in San Francisco and listen closely you can hear its heart beat. Its rhythm echoes from the windows of Dance Brigade’s Dance Mission Theater (DMT). You hear it in the laughter of children dancing and youth bustling. The beat intensifies as you walk up DMT’s stairs with Japanese Taiko drumming and the colorful rhythms of dances from the African Diaspora: Cuban, Haitian, Brazilian, West African. Or maybe, it’s that Vogue and Tone.

Various communities overlap inter-culturally and inter-generationally in this space—drawn together by performances, festivals, and dance that’s accessible to everyone. People hang out in the halls or enjoy the Mission’s warmth on the fire escape. Even when classes have ended for the evening, their brilliant fire stays lit during the booming late night rehearsals of Ramón Ramos Alayo’s Alayo Dance Company or Allan Frias’ Mind Over Matter.

In the interviews on the following pages, DMT’s Krissy Keefer, artistic director of Dance Brigade and Grrrl Brigade, and Stella Adelman, theater/adult program manager, voice their opinions about the current social and economic conditions in San Francisco’s Mission district and DMT’s commitment to its vibrant community at the intersection of arts and politics.

In 1984, Keefer founded Dance Brigade, a high-powered social justice feminist, multicultural dance/theater company. In 1998, Dance Brigade opened the 140-seat Dance Mission Theater at 24th and Mission Streets in San Francisco. DMT’s mission is to continue the movement arts legacy of the location by engaging diverse Bay Area communities and artists in the exploration of contemporary social issues by creating, producing, presenting, and teaching feminist and multicultural dance and theater.

Birth of a Homogeneous Community

It’s hard to imagine the space at 24th and Mission as anything other than the DMT. But with the rapid gentrification of the area with its high-end housing, upscale retail, and expensive services, and consequent displacement and destruction of existing communities, especially low-income communities of color—it’s a very credible scenario. (See Wilson, pg. 101)

In the past, the owners of DMT’s home at 3316 24th Street used to offer Dance Brigade a five-year lease at a time. Most recently, Dance Brigade was offered a single-year lease with a $2,200 rent increase.

“When you lose access to property to make your ideas and have a place to live that isn't the majority of your rent, you lose creativity, you lose community, you lose wholeness, you lose diversity, and you lose the heart and soul of what made this area so incredible,” says Keefer.

“Valencia Street, Union Street, Hayes Valley—it doesn't matter,” she adds. “There's an identified consensus on what’s development and what’s serving the population. It all looks the same. It looks like an upper class mall. It's a corporate mentality takeover. Even if the individual restaurants aren't corporate, there is a corporate look and feel to the aesthetic. Is this really the culture we want to live in?”

The kind of gentrification this city needs is more community-led, with development that provides greater amenities, services, and economic opportunities. More parks, more public art and creative outlets, better schools, greater access to healthy food options, more jobs, increased public transportation—that’s what’s vital.

DMT recently joined Calle 24—made-up of various community organizations and Mission businesses including mom-and-pop restaurants, panaderías, an auto body shop, and record store—to collaborate and rally around the planning and development along 24th Street. Calle 24 has identified its own institutions that have been gobbled up by the expansion of the boutique and restaurant culture.

At the Intersection of Arts and Politics

In the wake of San Francisco’s current evictions and community displacements, Dance Brigade presented the installation Hemorrhage: An Ablution of Hope and Despair, which captures the current crisis in world affairs by focusing on the connection between global warming, war, racism and the continued attack on the rights of women. Using the Mission as its backdrop, it shows womanhood exiled from the city and evicted from homes.

“Everything Krissy does is political!” says choreographer and performer Allan Frias, who’s been teaching at the space for about 20 years, from back when it was called Third Wave. “She is very inspiring. She inspired me to do a dance show a few years ago about people in prison and police brutality.”

“They’ve assisted me with my productions and with writing grants,” he adds. “They’ve don’t turn their backs on people, especially those with low income. I treat this place like home. When I die, I want to be buried in a coffin in Studio Three.”

DMT serves a diverse group of Bay Area artists, master teachers, audiences, and students of all backgrounds. Many female artists, artists of color, and culturally specific ensembles consider it their artistic home. DMT offers affordable theater and rehearsal space for low-income communities, plus artist development programs and dance instruction for adults and youth.

Stella Adelman, DMT program director and theater manager, was born and raised in San Francisco’s Mission District and is one of the lucky ones who still lives there in a rent-controlled apartment. She first set foot in the space in the 1990s when it was Third Wave, and her mother took lessons from Haitian dance teacher, Blanche Brown.

“I got tired of being dragged along to watch and one day I decided to dance,” says Adelman. “Like most of us here at Dance Mission, once you're in, you're in for life. The community here is real. A lot of times people try to make community. I don't think it's something you can set out to make, per se. It’s something that has to be authentic and has to come from a heart.”

About 400 youth, ages two to 18, and about two thousand adults come to DMT on a regular basis to learn world dance forms. Its productions bring in 15 to 18 thousand people per year. The city should be investing in cultural centers like the DMT, which empower a community. And if the city doesn’t, the people will.

Dance Mission has collected $10,000 in donations thus far. To donate now, please visit Christine Joy Ferrer is the web and design editor for and contributing editor of Race, Poverty & the Environment. She is also the founder of Interviews transcribed by Daniel Salazar.


Interview with Krissy Keefer
Interview with Stella Adelman

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Dance Mission Theater's Krissy Keefer and Stella Adelman speak on the current social and economic conditions in San Francisco’s Mission district and DMT’s commitment to its vibrant community.

Interview with Krissy Keefer, DMT Artistic Director of Dance Brigade and Grrrl Brigade

Dance Mission Theater's Krissy Keefer voices her opinions and concerns about the current social and economic conditions in San Francisco’s Mission district and DMT’s commitment to its vibrant community at the intersection of arts and politics.

Interview with Krissy Keefer

Christine Joy Ferrer: Tell me a little bit about who you are, and your role at Dance Brigade’s Dance Mission Theater.

Krissy Keefer: I am an artist, an activist, and a mother. I’ve been running Dance Mission since 1998, but I’ve been an artist my entire adult life. A group of women [and I] formed the Wallflower Order Dance Collective in Eugene, Oregon and performed all over the United States, Europe, Latin America, and Canada doing very bold feminist dance theater. That’s a 40-year career at this point. I’ve been creating social justice art for nearly all of my adult life. I run Dance Mission with those principles and out of a strong feminist belief about equity and fairness and multiculturalism. I really try to dig into the hearts and minds of struggling people everywhere in order to create the kind of art I make.

Ferrer: How are the arts used as a catalyst for social change?

Keefer: Throughout history there have been art exhibitions, performances, and writings that have served as wakeup calls for the communityIsadora Duncan, Guernica, Stravinsky, Pablo Neruda, Lorca, all the Nueva Trova artists and poets from Latin Americathey all reflected and led the people in an understanding of their current conditions through art. That is very powerful, transformative, and threatening to the status quo. I like to think of myself in that tradition of art and social justice. I also think that sometimes people who aren’t necessarily artists [think of] artists as being an anomaly, [art as] something separate from what’s actually happening in the daily lives of people. For me, art isn’t separated, it’s my whole life. It’s something you do, like taking out the garbage, washing the dishes, or running a business.

You don’t have any culture in the world that does not have art, just like you don’t have any culture that does not have food. Art is people. Art is life. Art is. I just choose to use my art and my talents to further a social agenda. I get a lot of questions about how art changes the world. Well, it’s any way people organize. Thought patterns change the world, and I happen to do it through dance and theater.

Ferrer: How do artists explore social issues on the dance floor and foster collective action in the streets?

Keefer: Artists are smart and capable of making a lot out of nothing. They are forceful when they want to be in getting their ideas across, so artists are good representatives of social change. They’re good negotiators and they pitch ideas well. Just being present and participating in activities that are already happening is really helpful to those organizations. There are a lot of art actions happening. The ones that are shutting down the Google buses are doing a lot of artistic displays as part of their process. Demonstrations against the war were highly visual and creative in terms of dance, music, drumming, puppets, and elaborate artistic displays of culture and resistance.

Ferrer: What happens when art isn’t happening from the ground up?

Keefer: The ground is usually poverty and the up usually means entitled and well paid. I have a personal belief system that what comes out of a community that is struggling, unfortunately, is the most powerful. The art that’s highly institutionalized with an extreme amount of professionalism and an enormous amount of money actually stagnates impulse. I think that’s why you have masses of people around the world imitating African culture from the United States via hip-hop, jazz, or whatever. These people have struggled their entire lives and their art reflects the deepest sort of humanity, struggle, wisdom, and beauty. They’ve had to have that in order to survive. Unfortunately, rich white people don’t actually have to do anything to transform because they’ve got everything at their disposal all the time and all their needs are constantly met. The art that comes out of that class of people isn’t that interesting.

Ferrer: How has the work of Dance Mission, as a multicultural community space, impacted the greater good of the Mission?

Keefer: When we moved in here this was a corner with lots more drug activity. There was a fear factor that I didn’t actually ever really feel, but a lot of people projected a lot of negativity onto it. I think that having the children’s program come in so strong actually helped keep the neighborhood moving. When you have parents and kids walking up and down the stairs everyday, all day long, it changes the character. Probably 1,200 people come through our building a week.

We’ve enriched the lives of a lot of kids. Traditionally, Latino families do not target modern dance as a path for their families or children. We’ve provided an opportunity for children and immigrant children to actually pursue modern dance as a career—or a pathway into high school, like the School for the Arts. We perform a lot here. Dance Brigade performs at Brava too. I’ve been around for a long time, so I have established strong relationships with people since the 1980s. We’re doing solidarity work for El Salvador, Nicaragua, and all of those struggles that happened [such as] the non-intervention movement.

Ferrer: Tell me about your experience with gentrification as a Mission resident.

Keefer: Today, Valencia Street is like a death zone. Valencia has a huge culture and backstory of being the lesbian Mecca. In the 1970s, lesbian businesses flourished up and down Valencia Street, anchored in part by the Women’s Building. Then, that whole area was really big for the next wave of lesbian artists like Michelle Tea. Now it’s nothing of interest to me—no vitality and no creativity. It’s a destination place for the 30-something crowd bar culture, restaurants, furniture stores, and boutiques. This area was cheap real estate where people without any money could move in, make a cultural expression, and gather in their own interests. People aren’t going to discover themselves on Valencia Street anymore.

It’s heartbreaking when the government colludes with the developers to tell us what our communities should be and look like. Whose idea was it to sprinkle the glitter on the sidewalks down Valencia? What they’re telling us by doing that is, the dirt and natural grime and accessible real estate for people to live together is no longer there. Now it’s going to be a restaurant… an upscale restaurant. You’re going to have to look this way to get in and you’re going to have to agree that getting this kind of food is actually the food that you want in order to be there.

I feel like we’re in a civil war here. There’s a general hostility between people making $150,000 a year starting salary and artists who are in their 50s making $40,000 a year. I don’t know anybody who hasn’t been affected by this, and I also feel like people have a deep anxiety about getting evicted. It feels very unstable and scary. The easy, relaxed situation is diminishing.

I’ve lived here a long time and watched lots of economies rise and fall. I’ve watched city governments and how they operate. This winner-take-all mentality is operating so seriously right now in terms of real estate. California’s in a major drought with many communities actually potentially losing their water source. What are the plans around that? Why are they just extracting more resources from the earth, building more high-rises, more high-end housing; where are the people in Northern California, who don’t have any water, going to go? I’m always stunned at the lack of a big picture among city officials and how much everybody falls into the trap that capitalism needs to be protected. If you can make money on your property you have a God-given right to make that money. That holds precedent. It’s business. Why does that dominate the landscape when there are so many other factors? It’s like gun control. Yeah, the Second Amendment says we have a right to have guns, and the Third Amendment says you have a right to make as much money as you want and those things dominate everything. It’s not indicative of a healthy, forward-thinking, female-centered, or any way of looking at how we need to live as a group of people.

It’s really important that the city support and preserve their cultural centers or you will have the most boring city on the face of the planet. It will be rich people of one age group, and it’ll be a bedroom community for Silicon Valley. There’ll be a complete corporate takeover. Those young people will leave eventually because there will not be anything here for them either.

Christine Joy Ferrer is the web and design editor for and contributing editor of Race, Poverty & the Environment. She is also the founder of

Interviews transcribed by Daniel Salazar


The Beat of 24th and Mission
Interview with Stella Adelman

Interview with Stella Adelman, DMT Theater and Adult Program Manager

Dance Mission Theater's Stella Adelman voices her opinions and concerns about the current social and economic conditions in San Francisco’s Mission district and DMT’s commitment to its vibrant community at the intersection of arts and politics.

Interview with Stella Adelman

Christine Joy Ferrer: What is it that places Dance Mission Theater at the crossroads of arts and politics?
Stella Adelman: What we do, I’d call social activism. Dance Brigade, the dance committee that runs Dance Mission Theatre (DMT), consciously decides to address issues facing the present day—be they global warming, our embargo against Cuba, gentrification, or immigration.

Dance Brigade is a feminist dance company. We really support the female artist, artists–in- residence, and various cultural performances and festivals. And we curate our festivals [to feature] social-political themes.

For example, we did the Manifestival for Social Change: Like Oil and Water – From Gaza to the Gulf, right after the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. It focused on the oil spill and oil politics in the Middle East right when we were pulling out of Iraq. It also looked at water issues in general, the privatization of water, and the Arab-Israeli conflict.

The CubaCaribe festival has become a way for Cuban artists, especially those who have recently immigrated to the States, to showcase their work. Ramon Ramos Alayo co-founded CubaCaribe to tap into the large talent pool represented by the significant community of Cuban and Caribbean artists who live and practice in the Bay Area. He leads by example as an immigrant who has figured out how to master our crazy capitalist system. Dance Brigade went to Cuba with Ramon to perform and since then there’s been on-going dialogue between DMT and Cuba.

Grrrl Brigade program is DMT’s explicitly pro-female, intensive dance/leadership development program designed to provide high quality dance training, performance opportunities, and a sense of self-empowerment to San Francisco girls, ages nine to 18. It’s a female empowerment program through dance and music. Girls are given the chance to take up space, be seen, and heard. We also work on staying affordable—art is not just for the elite.

Ferrer: DMT recently became a part of Calle 24 Latino Cultural Corridor (formerly, the Lower 24th Street Merchants and Neighbors Association), which was created in 1999 by a group of long–term residents, merchants, service providers, and art organizations concerned with quality of life issues in the community. Can you tell us a little about that?
Adelman: We had an ongoing conversation with the city to get the stretch of 24th Street from Mission Street to Potrero Avenue officially recognized as a historic district like North Beach, Chinatown, and Japantown—to get some leverage for funding and to draw attention to the cultural, arts, and community service organizations that exist [there] and have San Francisco recognize [them as] important cultural and city institutions. Hopefully, it will lead to some legislation in terms of how many coffee shops and restaurants can be on this street because everyone is scared about real estate and what’s going on. Dance Mission doesn’t even own its building, so we can get booted at any time.

But as part of Calle 24, we’ll have this whole organization behind us to put up a fight and the city, too, will believe in us. I’m a bit hesitant [to talk] about the city’s funding as it only gave to a handful of organizations on 24th Street and the way that [the money] was divvied up was kind of controversial. What if the city did it just to pat itself on the back? Then it could say, ‘Since we gave you that, we don’t need to do this.’ I’ve heard others say: ‘What about the rest of the Mission?’ Or ‘It’ll be like the Latino petting zoo where people will come and look at it as a Disneyland for Latino arts and culture.’

If the street is recognized, I think it will radiate out to other parts of the neighborhood. All parts of San Francisco have deep roots in Latino culture and art. California, in fact, used to be Mexico. DMT recently got involved when [Calle 24] was extended through Bartlett. This is a good first step. [There are] folks moving in who don’t put down roots. They’re here for a little bit but when they want to start a family or something they leave. Having this kind of a transient community leads to a lack of community.

Dance Mission is very much involved with what’s going on in the Calle 24 community. Knowing the folks at the panadería, the corner bodega, and the different arts organizations on both personal and professional levels means that if anything happens, we will possess the power to do something about it. There’s power in the masses and we can call on each other for support when necessary.

Ferrer: How has DMT’s work as a multicultural community dance and arts place impacted the greater good of the Mission? With the Mission being ground zero for gentrification culture in San Francisco, what has been your personal experience with gentrification and the development of high-end housing, upscale retail, expensive services, privatization and such, and how has it affected DMT?
Adelman: I’ve seen a lot of artists and activists forced to leave, and that’s heartbreaking. Yolanda and Renee, who started Galería de la Raza, are being evicted. Dance Mission’s lease was renewed only for a year and the rent was raised. I was born and raised in San Francisco and want to have my own kids here. I have absolutely no idea if I’ll be able to do that [or] find a two-bedroom house or apartment—not on any salary I’m making.

What’s super interesting, too—why is it only getting ‘cleaned up’ now when white, rich people are moving in? Everyone deserves safe neighborhoods… clean streets… good schools. Yet, they’re not given any preference until the demographics change. That’s what’s wrong.

This corner—24th and Mission—has always been a movement arts space. I think in the 1920s it was a ballroom and in the ‘60s it was a boxing ring. Third Wave moved in and it became a dance studio in the ‘70s and ‘80s. We’ve been here since 1998. This space has always celebrated the movement arts. There’s a legacy to uphold. The windows are huge and when you look out, you’re connected with the community—you see the protests, hear the proselytizing, see the demonstrations. The sound of our music and drums also wafts out the windows, from Alfie Macias’ baterías to the Taiko, Haitian, and West African drums. We offer work exchange opportunities for people who want to take classes and also rent the theater out for shows. It’s amazingly affordable, so we get a lot of people who wouldn’t come in otherwise.

The arts are changing in San Francisco. All this money is being put into the mid-Market area to ‘clean it up.’ It’s an area of San Francisco, like Bayview/Hunters Point or the Tenderloin, that ‘tourists won’t like.’ One of the ways to clean up is to put money into arts organizations that can move in and buy buildings, or to encourage specific organizations to do high-end projects there. A surprisingly large portion of grants for the arts goes to the symphony and to the San Francisco Ballet, while there are many other smaller, community arts organizations getting less funding.

I’m always in favor of more money going towards the arts because the arts get shafted all the time, but something about this makes me uncomfortable. It’s like a top-down approach—an artificial pumping up of an area, versus looking at and investing in organizations that are already working within the community, to help them succeed and expand. Doing this would facilitate the organic nature of things and strengthen communities.

That’s what makes DMT successful—its organic way of working. Our staff has either volunteered or interned first. Artists run into each other in the hallways and decide to collaborate. Our office is always open. We’ve built relationships and the artists have thrived from our support—whether by doing their publicity and writing proposals or just by providing encouragement.

More than anything, DMT pushes people. We see artists and we see their potential. To have that kind of support system is invaluable. It’s organic, authentic, and really community-based.

Christine Joy Ferrer is the web and design editor for and contributing editor of Race, Poverty & the Environment. She is also the founder of

Interviews transcribed by Daniel Salazar. This interview has been condensed and edited.


The Beat of 24th and Mission
Interview with Krissy Keefer

How We Play: Play as a Form of Cultural Resistance

Photo Essay by Jarrel Phillips

Editor’s Note: How We Play is a photography exhibition curated by Jarrel Phillips (featured at the City College of San Francisco earlier this year), focusing on three art forms—Acrobatics (Circus), B-Boying (Break Dance), and Capoeira—that are a culmination of art, culture and resistance. These art forms are brought to life through play, a universal phenomenon as innate to life as breath. All three began as forms of resistance in response to oppressive environments. If play were given the cultural significance it deserves, civilization as we know it would allow us the much needed opportunity to review and reimagine our cultural values, traditions and processes in reference to what we do and how we do things.

"Ritual grew up in sacred play; poetry was born in play and nourished on play; music and dancing were pure play... We have to conclude, therefore, that civilization is, in its earliest phases, played. It does not come from play like a baby detaching itself from the womb; it arises in and as play and never leaves it." -- Johan Huizinga

Featured artists, organizations and teachers in this exhibition include: Capoeira Ijexa, Project Commotion, Circus Center, Mestre Urubu Malandro, Zanzibar Stone Town Capoeira, Prescott Circus, B-Boy Blakk (Cloud9Tribe/All Tribes SF Zulu Nation), B-Boy Iron Monkey (Renegade Rockers), B-Boy Finesse (SF CR8IVE), CCSF’s Child and Family Development Department, Fleeky (Circus Automatic), Inka Siefker, Serchmaa Byanba, Dominik Wyss (Suns of Cayuga/AcroActive), Rice and Beans Cooperative, Xiaohong Weng, Veronica Blair, and the Uncle Junior Project.

Prescott Circus Theater © Jarrel Phillips

“The opposite of play is not work. It’s depression.”1

—Brian Sutton-Smith, Play Theorist

When was the last time you played?
Play, which in its purest form, extends beyond the innate intelligence of our biological processes, raises two intriguing questions: How does play work in our lives? Why are we born with this ability?

Studies show that play is paramount to the development of young children and its lack can be the catalyst for many social, physical and cognitive disorders throughout childhood, adolescence, and even adulthood. Research has proven that play is the way children learn about the world around them. As an adult, I find myself asking: Does play serve a purpose outside of childhood and adolescence? Why do some of us stop playing as we get older... or do we really?

I am an artist who thrives off creativity and a practitioner of capoeira, an Afro-Brazilian ritualized martial art form that is described as “playing” not “fighting.” I have also been a teacher for 13 years, spending most of my days with the master players I refer to as young people. So it’s no exaggeration to state that play has consumed me my entire life. From the San Francisco Bay Area to East Africa, my interactions with young people have ranged from homework assistance and outdoor supervision, to basketball coaching, circus acrobatics, and of course, capoeira. My lifestyle is centered around the things that I most enjoy: photography, film, children, capoeira, circus, and travel. I make a living through work that is my recreation. I don’t have one without the other. How I Play—is How I live.

The purpose of this exhibition is to display how play takes shape in our lives. Through the personal and cultural experiences of children, adults, artists, and scholars, this exhibition explores the existence and significance of play beyond childhood to adulthood; the stage of life where society often deems play unnecessary. However, play is all around us. How We Play—is How We live.

What is your play personality?

“The main characteristic of play—whether of child or adult—is not its content but its mode. Play is an approach to action, not a form of activity.”2

Play Personalities3

The Collector: Coins, cars, wine, bugs—you like to gather things.

The Competitor: In sports and games you are in it to win it.

The Director: A planner and organizer of great parties or vacations.

The Explorer: You are into exploring new places, feelings, or emotions.

The Joker: Your fun typically revolves around some kind of nonsense.

The Kinesthete: A mover—dancing, biking, swimming, not necessarily for competition.

The Artist/Creator: You enjoy creating and making things.

The Storyteller: You thrive through imagination and anything can be play for you.

Pyramids with Coach Jarrel at Rice and Beans Cooperative preschool ( © Luis Lopez

“The playing adult steps sideward into another reality; the playing child advances forward to new stages of mastery.”4

--Erik H. Erikson, American Psychoanalyst

About Play
Imagine yourself at play as a young child. What are the first images that come to your mind? Are you laughing... connected.... engaged... happy... present? Where are you? When we play, our brains are alight with activity, present in the moment as we feel, predict, act, and react. We build social skills and learn ways of being flexible in the world. Children learn complex skills through playing, which our culture seems to have forgotten.

Jarrel teaches capoeira to youth in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia © Jarrel Phillips“Play enables children to sort through conflicts and deal with anxieties, fears and disturbing feelings in an active, powerful way. Play provides a safety valve for feelings. When they pretend, children can say or do things that they can’t do in reality,” says Janet Gonzalez-Mena, an early childhood education practitioner.5 Learning academics through play, engaging children’s interests, and providing the time and space to learn and work through things by playing—this is the study of life. We hope this exhibition gives you an opportunity to re-imagine play for yourself and for the children in your life. This is what children truly need us to do. The Child Development and Family Studies Department is grateful for the chance to support such an important and thoughtful exhibition!

—Tracy C. Burt, Child Development & Family Studies Department Professor, City College of San Francisco.

Playing Capoeira, Mestre Urubu Malandro (right) © Raul Soria

“Culture arises and unfolds in and as play.”6

--Johan Huizinga, Dutch Historian

Jogo De Capoeira (Game of Capoeira)
Capoeira is an African Brazilian art form, developed by African slaves in Brazil about 400 years ago. Capoeira is self-defense disguised as a dance because slaves needed to hide it from their slave masters. The combination of body movements, trickery, music, and songs make it not just a martial art, but a ritualized way of combat. Two capoeiristas (capoeira players) must follow the traditions and rules of the art. They must play capoeira, not fight.

—Samoel Domingos, Mestre Urubu Malandro, Capoeira Ijexa

Mestre BimbaManoel dos Reis Machado, Mestre Bimba
Known for his innovative approach to capoeira, Mestre Bimba is the father of Capoeira Regional—a style of capoeira known for its Afro-Bahian culture, folkloric dances, berimbau (musical instrument) rhythms, fast kicks, acrobatics, and fighting aspect. In 1937, Mestre Bimba opened the first capoeira academy in Brazil. He was key to capoeira’s expansion and global presence.

Mestre PastinhaVicente Joaquim Ferreira Pastinha, Mestre Pastinha
Founder of the first Capoeira Angola school in 1942 in Bahia, Brazil, Mestre Pastinha wanted his students to understand the practice, philosophy and tradition, which emphasizes the art’s roots in African culture while maintaining its traditions, rituals and training methods. Pastinha’s school can be considered the most influential in shaping Capoeira Angola as it is today.

Project Commotion, Capoeira Ijexa Kids Batizado 2013

Project Commotion
Capoeira is considered a “game” that evolved as a fight, a method of self-defense and a means of self-preservation. We say, “Vamos jogar capoeira, vamos tocar berimbau,” literally, “Let’s play capoeira, let’s play berimbau (musical instrument).” We don’t say, “Let’s fight” or “Let’s spar.” Capoeira can be used as a learning tool for children to increase gross-motor, social, cognitive, and language skills. Most importantly, capoeira provides children and adults with an opportunity to learn through play.

Practice of capoeira includes applying what you learn from class exercises in the roda, which is the circle where two players enter to exchange movements. The game that follows is created by the spontaneous exchange of movements between players. It is not choreographed, but created in the moment. This exercise, which is what playing capoeira really is, reinforces new patterns that the child has learned and builds the idea of these movements into the brain by forcing the child to use their adapted responses in an instant. Thus learning is strengthened and taken to a whole new level. Play in capoeira is just like play in life.

—Susan Osterhoff, “Professora Formiguinha,” Child Development faculty member and co-founder of Project Commotion, CCSF (

“Jogo De Facao” (folkloric game) with Mestre Urubu Malandro and Contra Mestre Fabio. © Africano Fotografia

“What we play is life.”—Louis Armstrong

Capoeira: Music and Ritual in the Roda of Life
Like rhythm and harmony, play is captivating, temporarily lifting us to an extraordinary realm where order is supreme. There are rules, or a way to play, and any deviation from this order spoils the game and robs it of its character.7

The order within the game of capoeira allows its players to preserve culture and traditions while building community that exists outside of the game. The roda where the game takes place starts and ends with music. Capoeira music is made up of rhythms and songs characterized by call and response. The bateria (battery) is found at the base of the roda where capoeiristas sing and play instruments like an ensemble. At the foot of the bateria is the source of the axé (energy). The full circle consists of other capoeiristas who encompass and amplify the energy by singing and clapping their hands to the rhythm. The two players in the middle actively engage themselves and each other by applying their knowledge of the movements to the cadence of the music. It’s as if they are dancing. In capoeira, music is a life force. In life, music is “played.”

Zanzibar Stone Town Capoeira Crew (Zanzibar, Tanzania) © Jarrel Phillips

“To the art of working well a civilized race would add the art of playing well.”8

—George Santayana, American Philosopher

Are you too busy to play?
I met the Zanzibar Stone Town Capoeira (ZSTC) crew in 2010 during my first visit to Tanzania. This group of self-taught individuals (ages seven to 25) practice and perform what I like to call the ABCs of Play: Acrobatics (circus), Breakin’ (b-boying/break dancing), and Capoeira—the three cultural art forms that embody the essence of play.

In circus, the magic happens in the ring or on the stage; b-boys and b-girls get down in the cypher; and in capoeira, the roda (circle) is where I play. These are our playgrounds. As artists, we thrive in our own little worlds and realities, within communities that are unique to what we do. Our lives are consumed by our passions and our world becomes one giant playground.

Through the personal experience of artists who live what they do, How We Play explores circus, breakin’ and capoeira. Culture, community and play are essential to their very existence and though what they do demands discipline, they are not too busy to have a little fun. How they play, is how they live.

Inka Siefker © RJ Muna

“The beauty of sports is that it embraces the paradox of seriousness and play.”9

—Stuart Brown

Circus Arts: Stage Magic
Traditionally, people identify the circus with nomads—traveling menageries of eccentric performers, wild animals and vendors who transform empty spaces into giant, magical canopies of entertainment. The modern urban circus has evolved away from ringmasters and animals in captivity, focusing instead on circus artists and their phenomenal gravity-defying skills on flying trapezes, aerial hoops and tight wires, along with clowning, juggling, hand-balancing, acrobatics, and contortion.

Circus artists create magic, blurring the lines between real and pretend, possible and impossible by utilizing the body, imagination and object manipulation. They push limits, including their own, through great discipline in their work and play ethic.

Play is serious business. “Every child knows that she is only pretending,” says Dutch historian Johan Huizinga. “Play turns to seriousness and seriousness to play.”10 Dramatic play, also known as “pretend play,” allows us to practice what we are learning by imagining and performing various acts to discover what works and what does not. Circus artists are serious about their training, which involves imagining, exploring and playing around with ideas to create their next act.

Clowning Around
A clown stumbles and falls but always gets back up—no harm, no blame—because an acrobat falls on purpose! Clowns can say and do anything because there are no limits in their world—as long as there’s heart. Clown shows us how to joke, laugh, pretend, and play with our world, make up our own rules, change our names, and be the person we want to be. When we laugh together, we are open to learning together, taking chances together, and tackling really hard physical and emotional challenges as a group. Circus training is about exploring what’s physically possible. Clowning is about exploring the creative self emotionally, with personality and character. When audiences see our children perform in this spirit—being so free with themselves in such a giving way—it makes them happy.

—David Hunt, Prescott Circus Executive Director and Circus Bella Co-Creator (

What is Prescott Circus?
Prescott Circus Theatre (PCT) is a nonprofit organization that works with youth in Oakland, California. PCT’s social development emphasis helps youth cultivate character, presentation, culture, community, teamwork, body awareness, and playful spirits. They are reminded that they are the stars and the world is their stage. One Drum. One Sound. One Circus.

Breakdance Project Uganda (Gulu, Northern Uganda)© Jarrel Phillips

“Young children, especially, have enormous creativity, and whatever’s in them rises to the surface in free play.”11

—Erik Erikson

Breakin’: Cypher, Creativity and Freestyle
B-boys and B-girls are notorious for their creative, mind-blowing movements that are always changing and being reinvented. Breakin’ (break dance) emphasizes qualities of improvisation (freestyle) and self-expression (style).

A key characteristic of play is that it’s something you choose to do. Play is voluntary and is therefore free.12  This freedom breeds style and creativity, which in turn breeds innovation. Our impulse to express allows us to create, innovate, and create again. This process of recreating allows us to freely reshape ourselves and our world through play. Recreation can come in the form of work, leisure and hobby, or as an outlet for one’s creative and physical energies. It can provide satisfaction and pleasure to the individual while helping to fulfill the needs of society.

BBoy Edwin "Blakk" Johnson  © Jarrel Phillips

What is Breakin’/B-Boying?
B-boying stands for “Break Boy” and was created in the Bronx by youth who were looking for an outlet to express themselves while dealing with the harsh life in their underserved communities. B-boying allows hip-hop practitioners to create their own ways of communication using their bodies. They create a character within themselves, which is why most b-boys and b-girls have aliases. Pioneers, such as Crazy Legs and Prince Ken Swift, created movements that are used even today by the new generation of b-boys who embrace hip-hop and contribute to its scene and community. The cypher is the circle a b-boy uses to express himself or to battle another. For one to thrive in this art, one must be an active part of the hip-hop community as a whole. You have to live it.

—Edwin Johnson, B-Boy Blakk, Renegade Rockers


Courtesy of SFCR8IVE


Our Cypher is our community. As b-boys we inspire our cypher to move freely and explore endless possibilities. We crash, create, build, and destroy. As we advance our knowledge, wisdom, and understanding, we commit ourselves to carrying on tradition.

—Robert Vicario, B-Boy Finesse, SF CR8IVE and Renegade Rockers

SF CR8IVE was founded in 2007 to share knowledge through hip-hop’s original dance form, breakin’. Founded by Robert “Finesse” Vicario, SF CR8IVE prides itself on having assembled a team of instructors who are not only effective teachers, but contributors to their dance community—competing, performing and organizing, locally and abroad. Their mission is to provide a fun, safe and exciting environment for students to learn, grow and flourish with a hip-hop arts curriculum.

BBoy Iron Monkey, 2014 Challenge Cup Finals. Photo Courtesy of Challenge Cup Finals

Iron Monkey
My life as a b-boy didn’t start out like where I am now. I had to learn a lot in the beginning. There are two ways a b-boy freelancer’s life can turn out: fun or stressful. It can get overwhelming when it’s too much like a job. The fun depends on whether or not you can stay cool, have confidence, pride and joy. You have to know your worth, spread knowledge, uplift, relate to people, and most importantly, keep smiling. Be yourself. If you live like that you will always be happy with what you are doing.

—Shawn Hallman, B-Boy Iron Monkey, Renegade Rockers

Shawn Hallman, better known as Iron Monkey (Shawn Supreme), is a legendary break dancer from the Renegade Rockers Crew. He has earned his reputation as a b-boy/master performer and is sought after for his artistic talents worldwide. Originally from Alabama, Iron Monkey has been a mainstay of the breaking scene for the past two decades. Iron Monkey was first introduced to breaking at his San Diego junior high school in 1992, where he was captivated by the performance of legendary West Coast b-boys, Barmack and B-boy Ivan. Under their guidance, he quickly progressed to become one of the greatest b-boys of all time. Iron Monkey is an innovator of power moves, known for his speed, agility and dynamic style.

Elegant double hand-to-hand acrobatics with Jennings McCown (left) and Xiahong Weng (right). © Acey Harper

Circus Center
Circus Center is a nonprofit founded in 1984 by Wendy Parkman and Judy Finelli as a project of the world-renowned Pickle Family Circus. For over 30 years, Circus Center has inspired passion for the circus arts with programs and classes at all levels in acrobatics, flying trapeze, hand-balancing, contortion, juggling, teeterboard, wire-walking, clowning, and anything in the air, upside down, backwards, and seemingly impossible.

Xiaohong Weng
Xiaohong Weng started training in gymnastics at the age of seven, before he joined the famed Nanjing Acrobatics Troupe. He learned many traditional Chinese acrobatics acts, such as Chinese Pole, Chair-balancing, Hoop Diving, Chinese Lion Dance, and Partner Hand-balancing. As a skilled tumbler and hand-balancer, Xiaohong has performed extensively in China and internationally. For the last decade, he has been a senior instructor at Circus Center where he runs the youth circus. Currently, Xiaohong performs with Jennings McCown.

Veronica Blair
Regardless of whether you are privileged, poor, young, or old, circus speaks to the dreamer in all of us, forcing us to deny ego and evolve into better human beings.

—Veronica Blair, Aerialist and Founder of The Uncle Junior Project

An aerialist of elegance and true excellence, Veronica Blair has performed with world-renowned groups in various productions around the world, including UniverSoul Circus, AntiGravity, Universal Studios Japan, and AFRIKA! AFRIKA! Blair’s first performance was at age 17, which made her one of the youngest professional African American trapeze artists in the U.S. She started her training at age 14 at Circus Center’s Youth Circus where she now teaches on staff as an aerial specialist. Blair is currently working on The Uncle Junior Project.

The Uncle Junior Project
The Uncle Junior Project follows Blair as she amazes audiences around the country. This film project unveils an important legacy in the long history of the American circus—the African American circus performers who paved the way for her and so many others under the Big Top. Central to Veronica’s inspiration is the legendary circus performer, Emanuel “Uncle Junior” Ruffin who has never been properly honored or acknowledged for his extraordinary contributions. Ruffin played a pivotal and historic role in the social and artistic revolution that brought entertainers of color into the mainstream.

Jarrel “Chumbinho” Phillips is an Arts and Culture Correspondent at Reimagine RP&E, curator of How We Play and founder of AVE ( All photos in this essay were taken by him, unless otherwise noted. Christine Joy Ferrer did the original design and layout of How We Play, which has been condensed for RP&E.


  1. Kane, Pat. What is ‘The Play Ethic’? The Play Ethic. Web. 27 July, 2014.
  2. Else, Perry. The Value of Play. New York: Continuum International Publishing Group. 2009. Google Books. Web. 27 July, 2014.
  3. Brown, Stuart. Play. New York: Avery, Penguin Group. 2009.
  4. “Play Quotes.” The Strong National Museum of Play. Web. 27 July, 2014.
  5. Gonzalez-Mena, Janet. Child, Family, and Community: Family-Centered Early Care and Education. New York: Merrill Publishing Company. 1993.
  6. Huizinga, Johan. Homo Ludens: A Study of the Play-Element in Culture. Boston: Beacon Press. 1955.
  7. Ibid.
  8. “Play Quotes.” Strong Museum of Play.
  9. Brown, S. Play.
  10. Huizinga, J. Homo Ludens.
  11. Erik Erikson Biography (1902-1994). Kendra Cherry. About Education. Web. 27 July, 2014.
  12. Huizinga, J. Homo Ludens.
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How We Play is a photography exhibition curated by Jarrel Phillips (featured at the CCSF earlier this year), focusing on three art forms—Acrobatics (Circus), B-Boying (Break Dance), and Capoeira.

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"Ritual grew up in sacred play; poetry was born in play and nourished on play; music and dancing were pure play... We have to conclude, therefore, that civilization is, in its earliest phases, played. It does not come from play like a baby detaching itself from the womb; it arises in and as play and never leaves it." -- Johan Huizinga

Creative Placemaking—A Cautionary Tale

Courtesy of Megan WilsonBy Megan Wilson

The term “creative placemaking”[1] is the latest spin on a decades-old strategy[2] of incorporating the arts into economic development models, the idea being that art can inspire shared economic prosperity while energizing the overall community. However, as I’ve learned from working closely on development and planning with many community-based organizations (CBOs) in the Bay Area over the past 18 years, if existing neighborhood stakeholders–i.e. longtime residents, CBOs, small businesses, social services, and public agencies that serve them–are not driving the process, community development (or revitalization, as it’s often characterized by city planners) can also be highly problematic. Outside interests (developers, real estate agents, corporations, policy makers, or new residents) without long-established roots in a neighborhood can end up destroying years of coalition-building, networks of trust, and community frameworks proven to be successful and integral to the health of a neighborhood and its residents.[3]

It’s important to establish a clear understanding of the term “gentrification” as used in the context of: (a) community-spearheaded development that provides greater amenities, services, and economic opportunities (e.g. more parks, public art and creative outlets, better schools, greater access to healthy food options, more jobs, increased public transportation); and (b) high-end housing development, upscale retail, more expensive services, and privatization. In the former context, these are virtuous goals for a city to aspire to for all its citizens; but the latter often leads to the displacement and destruction of existing communities, especially low-income communities of color. Artists and arts organizations often become unintended forces in the latter kind of gentrification—especially when deeply established relationships and existing organizing efforts become undermined by funder-driven arts projects that have not been a part of the rooted networks.

While additional funding opportunities for artists and arts organizations are a greatly needed resource, project-based funding, such as creative placemaking initiatives, are a matter for concern. What’s truly essential for the survival of artists and arts centers is general operating funds, or funds to secure affordable housing or studios. However, in many cases artists and arts organizations will jump on board and rally heavily in support of new funding priorities and models initiated by funders because they are desperate for the monies in any form or capacity. This is not to say that foundations leading these initiatives don’t have the best intentions, but they, too, may be driven by priorities and decisions set forth by their executives and board members.

ArtPlace—Dedicated Funding for Creative Placemaking
In September 2011, the largest and most ambitious funding proposal dedicated to the strategy of creative placemaking was launched with ArtPlace, “[a] nation-wide initiative to drive revitalization in cities and towns with a new investment model that puts the arts at the center of economic development.”[4] For its first round of grants, ArtPlace invested $11.5 million in 34 locally initiated projects across the United States.[5]

While this unprecedented investment in local arts appears to be a great opportunity for foundations, federal agencies, and financial institutions to help shape community development, it also presents serious concerns associated with community planning and gentrification.

Among ArtPlace’s first round of grantees was San Francisco’s Intersection for the Arts with an award of $777,000—the third largest grant of the 34 projects selected—for its partnership with the developer Forest City Enterprises and its 5M Project.[6] The 5M Project is a great example of the intersections between art, technology and gentrification that the Bay Area is currently experiencing, and raises questions about the effectiveness of an institutionally funded creative placemaking project that’s not driven by the local community and the challenges it can present for the participating arts organization.

The 5M Project: A Public-Private Partnership
Intersection for the Arts is the oldest alternative nonprofit arts space in San Francisco. Incorporated in 1965, it has a long history of supporting projects rooted in a social justice framework. In contrast, Forest City Enterprises (formerly Forest City Ratner) is a $9 billion, publicly traded real estate management and development corporation based out of Cleveland, Ohio that has a history of using questionable practices to displace communities, including eminent domain.[7] One of the more high-profile instances of this practice is the Atlantic Yards project in the Prospect Heights neighborhood of Brooklyn.[8] The 2011 award-winning documentary, “Battle For Brooklyn”[9] chronicles the development of that project and the subsequent breakdown of the neighborhood that was seized.

The 5M Project[10] is housed in the San Francisco Chronicle building in the South of Market (SoMa) neighborhood, which historically has comprised a strong network of social justice, youth, labor, veterans’ equity, and arts organizations and small businesses that have often worked together for years to serve the neighborhood’s low-income families and individuals.[11] Additionally, the community is filled with existing public art projects, murals and installations; performances and community festivals, such as the Parol Lantern Festival and Parade, the Pistahan Festival and Parade and SoMaFest; as well as numerous independent and institutional art spaces—all of which the community has created, helped to develop, or supported for over 20 years. Therefore, from the outset of the 5M Project, it’s been difficult to envision how Intersection for the Arts, which is new to SoMa[12] —working with a publicly traded, for-profit development corporation—could possibly create any sort of healthy community-based prototype.

Such skepticism is not in any way a reflection of Intersection’s integrity as an organization. On the contrary, since its beginnings, Intersection has been creating and presenting some of the very best community-based arts programming in the country, committed to raising awareness and social consciousness around critical issues of justice and equity. Their exemplary programming is due in large part to their staff and in particular, the curatorial visions and tireless commitments of longtime program directors Kevin Chen (Visual Arts, Literary & Jazz) and Sean San Jose (Performing Arts). The concerns here are for: (a) the potential complications that can arise from an organization like Intersection that’s always been committed to supporting a platform of social justice through the arts entering into partnership with a publicly traded corporation whose commitment is to maximizing profits for its shareholders; and (b) the pressures around the fulfillment of the objectives of a time-sensitive, place-based grant where the grantee is new to the community and lacks  those essential organically developed relationships within its new neighborhood.

5M’s Impact on the Existing Community
In addition to the partnership with Intersection for the Arts, Forest City’s 5M development includes 750 new dwelling units, over a million square feet of office spaces, and 150,000 square feet of retail, educational, and cultural use spaces.[13] While the 4-acre project is not going to directly displace residents, several members of SoMa’s community-based coalition, including Bernadette Sy (Filipino American Development Association), Angelica Cabande (South of Market Community Action Network—SOMCAN), and Jessica Van Tuyl (Oasis for Girls), voiced concerns that without clear policy protections in place, SoMa’s low and middle-income residents are likely to be displaced by the increased cost of living and rents in the neighborhood, as well as the lack of access to jobs and amenities that will be created by the development.

According to Cabande: “We’re being told how this project is going to benefit our community but we’re still not seeing that. And we haven’t even talked about the impacts—not only the displacement and gentrification impacts, but also the traffic impacts and open space. There are many things that need to be looked at to make sure that there is really good community planning when you’re developing a project like this. And so far we haven’t felt that the community has been included in that process!”

The SoMa district has already been significantly impacted by the changes that have occurred for over a decade,[14] due in large part to city planning and policy decisions and legislation that have favored developers, corporations, and the upper incomes moving into the neighborhood.

Cabande also noted that the most promising facet of the 5M/Intersection/ArtPlace collaboration for the neighborhood’s established community organizations was the partnership with PolicyLink, a national research and action institute based in Oakland that works to advance economic and social equity. PolicyLink was brought on to the project in 2012 by 5M to provide policy recommendations and help shape the project’s approach to inclusive change. PolicyLink’s model for community development is to “connect the work of people on the ground to the creation of sustainable communities of opportunity that allow everyone to participate and prosper by offering access to quality jobs, affordable housing, good schools, transportation, and the benefits of healthy food and physical activity.”[15]

An equitable community benefits agreement[16] for a project like the 5M might include: a guarantee of x numbers of jobs for local low- and middle-income residents; at least 30 percent of housing units for the low-income; a wall-to-wall living wage; 100 percent of the new construction jobs for San Francisco residents, with 65 percent for local hires; a community-based job training center for the project; and restrictions against the use of temp agencies.[17]

SOMCAN and PolicyLink’s hope for the collaboration was that it had potential for setting a local standard and creating a national model for equitable development on this scale. However, according to Josh Kirschenbaum, vice president of strategic direction for PolicyLink: “The contract to include the prototyping effort, which would have included working with local groups like SOMCAN, was not fully executed.  Instead, Intersection and Forest City decided to implement this phase on their own.”[18]

Additionally, Forest City was not able to advance the comprehensive portfolio of equity recommendations developed by PolicyLink in the predevelopment phase, which ultimately diluted their potential impact. It is challenging to work with a publicly traded corporation in which the company’s executives have a fiduciary responsibility to their shareholders. However, processes such as Environmental Impact Reviews, required by the city for proposed projects, can provide an excellent opportunity for greater scrutiny and analysis in support of recommendations that necessitate social responsibility, affordability, and cultural competency as profit-maximizing strategies for all stakeholders.

The 5M Project is now raising many of these same questions for Forest City’s newest project: Pier 70. This controversial development is using the creative placemaking strategies of 5M,[19] drawing similar community concerns over its potential impact on the Dogpatch neighborhood, as well as bordering Bayview/Hunters Point.[20]

Reversing the Gentrification Trend
As artists, our nature is often to see the world as full of possibility and transformation and to help shape culture in ways that are unexpected and unprecedented. However, the ability of artists to become driving forces of culture becomes extremely difficult when economic instability, lack of affordable space, and homogenous environments threaten our livelihoods and we become creative agents driven by the forces of money and survival.

The challenge in this current climate of concentrated capital is to cultivate alternative models that are equitable and support a culture of sufficiency through strategies such as land trusts, co-ops, commons, full taxation of corporations, increased protections and regulations for housing and zoning, as well as more stringent community benefit agreements. To achieve these ends, we must work to put far more pressure on our city officials and hold them accountable to provide the best services, opportunities, and amenities for residents, while ensuring that existing communities are protected and supported through high-functioning planning, permitting, and legislation with strong and clear avenues for oversight and accountability.

We must also keep in mind that the most successful creative projects and works of art in the urban landscape are often those that capture intimate and organic connections devoid of contrived models for planned environments, and the subversions to these institutionalized frameworks.

Postscript: I began researching and writing this piece in early March 2014 and finished it in late May, just as Intersection for the Arts cut its arts, education, and community engagement programs and laid off its program staff, keeping only its fiscal sponsorship program. What began as a reflection on the shortcomings of creative placemaking as a tool for economic development and its implications on gentrification and community displacement has become a cautionary tale for arts and community organizations on the potential outcomes of working with partners whose interests are rooted in financial profit.

Megan Wilson is an artist, writer, nonprofit consultant and community organizer based in San Francisco. This article is based on a longer version entitled “The Gentrification of Our Livelihoods” that appeared in on June 3, 2014.

1    The term creative placemaking was first coined by economist Ann Markusen in 2007 in her influential National Endowment for the Arts white paper with the eponymous title to define an urbanism that requires the presence of art and artists.
3    This has included my nonprofit development, management, and planning work with the following organizations and the communities they serve: Urban Peace Movement, Portola and Excelsior Family Connections, Oasis For Girls, Oakland Leaf, Creative Growth Art Center, SOMCAN (South of Market Community Action Network), Young Women United for Oakland, Streetside Stories, Youthspace, APIAHF (Asian Pacific Islander American Health Forum), The Luggage Store, Clarion Alley Mural Project, TILT, Southern Exposure, Meridian Gallery and The National Conference for Community and Justice.
5    Ibid.
6    Ibid.
10    The 5M project is the overarching development for the 5M Creative Placemaking collaboration between Intersection for the Arts and Forest City Enterprises (the developer).
12    Intersection moved from their 446 Valencia Street (Mission District) location to the Chronicle Building at 925 Mission Street (in the South of Market neighborhood) in the summer of 2011.
18    Interview with Josh Kirschenbaum, April 2, 2014.

Pull Quote TEXT ONLY for featured stories in image slider: 
While additional funding opportunities for artists and arts organizations are a greatly needed resource, project-based funding, such as creative placemaking initiatives, are a matter for concern.
Pull Quote NEW for book or for a podcast from a book page.: 

The term “creative placemaking” is the latest spin on a decades-old strategy of incorporating the arts into economic development models, the idea being that art can inspire shared economic prosperity while energizing the overall community.