Alive! Strategies for Transformation

Reimagine! is pleased to announce the publication of Alive!, the second volume of RP&E produced under our collaborative editorial model.  To be independent and sustainable, we need your support.  Please use the tabs on the right to donate, subscribe, and join our email list, where you can receive our digital editions, learn about our open editorial process, and become a part of Movements Making Media.  To read the entire issue in beautiful print format, please subscribe!


By Jess Clarke and Marcy Rein

The resurgence of direct action as a viable strategy for change has energized a new generation of activists and provides a springboard for launching a movement of movements that can challenge the domination of capital in social, economic and political spheres. Street protests are just one part of this expanding constellation of strategies. Cultural consciousness and personal healing are also being brought to bear in the effort to foster long-haul sustainability. From inside of prison, from inside the heart—people are moving out into community and into connection with the earth.  Read More...

Pull Quote TEXT ONLY for featured stories in image slider: 
Digital Edition February 2016—Silicon Valley: Riders, Renters & Workers Rise

Alive! Strategies for Transformation: Introduction

By Jess Clarke and Marcy Rein

The resurgence of direct action as a viable strategy for change has energized a new generation of activists and provides a springboard for launching a movement of movements that can challenge the domination of capital in social, economic and political spheres. Street protests are just one part of this expanding constellation of strategies. Cultural consciousness and personal healing are also being brought to bear in the effort to foster long-haul sustainability. From inside of prison, from inside the heart—people are moving out into community and into connection with the earth.

The Movement for Black Lives is bringing together a broad cross-section of African American organizations and communities to conduct intersectional analysis and practice of advancing Black liberation beyond the defensive position of denouncing state violence and reforming policing practices. (Garza p. 21) *

The civil rights movement, circa 1955-65, was a critical factor in paving the way for the anti-war, environmental and feminist movements of the late 1960s and early 1970s.1  But after historic achievements in voting rights, housing rights and environmental regulation, and a pause in the imperial war-making, the end of the 1970s saw an increasing “silofication” of political work into single-issue or neighborhood-scale organizations that often lacked a race or class analysis. Progressive movements fractured as neoliberalism began its ruthless ascent.

Now, new formations are emerging that recognize how a revitalized Black liberation movement is pivotal, not only for advancing a racial justice agenda but for building effective coalitions that more broadly challenge capital (M.Clarke & Shekar p. 26). But these are not just coalitions of the relatively privileged. Nicole Lee, founder of Urban Peace Movement, articulates some of the core strengths of street culture that support healing from trauma and power grassroots challenges to the system of racial profiling and mass incarceration.  (Lee p. 33)  Participants in a landscape-gardening training program at San Quentin documented by Kelly Curry come out with a new view of the food system and ways of combatting racial injustice. (Curry p. 38).  Homeless people are leading a multi-state coalition of homeless organizations that is pushing back against direct corporate rule by Business Improvement Districts and pushing forward legislation to provide human rights protections to those without a house. (J. Clarke p. 87) Activists in Oakland and San Francisco have successfully defended their rights to health and homes in battles over coal transshipment and condo tower developments in Oakland and San Francisco. (Arnold p. 10; Tepperman-Gelfant & Zisser, p. 84; D. Phillips, p. 77) All of these approaches refuse the dominant narrative about disposable populations and celebrate healing and life.

Arts and Culture
Our work as media-makers and weavers of the cultural fabric that protects our psyches from traumatic destruction makes up a large part of the content of this edition of RP&E. In our reimagining process, we identified “Arts & Culture” as a key strategy for change, opening the door to a new dimension of coverage. The articles, brought together by contributing editor Christine Joy Ferrer and correspondent Jarrel Phillips (pp. 52-76) include storytelling by Black artists from San Francisco and interviews with cultural curators Joyce Gordon and Joana Cruz. These are practical visionaries who are carving out liberated zones that rejuvenate the soul and ready us to continue the struggle.

Silicon Valley, Regional Engine
The epicenter of the wave of displacement chronicled by so many of the Black artists from San Francisco lies to the south, in Silicon Valley. The tech industry rooted there has become the Bay Area’s economic engine, shaping land-use, housing and transportation—deepening income inequality and feeding the epidemic of gentrification sweeping the region. The intertwined realities of historic economic and racial inequality are playing out in new and alas, familiar forms.

Across the region, pressure on housing prices comes partly from the growing numbers of well-paid professionals at the high-end of tech’s income gap. A spate of media reports on tech’s disproportionately white and male workforce has prompted some companies to reassess their hiring practices, but this industry has been segregated and stratified since its earliest days when it incubated at Stanford University, nourished on U.S. Defense Department contracts. White men held managerial and technical jobs, while production fell largely on immigrant women of color. Today, Blacks and Latinos hold less than 5 percent of high-paid technical positions, but a majority of the low-paid service jobs. From its beginnings, the tech industry also aggressively opposed unions, hampering workers’ efforts to better their wages and conditions. As it grew, it turned to the use of contracted workers, making life even more precarious for the people in those jobs. (Bacon, p. 125)
High-end demand puts pressure on a housing supply already constricted by a legacy of redlining, racially restrictive covenants, and exclusionary zoning. Since 1980, California law has required communities to plan and zone for their fair share of regional housing needs at all income levels. Silicon Valley cities have routinely shirked this responsibility. (Rein p. 93)

The scarcity of housing near jobs further inflates the cost of housing and makes commuting inevitable. The limited coverage and infrequency of service offered by the Santa Clara Valley Transportation Authority forces commuters into cars, creating pollution and congestion. Low-income families pay the biggest price, driving long distances to work, sacrificing their quality of life and paying on average 70 percent of their income for housing and transportation. Families of color are even more likely to be cost-burdened. (Goldman, p. 105)
Bob Allen, director of policy and advocacy at Urban Habitat (and our contributing editor who worked closely with Marcy Rein to pull this section together), says organizers and public officials are up against a veritable “company region.” Tech giants directly provide or fund public functions like the old company towns of the industrial era.

Several companies run their own private bus networks; Facebook has paid for additional police in Menlo Park; and Google funds city planning staff positions in Mountain View. Instead of paying taxes, they engage in large-scale giving and offer services as they see fit—but their programs lack even the flawed accountability and input structure of public services.

Now the Silicon Valley Leadership Group, which represents the region’s largest employers, is proposing a Santa Clara County transportation sales tax to “keep the region competitive” and meet tech’s demands on the region’s transportation system.

This regressive measure must be passed by two-thirds of the voters and will disproportionally burden the poorest. Of course, most tech companies don’t pay much in the way of sales tax; they have offshored manufacturing and pay no tax on the ads they sell or data they serve. Even their property taxes are lower than what residents pay.  Without additional revenue, public transit will fall even further out of line with community needs.

Bus riders and their allies are organizing to win the best transportation funding measure they can within this flawed process. (Barkin, p. 115; and Rein, p. 109) Renters and low-wage workers are also organizing. Battles for living wages and rent control are keys to improving conditions for all workers. (Smooke & Ruiz, p. 99; Bloch, p. 122).

Democratize Everything
To effectively challenge the hegemony of capital in Silicon Valley and the region as a whole, our organizing needs to move beyond the silos of a transit access or housing affordability reform. A conscious analysis of where power is concentrated can help us begin building momentum to democratize the spaces where decisions that deeply affect our lives are made. We have to have staying power to affect the long drawn-out processes of public planning. We also need to bring to bear the wisdom of the dispossessed people of the street, the healing capacity of our cultural heritages, and the confrontational energy of direct action into ever more powerful coalitions.
Reimagine! writers, editors, photographers, and artists are not bystanders in this process. We are participant observers, embedded in our respective roles within our movements, and reaching out to our colleagues to try to spark a dialogue that is reciprocally strengthening.
Please join us! We need money, office space, meeting rooms, computers, but above all, we need you, our reader-sponsors who are joining us in building the road as we walk it. Subscribe!

* Italic references are to the author and page number of an article in this issue.
1. Carl Anthony: Earth Day and Environmental Justice—Then and Now, RP&E, Vol. 17 No. 1. 2010.

Pull Quote TEXT ONLY for featured stories in image slider: 


Communities Unite to Stop Dirty Power — #keepitintheground

Pull Quote TEXT ONLY for featured stories in image slider: 

#keepitintheground #climatejustice #nopowerplants #cleanenergy #nocoal

Communities Unite to Fight Coal in Oakland

Protest at Oakland City Council hearing on coal. ©2015 Eric  K. Arnold

By Eric K. Arnold

Coal, once the staple of American industrial production, may be on its last legs. With domestic production showing a long-term decline, the fossil fuel’s days appear to be numbered.

According to the most recent annual report [1] of the U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA), in 2013, U.S. coal production fell below two billion short tons for the first time in two decades; coal mining capacity decreased, as did the average number of coal mine employees, the average sales price of coal, and total U.S. coal stocks. In April of 2015, the EIA projected coal would hit a 28-year low, reflecting significant drops in domestic demand and exports. In August, Goldman Sachs divested itself of its coal holdings; a month later, it issued a gloomy forecast[2] for coal’s future, stating, “the industry does not require new investment,” dashing hopes for a miraculous upturn in the coal market. A report[3] by the Carbon Tracker Initiative (CTI) noted that 26 domestic coal companies have recently gone into bankruptcy proceedings; and coal’s value on the Dow Jones index dropped by 76 percent between 2009-14 (a period when the overall Dow index went up 69 percent).

According to CTI, domestic energy generation has remained flat for the past decade but energy sources have shifted: coal and oil are down, but natural gas and renewable energy are up. America’s largest coal producers are recording annual losses in the billions of dollars, while Chinese coal demand has slumped and new environmental regulations[4] aimed at significantly reducing air pollution and increasing wind and solar consumption are being phased in by the Chinese government. Additionally, all federal coal leasing is currently under moratorium until a comprehensive review can be completed. As the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) noted[5] in its online magazine, OnEarth, “it would be difficult to overstate the industry’s current distress.”

This is scary news for the coal industry, yet a welcome announcement for environmentalists who have waged national campaigns against coal for decades. These desperate times for coal producers have led to desperate measures. Their last hope, it would seem, is to increase coal’s export capacity by transporting the black gunk through West Coast ports. But even there the pro-coal forces have met with unexpected resistance, as city after city in Oregon and Washington have mounted grassroots campaigns to deliver an emphatic message: “Say no to coal.”

Demonstrator outside Oakland City Council hearing on coal. ©2015 Eric  K. Arnold

Oakland’s “No Coal” Stance Sends Shock Waves
A showdown in Oakland, California in 2015, over a proposal to convey coal via train to a planned marine terminal at the site of the old Oakland Army Base site, generated considerable controversy. Coal advocates based in Utah secured tens of millions in loans from an obscure public agency to dangle in front of Terminal Logistics Solutions (TLS) for the right to bring coal through West Oakland, one of the most polluted areas in the entire state. But a coalition of environmental advocates was ready with a grassroots campaign joined by numerous community organizations. A battle for the future of energy in America ensued, as the ornate chambers of the Oakland City Council became ground zero for this landmark fight.

The latest news out of California does not bode well for the pro-coal contingent. On February 16, the Oakland City Council voted to table a proposal to pay Environmental Science Associates $208,000 in consultant fees to determine whether the coal trains would pose significant health risks. The Council was reportedly set to approve the contract, but abruptly reversed its decision after Oakland Mayor Libby Schaaf urged them to delay the decision, and environmental advocates pointed to a recent Environmental Impact Report (EIR) authored by Environmental Science Associates for the city of Benicia, which significantly downplayed the health hazards of a proposed coal train project (though it did note significant risks of air pollution).

The Benicia EIR, prepared by a former employee of the American Association of Railroads, contradicted NRDC’s findings which stated that the aging train cars to be used in the project were not equipped to handle what the Wall Street Journal termed the equivalent of “two million sticks of dynamite” per car. NRDC’s findings had raised concerns about a potentially lethal incident, such as what occurred in July 2013 in Lac-Mégantic, Quebec, when 69 crude oil-laden cars caught fire and exploded after rolling down a hill and derailing at a speed of 63 mph. The disaster[6] killed 47 people, incinerated much of the town’s center, caused 36 of the 39 remaining downtown buildings to be demolished due to petroleum contamination, sent 26,000 gallons of oil into the Chaudière river (resulting in a swimming and fishing ban and causing deformities in almost 50 percent of the river’s marine life) and generated cleanup costs well in excess of $7.6 million, as well as insurance claims totaling $50 million. Needless to say, Benicia rejected the proposal.

Furthermore, a poll[7] conducted on behalf of the Sierra Club found that 76 percent of Oakland residents opposed the coal trains, while only 15 percent supported it. And on February 19, California State Senator Loni Hancock introduced four separate bills (SB 1277, 1278, 1279 and 1280)[8] aimed at restricting coal in California and, specifically, keeping it out of Oakland.

If passed, the bills would declare shipping coal through West Oakland a health and safety hazard and prohibit coal from being shipped through the Port of Oakland; require comprehensive environmental data collection for coal projects by public agencies; prohibit the use of public funds to operate coal-exporting facilities adjacent to low-income communities; and require facilities which receive state funds to either prohibit coal altogether, or contribute to the state’s greenhouse gas reduction fund. In short, Hancock’s bills would close almost every loophole which has come to light in the Oakland coal train battle.

Hancock’s actions also sent a clear message to the Oakland City Council to take decisive action to prioritize the environmental health of a community already suffering from the double whammy of toxic levels of pollution and the lowest income levels in the entire city. To put people before profits, as it were. This may prove to be the nudge Oakland city officials needed to firmly reject the coal proposal, after months of inaction and behind-the-scenes dithering over possible liability concerns.

Demonstrator outside Oakland City Council hearing on coal. ©2015 Eric  K. Arnold

Lies, Deception and Backroom Deals Push Coal on Oakland
On September 21, 2015, almost 700 people signed up to speak at a public forum addressing a proposal to build a new coal handling facility at the former Oakland Army Base—a new record, according to clerk LaTonda Simmons. At the hearing, which lasted almost six-and-a-half hours,  Oakland City Council members heard from concerned members of the community worried about the negative health impacts of fugitive coal dust residue, as well as several experts who offered testimony about environmental and public health factors. On the other side were allies of developer Phil Tagami’s California Capital and Investment Group and TLS, the company that would operate the proposed West Oakland terminal where the coal transported from Utah would arrive before being exported to China and other foreign destinations. The pro-coal advocates included several paid lobbyists and hired-gun consultants who insisted that this coal would be the cleanest coal available in the United States, as well as construction workers and church leaders who said the community needed the jobs.

Some of the most impactful testimony came from Katrina Booker, a former registered nurse who currently works as a longshorewoman at the port of Stockton. Booker’s first-person account of what it’s like to be a worker at a coal facility cut through all the rhetoric and dry statistical data to offer a dose of reality. “When the coal comes off the ships off the conveyor belts, you have the most dust there. When I work, I have to wear my mask, and that doesn’t keep the dust out. At the end of the day, my eyes are burning and red. I get nosebleeds, I have headaches, it’s hard for me to breathe. Whatever has gotten past that mask, I have already inhaled into my lungs.”

Christopher Christiansen, a 4th generation longshoreman with ILWU Local 1021, was more succinct in his assessment: “Coal is wrong for our community and our docks. The argument that we need coal… just doesn’t pass with a straight face.”

Fittingly, the last speaker to address the Council was Margaret Gordon, an environmental activist based in West Oakland who has worked tirelessly for two decades to address air quality issues in her community. Oakland, she said, is “a green city, a sustainable city,” pointing to a Rockefeller Foundation resiliency initiative adopted in 2014.[9]

“If coal comes in here, you’re not that anymore,” she warned. “That’s a contradiction within itself. There’s no more resiliency, it’s not sustainability, none of that is happening anymore… That’s not what I have worked for [for] 20 years… cleaning up the air pollution in West Oakland.”

The Council hearing capped off a well-coordinated campaign against coal which resulted in what some long-term environmental activists are calling an unprecedented show of solidarity across demographic and ethnic lines. “It’s been a tremendous effort, probably the most powerful organizing effort I’ve seen in Oakland since I’ve been involved in environmental work,” said Brian Beveridge, who’s worked with Gordon for the past decade on the West Oakland Environmental Indicators Project (WOEIP), one of the core organizations which anchored the campaign, along with the Sierra Club, Earthjustice, Communities For a Better Environment, Baykeeper, Asian Pacific Islander Environmental Network, and Sunflower Alliance.

“We’ve certainly seen powerful organizing around Black Lives Matter and some of the other social justice issues, but as far as the environment, this has really brought people together across the board. All races, genders, ages,” Beveridge said, adding that the engagement of young people and people of color, “feels like a sea change in the modern environmental movement. We’re just not that divided on it anymore. People are saying, if that’s the job they’re offering, we don’t need a job that bad. There are better jobs to be had than shoveling coal in an underground bunker. That is a really powerful thing. I don’t think the developers thought they were going to jumpstart a whole new element of the environmental movement. Talk about unintended consequences!”

The Oakland campaign began in 2013. At that time, CCIG’s Tagami insisted in a newsletter for the project that, “CCIG is publicly on record as having no interest or involvement in the pursuit of coal related operations at the former Oakland Army Base.”

But it soon became apparent that the coal industry was indeed targeting Oakland. After the Port of Oakland unanimously rejected three proposals to export coal  in February 2015, Utah lobbyists visited the new terminal site in March 2015, just one month before securing a $53 million loan to help CCIG pay for the cost of constructing the facility. CCIG Vice President Mark McClure was present at a presentation before the Community Fund Investment Board (CIB), an obscure Utah state agency which granted the loan. An email sent by former Utah Transportation Commissioner Jeffrey Holt to the counties invested in the project specifically mentioned Tagami’s distaste for media attention.

Demonstrators inside Oakland City Council hearing on coal. © 2015 Eric  K. Arnold
Opposition to Coal Creates Unprecedented Unity
“When people started reading these articles from Utah, and hearing the quotes from Utah’s (CIB), and Mark McClure there talking about it, and the transcripts of those stories,” environmental activists were outraged, Beveridge said.

The first time the word “coal” appeared on a public document, “We got together and started talking about what we might do to stop it,” said Michelle Myers, president of the Sierra Club’s San Francisco Bay Chapter. Initial efforts included door-to-door canvassing in West Oakland, because, “it was important for us to start this campaign in communities that would be most impacted.”

From there, the efforts mushroomed. There were meetings at churches; flyers were circulated via a West Oakland food truck; and organizations, such as, Bay Localize and the Rose Foundation, joined the campaign.

“We’re committed to a different future for Oakland which is all about clean energy,” said Bay Localize’s Colin Miller. “We don’t have to choose between good jobs and good health. We can actually have both.” Miller is one of the organizers for the Summer Climate Justice Leadership Academy, which helps train local youth “who have committed to a livable future for themselves and their families.”

One of those youth, 17 year-old Paulina Garcia, attended the City Council hearing and was prepared to speak against coal, “because I want to see better change in my community and find solutions for the younger generation to have a cleaner, better Oakland.”

Alvina Wong, APEN’s Oakland Community Organizer, said her organization has been involved in the No on Coal campaign for about a year. Many APEN members live in West Oakland and Chinatown, or along International Blvd where the density of air pollution is an ongoing concern. Wong has helped to mobilize hundreds of people—from monolingual Chinese to Pacific Islanders—and says that her constituents, who span the demographic gamut across age, gender, and race, have “so much energy and emotion on stopping coal!”

In addition to backing from a diverse range of environmental groups, key support also came from organized labor: the SEIU and the California Nurses Association—which provide care for people impacted by coal dust—also jumped aboard, as did the longshore workers of ILWU and the Alameda Labor Council. These were important allies, because their involvement directly countered the argument that coal was necessary to create jobs. Numerous petition campaigns demanding that Oakland ban coal circulated on social media, ultimately garnering over 10,000 signatures. A large rally before Oakland City Hall in July 2015 raised public awareness and initiated a flurry of media attention—creating a negative public perception of Tagami, who had gone to great lengths to keep his coal plans under the radar.

As Myers said of Tagami: “He’s done this in the dark of night, he’s done this after the environmental reviews have been analyzed, he did this after the community jobs agreement was already finalized, and now all of a sudden coal is his preferred commodity because he thinks he can get some money to build the terminal from it.”

Ultimately, Tagami’s apparent reneging on a “no coal” promise became a focal point of the campaign and gave anti-coal advocates an irrefutable talking point. Since April 2015, the story has been widely reported in the press in both Utah and California, and circulated throughout environmental networks.

Emails obtained by KQED under a Public Records request reveal that in May 2015, Oakland Mayor Schaaf gave CCIG’s Tagami a direct order[10] to “stop it immediately… you must respect the owner and public’s decree that we will not have coal shipped through our city.” A defiant Tagami responded by saying[11], “the terminal needs to handle whatever legal bulk goods the potential customer may need to pass through the facility.”

CCIG’s Meritless Economic Claims and Quid Pro Quo Deals

Tagami’s backsliding was also noticed by EPA project manager Richard Grow, who went out of his way to praise Gordon and Beveridge for their mitigation efforts, but had much harsher words for the developer and his cronies. “It’s unsettling, disappointing to find… [that] some of those very same people at the table in our discussions have been off in Utah… trying to establish coal deals and coal contracts. None of those issues were brought to the table in our discussion.” Actions such as that, he added, are “not a tribute to the good faith we try to engage in.”

Another questionable tactic by the pro-coal forces was offering quid pro quo arrangements which they characterized as community benefits but others viewed as straight-up bribes. Early in 2015, TLS executives Bridges and Omar Benjamin took Beveridge and Gordon out to lunch, told them of plans to build an “environmentally-friendly” coal terminal, and promised the activists a percentage of profits for their support. “They offered us 12 cents a ton to back coal in the community,” Beveridge recalled. “Specifically, they said [WOEIP] can take this money and do whatever you want to it. Ironically, they suggested we use it to support a health clinic.”

According to the East Bay Express,[12] similar offers were made to African American church leaders—seven cents per ton—to promote the idea that coal would mean good jobs for the Black community. This notion appears to have little basis in reality as testimony from the Council hearing noted that other commodities create many more jobs than coal. Furthermore, there’s no guarantee that a majority of the jobs potentially created would go to African American residents of West Oakland, but plenty of evidence that this wouldn’t be the case. As stated in Oakland Global’s August 2014 newsletter,[13] among the hiring requirements, “there… was not a provision in the jobs policies that a particular Oakland neighborhood or ethnicity would receive priority over another. And so far, project hiring has been diverse. The top four ethnicities represented in hours worked on the Oakland Global project are as follows: Hispanic—42.1%; Caucasian—31.6%; African-American—15.3%; and "Failed to state/Other"—10.2%.”

Under this hiring pattern, less than one in six jobs would go to Black workers—hardly enough to make a significant dent in the unemployment rates of West Oakland, which is 67 percent African American, as per the 2010 US Census. The 94607 zip code, which includes the Army Base site and adjacent neighborhoods, has the second-highest unemployment rate (14.93 percent) in Oakland,[14] over five times higher than the 94611 zip code, which includes the wealthy, predominantly white Piedmont and Montclair neighborhoods. Perhaps not coincidentally, the West Oakland census tracts in direct proximity to the Port have Enviroscreen scores of 85-90 percent[15]—among the worst in the state for air pollution.

Besides the economic reality that coal represents an unstable market, there’s also considerable evidence that it carries a heavy burden of hidden costs. According to a 2011 study by the Center for Global Health and Environment,[16] in coal-reliant states like Kentucky, coal expenditures exceed revenues before factoring in healthcare and environmental mitigation costs.

“The true ecological and health costs of coal are… far greater than the numbers suggest,” the study concludes, speculating that the true cost “doubles to triples the price.” And West Oakland residents already pay a high price in terms of health, as stated numerous times during the Council hearing.

“All money ain’t good money,” according to West Oakland longshoreman Derek Muhammad—a sentiment echoed by community residents and coalition members alike—and taken up by Councilmember Dan Kalb, when he said: “I’m saddened that good people would imply… that we have to choose between jobs and protecting the public’s health.”

Galvanized by Opposition, Oakland Won’t Back Down
The idea of bringing coal to Oakland has been so egregious, it’s actually been conducive to active resistance. Not only has it galvanized the environmental movement, but it’s failed to convince elected officials of its efficacy or even reasonability. Significant pushback from the No Coal in Oakland coalition; sustained community engagement targeting West Oakland’s most-impacted residents; shady practices by Bridges and Tagami; unfavorable press for the project—all of these things have indeed created the perfect “shitstorm” that Beveridge says he warned Benjamin and Bridges about months ago.

“In a sense, this is unanimous opposition, aside from the master developer himself and his partners, and a couple groups in organized labor who really feel they have a vested interest in this project,” Beveridge noted at the hearing. (Some months after the hearing, the East Bay Express would report[17] that African American church leaders who spoke on behalf of the coal trains had either been paid to do so by Bridges and TLS, or promised money from a slush fund from future coal shipments.)

After a six hour meeting, five Council members—representing a voting majority—raised what Councilmember Rebecca Kaplan noted were “serious concerns.” The Council cited everything from the possibility of exacerbating current conditions, to the lack of available data regarding mitigation measures, to liability and emergency response concerns, to the economic viability of long-term investment in a declining market, to the ethical contradictions of promoting a project which goes against the spirit of the city’s own climate action plan as well as statewide mandates for greenhouse gas reductions. As Kalb said, “the idea that we might seriously entertain this huge volume of coal… is something we will regret and be deeply embarrassed about for many years.”

A further point of emphasis was made by Council President Lynnette Gibson-McElhaney, who spoke of her personal experiences dealing with respiratory issues in her family. “As a West Oakland resident and mother of an asthmatic child, I live these challenges every day,” she said, adding that two other family members are also asthmatic.

The Council’s decision, originally expected in December 2015, was delayed twice. Talk around City Hall was that there were concerns about lawsuits from the pro-coal lobby should the city outright reject the plan, and there was some confusion over whether the city had the authority to ban coal shipments, given that it had failed to specifically do so in the past.

Regardless, the environmental coalition pressed forward. On October 2, Earthjustice filed a legal action asking the city to require a new California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) analysis and stated in a press release: “the environmental review for the project failed to include any discussion or analysis of the impacts of transporting, handling, or exporting coal from Oakland on surrounding neighborhoods or the environment. This is particularly problematic given the project's disproportionate impact on Oakland's most vulnerable communities of color.”

All’s Fair in Coal Wars: Utah Tries Money Laundering

But the coal lobby won’t go down without a fight and an entrenched legal battle may lie ahead. In November 2015, CCIG filed a brief to dismiss the suit on the basis that the statute of limitations to contest a CEQA review expired in 2012, even though coal was not specifically mentioned in the original project proposal. Later that month, Earthjustice dismissed its lawsuit[18] without prejudice (meaning it could later be refiled), after learning that CCIG “had pursued project funding from the Utah counties without City support, knowledge or involvement.” In a statement, Earthjustice’s Irene Gutierrez explained, “We believe it is in the best interest of our community client groups to continue advocacy efforts and work in good-faith with city staff to achieve a mutually acceptable solution.”

Meanwhile, the Sierra Club and the Center for Biological Diversity teamed up to petition[19] the Utah courts to block the use of public funds intended for Utah communities in California. This action was followed by an Op/Ed[20] in the Salt Lake Tribune (SLT) which called the use of CIB funds for the crude-by-rail scheme “disturbing” and noted that the loan application wasn’t received until four weeks after the loan had already been approved. It went on to note conflict-of-interest concerns and the riskiness of using public funds for such a venture, echoing an SLT editorial[21] which also noted the lack of transparency and apparent attempt to hide the coal scheme from the public (“coal” was never mentioned during the CIB’s public hearing in April 2015). Furthermore, it noted, “There was no mention of the fact that the city of Oakland has a policy that opposes the shipment of fossil fuels through its ports, and lawsuits could ensue. There is no guarantee the port will be completed, and it's unclear how the loan would be collateralized.” At press time, the Utah Attorney General had not yet made public his review of the CIB loan’s legality.

Despite the recent victories for the environmentalists, the battle is far from over. On March 1, 2016, Utah State Senator Stuart Adams introduced a bill, SB246, which would reroute the $50-plus million loan through the Governor’s Office of Economic Development, essentially sidestepping the legal issue of using CIB funds for a purpose they may not have been intended for. This equally dubious gamble funds the risky venture with monies drawn from Utah’s highway improvement budget, which would then be repaid with CIB funds—creating an elaborate shell game. Earthjustice lawyer Ted Zinkowski likened the new bill to a money-laundering scheme, noting “All the questions we raised about this use of CIB money would remain.”[22] But Utah officials seem willing to overlook those questions in the hopes that the loan will help stimulate rural counties which are highly dependent on coal mining.

In an interview[23] with the SLT, Utah governor Gary Herbert had plenty to say about what he evidently believes is an inalienable right to coastal ports for his landlocked, energy-producing state: "We need to have access to the ports and the fact you don't like it should not stop us from doing what's in the best interest of the people of Utah."

Such rhetoric in the name of the free market may not be in the best interest of the people of California, however. Herbert’s comments failed to mention the possibility of any health risks in the crude-by-rail scheme, nor do they address California’s existing environmental laws, which mandate mitigation of communities already suffering from high levels of pollution. Hancock’s recent bills, if passed, would add teeth to environmental legislation already on the books, such as AB32 and SB535. Responding to Adams’ bill and Herbert’s remarks in the SLT, Hancock said, “It is very ironic that the state of Utah would use Utah taxpayer money to build a railroad to take coal to California where people do not want it… Why don't they keep their money in Utah and create sustainable jobs?”

Oakland Activists Ready to “Occupy” Coal Route
Big money, shady dealings, controversial politics, and a unified coalition of local grassroots activists and nationally-known environmental organizations: this story has all the trappings of the kind of movie Hollywood used to make in the post-Vietnam War era, when it still had a moral center. But this is no mere fictional account because real human lives and the survival of a disadvantaged community lie in the balance.

Should the City of Oakland put the kibosh on the coal proposal, it’s hard to imagine that the TLS, CCIG, and Utah coal lobby would just skulk away without exhausting every possible legal avenue at their disposal. It’s possible that the coal proposal could be decided on in Oakland before Hancock’s flurry of bills wend their way through the legislative process, but it’s just as likely that any decision by the Oakland Council could be further delayed until state lawmakers vote on the proposed restrictions.

But even if the environmental argument ultimately loses in court, grassroots organizers are prepared to take actions to block the trains. As Al Weinrub of the Oakland Clean Energy Alliance said, “This has been so well-organized, it’s not going to go away. If they lose the fight here, they’ll take it to the streets… people will lay down on the tracks. It’s gonna be another Occupy.”

























Pull Quote TEXT ONLY for featured stories in image slider: 

“At the end of the day, my eyes are burning and red. I get nosebleeds, I have headaches, it’s hard for me to breathe.” - Katrina Booker

People, Power, Policy

Coalition Challenges California to Legislate Climate Equity

By Kay Cuajunco, Photos by Brooke Anderson

On August 25th, community leaders from across the state converged on the steps of the Capitol to demand climate policies that benefit and protect low-income communities and communities of color. In commemoration of the 10th Anniversary of Hurricane Katrina, residents from some of the state’s most pollution-impacted communities stood in solidarity with frontline communities across the nation, urging their legislators to pass policies to transition away from dirty fossil fuels and ensure another Katrina doesn’t happen again.

The rally was part of the California Environmental Justice Alliance’s (CEJA) annual Congreso, a two-day conference that seeks to build a stronger movement for equity and justice in statewide environmental policy. CEJA members and allies stood together in solidarity from the Golden State to the Gulf Coast to honor the sacrifice of so many and recognize how the heartache and pain from Hurricane Katrina has forced the environmental justice movement to grow stronger and more resilient.

Climate change has hit the Gulf Coast hard and discriminatory policies and unjust practices continue to leave many low-income communities of color sick and displaced. As we saw 10 years ago in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, the government continues to fail to invest in infrastructure to protect us or respond to our needs in times of crisis.

This is climate injustice.

People of color are the new majority in California and decision-makers can no longer ignore us. We have new opportunities to alter the patterns of environmental degradation and climate chaos. CEJA represents 20,000 community members across California most impacted by pollution and poverty and this year the theme for our Congreso was “People, Power, Policy” in celebration of our visionary grassroots policy-making fueled by people power throughout the state. We’re working together to advance policies that protect low-income communities and communities of color during times of crisis and lift up community-led climate solutions that will help our state transition to 100 percent equitable, renewable energy.

As people across the country and around the world gear up for another round of international climate negotiations at the United Nations in December, people are looking to California to lead in equitable climate policies that benefit low-income communities of color who are hit first and worst by the impacts of climate change. CEJA empowers frontline communities to advocate for policies like these, but we also need climate leadership from decision-makers. During our Congreso, we honored Senate President pro Tempore Kevin de León with the first Environmental Justice Leadership Award for championing environmental policies centered on equity, and for his bold leadership on SB 350, a bill that will increase our state’s use of renewable energy, cut petroleum use, and increase energy efficiency.

CEJA is a strong supporter of SB 350, which will help direct small-scale renewable energy into communities that need it the most and generate local clean energy jobs. CEJA’s other priority, AB 693, will help low-income communities and communities of color currently locked out of renewable energy benefits, with solar installations at affordable, multifamily housing units, so renters can receive a portion of the energy produced on site at their apartment complex, thus reducing their monthly utility bills.

As our state develops the next generation of climate policies that will help us meet the greatest challenge to our planet, environmental justice must be at the center. We are a leader-rich movement that is changing the face of climate leadership. By advancing energy equity and seizing climate policy opportunities at this critical moment, low-income communities and communities of color are leading the way in the transition from dirty energy and fossil fuels to a clean energy future that will provide our communities with good local jobs and a healthier environment.

Our opening panel of Juan Flores from Center on Race, Poverty & the Environment, Christine Cordero from Center for Story-based Strategy, and Antonio Diaz from People Organized to Demand Environmental and Economic Rights (PODER) bridged the local, statewide and national struggles for environmental justice. We heard stories from community leaders reclaiming public land for community gardens to resist gentrification, the fight against fracking in the Central Valley, and lessons from last year’s People’s Climate March in New York City.

"We have one thing the oil companies don’t have: people power. We're empowering community members not to be afraid. We're holding legislators accountable." - Juan Flores, CRPE

CEJA honored Senate President pro Tempore Kevin de León with the first Environmental Justice Leadership Award. De León has championed environmental policies centered on equity—first SB 535 and now SB 350, a bill that would create equitable renewable energy standards—to help make California a leader in climate and energy policy with low-income communities and communities of color at its forefront.

Elma del Aguila, a youth member from the Central Coast Alliance United for a Sustainable Economy (CAUSE), speaks of the connections between the Central Coast and communities on the Gulf Coast impacted by Big Oil and rising sea levels, which threaten their safety and livelihoods. Hundreds supported CAUSE at the California Public Utilities Commission hearing in Oxnard last July to demand Not One More Power Plant.

“They think that because we are a community made up of minorities, we will not speak out against this injustice. They think that because we are a city of minorities, our beaches can be used as a dumping ground for their toxic slum. They think that because we are a city of minorities, we will allow this environmental racism to happen. They think that they can walk all over us because we aren't strong enough to fight them. They don't understand that when people come together, we become an unstoppable force capable of taking down any company, any politician.” - Elma Del Aguila, CAUSE

Mari Rose Taruc, State Organizing Director at the Asian Pacific Environmental Network (APEN) reminded us all of how far the environmental justice movement has come and how we are powerful beyond imagination.

“We are evolving our environmental and climate justice work so that the tragedy of Hurricane Katrina, and the tragedies we experience in our communities in the valley, to our coasts, to our homelands, are not repeated. Our heartaches drive our passions that drive our innovations. And we become more powerful beyond imagination. That’s what we need in these times for a Just Transition. That’s the energy we need to bring inside the Capitol.” - Mari Rose Taruc, APEN


Related Stories: 
Pull Quote TEXT ONLY for featured stories in image slider: 

On August 25th, community leaders from across the state converged on the steps of the Capitol to demand climate policies that benefit and protect low-income communities and communities of color.

No Coal in Oakland, A Report on the Campaign

by Margaret Rossoff

Table of Contents

  • Introduction
  • Strategy
  • Advantages at the outset
  • Strategic assessment of forces
  • Pro-coal
  • Anti-coal
  • Tactics
  • Diversity
  • Organization
  • The evidence
  • Plan B
  • Conclusion
  • Guide to Acronyms


Many activists have expressed interest in an account of how the No Coal in Oakland campaign was organized.  This article is a response, but is not a history.  It is structured thematically rather than chronologically, and the many amazing activists and organizers are not identified by name.  Some of our initiatives came from organizations and some came from individual activists, but this account does not attempt to credit them, as every idea became a shared project.  Unlike just about every document during the campaign, this is not a collectively written piece.  It was significantly improved by careful readings by several people, for which I am very grateful, but I am responsible for all errors and omissions.  I expect—and hope--others will be writing their own accounts from a variety of perspectives.

I have included many links for documents referred to in this account.  For general background about the campaign, go to  A guide to acronyms is at the end of the article.



No Coal in Oakland's campaign was focused on persuading the members of the Oakland City Council to ban storage and handling of coal at a bulk export marine terminal to be built on City-owned land.  This would effectively prevent the transport of coal through Oakland and other cities along the rail lines as well as the shipment of coal overseas.

Our campaign to get the council members to vote for the ban had several components.  The primary ones were:

  • Direct lobbying with council members.
  • Outreach to Oakland residents, including particularly West Oakland residents and participants in community groups.  This was intended both to influence elected officials through popular opposition, and because we saw our campaign as part of building the larger movement for environmental justice and to contain climate disruption.
  • Insuring that evidence of the dangers of coal was adequately documented and presented to the council, including rebutting misleading claims by the developers.
  • Exploring other routes that might also lead to keeping coal out of Oakland.

This article focuses primarily on the first two aspects of our campaign.


Advantages at the outset

Our campaign had several advantages.

  • We were trying to stop a fossil fuel project in advance.  It is generally easier to prevent new infrastructure than to shut down, or even block the expansion of, an existing facility.  Oakland residents were not already employed in the coal industry, nor had it sponsored our Little League teams.
  • There was a clear path to our goal. The City Council had the power to prevent coal from being stored at the terminal on City-owned property based on health and safety grounds, as spelled out in the Development Agreement.  We just had to convince them there was “substantial evidence” of “a condition substantially dangerous to …health or safety” of “occupants or users of the Project, [or] adjacent neighbors.”   (
  • Coal already had a terrible reputation.  A widely recognized imperative to close existing coal-fired plants, including a national campaign by the Sierra Club, provided context for our local struggle.  The local dangers of coal dust escaping from railroad cars and the exacerbating effects of burning coal on climate disruption were intuitively obvious to people we spoke with.  Of course, we needed to amass scientific data to justify the ordinance banning coal, but in our community work we were building on a pre-existing narrative.
  • The community of West Oakland, where the terminal will be located, was already identified as experiencing disproportionate adverse health consequences.  This historically African-American community was undermined by “urban renewal.”  Now industrial facilities, diesel traffic and proximity to freeways contribute to pollution in an area with high unemployment, widespread poverty, limited access to healthy food, and increasingly unaffordable rent.  The resulting disparities in the rates of asthma and other medical conditions, and in life expectancy, would be further intensified by the additional burden of a coal facility.  
  • People could participate easily.  A supporter could contribute by simply signing a petition or sending an email to their council member—or could get much more involved in the campaign.  We had a range of activities for supporters to join at any given time as extensively as they wished.  See below for a discussion of our many tactics.

Strategic assessment of forces


Developers and operators

Initially the face of the pro-coal forces was Phil Tagami, the President and Chief Executive Officer of California Capital and Investment Group (CCIG), the developer chosen to build the marine facility at the former army base. Tagami was known for the renovations of the Rotunda Building in Frank Ogawa/Oscar Grant Plaza, opposite City Hall, and of the nearby Fox Theater—both projects relying on public financing while garnering private profit.  He is also politically well-connected, having served on the Port Commission, the state Lottery Commission, and other public agencies.  He has close ties to Governor Brown, with whom he owns property.  ( )

He was also known for standing at the doors to the Rotunda Building with a shotgun when Occupy Oakland took over the plaza.  (

His initial assertion that the Oakland Bulk and Oversized Terminal (OBOT) would not involve coal is documented in his own newsletter and in conversation reported by Council Member Dan Kalb.  (See quote from newsletter in  and Kalb’s report in

Initially the City signed a development agreement for the Oakland Army Base (OAB) with Prologis CCIG, a joint venture.  On February 16, 2016, the scope of CCIG and its principal, Tagami, was reduced.  The City now has lease agreements with several different tenants, for projects that include a trucker facility run by OMSS (Oakland Maritime Support Services) and two recycling firms, CASS (Custom Alloy Scrap Sales) and CWS (California Waste Solutions), as well as the marine terminal CCIG is developing.

Negotiations between Tagami and Utah coal interests became public in April, 2015, through a Utah newspaper article.  (  Around this time, the public learned that Terminal Logistics Solutions (TLS), headed by Jerry Bridges and Omar Benjamin, would be the operators of the terminal. TLS is located in the Rotunda Building where Tagami also has his office.  Bridges and Benjamin, who are both Black, are former executive directors of the Port of Oakland. Their leadership roles gave TLS the appearance of a home-grown enterprise run by people of color.  They have used their credibility in the community to attract support for the coal project, claiming that the facility would generate jobs, and that the community's health and safety would be protected because both OBOT and the rail cars would be completely enclosed.  This local front for the project is deceptive: evidence suggests that the majority voting share in TLS is controlled by Bowie Resource Partners, the coal company behind the proposal to ship coal through OBOT, whose mines are non-union.  (

In 2013 Bowie proposed shipping coal through the Port of Oakland, which rejected Bowie’s proposal in early 2014.  (   Bowie soon looked for an alternative way to get coal from mines it owns in Utah to overseas markets to compensate for plummeting domestic demand.  When the former army base was decommissioned in 1999, part of it was ceded to the Port of Oakland, part to the City of Oakland.  Tagami had already obtained general approval to develop a bulk commodities terminal on one corner of the City-owned waterfront and, at some point in 2014, it appears that Tagami decided to do business with Bowie rather than keep his promise not to ship coal through the new facility.  The plans were hatched in secret, but when news of Tagami’s betrayal of the public trust broke in April 2015, Tagami and his collaborators at TLS suddenly found themselves in hot water.  

Under the guise of a local minority business, TLS had lunch with the staff of West Oakland Environmental Indicators Project (WOEIP) and offered them twelve cents per ton of coal shipped through Oakland if they would support the proposal. (  With no apparent sense of irony, they suggested the money could be used to fund a health center.  Of course WOEIP staff refused, and in fact they became important mainstays of the opposition to coal, continuing their long history of fighting pollution in the West Oakland neighborhood.  (


Faith and labor

TLS also met with a number of Oakland pastors and offered them financial support linked to coal.  This divided the clergy; a number of them became spokespeople on behalf of TLS.  While some clergy repeated the claims of TLS that OBOT would provide jobs, others, outraged and disappointed, joined the opposition to coal.   (

The situation within organized labor was complicated.  Years of negotiation went into the Project Labor Agreement for the OAB site, which may account for some of the concern within organized labor that opposition to coal would unravel a great deal of work.  In August, 2015, the Teamsters Joint Council No. 7 sent a letter to the City Council outlining their concerns that banning coal would jeopardize the entire project.  (

The Laborers sent members to the September 21, 2015 City Council hearing to support the speakers in favor of using OBOT for coal.  Although Building Trades unions did not officially support or oppose the plans, some opposed the resolution against coal passed by the Labor Council.  They may have been concerned that the terminal would not be constructed without a commitment to coal, which would deprive their membership of potential jobs.

The pro-coal forces hired a lobbyist, Gregory McConnell, whose office is also located in the Rotunda Building, and a law firm, Stice & Block LLP.  The McConnell Group is a lobbyist for businesses.  Pro-coal clergy set up an “Ecumenical Economic Empowerment Council” and some pro-coal entities created “Jobs4Oakland.”  Neither of these groups has a web presence.

This was the opposition we faced.  (A discussion of how we combatted their propaganda is in the section on Tactics, below.)

To the extent that the developers had any support in the community, it was because some people trusted the pro-coal clergy and because people were motivated by the jobs claim.  At Oakland City Council hearings on both September 21, 2015 and June 27, 2016, the developers brought in supposed supporters, who were paid to attend.  In September these included laborers who ceded their time to pro-coal speakers; some didn’t speak English, some were themselves opposed to coal and some had no idea what the issues were.  (  In June a loud group recruited by Jobs4Oakland, primarily African Americans angry about racism and lack of jobs, came with placards and chants, disrupting No Coal in Oakland's mini-rally before the council hearing and then heckling and jeering NCIO speakers until finally escorted from the council chambers. 




The group that would eventually be known as No Coal in Oakland started when several environmental justice activists began meeting, initially calling ourselves Oakland Fossil Fuel Resistance.  We were concerned about the potential dangers of shipping crude oil by rail through Oakland as well as the threat of coal, which soon monopolized our attention.  We were quickly joined by the Sierra Club’s conservation coordinator who brought in one of the founders and directors of WOEIP.  After initial meetings in a back yard and a garage, the group began to meet at the Sierra Club (SC) office in Berkeley but soon moved to the WOEIP office in West Oakland.

NCIO met weekly for fifteen months, with generally fifteen to twenty people present.  These included community members and environmental justice activists from the Sunflower Alliance, 350EastBay, System Change Not Climate Change, Communities for a Better Environment (CBE), the Environmental Caucus of the IWW (Industrial Workers of the World), Western Service Workers Association, and California Interfaith Power and Light (CIPL); and the staff from WOEIP and SC.  We worked closely with labor activists and clergy opposed to coal, creating joint committees for these efforts.  

NCIO attracted people with long histories of political organizing in a wide variety of contexts, who between them had deep and broad knowledge of Oakland politics, successful campaign strategies, environmental justice struggles, legal analysis, environmental science, labor organizing, and more.  The group included members who were vehemently anti-establishment and cynical about the possibility of success with the elected council, along with a couple of people who had served as elected city officials.  We included at least one Republican and quite a few socialists working together, deeply religious people alongside atheists, and a few folks with histories of past conflict who focused on our shared goal.  Our passionate commitment generated mutual respect within the campaign and widespread appreciation for the campaign.

Several NCIO members worked on the campaign without pay for the equivalent of full-time jobs (or more) and many others donated many hours on a regular basis.  As a result, the group was able to quickly respond to developments, investigating and analyzing issues as they came up.  This included, for example, getting specific information on the number of potential jobs and who would get them; challenging the covered cars claims; and exposing the connections between Tagami, TLS, Brown, and Bowie.

WOEIP offered us space for our weekly meetings (frequently with snacks to sustain us) and storage for our literature and placards.  Rooted in the West Oakland community, their staff has years of experience with local environmental justice struggles and were involved from the outset in negotiating jobs and community benefits connected to the conversion of  the army base.  They shared their first-hand knowledge of this history as well as insight into the people and institutions involved.  In addition to learning a great deal from them, NCIO benefited from the respect for WOEIP held by both Oakland politicians and environmental activists.  

The SC provided many resources, including the organizing work of the Bay Area chapter’s conservation coordinator in the initial months of the campaign, as well as help from interns, volunteers and other staff.  SC’s financial support including funding the five hundred yard signs and some of the expenses of community events.  They initiated and paid for a poll of Oakland likely voters and planned the community debrief held after the September 21, 2015 council meeting.  SC provided publicity including: email blasts to people who signed our petition; coverage in their chapter newspaper, the Yodeler; and support from their media coordinator, particularly for the significant press conference we held on February 16, 2016.

The SC and WOEIP staff in NCIO are also members of the Bay Area Coal Exports Group (BACEG).  Other members of BACEG are Earthjustice, CBE, San Francisco Baykeepers, and Asian Pacific Environmental Network (APEN).  BACEG predated the Oakland coal controversy.  It is also concerned about coal in Richmond (a relatively small amount is shipped out of a private terminal there, Levin-Richmond Terminal, and is transported through the city in open rail cars) and in Stockton.  Through the SC’s national campaign, Beyond Coal, they are also connected with efforts in the Northwest and elsewhere.

BACEG’s role in the coal campaign included legal action and organizing expert testimony.  Four organizations within BACEG (SC, APEN, CBE and Baykeepers, represented by Earthjustice and SC attorneys) sued the City, asserting that shipping coal required a new Environmental Impact Report.  (  (The suit was dismissed without prejudice, which meant it can be refiled should the developer later apply for permits to store coal at OBOT and the City fail to conduct an environmental quality review.)  BACEG mobilized expert speakers to provide testimony about the dangers of coal to the council (as well as oil, which was briefly considered by the City Council) and they drafted a proposed ordinance.  

NCIO met much more frequently than BACEG, and was focused solely on the Oakland campaign.  BACEG consists of non-profit organizations with paid staff, while NCIO, with the exceptions of the overlapping members, is composed of unpaid activists, mostly from Oakland.  The relationships between NCIO, SC and BACEG included cooperation and complementarity, and also areas of conflict.  NCIO grassroots activists wanted to be represented in BACEG’s meetings, but were not included.  Multiple centers of leadership led to some unnecessary duplication of effort and became particularly problematic when there were differences about strategic direction (for example, relationships with Utah activists, when and how to pressure Governor Jerry Brown, whether to oppose a proposed review of evidence by an environmental consulting firm).   At such times, tension over who was in charge of the campaign, along with poor communication, exacerbated the underlying political differences.


NCIO early on identified the need to recruit labor support.  NCIO activists experienced in other political struggles recognized this is a crucial sector—both to spread the word about the campaign and to put pressure on council members.  The early letter from the Teamsters that supported coal underscored this.  NCIO participants included representatives to the Alameda Central Labor Council, activists in several unions, and two retired labor lawyers.  In addition to understanding the lay of the land in the labor movement, these folks had strong ties to other labor organizers. The alliance that recruited labor against coal was based on pre-existing relationships of trust and respect.

Labor opposition to coal was led by three unions: California Nurses Association/National Nurses Union (CNA), Service Employees International Union Local 1021 (SEIU 1021), and the International Longshore Workers Union (ILWU) Local 10.

The ILWU, which would represent the workers handling coal, had already indicated their refusal to touch the stuff when Bowie made its previous proposal to the Port of Oakland.  Their spokespeople spoke eloquently at council meetings, rallies, radio programs, and newspaper interviews, debunking the jobs claims of the developers and highlighting the health dangers of coal; they also brought their members to several council meetings and rallies.

CNA and SEIU organizers played the major role in persuading the Alameda Labor Council (ALC) to take a stand against coal.  This was the first time the ALC engaged in a debate on climate change and their resolution was one of the great achievements of the campaign.  (  The meme of “jobs versus the environment” has a long history (think spotted owls).  Pro-coal forces exploited this ready-made narrative, which fit neatly with the appalling unemployment rate in West Oakland.  It was critical that the Labor Council, an umbrella organization for over 100 unions with over 100,000 members, voted and acted to oppose coal.  They understood that the job claims were wildly inflated and that handling coal would endanger workers and residents.  The ALC Executive Secretary-Treasurer addressed the City Council at its June 27 hearing, urging the ban on coal.  In addition 19 unions signed our letter to the Mayor and City Council opposing the use of OBOT for coal, while two other unions sent their own letters to this effect.  Several sent representatives who provided testimony at Council hearings or met with council members.  (One activist’s account of mobilizing labor against coal can be found at

In the wake of the decision to oppose coal, the Alameda Labor Council has formed a Climate and Environmental Justice Caucus.  (  The coal campaign is proud of its role in catalyzing environmental activism by local labor forces.


NCIO did not have preexisting relationships with the faith community comparable to our ties to labor, but we realized this was an equally important constituency for the same reasons—getting out the word and influencing council members.

Early on, we had the support of a prominent Black minister from a large church, but he became focused on police brutality issues and was not able to spend time on the coal campaign.  Another pastor organized a series of meetings, hoping to unify clergy against coal; when many of them instead became active supporters of coal, he was discouraged if not broken-hearted.

Meanwhile NCIO activists contacted progressive clergy and recruited some, but we were stumbling in the dark.  Fortunately, through our environmental justice connections, we got in touch with California Interfaith Power and Light (CIPL) and their local affiliate Alameda Interfaith Climate Action Network (AICAN), interdenominational groups that organize religious institutions to address climate change.  They began to work closely with us and to reach out to clergy in their network.  Meanwhile, a pastor in West Oakland became distressed to see his colleagues, with whom he had united on other issues in the Black community, speaking on behalf of coal.  He took up the cause of recruiting ministers opposed to coal and had great success, including persuading both of our early allies to reengage with the effort to stop coal.

When she learned about his outreach to clergy, an NCIO activist introduced this pastor to our group.  In October he began holding monthly evening meetings at his church, bringing in clergy, community members, and NCIO activists for updates and discussions.  Although the three lead people in the NCIO faith outreach effort (an NCIO organizer, CIPL staff, and the West Oakland minister) did not know one another before the campaign began, they quickly developed mutual respect and collaborated well.

Their efforts culminated with three events on February 16.  The first was a press conference which generated a widely circulated photograph of many faith leaders and others active in religious communities standing in opposition to coal. 


(Photo by Tulio Ospina)

Speakers at the press conference, which was well reported, included representatives of many denominations: Baptist, Presbyterian, Episcopal, Jewish, and United Church of Christ, with support from others including Catholic, Islamic, interfaith, and Native American groups.  (
Following the press conference there was a prayer vigil organized by AICAN.  Meanwhile, a number of clergy went into the City Council meeting and spoke together during Open Forum to express the significant opposition to coal among the many faith traditions in Oakland. 


A third constituency NCIO identified as an important source of allies was the business community.  Our outreach to this group was less well-organized and was not lent urgency by a need to combat a pro-coal voice.  Still, we obtained significant support from businesses, including speakers at council meetings and signers of our letter to the Mayor and City Council.  Thirty-four businesses signed our letter, as well as 24 real estate agents recruited by one NCIO activist working in that field.  Probably the most effective speakers from the business world were the representatives of green industries, particularly solar, who spoke of choosing Oakland because of its environmental commitments and indicated they might relocate if coal were shipped through the city.



Along with the focus on these strategic sectors, NCIO reached out throughout the city.  We concentrated on West Oakland, where OBOT will be located, which is already impacted by environmental pollution and resulting health disparities, but we also campaigned throughout the city.  We understood that council members in every district needed to know where their constituents stood—and we wanted to make more people aware of environmental justice issues and of our capacity to organize together and win these battles.  Although our immediate goal was to prevent the use of the OBOT terminal for coal, many of us saw this campaign as part of a broader effort to mobilize for social and environmental justice.

Our community outreach efforts are summarized below in the section on Tactics.

The success of our outreach efforts was apparent in a February, 2016 poll commissioned by the Sierra Club, in which 47% of respondents indicated that they had already heard about the issue.  Once they got background information, 76% of those polled opposed coal shipments and many indicated this issue would affect their votes for council members. This was a scientific poll of 400 likely voters.  A larger but unscientific poll was conducted by State Senator Loni Hancock in support of her legislative efforts against coal.  She invited people to email responses to a series of questions, and 92% of the respondents opposed coal.  (


Elected officials and community leaders

NCIO also reached out to elected officials in nearby jurisdictions, and some of them reached out to us.  Eleven East Bay Area mayors signed a letter to the Oakland City Council (, 25 officials signed our letter to the Mayor and City Council, and seven spoke at the June 27, 2016 council meeting preceding the vote.  (

Because of federal pre-emption of rail traffic decisions, communities have no control over the nature of goods shipped by train through their neighborhoods.  If the Oakland City Council blocked coal at the terminal, there would be no risk of coal transport through their communities, so our neighbors strongly supported our efforts.

Our letter was also signed by 23 community leaders, most of them political activists in a variety of venues.

Environmental justice organizations

Another source of support for the coal campaign was the pre-existing climate justice movement, in which many NCIO participants were already active.  These groups provided publicity, forums for presentations, financial donations, testimony, phone bankers, canvassers, and enthusiasm for our efforts.  The campaign against coal occurred in the context of the work of these groups and provided an inspiring victory for our allies.  Many of them came to our celebration after winning the council vote.

Young people

Parents, teachers and mentors helped us reach young people, whose testimony at the City Council was always effective in emphasizing what is at stake for future generations.  We spoke to some classes, and supported high school students creating a related video project.  Young people, who will inherit the earth we are trying to save, were moving speakers at meetings with council members, at meetings of the council, and at rallies.

Health professionals

Health professionals were natural allies in the campaign against coal, and the California Nurses Association played a prominent role in our labor organizing.  Doctors and nurses organized 200 colleagues and several major associations (representing over 25,000 members) to sign letters of opposition to coal. 

A vital role was played by public health professionals who testified at hearings and submitted written evidence.  ( )  Most impressively, nine prominent public health professionals, working independently without remuneration from the City, produced a report for the June 27, 2016 hearing, endorsed by even more of their colleagues, documenting the health and safety risks of shipping coal.  (

Council members

An important part of our strategy was to identify the positions of each of the council members and who would be most likely to influence each of them.  This analysis shifted over time and was complicated by the fact that the City Attorney instructed them not to announce their positions before all the evidence was submitted to the council.  It seemed clear from the outset that two council members strongly supported a ban, others were uncertain, and one or two opposed a ban.  For a discussion of how we addressed this, see below.


Gene Sharp, who has written extensively on this subject, has identified 198 methods of nonviolent action, including 54 forms of “nonviolent protest and persuasion.”  (  The No Coal in Oakland campaign used at least 22 of these 54 methods.


Very early in the campaign, we created two documents that were crucial to building the movement.  One was a petition we used as an outreach tool.  People who heard about the threat of coal could do something small but immediate by signing the petition.  If motivated, they could take petitions to get additional signatures from family, friends, co-workers, etc.  Canvassers took the petition door to door, signatures were gathered at farmers markets and events, and copies were available whenever we tabled or spoke about the campaign.  The petition was also accessible on line.  Contact information went into the SC data base and was used by SC for emails and phone banking to inform people about council meetings.  Over 3,000 people signed this petition.  Other organizations (notably CREDO) created on-line petitions as well, but our campaign did not have access to their data.

The other document, a letter to the Mayor and City Council, was collectively written. 

(  Eventually 221 individuals and organizations signed on, tangible evidence of the extent of support for our campaign.  Those who were invited to sign may have been more likely to do so when they saw how extensive the support was.  A data base collected contact information about the person who authorized the sign-on and the campaign member who connected with them.  This list was used in the last weeks of the campaign to encourage one more round of contacting council members; to garner endorsers for the rally held two days before the council vote; to ask allies to publicize the rally and council meeting to their own email lists; and in some cases to request donations.

The petition indicated the extent of popular opposition to coal, while the letter to the Mayor identified important organizations and public figures supporting a ban.  Both were expected to have impact on the council members.  These documents were delivered during council hearings, but as the lists continued to grow it is not clear that the final versions ever did reach them.

A third document was a petition to be signed by West Oakland residents only.  With 532 signatures, it was delivered on June 27, 2016, as a reflection of the sentiment in the community that would be most impacted by the potential coal shipments.  This petition could have had many more signatures if we had started using it when we first began canvassing in West Oakland, as many West Oakland residents signed our city-wide petition.  (


Outreach flyers

In addition to the petitions, a major outreach tool was a trifold flyer with background information about the issue as well as information about how to identify and contact the council member representing an Oakland resident's district.  This was a convenient source of facts for supporters.


We had a basic handout that was frequently updated to announce specific events—council meetings, rallies and community activities.  This flyer provided some background information, encouraged people to show up, and indicated how to connect with the campaign.  (One example:      

(We used a union print shop for large orders, and indicated “labor donated” when we printed a few copies of a flyer.)

Another form of outreach was phone banking, which took place at crucial times to mobilize support at council meetings.

Electronic media

NCIO created an email group for “internal” communications.  With some misgivings, we relied on Google technology for our email group and for documents we wanted NCIO activists to be able to access.  We used this email list to circulate the agenda and minutes of our weekly meetings, enabling people to keep abreast of campaign developments even if they didn’t attend a meeting.  We shared news and did some brainstorming about tactics. This email list was remarkably focused on the campaign, avoiding trolls or dogmatists who often undermine on-line discussion groups.

Little dreaming what a formidable task this would turn out to be, a dedicated activist agreed to post NCIO information on a page on the website of the Sunflower Alliance, a climate justice organization in the East Bay closely allied with our objectives.  ( )  This page grew to include links to NCIO documents, the official record of testimony to the City Council, and media reports including articles, blogs and radio interviews.  It was—and remains--an invaluable reference source.

The NCIO website was not launched until March, 2016, but it immediately became an essential repository of information and analysis.  It is hard to imagine how we managed so long without it.  (

A Facebook page and a Twitter account were created at about the same time, further improving our communication capacity.

We also benefited from the on-line presence of many allied organizations that spread the word about our campaign.  Notably, over a dozen organizations publicized the June 27, 2016 council meeting to their email lists, reaching thousands of people (although probably many received multiple mailings).


Community presence

We began door-to-door canvassing in West Oakland very early in the campaign, informing people of the issue and inviting them to a meeting at a local Catholic church that was attended by about 80 people, about half local residents.  Throughout the campaign, such outreach generally received a positive reception, the main shift being that at the outset we were telling people about something they hadn’t heard about, and over time more people were aware of the issue

We had a speaker after services in a West Oakland church, who spoke in both English and Spanish, distributed flyers and obtained 45 signatures of congregants supporting banning coal.  We spoke at several other churches throughout the city.

We tabled at farmers markets, street fairs, an indigenous powwow, and two well-attended West Oakland events at City Slickers Farm and the People’s Community Market.  On National Night Out in August, 2015, many of us visited gatherings in several neighborhoods.

We also attended events with likely supporters, such as showings of the film “This Changes Everything,” handing out literature and sometimes speaking about our campaign.  Many of us showed up for a Bernie Sanders rally on May 30, 2016, where we did extensive leafletting and distributed some of our yard signs.  We staffed a booth at the November 21, 2015 Northern California Climate Mobilization rally, where we distributed literature and collected petition signatures.  Next to the booth, a community artist silkscreened and gave away copies of a No Coal in Oakland poster he designed that quickly became our logo and an enduring image of the campaign.  (See black-and-white version below.)

In addition to participating in community events, we organized our own.  Besides the kick-off meeting in St. Patrick’s Parish, we set up community meetings in four council districts.  We held an intersectional teach-in in December, described below in the section on diversity.  We organized a community picnic at DeFremery Park in West Oakland in May, providing food and music and mobilizing people to speak up against coal.  We held rallies, a well-reported press conference, and a prayer vigil.  (A video of our June 25, 2016 rally is at .)


Art and theater

Another form of community visibility was the NCIO yard sign.  The process of producing this was challenging as we had varied opinions about the design and limited understanding of the technicalities involved in printing them.  When the yard signs became available, we organized strategic distribution—placing more signs in the districts of undecided council members, surrounding the homes of council members when we could locate them, and identifying sites with high traffic and maximum visibility for placement.  With the help of many supporters, 450 of these signs cropped up throughout the city in the final six weeks of the campaign.

The owner of the Grand Lake Theater has often used his marquee for progressive political statements.  During the course of the campaign he several times posted calls for the City Council to ban coal.

As noted and included above, a local artist created a striking design which was silkscreened and distributed at the November Climate Mobilization rally.  In a black-and-white version, this became an identifiable logo for NCIO, appearing on our flyers and yard signs.

Another branding for the campaign was the red tee shirt the Sierra Club is using nationally for its “Beyond Coal” campaign.  This identified our supporters at council meetings, in some cases contrasting with tee shirts by the opposition promoting their (probably fictitious) organizations.

Very early in the campaign, in May, 2015, allies oriented to direct action staged a theatrical event outside the Rotunda Building where Phil Tagami’s office is located.  This was beautifully timed on Bike to Work Day, when hundreds of bicyclists came through the plaza.  We held up banners and distributed literature (although, unfortunately, the flyers arrived rather late).  The demonstrators bicycled in pulling carts of charcoal, spread a tarp surrounded by hazard tape and dumped the loads—creating a cloud of dust.  Several people spoke about the dangers of coal.  The entrance to the Rotunda Building was filled with police officers, as Tagami had asked the mayor to protect his property from us.

At one point a large number of SEIU Local 1021 members, in their union tee shirts, stood in front of the police officers—arguably an act of street theater.

Another theatrical event was a dramatization, “The Embodied Story of Coal,” held before the council meeting on February 16, 2016.  Signs hand made by young people enlivened rallies.  Our dramatic banners appeared at rallies and on one occasion on a freeway overpass.  The weekend before the vote, our demonstrations included placards with portraits of people photographed at previous demonstrations.

(See other photographs at

Singing and music-making was an element of many of our rallies.  One unusual incident involving music took place on June 27, 2016, when we asked people to gather briefly at 4:00 pm before heading into council chambers for the crucial vote.  Occupella, a small group of women singing movement songs, began to perform for the gathering crowd.  Then a large number of people arrived who had been organized and paid by pro-coal forces, apparently misled to believe that excluding coal from OBOT would eliminate potential jobs for them.  This group, carrying placards and chanting loudly, drowned out our music.  As the two groups milled uneasily about each other, another group arrived, members of UNITE HERE Local 2850 (representing workers in hotels and related industries).  Fortuitously, the unionists showed up pounding on drums.  Thanks to their unexpected but timely arrival, the opposition to coal won this non-violent acoustic contest.

Media outreach

In addition to our own media outreach, as indicated above, NCIO benefited from coverage in the progressive and establishment media, as evidenced by the extensive links posted on the campaign page.  (  Initially media repeated inaccurate information from city officials, including that the City had signed away its authority to protect the community from dangers like coal.  Our efforts were critical to educating the City Council, the press, and the public.

Activists were contacted by reporters for interviews and quotes, and spokespeople appeared on several radio programs.  We placed OpEds and used letters to the editor to respond to distorted coverage.  The Oakland Post, the East Bay Express, Earth Island News and Race, Poverty and the Environment were among the media that reported in some depth about our campaign.

Connecting with allies

The sectors we identified to influence council members were in many cases also allies from other struggles.  We reached unions, community groups, and faith organizations not only through their leadership but with direct contact with their members.  Of course the environmental justice movement groups and activists were natural allies.  To different degrees, each of these allies provided us with support-- addressing the council, canvassing, phone banking, helping to organize rallies, and providing publicity, funding and other resources.


Direct lobbying 

The way to win this campaign was to get the City Council to pass an ordinance banning coal and apply it to the OAB development, based on Paragraph 3.4.2 of the Development Agreement.  We needed five votes out of eight in order to pass the ordinance.  Accordingly, a major thrust of our campaign was direct lobbying of council members.

Throughout the campaign, our outreach literature encouraged people to email, call, write or visit their council members.  We have no idea how many people responded to these appeals, but it seems that the city officials heard from a lot of opponents of coal.

We also took a strategic approach to lobbying, identifying as best we could who on the council were our definite supporters, who were undecided and who were likely to oppose a ban.  This assessment—which we reviewed periodically—was challenging because most council members were not forthcoming about their positions.  The City Attorney had instructed them not to take a stand, apparently based on the concern that their decision needed to come after evaluation of all the evidence submitted.  We analyzed the views of council members based on what they did say to us in open conversations and what we could glean from people who had less public interactions with them.

While many different people, some not connected with NCIO, were involved in meetings with council members, we made an effort to strategically identify which constituencies would have most impact on particular members.  We were fortunate that many campaign supporters knew the backgrounds of the council members and some had close connections to members or their staff.  This enabled us to assess how to influence them most effectively.

At times we put together large delegations of constituents to meet with a council member, while at other times we had a smaller group with a more targeted purpose.  Based on our assessments, we organized or encouraged labor folks to meet with one, educators and students to meet with another, clergy to meet with a third. 

Besides meeting with individual council members, we frequently addressed the council in its meetings.  Whenever coal was on the agenda, we mobilized large numbers of people to attend, to speak, to cede their time to other speakers, and to fill the chambers with supporters of the ban.

When coal was not on the agenda, we made use of the Open Forum period in City Council meetings, a chance for residents to address the council for one minute on a topic not up for consideration that night.  Our goal was to continually remind them that we were expecting an ordinance banning coal.  

After a few Open Forums at which individuals spoke, we encouraged several specific constituencies to appear as a group.  Some of our allies who are parents, teachers, and mentors organized a contingent of young people to come and speak; the council president was clearly moved by the voices of children and teens, extending the Open Forum time period to accommodate them.  Another important Open Forum constituency was the faith group that spoke on February 16, 2016.  As mentioned above, a contingent of health professionals, in their white jackets with stethoscopes, also had a powerful impact. 

Since City Council meetings are televised, livestreamed and archived on line, our speeches at council meetings reached not only those in attendance but many others.

Response to the opposition

The major arguments of the pro-coal forces, and our responses, are briefly summarized with links to other documents:

  • Pro-Coal Claim: OBOT would provide thousands of jobs for the unemployed residents of West Oakland.  NCIO Response: The jobs claims were grossly exaggerated, as OBOT itself, a highly mechanized facility, would only generate 117 jobs, and these would be for members of a union with a long waiting list for new members.  (
  • Pro-Coal Claim: Coal transport and handling would have no environmental impact because of the use of covered coal cars and a fully enclosed domed facility.  NCIO Response: We documented that covered coal cars are not in operation anywhere in the U.S., that the Federal Railway Authority has not evaluated their effectiveness for preventing leakage of coal dust during transport, and that covering cars could lead to fires or explosions.  (
  • Pro-Coal Claim: Utah bituminous coal is low-sulfur, and therefore “cleaner” than the China coal it would replace.  NCIO Response: We argued that we need to support a transition to renewable energy, and that any coal burned in China would still increase climate disruption and return pollutants to Oakland, undermining the state’s climate goals as well as local health.
  • Pro-Coal Claim: Without coal, OBOT will not be feasible.  NCIO Response: We pointed out that the developers themselves claimed that 15,000 possible commodities could be shipped.  They argued or implied the whole OAB development would be threatened, an argument that lost any credibility when the rest of the OAB development was separated from Tagami’s project in February, 2016.  We had been mystified that the operators were not looking at alternative commodities, until we learned that TLS is a front for Bowie Resource Partners, the coal company that has no interest in any other commodity.  If TLS abandons OBOT, we expect another use can be found for the property, probably one that generates more jobs and certainly one with safer jobs.
  • Pro-Coal Claim: Poverty is a greater threat to health than coal.  NCIO Response: We do not contest that poverty exacerbates health problems.  This is one of the reasons to oppose shipping coal through a neighborhood already burdened with health disparities.

We responded to these claims at various points in the campaign.  We combatted the coal proponents' inaccuracies in our verbal testimony to the council and written documentation backing up our position.  When the City Council received a letter from the Teamsters Joint Council No. 7, in August, 2015, we promptly sent a rejoinder to the city officials and the union.   (

At the September 21, 2015 hearing which the pro-coal forces paid laborers to attend, we distributed a flyer about jobs without coal and several activists engaged in conversations with the laborers.

On March 24, 2016, the San Francisco Chronicle printed an opinion piece from Michael McClure, a CCIG partner, which was filled with misrepresentations.  The Chronicle published our letter rebutting his falsehoods; we also sent a thorough refutation to the City Council and mayor.  (

Late in the evening of May 22, 2016, we learned that the developers were holding a press conference at 11:00 the next morning.  One of our supporters quickly drafted a response to the distortions in the press release, with some input from others in the campaign.  She and two more campaigners distributed this rebuttal to the media as they arrived for the press conference.  This was a remarkable example of a rapid response from an individual within the campaign.

None of these lies quite prepared us for the colorful mailer that the pro-coal forces (identified as "Jobs4Oakland") sent out to Oakland residents the weekend before the June 27, 2016 vote.  Besides the familiar lies about jobs, the mailer implied the national Sierra Club Board was all white (excluding the pictures of Black members and other people of color) and included logos of supposedly supportive unions that in fact did not endorse the mailer (several located in the Seattle area).  The mailer was egregious enough to lead one council member to issue a press release condemning the inaccuracies.  NCIO put together a flyer refuting the mailer, which we distributed at the June 27 hearing.  (



A key weakness of the campaign was racial diversity.  Although people of color were involved, some very critically, the overall composition of NCIO reflected the current state of the environmental justice movement in the Bay Area.  This was particularly challenging because the visible pro-coal forces were almost all African-American.

We did have significant leadership from African-Americans—on our coordinating committee, working with faith leaders, among the support from labor and attending our weekly meetings.  Many who spoke out against coal were Black leaders of unions and religious congregations.  Based on responses to our outreach, we knew we had the support of most West Oakland residents.  However, we did not bring out the Black community in significant numbers to rallies or council meetings.  This was particularly apparent at the June 27, 2016 meeting when the pro-coal forces paid dozens of African-Americans to show up.

One way we attempted to address this was through intersectionality.  The SEIU organizer spearheaded a teach-in for the coal campaign with other social justice activists, held on December 8, 2015.  We had encouraged people to show up on this date, which was to have seen the council take further steps toward an ordinance, only to find out that that the Council would merely entertain a status report that nothing was happening yet.  We built on the publicity we had already begun to instead bring people to a nearby union office, where we held panels with presentations regarding displacement/gentrification, the Fight for 15/minimum wage, police brutality/Black Lives Matter, and coal. Over a hundred people heard the presentations, which were followed by questions from the audience and cell phone calls to the council members.

NCIO committed to restricting our group to the coal issue, despite the sympathy we had for related social justice issues.  But many of us were involved in these other struggles before and during the coal campaign.  Some of us helped launch the campaign to place three initiatives on the Oakland ballot, regarding improving the rent control ordinance, raising the minimum wage and establishing an empowered civilian police oversight commission.  NCIO members wore our coal campaign tee shirts while supporting housing activists at council meetings.  The two campaigns coordinated our presence at a council meeting where housing issues were hotly contested and our health professionals were speaking during Open Forum.

The pro-coal developers’ arguments had a significant racial subtext.  At the June 27, 2016 hearing it was evident that the developers capitalized on the righteous anger of African-Americans about injustice, turning that anger toward us.  Their narrative was that the opposition to coal consisted of white environmentalists, not necessarily Oakland residents, the kind of people who gentrify the city and are indifferent to the unemployment of its residents.  Ironically, their lobbyist, Greg McConnell, was known for his lobbying in opposition to renter rights and a higher minimum wage, causes generally supported by those fighting the coal threat.

Because of our long-time Oakland roots, personal histories working for social justice, and our collaborations during the coal campaign, many of us were indignant at the attempt by the pro-coal forces to portray us as gentrifiers indifferent to the plight of poor people of color.  However this claim had visual credibility given the absence of a substantial presence of people of color, and particularly of Black people, at our City Council appearances.



NCIO’s organizational structure developed as we went along.  Our weekly meetings were always open, and the group that became active was self-selected.  As we identified projects, we created committees to get that work done.

By November, 2015—halfway through our campaign!--it was clear that the weekly meetings needed to be supplemented by a smaller group that discussed issues in advance and planned the agenda.  We chose as members of the coordinating committee (CC) seven people who were active on the different projects.  The CC generally met in a weekly conference call.  Initially this call was open to everyone in NCIO, but the logistics of managing discussions over the telephone led us to encourage non-members to listen without speaking.  Periodically we invited particular people to join the call because of joint projects.  The recommendations of the CC were brought to the general meeting for adoption or modification.

We attempted to be accessible and transparent throughout the campaign.  The agendas and minutes of our weekly meetings were sent out to our discussion group.  Our email address ( was on all our literature and we responded promptly to emails.       


We realized after a few months that we would need to raise money for campaign expenses, chiefly printing costs (except when making just a few copies, we used a union print shop).  In August, 2015, we set up a GoFundMe site which raised over $6,700 over the life of the campaign (but other organizers should check out alternative crowd sourcing sites, such as YouCaring, which take no commission or a smaller percentage as their fee).  A large fundraising effort through our MailChimp list generated generous responses in the last weeks of the campaign, as did the buckets we passed during the June 25, 2016 rally.  Not counting the anonymous contributions at the rally, over 100 individuals made donations to NCIO of between $10 and $250.

We applied for three grants and received two, from CREDO and the Center for Environmental Health.  Besides the support from WOEIP and SC within NCIO, we received financial donations from eight organizations supporting our work (half were environmental justice organizations, along with a church, two union locals and a progressive political organization).

The evidence

A crucial component of defeating the coal terminal was presenting the City Council with “substantial evidence” regarding health and safety dangers.  I am not going to cover this here except to note that NCIO’s involvement included

(a)  research leading to our own submissions for the September 21, 2015 hearing,

(b) recruiting experts to provide testimony and written evidence for that hearing, and

(c) liaison to the independent panel of public health scientists who wrote a report for the June 27, 2016 vote.


(a)    Our major submission on September 21, 2015, can be found at:


(b)    All documents related to the coal issue, both those submitted to the City and those written by city staff can be found at the City’s website at


(c)    The report of the independent panel is at:

There were two other reports, one by a public health expert (Zoë Chafe), hired by the council member sponsoring the ordinance to ban coal, and one by an environmental consulting firm (Environmental Science Associates, or ESA), hired by the City and working with the City staff.  (These can be found at     [Chafe] and [ESA].)

Together, all these documents provide the “substantial evidence” that justifies the City’s authority to ban coal under the Development Agreement.

Plan B

Although we focused on winning the ban by the Oakland City Council, we pursued several possible back-up plans.


Two NCIO activists visited Utah in August, 2015 to discourage the Community Impact Board (CIB) from investing in Oakland and to connect with activists in the state.  They met with people from the Sierra Club, Peaceful Uprising, and Canyon Country Rising Tide. They presented the CIB members with documentation of the opposition to coal in Oakland, making the point that this was not a wise investment, and they connected with a supportive state senator.  Later in the campaign two Utah activists visited and attended one of NCIO's meetings.  At the June 27, 2016 hearings, three Utah residents addressed the council.

Because the CIB investment was legally suspect, a Utah attorney representing local interests submitted a letter brief to the Utah State Attorney General, with support from us.  NCIO cosigned another letter brief from the Center for Biological Diversity’s attorney regarding the unconstitutionality of the CIB investment proposal.

(The Utah actions currently face legal scrutiny initiated by groups in both Utah and California, with participation by NCIO members.  See


California state legislation

California State Senator Loni Hancock drafted legislation regarding coal exports from California, which NCIO heartily supported, including leafletting at the California Democratic Party Convention about the legislative bills and the Oakland campaign.  (For information about this, see

One of her bills was passed and signed by Governor Brown.  It will stop state funding for any future proposed coal terminals.  It is not relevant for OBOT, which has already used public money and from this point on will raise private funds.  (

Jerry Brown

NCIO was interested in pressuring Governor Jerry Brown to take a stand, since he poses as a climate champion while maintaining a business partnership with Phil Tagami and silence about the coal threat.  At the Vatican he declared that to avoid catastrophic climate change, we must keep 90% of the coal in the ground.  We contacted him before the Paris talks held in December, 2015, with a letter signed by people who might influence him and a personal email from a Jesuit with whom he went to high school.  Brown never responded.

Several months later the San Francisco Chronicle began to target his silence with a couple of prominent articles.  Beginning April 10, 2016 they consistently included him in the “Bad Week” column that appears in the paper's Sunday Insight magazine.  Their first item declared: “Governor, alleged champion of climate-change action: We're reserving a spot in 'Bad Week' until you take a stand on that plan to ship millions of tons of coal through Oakland."  They continued in this vein even after the City Council vote.

We organized a statewide call-out to Brown on April 25, 2016, inviting allies to contact him to oppose coal in Oakland and to support Loni Hancock’s legislation.  (  When Brown visited San Francisco on June 2, NCIO members demonstrated in front of the building where he spoke and handed out flyers about our coal campaign.

Brown’s first statement about coal in Oakland finally came when he signed Senator Hancock’s bill on August 26, 2016, alluding with approval to the Oakland ban.

Federal possibilities

WOEIP staff, who are active in both NCIO and BACEG, are exploring federal remedies under Title VI of the Civil Rights Act.  (

Regulatory agencies

NCIO has made preliminary contact with staff and elected officials at agencies that are involved in funding the OAB project to discuss our concerns about public money going to a facility storing and shipping coal.  We succeeded in getting the Alameda County Transportation Commission to withhold funds for shoring up the wharves where OBOT is to be built until the coal issue is resolved.


On June 27, 2016, the Oakland City Council voted 7-0 (with one member absent) to pass an ordinance prohibiting large quantities of coal in the city, along with a resolution applying this ordinance to the OAB property.  (

On July 19, 2016 a second reading was incorporated into a long consent calendar item.  The whole package passed by consensus so quickly we didn’t even have time to applaud!

At this point the developers may follow through with their threat to sue, and the campaign may need to continue on the legal front.

Guide to Acronyms

AICAN: Alameda Interfaith Climate Action Network

ALC:  Alameda Labor Council

APEN: Asian Pacific Environmental Network

BACEG: Bay Area Coal Exports Groups

CBE: Communities for a Better Environment

CC:  Coordinating committee of NCIO

CCIG:  California Capital and Investment Group

CIB: Community Investment Board (Utah)

CIPL: California Interfaith Power and Light

CNA:  California Nurses Association

ESA:  Environmental Science Associates

ILWU: International Longshore Workers Union

NCIO: No Coal in Oakland

OBOT: Oakland Bulk and Oversized Terminal

OAB:  Oakland Army Base

SC:  Sierra Club

SEIU:  Service Employees International Union

TLS:  Terminal Logistics Solutions

WOEIP:  West Oakland Environmental Indicators Project



Our Culture Bearers

I Am San Francisco

By Kheven Lagrone and Jarrel Phillips

We are the San Francisco no one talks about
—James Baldwin

Today, a native Black San Franciscan often hears, “An African American born in San Francisco? I’ve never met one before. You must be one of the few.”

For many of us, the questions conjure up feelings of marginalization and confront us with the reality of losing our homes. Just what does it mean to be a native San Franciscan? In response to this challenge we are creating two public art exhibitions on the theme I Am San Francisco. The first, curated by Kheven LaGrone, is subtitled (Re)Collecting the Home of Native Black San Franciscans, the second, by Jarrel Phillips, is Black Past and Presence.

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

The stories that follow are the textual portion of an exhibit that strives to capture the home and soul of native Black San Francisco via personal stories.

We are not here to fight, struggle, or prove anything. We just want to share the depth, beauty, complexity, and abundance prevalent within ‘Black life’—culturally, communally, and individually.

Kheven LaGrone has created and curated many exhibitions, including, I Am America: Black Genealogy Through the Eyes of An Artist; Coloring Outside the Lines: Black Cartoonists as Social Commentators; and BABA: Black Artists’ Expressions of Father. LaGrone’s shows have been exhibited in New York, San Francisco, Atlanta, Oakland, and Richmond. Jarrel Phillips is the founder of AVE (, curator of How We Play, and an RP&E Cultural Correspondent.

IAMSF contributors include: Emory Douglas, Minister of Culture for the Black Panther Party; Sophie Maxwell, Democratic Country Central Committee Candidtate; Mohammed Bilal, Executive Director of the African American Culture Complex; Devorah Major, SF Poet Laureate; Aliyah Dunn-Salahuddin, CCSF African American Studies Professor; Blanche Brown, Haitian Folkoric Dance Teacher; Assata Conley, SF Community School Student; Joanna Haigood, Zaccho Dance Theater; Dr. Amos Brown, President of the San Francisco Chapter of the NAACP; Thomas Simpson, Artistic Director of AfroSolo.

I Am San Francisco for Reimagine! RP&E
Lead Artist Jarrel Phillips (AVE Founder), with collaborating artists Kheven LaGrone, and Christine Joy Ferrer and Jess Clarke from Reimagine!

For more information visit

Read other IAMSF Stories:

Related Stories: 
Pull Quote TEXT ONLY for featured stories in image slider: 
We are not here to fight, struggle, or prove anything. We just want to share the depth, beauty, complexity, and abundance prevalent within ‘Black life’—culturally, communally, and individually.

Re(Collecting) - Curated by Kheven Lagrone

Part 1. I Am San Francisco:
(Re)Collecting the Home of Native Black San Franciscans

African American Center at the San Francisco Main Library
December 12, 2015 to March 10, 2016.

Created and curated by Kheven LaGrone, this exhibit captures the home and soul of native Black San Francisco. I AM SAN FRANCISCO collects the personal stories of several African Americans from San Francisco. Those stories were assigned to various artists, from various places, to interpret using various media.

“An African American born in San Francisco? I’ve never met one before.  You must have been one of the few,” a native Black San Franciscan often hears today.  For many, the questions conjure up the feelings of marginalization and the loss of home.  They remind us that African Americans are being written out of San Francisco’s past and present. 

Featured Storytellers include: Jarrel Phillips, Kheven LaGrone, Wanda Sabir, Jacqueline Chauhan, Julianne Malveaux, Charles Curtis Blackwell, Mark Johnson, Kristine Mays, and more.

Related Stories: 

Growing Up Black

By Jarrel Phillips

To the Children of the Next Generation
I grew up in a household with both parents and two younger brothers. All of us are of African American descent. When I wasn’t at my predominantly Black school, church, or after-school program, I was thriving in one of San Francisco’s once predominantly Black neighborhoods—the Fillmore or Bayview Hunter’s Point.

I grew up within a very Black reality. I celebrated Kwanzaa, praised a Black Jesus, memorized all the countries of Africa, practiced an Afro-Brazilian martial art, and honored Black leaders not only during Black History Month but throughout the year. My interactions with non-Blacks were not non-existent but they weren’t that usual, outside of a teacher every now and then.

I have a strong memory of my life before racial identity and skin color intruded. I remember when younger, thinking that Blacks were the majority in San Francisco. I even remember when I was three or four years old, asking my Mom, as she carried me through Target, if she was white. I assumed that she was, because though her skin complexion was brown, she was definitely lighter than my father and I. Since I didn’t have much to do with whites, I assumed that lighter brown skin was what people referred to as being white.

Once upon a time there were people. There were good people, bad people, funny people, mad people, tall people, small people, and so forth… but, nonetheless, they were ALL people. I did see color, but the concept of race hadn’t fully introduced itself to me. Skin color wasn’t significant in my perception of reality. Looking at others, I saw two eyes, a nose, and a mouth. Appearance did not create assumptions as it does now.

My Experience of Blackness
It was not until I was 13 years old that I entered the San Francisco public schools and saw a more diverse crowd of people. Then I assumed that you were either African American, White (I believed White was simply White), Chinese, or Mexican (I didn’t understand the term Latino). This is important because of my reality now. My first 13 years of life, I was only surrounded by Blacks and African American culture. Thus, when I transferred to public school, I quickly took notice of the social stigmas placed on African Americans and the stereotypes that can come with Black racial identification. It was definitely an eye-opener and an experience that still manifests itself in different ways.

Being around so many different African Americans leading different lifestyles, I never thought of African Americans as being one particular way and I certainly didn’t think of Black in any negative way. In public school, I was told: “You’re not Black enough” or, “You talk white” (thus not Black), and rarely, “You’re acting ‘hella Black’.” I soon became used to such remarks; nonetheless, they initially puzzled me. Up until then, I had not given much thought to the idea of any particular behavior(s) being associated with having black skin or being African American. Growing up, all I had around me were Blacks/African Americans: businessmen and women, pastors, orphans, athletes, doctors, thugs, players, mothers, fathers, taxi drivers, artists, foster parents, community leaders, world travelers, teachers, ex-convicts, probation officers, activists, fire fighters, police officers, thieves, homosexuals, Muslims, Christians, and so on. I have had so many interactions and relationships with different types of Black people that the idea of accurately characterizing or defining Black people as a whole sounds absurd. It would be misleading, confining and an overgeneralization—also known as a stereotype.

My concept of self has always been strong and I must give due credit to all the positive affirmations in my upbringing. Whether being reminded that I was an “awesome leader,” singing the Black national anthem, or reciting some Maya Angelou, I was always taught to be proud and told that I matter. I grew up in an “Afrocentric” household with a Black Santa Claus for Christmas and the Nguzo Saba Kwanzaa principles for the holidays. My experience of self and Black people was so positive that society’s opinion of who I was, who I can be, and how I am supposed to act hardly dictated my life, actions and choices. I have always believed, regardless of unfortunate social prejudices, that I can do what I want if I do it with good intentions and ethics at heart. I have a strong will and cannot fathom any social construct blocking me from any goal I set my heart and mind to.

Breaking the Limits of Racism
Of course, racism is not some invisible social force that I have successfully eluded as a result of my upbringing because I deal with it to this day. I still face obstacles on a daily basis in one way or another and, to be honest, it’s not fun and definitely gets under my skin every now and then. No one likes being wrongly prejudged or limited because of superficial social constructs that determine your roles in society.  I still go into stores and get followed. I still get disregarded by some individuals who prefer not to interact with me. I still see women clutch their purses when they pass me. And, I still surprise people when they learn that I live a nice, productive life despite the fact that I am an African American San Francisco native and an inner-city kid who presumably should be at-risk and struggling to succeed.

I went through a phase where I was susceptible to messages from the media, alongside my own human ability to make bad decisions, and I tried to be cool and “hood.” From age 14 to 21, I tried my share of stealing, dealing and hanging out on the corner, not doing anything. But I always knew that I had bigger dreams and goals. My inner self knew that it was all an act that contradicted who I should be. My outer self was just distracted for a bit. It was not until I realized that I was potentially sacrificing my infinite possibilities for reckless behavior that I decided to make a change. Knowing who I am, or should be, caused me to leave such lifestyle choices in the dust.

They say it takes a village to raise a child. I grew up in an environment where no matter where I went, everyone knew my family. Everybody knew everybody else and supported one another to some extent. I had positive friends and role models everywhere. That was my village. Those family ties that my parents kept up so well exposed me to so much—music and musical instruments, sports, hobbies, jobs. It allowed me to find the things that really interested me. I refocused my energy on photography, film and capoeira when I decided to cut out the reckless behavior. Capoeira still keeps me going. It is my work, my passion, my play, my health, my magic, and my ongoing goal. And it has allowed me to travel more than ever.

Being an American in Africa
My first trip to Africa was through capoeira in 2010 and I have visited and taught the art in multiple countries in East Africa each year since then. The first trip was a big eye-opener in regards to my concept of “blackness.” I had never thought of Black beyond an African American perspective. Now I cannot help but see that I am more American than I am African—both culturally and nationally. My lifestyle could not be African because I was not raised in Africa, nor do I live there. This realization originally disappointed me greatly, as I intended to find my roots and feel right at home. But although I love Africa, it’s not my home because home is the place I miss when in Africa.

I don’t mean to disregard my heritage and roots. I am of African descent and only wish that I could know more about that part of me. Going back and forth between the East African countries of Tanzania, Uganda and Ethiopia, where the overwhelming majority of people have Black skin, turned my world upside down. Think about it. What happens when skin color has no significance? Is there any sense in separating and creating an unfair hierarchy? Is there any sense in mentioning skin color for the purpose of identification if everyone “looks” the same? It would be like identifying and classifying a group of penguins by color—pointless and superficial.

I met countless individuals who were doctors, great swimmers, linguists, college graduates, business owners, architects—all contradicting many Black stereotypes from an international perspective. The coolest part is the peace of mind that comes from being in East Africa. There I do not have to stay guarded to protect myself from things like racial profiling and unfair treatment. Treating me differently because of my skin color just does not work in a predominantly Black continent. My trip to Africa made me aware of how much I think and act based on skin color and “race.” It’s a mentality instilled and reinforced by our society in the United States. My newfound awareness teaches me to try my best to think and act beyond concepts of race and skin color, including many peoples’ actions and statements which, unfortunately can be products of racism as well. I do my best to not let it have such a strong influence on me. Instead of trying to dress myself up or concern myself too heavily with appearances, I see that true quality and meaning is deeper. It is not how you look but what you do that makes a person. While our own sight often blinds us, a blind man sees this clearly.

When overlooked, race and its effects become an “unseen” force that can especially impede the lives of individuals of color. Thus, it’s necessary to be aware of it and even more aware of yourself outside of social constructs, labels and roles. Whether they realized it or not, I believe my parents did a great job of preparing me to thrive in a world where my experience and interactions could be predetermined or influenced by my appearance and social identity/background. My parents emphasized acknowledgement of self so that I never felt the need to compare myself against society’s expectations. No one, including my parents, could convince me that I was something or someone that I chose not to be. Unless I agreed, it was just someone else’s idea of me. Moreover, my dynamic exposure to Black culture outweighs all the negative portrayals and overgeneralizations within society. So when I hear things like “Black people don’t read,” or “Black people are all athletic,” or “All Black people can dance,” I do not feel pressured to agree or to ensure that I fit those depictions in solidarity with my “blackness,” which I love no more or less than the rest of me.

Let the Next Generation Define Itself
As for the next generation—let them try everything so that they get a feel for what they like and don’t like. Exposure is the key to having more power to shape your own choices and actions. Introduce them to all sorts of people from different social and economic backgrounds. That way they won’t associate any one attribute, behavior or characteristic to any one “race” or type of people. And when on the topic of blackness, do not sugarcoat or undermine the negativity that society associates with it, but at the same time, do not dwell on it. Instead, expose them to blackness beyond any boxes. Black is not just African American, it’s not only soul food or hip-hop, not only kente clothes or slave chambers in Ghana.

It is also important to be honest with youth so they don’t walk out of their homes  unprepared for the world. No matter what anyone does, the world will not always be fair. Teach them not to waste their life worrying about fairness because they, like others, will have to deal with their share of bias and unfair treatment. Show them instead how to recognize advantages and disadvantages in this society, so they can make more circumstances work to their benefit and will not be caught by surprise too often. Teach them that they don’t have to play if they don’t want to because they can choose and shape their level of involvement with the world’s social nuances. Tell them that they are not necessarily destined to do what “everyone” is doing. They can make their own games, their own world, their own lifestyle. Tell them especially not to feel obligated to build ties with those who are detrimental, just because they look the same. They don›t owe anyone anything. We need more people like that anyway, so we can follow suit and learn.

I truly believe that many people would not agree with some of what I have written. What has worked for me may not work for others, or for me in the future as I continue to try to figure myself out and how I fit into this scheme of things.

I know what did not work for me. I also have witnessed enough and work with enough youth of color to know that some of the current approaches to “racism” do not work for many others as well. More than anything, I believe that it’s extremely important not to dwell on racism too much—just enough to build and maintain an awareness of it. I see so many young Blacks busy trying to find themselves through African American studies, fraternities and sororities, through other individuals who share the same skin color and “struggle” as themselves. And although I understand this fully and don’t condemn it, I am concerned about the emphasis on individuality only through the lens of blackness as constructed by racism. Because that’s like a penguin in a crowd of penguins emphasizing its individuality based on fur color rather than its character, actions or achievements. Color is most relevant and most detrimental when you grab the baton and join the race, giving it more significance in your life. The problem is that the race is rigged with hurdles and no finish line. Yet people keep on jumping in and moving forward towards nothing.

If you want to teach youth about their blackness, teach them that struggle is inevitable but you don’t have to glorify it. You don’t have to get stuck in the past, or dwell on slavery. Recognizing these things is necessary, but knowing yourself is even more pertinent because you are not a victim and you do not have to compromise yourself for any system or society.

Yes, you are Black and have every right to decide your own reality. Blackness is not a solid state and comes in infinite forms of which, you are one. You are the ambassador of yourself first and foremost, beyond any social role or category. You are the future history: know that and be it. It does not even take much effort, just consciousness and getting to know yourself more every day. Create your own traditions if you are not satisfied with the ones you have. Remember to acknowledge and celebrate your triumphs more than your struggles. Do not limit yourself by shunning growth and change but learn to welcome it. You are the architect and creator of yourself and your world.

When I was about 22 years old, my uncle used to tell me that I struggle with who I am because the world tells me who I am supposed to be. When I did not fully understand him, he told me to look in the mirror and ask: “Who am I?” The question puzzled me but I realize, looking back now, that I generally identified myself with social labels and roles that come predefined, rather than with attributes and adjectives that describe me. I remember writing in a journal about this. I concluded:

 “Who am I? I’m still trying to figure that out. Until I do, I know what I’m not and I will act in accordance.”
Five years later here’s what I can add to that:

I am not who or what you say I am, unless I say I am. Like space I am black, vast, and contain multitudes. Do not confine me. I define me.  I am limitless. Infinite me. Free dimensional me—beyond three-dimensional to the depths of me. Finding me. Becoming me. Knowing me.  I am no one thing. I am no thing. Who I am is for me to decide.

Know Thyself.

Related Stories: 
Pull Quote TEXT ONLY for featured stories in image slider: 

If you want to teach youth about their blackness, teach them that struggle is inevitable but you don’t have to glorify it. You don’t have to get stuck in the past, or dwell on slavery.

Living Black

By Kheven LaGrone

When I curated an art exhibit in Manhattan a few years ago, several artists asked me where I was from. “I am just a little country boy from San Francisco,” I replied. I was born in San Francisco, which felt like a small southern country town. It was family-friendly. I was always somebody’s son, brother, nephew, great-nephew, cousin… Even if I wasn’t related, they knew someone connected to me.

A lot of young African American families and migrants from the South started out in San Francisco’s housing projects. My earliest memory is of living in the North Beach projects near Fisherman’s Wharf, Chinatown and Little Italy. We rode the cable cars and played in beautiful hilly parks and on the beaches.

My family moved up into a Victorian flat in the Fillmore neighborhood when I was about four. My father worked and studied for college. On Sundays, my mother took us to Lighthouse Full Gospel Church. Award-winning international gospel artist Danniebelle Hall played piano and sang for the church. My aunts sang in her gospel group, the Dannie Belles when she started touring.

My world was African American. Fillmore bustled. The stores sold Black hair care products. Soul music played at relatives’ homes and in cars driving down the street. At the Black barbershop I went to with my father, the barber gave me a nickel to sweep the hair. You saw Black people in all the old pictures on the walls.
One day, when I was about six, my older cousins told my sisters and me that we were Black. We argued that we were brown. We argued outside until sunset. It wasn’t that we didn’t want to be Black, but our skin was the color brown.

Becoming Fashionably Black
Black was “cool” and fashionable. It brought Black people together. I heard that Black style “liberated” me. People wore clothes with Black statements. Store advertisements used beautiful Black models. Stylish people wore bold colorful dashikis, Afros, necklaces with Africa or Black Power fists. Sometimes, they wore all black to express their Black pride. Clothes were often revealing and men and women flaunted their beautiful brown bodies, announcing: “Black is Beautiful.” They wore large, blown-out Afros with Afro-picks sticking out. We were told to be Black and proud. People talked about Black history, arts and literature; changed their names to African names. Black power songs—“Say It Out Loud, I’m Black and I’m Proud” and “To Be Young, Gifted and Black”— spoke of Black unity.

Blacks had “soul brother” handshakes, called each other “brother” and “sister.” When they passed each other on the streets, they’d nod or say: “Hey, brother!” (Ironically, Blacks today call each other “nigga,” “dawg,” and “bitch.”)

Was I Black, African American, Afro-American, or Negro?
Other cultures fascinated me. I watched Japanese cartoons on television. When my family drove through Chinatown, I tried to understand what the Chinese characters and symbols represented. I tried to follow the Spanish spoken in the Mission. I dreamed of traveling to different countries when I grew up.

My mother took my siblings and me to visit one of her friends in the Haight-Ashbury. We passed the beatniks and hippies. These white people were definitely different from the ones on television, like Lassie, Leave It to Beaver, and Ozzie and Harriet. They dressed and talked flamboyantly; tie-dyed everything. I thought incense made them stink, but they talked a lot about peace and love.

I heard that drugs inspired their beautiful psychedelic colors and designs and their loud, noisy music. One time, while we were playing outside, a white man took some LSD and jumped out of the third floor onto the concrete sidewalk. He thought he could fly.

Then my parents bought a house in East Oakland. It was a whole different world—more homogeneous, but also more family-oriented. I thought Oakland was the country. East Oakland got hot in the summer and we played outside, barefoot. We had a large backyard with fruit trees. My aunt even bought my siblings and me some baby chicks one Easter.

Blackness was fashionable in East Oakland, too and I became more aware of Black militant activism. Perhaps the Black Movement had become more militant after Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated. Or I noticed the politics more. The Black Panthers met around the corner and had children’s programs. The Black Muslims were very visible because they were impeccably dressed and very well mannered. They had businesses and schools that catered to African Americans. Morrie Turner’s Wee Pals was the first African American comic strip that I saw. My father bought me a book on Malcolm X but I had not knowingly experienced too much racism. African American wrestlers beat up white wrestlers on television. I felt like a part of “the struggle.”

Encountering Racism in Daly City
My father had his office in San Francisco, so the family moved back just outside San Francisco—to the foggy bedroom town of Daly City. Our house looked out at San Francisco and the ocean. Decades later, I learned that in 1962, folk singer Malvina Reynolds had written a song about our neighborhood, called “Little Boxes”:

Little boxes on the hillside
Little boxes made of ticky-tacky…
And the people in the houses
All went to the university
Where they were put in boxes
And they came out all the same...

When she wrote that song, she must have been writing about white people. Negroes or Coloreds were not allowed to live in that neighborhood until 1962.

An older relative warned me about living in a white neighborhood. Still, I was excited to move to a neighborhood like the one in Father Knows Best, The Donna Reed Show, and The Brady Bunch… only to soon find, those television shows were not reality. Daly City could be hostile. My siblings and I were in racial skirmishes from day one. We were constantly told to “Go back to Africa.” One of my teachers intentionally stoked racist comments in her class. As more African American families moved into the neighborhood, we stuck together and the bullying lessened, but it never really stopped. It could happen at any time if you weren’t paying attention—from a teacher or from other students. It made us more race-conscious and often, confrontational. We even had a couple of race riots. We formed our own little community and when we passed an unknown African American on the street or in the store, we often introduced ourselves.

Sadly, Daly City schools didn’t teach us anything about Black history and culture. There was almost no mention of slavery or the Civil Rights Movement in our American history classes. Our English teachers assigned no books written by African Americans.

Such ignorance led to negative stereotypes of African Americans. Muhammad Ali and Malcolm X were heroes who fought for my liberation, but a classmate called them “big-mouth troublemakers.” Another classmate argued that Egypt, because of its ancient history and developed civilization, could not have been in Africa. I had to show him a map. He believed Africans were just savage and primitive, like in the Tarzan movies.

I resisted the racial slights in the classrooms by either confronting them or tuning them out. In ninth grade, I complained about having to say “Nigger Jim” in Huckleberry Finn; my white English teacher angered me by saying that I should have been proud of him. To Kill a Mockingbird became just a blur of racial slurs in class. I never finished either book.

The white kids had a false sense of racial superiority, but they didn’t live up to the ideals shown on television. They knew it, and I reminded them often.

Staying Connected to the Black Movement
There were African American kids who tried desperately to fit in with the white kids. We called them “Uncle Toms” and “Oreo Cookies.” They seemed to be ashamed of their blackness and would not talk to the other African American students. They pretended to be entertained by racist jokes and comments. One boy had thick, nappy hair. He let it grow long, like the white boys and like them, carried a hairbrush in his back pocket. He tried to brush his hair to the side but it would look disheveled. He never said he was Black, instead, said he was “half-Indian.” Another dark-skinned girl wore the same makeup that her white friends wore. The color didn’t blend with her dark skin and looked stark and costume-like.

But most African American high school students stayed connected to Black San Francisco. I listened to the Black radio stations—KDIA, KSOL and KBLX. Each station had a different style, but they put out positive messages of Blacks and connected me to the Black communities in the Bay Area.

My siblings and I stayed connected to a larger proud Black America through magazines like Ebony, Jet, Black Star, and Soul Beat. I watched Soul Train every Saturday morning, and every Black movie and television show that I could. (I had little to talk about at school with my white classmates.)

Some of us became “Super Black.” Looking back, I think we were just being normal teenagers, trying to find ourselves, but too often, looking at the stereotypes we learned in school. “Super Black” was just a “blacklash.” African American students who spoke properly were teased for “talkin’ white;” those who took college prep classes were teased for “actin’ white.” Several times, African American boys teased me for going to the library or carrying books “like a white boy.” It was as if African Americans were only supposed to play sports, sing or dance.

I had fun competing in those college prep classes, but success didn’t shelter me from the stereotypes about African Americans. My white classmates just made excuses, like “You’re smart for a Black guy.” One time, a Chinese student said, “I’ve never met a Black guy smarter than me before.”

I expressed my Black militancy through academics. I had my solid foundation in Black culture and Black pride to fall back on. I understood Malcolm X’s militancy. The Black Power struggle became my own. But the Black Power movement was often anti-capitalist. Looking back, I really wish I had studied money and economics.

Related Stories: 
Pull Quote TEXT ONLY for featured stories in image slider: 

Black was “cool” and fashionable. It brought Black people together. I heard that Black style “liberated” me.

Muhammad University No. 26

In Memory of El Hajjah Sabree Sharkir (1949-2015)
By Wanda Sabir

They were impressive, like the sisters in Terri McMillian’s Waiting to Exhale. Sister Nabeehah (Corliss), Sister Munira (Linda), Sister Marva, Sister Rashidah (Joyce 5X), Sister Sharifah, Sister Bayinna, Sister Aeeshah Clottey (Patsy), Sister Muhasin (Leslie)… and Sister Izola in the kitchen.

Their presence was a cool breeze, a breath of fresh air. I thought them giants, Amazons in a San Francisco jungle—guided by the Honorable Elijah Muhammad, leader of the Nation of Islam (NOI).

There were Lieutenants and Junior Lieutenants, of whom I was one. We worked directly under the Vanguard Lieutenant and Sister Captain, who were under the Minister. I remember wearing a hot pink, two-piece uniform and showing off our drill steps. We were hot in more ways than one!

We’d have drill competitions in front of the entire community. Sometimes Vanguards from other mosques would compete with us. I don’t remember losing. On Saturdays, we’d have bake sales and oratory contests where we’d memorize chapters from the Messenger’s books and see who had memorized the most. We would also share original work. I remember reciting an essay about the illusion of time. Both girls and boys were encouraged to show off academically and were praised by the ministers and other adults.  We’d have sleepovers at friends’ houses where we’d dance the latest dances and stay up all night talking. The next day, we’d get up early, put on our white uniforms, and go to the mosque where we’d serve as greeters or in the women’s security check room.

As a Junior Lieutenant, I supervised and would pat down the women and girls. I don’t ever remember finding any weapons, but when we trained, we planted weapons on each other—knife-like and gun-sized objects and other items. We were sharp and confident youth. I’d learned karate in the MGT&GCC (Muslim Girls Training & General Civilization Class—training units started by NOI founder W.D. Fard Muhammad). We also had a nursery for babies and mothers who wanted to nurse more comfortably.

I remember a family-friendly environment. We respected ourselves and each other. When I was 12, I wrote to the Hon. Elijah Muhammad in Chicago to request an X. When I got his response, the Minister welcomed me as Wanda 2X (Oliver). I was officially emancipated from the vestiges of plantation life. I might not know my ancestral family name, but “Oliver” was given back to the slave master.

I was in the first graduating class at Muhammad University No. 26 and class valedictorian at age 15. Our graduations were in February, to coincide with Savior’s Day (God’s birthday) on February 26.
After graduating, I was hired as a teacher. I wouldn’t say I was playing at teaching, but I didn’t have teacher training. In retrospect, my teaching—really as an intern—echoed post-slavery days on the plantation where one graduated, then shared what one knew. My mentor was just across the room from me, teaching pre-kindergarten. I supplemented what she demonstrated with what my mother was doing at home to teach my brother, using The Sound Way to Easy Reading. My job was a family affair. My parents supplemented my salary and helped me with purchases of flash cards, books and other teaching materials.

Phonetics, augmented with sight vocabulary, formed the basis of a curriculum that also included African and world history, mathematics and composition. Our textbooks were often the writings of the Hon. Elijah Muhammad. All I remember from my time as a student in biology is photosynthesis. The teacher used this process as a metaphor for Black consciousness: the light is Allah, Subhanahu Wa Ta’ala; the breath is spiritual life. The Messenger spoke of spiritual and physical death and how light or truth is what would awaken our people from slumber. He said we were “dead, dumb and blind to the knowledge of self.”

This Black child’s survival is directly related to the love received within the Nation of Islam. Though underprepared academically when I entered UC Berkeley, I quickly excelled because I had superior preparation in Black consciousness and knew I was capable. This self-knowledge allowed me to navigate an often hostile terrain, and later prepare my daughters for the battle inherent in this suspect space—America, a place which even today negates or denies Black greatness.

Related Stories: 
Pull Quote TEXT ONLY for featured stories in image slider: 

This Black child’s survival is directly related to the love received within the Nation of Islam.

Remembering the Booker T. Washington Hotel

By Jaqueline Chauhan

The Booker T. Washington Hotel in San Francisco was a world unto itself for Black celebrities in the days of segregation, when Blacks were not allowed to stay at the city’s downtown hotels. It hosted some of the biggest names you could find, and I was right there with them, because my mother worked there. I still remember when James Brown and Hank Ballard sang Happy Birthday to me.

When Duke Ellington came to San Francisco, his band members stayed at the hotel. Dinah Washington, Earl Grant, Nat “King” Cole and his trio, and others in that generation of musicians would rehearse at the hotel during the day. I’d just watch and listen, especially when I was too young to go see them at the Fillmore Auditorium. Most were very friendly to me because I was “Ms. Sadie daughter.” They’d hang around the front desk or in the lobby just to talk.

Richard Berry was happy I liked his music so we started a fan club chapter. James Brown asked my opinion on how a suit looked before he had it tailored. Bobby “Blue” Bland tried to get on my good side. He wanted to marry my mother. I was the unofficial critic of new songs for many groups. Jackie Wilson and Little Richard were not so friendly to me but Earl Grant would play at mother’s friends’ parties.

From the time I was eight, until I was 18, I visited the Booker T. often while my mother, Sadie Williams, was working. She started as a desk clerk. Maya Angelou’s mother, Vivian Baxter, was also a clerk and they became good friends. Later, when I was in high school, my mother became the manager. To occupy my time, I gave out room keys and became a PBX operator. PBX was a telephone system with a switchboard—an electromagnetic device that required the operator to plug telephone lines into their destination wires by hand.

The cocktail lounge was called the Emperor and the dining room—which accommodated club events, parties and banquets—the Empress. Sam Mines was the cook. The soul food there was awesome. Mr. Mines’ menu included dishes like ox tails and red beans and rice, because he wanted people to come off the street and get home-style cooking. A woman named Marie Alexander was head of housekeeping, but only men were allowed to use the vacuum cleaner.

The hotel had six floors and 125 rooms, with suites in the front of the top floor. There were free radios in every room and television sets in each suite. Chartreuse drapes laced the windows and maroon carpets embellished with silver scrollwork covered the floors. Mirrors decorated in peach and silver lined the serving counter.
The hotel’s last owner, Willie Lee Young owned a rooming house before he bought the Booker. Mr. Young leased the cocktail lounge to Charles Sullivan, who pulled in standing-room-only crowds every night with live music. Mr. Sullivan also booked some of the biggest Black entertainers at the Fillmore (the Harlem of the West): James Brown, Bobby “Blue” Bland, Jackie Wilson, Little Richard, The Coasters. I saw opera star Marian Anderson, singer-dancer Josephine Baker, and singer-actor Paul Robeson in concert.

In 1952, San Francisco Mayor Elmer Robinson said it would be “a desecration and an insult” for Paul Robeson to perform at the San Francisco Opera House because of Robeson’s support for Communist ideology, so the great bass-baritone was barred from that venue. In response, Robeson held a press conference with the San Francisco Chronicle at the Booker T. Washington Hotel. He called Robinson “one of the principal fascists of the West Coast.”

It wasn’t just musicians who patronized the Booker T. Washington. Legendary San Francisco Giants’ homerun hitter Willie “Stretch” McCovey and boxer Archie Moore stayed there; also civil rights activist W. E. B. DuBois, the tap-dancing Step Brothers, and the Harlem Globetrotters. In 1960, the Ugandan ambassador to the United Nations changed from another hotel to the Booker T. Washington because, he said, “I wanted to see how my people live in your country.”

If you go to that once-famous area now, you will find shopkeepers from Italy, Australia and New Zealand. You’ll find eleven-dollar flip-flops and food from the Mediterranean. There is a Safeway store in its location now. It crosses two streets, but it uses a Webster Street address. Only a street sign indicates the possibility of the hotel’s address, which was 1540 Ellis Street.

My brother, many years later, was in BB King’s company and BB remembered [the hotel] well. When the San Francisco Redevelopment Agency stepped in, no community support mobilized, and this landmark hotel vanished. The city assessor’s office says the hotel’s address never existed. But living entertainers know, the former employees and their families know, and the folks at Marcus Books in San Francisco and Fillmore know about the hotel.

This is an excerpt from The Baobab Tree: Journal of African American Genealogical Society of Northern California, Inc., Fall 2011, and has been revised for Race, Poverty  & the Environment.

Related Stories: 
Pull Quote TEXT ONLY for featured stories in image slider: 

Dinah Washington, Earl Grant, Nat “King” Cole and his trio, and others in that generation of musicians would rehearse at the hotel during the day. I’d just watch and listen, especially when I was too young to go see them at the Fillmore Auditorium.

Glimpse of the Point

By Johanna B.

Back when I was growing up in Bayview-Hunter’s Point in the 1960s and ’70s we could go out and play morning and night. Bayview-Hunter’s Point had fewer people and was less crowded. More space; more room to roam. There was a sense of connection and belonging.  You were called by your family’s last names—so you were a Brown or a Bridges or Sears.  Families had credit at the grocery stores and clothing stores that were lined up on Third Street. Kids were able to shop for their families and use their families’ credit.
Blacks owned the businesses on Third Street. Families worked on Third Street.

There were more activities for kids, and boys’ and girls’ clubs. We even had a neighborhood center where we could go and hang out. We’d play cards or pool. They’d give us lunch and took us to various activities and field trips. We visited Alcatraz, Playland and art museums around the city. It was fun and cultural.

By the time I became a teenager, the city started rebuilding the projects. The projects in Bayview went from looking like projects to looking like townhouses. It seemed like a lot of families had been feeling down and depressed, but then working-class families started moving in. Welfare families started living next door to working class families.

I remember exploring different neighborhoods. I took the bus everywhere. There was just MUNI, but it was cheap, less than 25 cents, and there was no BART. Cost of living was more affordable. Families could do more paid activities for their dollar.

Related Stories: 
Pull Quote TEXT ONLY for featured stories in image slider: 

I took the bus everywhere. There was just MUNI, but it was cheap, less than 25 cents, and there was no BART.

Kaleidoscope Energy

By Julianne Malveaux

Growing up in San Francisco was an exciting, amazing experience. I’m grateful that my mom (who did not drive) made sure that my siblings and I spent time at the Japanese Tea Garden, the de Young Museum, Chinatown, and parts of the Mission. We explored the Avenues and spent time with people whose cultural diversity surprised us. Sometimes we asked questions. Mostly, we just listened and learned. And we took any opportunity to eat at restaurants near the beach.

There was a Fun House [at Playland, a seaside amusement park in the Richmond district which closed in 1972] and “Laughing Sal” a big old clown, ushered you in. Sometimes we had enough money to enter. Other times, we would just look and laugh at the clown from a distance. We laughed because we could not get into Playland and at least one of us, usually my brother, tried to sneak in.

Brother was a trip. One of the highlights of our week was going to the Farmers’ Markets, working with my Mom’s list, while trying to save enough to get ice cream squares at the dairy end of the market. We could often save a few pennies because Brother bargained and fussed at the merchants who offered samples the size of fingernails. He let them know that, with his four sisters, they had to do better. Generally, we got four apples for the price of three, three plums for the price of two, and smiles because we (really Brother) knew how to bargain.

My most indelible memory is the revolutionary spirit that took the power structure to task. Brother and I often cut school to go to [Black] Panther headquarters on Fillmore Street. We weren’t central to the work. We stuffed envelopes, answered telephones, and reveled in the fact that we were present. We cut school to attend the “Free Huey” rally on May 1, 1969. We chanted, like everybody else: “Black is beautiful! Free Huey! Set our warrior free!” Months later, Huey P. Newton walked down Fillmore Street, the center of the African American community. I was all of 15 and completely committed to the movement. The first point of the Panther 10-point program was: “We want freedom, we want the power to determine our destiny.” Where are we now?

My mom, Proteone Malveaux, worked with Rev. Cecil Williams to preserve the African American presence in the Fillmore area. Urban renewal meant ‘Negro removal.’ Too many politicians ignored the validity of an African American presence in the city. It is disappointing to see African Americans pushed out of a city that we have honored and nurtured. Even in my home neighborhood, Bernal Heights, the demographic turnover is a function of the myopic indifference to our city’s diversity. There should be a commitment to diversity, a push to keep African Americans and others with lower incomes in the city whose multicultural diversity defines its energy and adventure.


Related Stories: 
Pull Quote TEXT ONLY for featured stories in image slider: 

My most indelible memory is the revolutionary spirit that took the power structure to task. Brother and I often cut school to go to [Black] Panther headquarters on Fillmore Street.


By Charles Curtis Blackwell

About 1954, I was real small and I went with a parent to Playland. We paid and went in. I walked in a hallway. I got on a moving floor with moving walls. I got scared.  It was like something you’d use in a Hollywood movie. I started crying.

A few years later, my grandfather visited from “backwoods” Mississippi. At that point, we lived in Sacramento, so we drove down to Playland.

We went to a diner. I remember my grandfather next to me. We sat on stools. I was about 12 or 13. We were looking at the menu. My grandfather asked me: “What is a hamburger?” I told him that it was bread with meat inside, with lettuce and tomato.

 “Like a sandwich?” he said.

“Yes,” I answered.

It took me awhile to understand why he didn’t know what a hamburger was. It was before the Civil Rights bill. In San Francisco, you could eat anywhere, but in Mississippi, you ate at home or at a relative’s house.  
I was honored that my grandfather asked me.  

Right now, Blacks are excluded (or they are at the bottom) from San Francisco. It’s sad because some of my hip white friends in the cultural arts say American arts started with African Americans—theater, music and dance. Even the hip white critics are tired of European standards.

The powerbrokers have a plan to push Blacks out of San Francisco—and Oakland.
I don’t know if we’re ready for the stress. The stress is taking us out.

I just have to trust and continue to use my talents. God will open doors and opportunities.

Related Stories: 
Pull Quote TEXT ONLY for featured stories in image slider: 

In San Francisco, you could eat anywhere, but in Mississippi, you ate at home or at a relative’s house. I was honored that my grandfather asked me.

Geneva Towers

By Mark Johnson

The Geneva Towers Complex was a two-building, 22-story high-rise that sat at the center of the Sunnydale Projects, approximately four blocks from the Cow Palace.

I lived on the sixteenth floor of B Building in a two-bedroom apartment from about 1979 to 1988. At that time, my apartment offered me a beautiful view of the rolling green hills nestled in the backdrop of the Cow Palace and the Geneva Drive-in Theatre. I would crank up my stereo, put on some Rick James music, grab myself a joint, and step out on the balcony to enjoy an often breezy, but sunshiny day.

I would light the joint, take in a deep breath of the smoke and slowly release it, experiencing a pleasant high and thinking to myself: “What a beautiful place to live!” This was because I was 16 stories above the crazy drama that was playing out in the next complex or on the basketball court below me.

It had become a challenge to reside at Geneva Towers. Even walking from the parking lot to the lobby was sometimes as scary as walking in the surrounding areas after dark. You never knew when you might be bombed by a shitty diaper or a bottle filled with piss falling from one of the floors. You had to keep your head to the sky if you wanted those despicable items to miss you. People even threw mattresses off the balcony.
On one particular day, I walked out on the balcony to enjoy the sun with a joint and I glanced over at A Building and saw what appeared to be a large blue bundle falling from a balcony that was at a lower level than my apartment. The blue bundle finally made contact with the ground and splattered like a large watermelon. I stood stunned and in disbelief. I thought the joint was playing tricks with my mind.

I saw a crowd gather around the bundle. I had the urge to go over to the complex to see what was in the blue bundle that had made such a splatter, but thought again. After about 10 minutes, I saw police and ambulance personnel arrive and cover the bundle with a white sheet. I knew then that the Geneva Towers complex was no longer a place for me to reside.

Related Stories: 
Pull Quote TEXT ONLY for featured stories in image slider: 

About 30 minutes later I was informed by a friend that a person had been thrown from the fourteenth floor of A Building. I began to break out in a cold sweat.

This Little Black Girl

By Kristine Mays

A little Black girl in San Francisco, that’s who I was. I was also a kid with a wild imagination, surrounded by a diverse community of people of all colors and cultures. I soaked it all in like a sponge and to this day, some of the experiences still nourish my soul.

I take great pride in saying I was born and raised here even though the city feels nothing like it did when I was a child. Yet, I find myself happy when I say I am here and from here, born in the middle of such a multifaceted place. The smell of incense, weed, patchouli… smells associated with hippies filled my nostrils before I was old enough to comprehend it all. You see, I was born in 1969 and lived with my family only one block over from Haight and Ashbury. My Mom tells stories of hippy neighbors and concerts in Golden Gate Park. Jefferson Airplane, Jimi Hendrix and Janis Joplin were a big part of my soundtrack when I was a child, along with Sly and the Family Stone.

A little Black girl in San Francisco, that’s who I was. Wearing a pressed cotton dress, white ankle socks edged with lace, and patent leather Mary Jane shoes to church with family friends. Being told to sit up straight, be still and behave. Sitting in a Baptist church near Hayes and Octavia on wooden pews, I watched stone-faced older women in black-and-white uniforms (like nurses) giving out paper fans. These stern-looking women wore white gloves and walked with their hands behind their backs. They covered women with squares of burgundy fabric when they “fell out in the spirit”. They carried smelling salts to revive those who passed out. They ushered people in and had a way of looking at children that stopped them in their tracks—one glance, and the whispering, the fidgeting, the giggles, stopped. I was that little girl watching everyone and everything, wishing I could get one of those paper fans in that hot church. I watched the woman next to me swiping the air with Martin Luther King Jr.’s face looking at me from one side of the paper fan fastened to a popsicle stick. My face hot and sweaty, I stared at the stained glass windows and listened to the rise and fall of the preacher’s voice, waiting for it all to be over.

This little chubby Black girl wandering all over San Francisco—that was me—with my Mom and my two brothers in a green Electra 225, with brocade seats. San Francisco was my city and we explored far beyond the four corners of my block. I found myself in the Fillmore, staring in awe through the shop windows at colorful men’s suits with matching hats and handkerchiefs. I was a kid of the 70s, and even though many people say the Fillmore had changed by then, for me it still held a certain soulful flavor. There were businesses that sold church clothes—fancy women’s suits and hats that were fit for a long Easter service. The smell of food filled the air. It was a smell that made you hungry even if you’d already eaten.

The smell of fried chicken and the sound of James Brown. I thought of James Brown as a family member because he was always present in my childhood. His music filled most of my days. Adults told kids, “Go put on James.” You didn’t have to be old enough to read because his face was on the record label. You simply needed to focus on not scratching that record because you’d never hear the end of it if you scratched James.
I was a curious child, always reading, often hiding behind a book in silence. If I sat quietly in the corner with a book, adults either did not notice me, or thought I didn’t hear them. While they thought I was preoccupied, I listened to everything they said. They talked about Vietnam and phones being bugged. About President Nixon and Patty Hearst. I did not fully understand why free school breakfast and the Black Panthers were considered a threat, until I got older. I remember asking my Mom why they were talking about people coming home with lost limbs. She told me something ridiculous, like “We were talking about a movie. Why don’t you go play with your doll?”

If I was quiet, I could listen to the inflections of people’s voices and recognize gossip. I liked listening to my Mom debate with one of our family friends. Inevitably, he’d say she was “doin’ that feminist talk” and she’d call him a male chauvinist. And while I had no clue what a feminist was, I knew from watching my Mom that I wanted to be one.

I was a little Black girl with white friends and Filipino friends, Russian, Jewish, and Chinese friends. I learned about race and class when I didn’t get invited to a rich white girl’s birthday party even though we played together every day at recess. I had an awkward moment when a classmate invited me over for a play date but never told her Mom I was Black. Her mother and my mother stood looking at one another in shock. Her mother was shocked by the Black people at her door. My mother was shocked by the Confederate flag hanging in the entryway. And so, this education of being Black in America continued to unfold for me.
Most of my childhood was spent living in Geneva Towers, a pair of 22-story buildings in the Visitacion Valley neighborhood. These buildings took on a major stigma in the 1980s as drug-use and crime took over.

However, my memories include feeling a rich sense of community:  packing like sardines into old elevators that constantly broke down; helping old ladies with their groceries; eating egg sandwiches and drinking red Kool-Aid while waiting 20 minutes for the elevator on a school morning. The sounds of soul music, the tidbits of conversation, and the smell of beans and ham hocks cooking—all revealed when the elevator doors opened. This was my Black experience.

I remember: buying the Sun Reporter from a guy in front of the grocery store each week; checking eight books out of the local library at a time; seing my Mom run a daycare out of our apartment; braided hairstyles with lots of beads, hair bobbles and barrettes; loud-talking people; government cheese; Farina; the dreadful sound of gunshots; dead bodies on the street; Henry the mailman; the school bus program; weekends with family friends who drove station wagons with wood paneling on the sides; FM radio.

My life included bean pies and Final Call newspapers. It also included schools in a middle-class part of town, going to museums and the zoo, learning to play a musical instrument, the San Francisco Symphony, Ghirardelli Square, working (as a teenager) at Pier 39, graduating from Lowell High at a time when many of the girls in my neighborhood were walking around with big pregnant bellies and a toddler on their hips.
I am this Black girl, this girl-turned-woman with dark brown skin and kinky curly hair, with wide hips and eyes so brown you can barely see the pupils, still taking in what’s happening around me and holding onto one thing I know for sure—never judge a book by its cover.

Pull Quote TEXT ONLY for featured stories in image slider: 

A little Black girl in San Francisco, that’s who I was. Wearing a pressed cotton dress, white ankle socks edged with lace, and patent leather Mary Jane shoes to church with family friends.

Sustaining Cultural and Creative Spaces

"So here I am! I get to be around all the kinds of people I like and enjoy, and who inspire me, motivate me, and make me happy. But I am also the poorest, the brokest, I’ve been in my whole life. In the beauty business, I made money because I was really good. This is a challenge, but I made the sacrifice and I’m probably the happiest that I’ve been in my life!” - Joyce Gordon

A Conversation with Joyce Gordon
Interview by Christine Joy Ferrer and Jarrel Phillips

You're listening to a conversation with Joyce Gordon on black identity, black-owned business, diversity, commitment to the arts, and owning a fine arts gallery in Oakland.

Joyce Gordon and Christine Joy Ferrer, Joyce Gordon Gallery © 2015 Jarrel PhillipsAbout Joyce Gordon
Before she opened the Joyce Gordon Gallery 12 years ago, Gordon owned three hair salons in the San Francisco Bay Area and published a book on hairstyling. When her work as a platform artist educator demonstrating new haircutting techniques took her around the country, Gordon took every opportunity to visit art galleries wherever she went. And when her children grew up and left home, she decided to open an art gallery of her own.

Growing up in Berkeley, California, Gordon liked to hang out with creative people—artists and poets who sat around spitting rhymes and spoken word, usually at a park across from Berkley High School but also at the zoo where they played congas and wrote poetry. The term "hippy" had not been invented yet but, Gordon says: "That’s where I fit. I had to create an environment where I would be around creative people—dancers, writers, poets, artists.”

When Gordon eventually started looking for a space to open a gallery and live the life she wanted, she had a hard time finding the right space. She considered Jack London Square, near Yoshi’s because she figured that people who like art would like jazz. “But they just wanted big businesses and chain restaurants there," says Gordon, who then spent about a year trying to find something locally, including a space on the top floor of Geoffrey’s Inner Circle, but without any success. So she started looking further afield and had found a place in Atlanta, Georgia and was all set to move when a friend told her about the “For Lease” sign at 406 14th Street in Downtown Oakland—the current location of the Joyce Gordon Gallery.

"So here I am!” says Gordon. “I get to be around all the kinds of people I like and enjoy, and who inspire me, motivate me, and make me happy. But I am also the poorest, the brokest, I’ve been in my whole life. In the beauty business, I made money because I was really good. This is a challenge, but I made the sacrifice and I’m probably the happiest that I’ve been in my life!”

Download Joyce Gordon Interview

Joyce Gordon Gallery is a commercial fine art gallery located in downtown Oakland, California. The gallery exhibits art that reflects the social and cultural diversity of the Bay Area and features the work of local and international artists. The aim of the gallery is to respect the creative pursuits of individuals while making the work accessible to a broad audience. Christine Joy Ferrer is the web/design, arts and culture editor for RP&E. Jarrel Phillips is the founder of AVE and the arts and culture correspondent for RP&E.

Christine Joy Ferrer: Did you ever think of a fine art gallery as elitist?

Joyce Gordon: I didn’t have a clue that it was “elitist” because I’m not elitist. A lot of people who’ve walked through these doors have never been in a gallery before. Some people stand at the door because they feel uncomfortable. I guess galleries can be snobbish. If you don’t look or dress a certain way, you don’t belong. My thinking is: It’s art! Everybody is included, which is why I thought it was a comfortable space for me.

Jarrel Phillips: Elitism can be about class but really, the average person that can afford half this stuff has to also be of a certain age, as well as having an interest and an appreciation.

Gordon: If they can buy expensive tennis shoes, designer bags and concert tickets, or spend all their money getting their hair and nails done, they can invest in quality art. It’s just not a priority. You can have whatever it is you want to have; you just have to really focus on it.

Phillips: The average young person buying Jordans feels it’s functional. There’s also a social value to it. Consciously or not, they are able to appreciate and give qualitative value to nice shoes because it makes them feel confident and accepted. That’s what they’re really paying for.

Gordon: I believe if it became popular to have a Nina Fabunmi piece in your place, even if it was $15,000, they’d figure out a way to get it because it’s the thing to do and everybody’s doing it, just like the Jordans.

Phillips: Art originally was for the rich who bought it. Artists were essentially performers who entertained the wealthy. Like schools and higher education, art was for the rich. Now we’re talking about more and more people being able to afford art or being willing to buy art as a commodity. I believe life is art. Everything we do is art. This building is art, even if no one wants to value the architecture or the process. Everything is art because everything starts with an idea and becomes materialized, so life is art. Indigenous cultures knew that.

Ferrer: Tell me about the kinds of artists and artwork that you feature in your gallery. How do you and your curator, Eric Murphy, decide what’s curated?

Gordan: Paintings, sculptures, mixed media, photography—we do it all. Someone’s always telling me to focus on just one thing. But why? I don’t feel the same way every day. The artists whose work I first featured, it was because I wanted to give them a chance to show their work. It had nothing to do with me liking their work or anything like that. They worked real hard. Art school is really expensive. Art is expensive. All of the supplies and tools you need—it’s expensive. I selected artists who were really dedicated and tried to help them get their work out where other people can see it. I’ve changed a little since then because I wasn’t selling anything. I now try to mix it up with artists who have been out there for a while and those just starting out. Artists that have been out there too long and show all over the same area, I try to stay away from.

I show everybody. When I first opened, people asked me, “Do you just show Black art?” That’s because they’re looking at me. At the time everything on the walls was by white artists! Then I had Black people say: “You just show white art!” So, my question was: “What is Black art?” And they said: “Well, you know!” And I said: “No! I don’t know. Are you saying that Black art is art with Black images?” Because there are artists who are not Black who paint Black images. I’ve had two artists’ work hanging side-by-side and people thought it was the same artist. One was Black and one was Iranian, so how do you explain that? You see abstract art with no images, no figures, or anything—just color and movement.

Phillips: What are some questions you ask artists?

Gordon: What are you doing to make things different for you? Are you coming together with other artists and seriously talking about doing things together? Are you committed? What do you want to put out there and why? Sometimes art can be a fad. Everybody’s an artist. I don’t know what the art movement looks like because I’m not a working artist. A lot of artists don’t come here anymore because they have all these other places uptown.

Phillips: How do you give the arts value in society when clearly, the arts in general are under-appreciated? They are being taken out of schools completely. It’s hard to make a living from art. Gallery owners and artists—you see them struggling to figure this out.

Gordon: I look to you young people for the answer because I honestly don’t know. Last September, I started hosting an open painting event at my art gallery called Brews and Brush, where you have a professional artist guide you. It’s a social thing. You bring your own brews and it’s a party. Most people who come tend to not have much experience with fine art galleries but this is a social thing, it’s fun and every Brews and Brush participant thus far will be in a show.

Phillips: The hardest part is actually having people come in and make art and you’re providing the space for it. It’s actually both fun and functional for people to create the art themselves versus buying art to hang on the wall.

Gordon: Often, people looking at a piece will say: “$2,000? I can do that!” And I think: “But you didn’t!” Now that you see it, you could probably do it, but you could not create it. Even the artist could not come back and do it. Brews and Brush is usually two or three hours but often, folks don’t want to leave. They feel a little more appreciation and respect for what’s on the wall, and understand the time, work and money that’s put into creating a painting.

Ferrer: Tell us about the different things you’ve done to help make this space accessible to all people.

Gordon: All people, all ages, and all forms of art. We’ve had dance, book readings, poetry recitals, music. This gallery has become more of a cultural space than any dedicated cultural space in the Bay Area that I know of. We’ve featured white, Black, Asian, Filipino, and Russian artists. When I realized that most of my featured artists were men, I put a call out for a women’s show, and it was very diverse. The women represented different cultures, so we had a potluck and everybody brought different food. I really believe art provokes dialogue. People begin to talk to each other and become more relaxed around each other.

Ferrer: How do you feel about the new developments in Downtown Oakland and how have they transformed the area?

Gordon: Everyone’s excited about, you know, all this diversity. Where is it? You got tall white people and short white people? Are you excited about all these new businesses? Most of them are bars, clubs and restaurants. You go to a restaurant that seats 80 people and four of them are Black. All of the waiters are white. Down Telegraph, all the new bars, restaurants, coffee shops, tea bars, are white-owned. Down Broadway, except for Pecans, Mua and a couple of others, all the rest are white-owned. Down Grand Avenue, they’re all white—even the pet shops! So what are they talking about? I would just love to see more Black businesses in this area.

I would really like to see some diversity. There are no artists or people interested in art willing to take the initiative or risk to open a business here because they can’t get the funding, or the lease is too high, or because they’re Black. Since I’ve opened, I’ve seen more Black and other artists of color really trying to come together and do things. I asked someone recently: “Are there any Asian or Latino galleries in Oakland?” Everything seems to be a Black/white thing. I know there are three Black-owned and about 40 white-owned galleries in Oakland. Maybe some Black artists feel left out because they can’t get into those galleries. And some artists of color may want to get into the white galleries because that’s where the art critics go and write about the shows.

Phillips: Are you concerned about having to leave?
Gordon: I remember two or three years ago, I was thinking about closing the gallery. It seemed like it just was not working. and I was looking for someone to take over the gallery. Then Erica came and we decided to work together. Now, I’m not really concerned. If they went up on my rent where it was just too much, I’d just move into the gallery because I can live here. That’s how serious I am about it. We’re not going anywhere. We were here before they came and we’ll be here when they leave. Everybody’s passing through.

Phillips: I agree. There are some people, like me, who want to stay in San Francisco. People talk about getting “pushed out,” which definitely happens, but should we just feel bitter?

Gordon: Well, I know a lot of Black businesses around here are gone because they made the rent so high. I believe if there was more support from the community, perhaps they could’ve stayed a little longer. But the rent was just totally ridiculous. So what do you do?

Phillips: Is it something that people should get mad about and fight for?

Gordon: Well, that’s a hard one, speaking as a property-owner. I don’t think all property owners are just about money, money, money! If I was, I wouldn’t be here because I’ve put more money out than I’ve brought in. When I opened the gallery I thought that this was something I could do with my retirement. When you’re retired you don’t need money anyway. I can’t travel. Let me just say I haven’t been able to travel like I would’ve liked to. Fortunately, I’ve travelled before. There are a lot of things that I can’t do now because I don’t have the money to do it. But I’m okay with it because I’m living the life that I love. I’m healthy, and as long as I’m in a creative environment, I will continue to be healthy.

Phillips: You said that if there had been more community support, some businesses may have survived a little longer. Do you think that the Joyce Gordon Gallery is a community place more than a cultural space?

Gordon: Well, it is, in that it’s open and I have made it possible for all kinds of people and a lot of groups to do their thing here at a loss for me. Some things are free and others, I’m not charging as much as I should be because I have bills to pay. But when people want to do an event here, I don’t think about all that. I think that they think I’m rich. I think I’m rich, too!

Ferrer: Can you tell us a story about something that really inspired you—as the owner of the gallery—or gave you that “ah-ha” moment because you say that this is the happiest time of your life?

Gordon: I’m always excited, like tonight, when we have the opening because if you just see the artists—it’s like when I was cutting hair. A woman comes into the salon and when you finish her hair—this is when people smoked—the first thing she does is light up a cigarette, so you know she has arrived! I feel good when I have had something to do with someone else feeling good. When the artists walk in and see people looking at their work and engaging in conversation, that feels good to me. It’s like going to a graduation and watching somebody get their diploma. I remember when the Oakland School of the Arts was in transition and they used this place for their art show. These high school kids were just high-fiving each other because they saw their work hanging. Another time, my friend’s fourth grade class had a show of their poetry and photography. That was just really exciting, too.

Ferrer: Do you consider yours a “Black arts” gallery, per se?

Gordon: I don’t know what that means. Mine is a fine art gallery that is open to artists that are committed to whatever they’re doing—if they’re open, interested, and have some concern for their community. Artists of all cultures, if they’re workers, are welcome here. This is the first year that every show has featured a Black artist. I don’t know if that’s because I’m beginning to meet more artists of color whose work I really like, or because I feel that there aren’t a lot of venues for artists of color. But as long as they keep coming and I like what they’re doing I will be showing them. If it ends up that I feature a Black artist every month, that’s just the way it is. I’m actually trying to narrow it down though, to select 10 or 15 artists and just work with them.

I am a designer. My gallery is my canvas. Yes, I am a Black woman, a Black gallerist, but I am not just focused on Black artists—yet I am, because that’s who I am. Someone asked me when I opened the gallery, “Joyce, did you go to see how the white galleries do it?” Why do I need to see what the white people do? If you’re confident enough in yourself and believe in yourself and love yourself, you set your own standard. White people don’t set an example or a blueprint for my way of thinking.

Phillips: I recently had a conversation with one of my co-teachers about a new student, a young Black boy whose Mom is very pro Black. I was concerned that she’d expect me to fit into this box of what it is to be a “positive” Black male. I don’t feel it’s necessary to even say “positive Black male.” But then, there are those who would disagree with me on that.

Gordon: My best friend in design school was German. I told her, “Don’t expect me to act like a white girl, and I won’t expect you to act like a Black woman. I appreciate you because of who you are and I don’t want you to change.” When you respect each other’s differences you realize that you have more in common than you realize.

Phillips: You don’t have to understand the differences, you just need to respect them.

Christine Joy Ferrer is an RP&E contributing editor and editor of Jarrel Phillips is an RP&E cultural correspondent and founder of AVE (Access Via Exposure).


Seeds and Soul: Interview with Joana Cruz

Interview with Joana Cruz
Organizer, Seeds & Soul Cultural Exchange and Festival
By Christine Joy Ferrer

On October 24, 2015, in honor of Indigenous Peoples Day, Dancing Earth and the Audiopharmacy Prescriptions Collective organized the first ever Seeds & Soul Indigenous Cultural Exchange and Festival at Lake Merritt in Oakland, California. The free festival brought together about a thousand people and harnessed the power of the arts and indigenous cultural exchange with Bay Area communities, centered around culture, music, art, food, and relationship-building as tools for social and environmental change. Featured artists and presenters included: Corrina Gould (Indian People Organizing for Change); Leny Strobel (Center for Babaylan Studies); Capoeira Ijexa, Namorados Da Lua, and Bangka Journeys. Joana Cruz is a lead organizer for Seeds & Soul and the operations manager for Audiopharmacy Prescriptions Collective.

Christine Joy Ferrer: What motivated you to put together the Seeds & Soul Indigenous Cultural Exchange Festival?

Joana Cruz: For me, Seeds & Soul is an organically evolving vision that is still creating itself. Maybe six or seven years ago, the demographics of San Francisco started really changing. Most people of San Francisco are open-minded, willing to bring in something new to the city. It’s part of the city’s charm and appeal. When the tech industry revival happened and made its base in the Bay Area, it brought people and policies that promote capitalistic initiatives that cater to them. Rent and cost of living have sky-rocketed, gutting the city of its diverse culture and displacing thousands of people, mostly the elderly, families, artists, and people of color. I rapidly started to understand gentrification, its roots and history, how it manifests issues about racism and classism, and I realized displacement has been a part of this capitalistic model of society. I learned more about the original people living in the Bay Area prior to the colonization of the mission systems and urban sprawl. And I realized that this lack of acknowledgement and respect for existing cultures in making way for the needs of the colonizer is a cycle that needs to be addressed and changed.

As a decolonizing Filipina American, I’ve come to learn that not only do I have to re-learn and re-connect to what it means to be Pinay, I also have to learn how to be a dweller in this land my family and I now call home. Part of that learning is re-educating myself on California history by having a better understanding of local Native history and experience. This place where I reside, now called the San Francisco Bay Area, is Ohlone territory. The Ohlone people, a diverse group of indigenous people with various languages, customs and practices, live up and down the coast of Northern California from the northern tip of the San Francisco Peninsula down to Big Sur in the south, and from the Pacific Ocean in the west to the Diablo Range in the east. The Spanish colonization by means of the Catholic Mission systems, then the Gold Rush and creation of the state of California, systematically worked on erasing the Ohlone people and their existence. Many people even call what has happened to the Ohlone, genocide.

But they are still here. Breathing, living, working, raising families, creating, and fighting hard every day to revitalize their culture, to preserve their sacred sites, and to protect and sustain the environment. There are rich histories, varying from tribe to tribe, of the Ohlone peoples that our schools dare not share with the masses. There are indigenous teachings practiced to this day that prioritize the importance of living in harmony and in balance with the land. There are teachings connected to the importance of being healers of the land, ourselves and each other. The colonial past that our text books and our current society glazes over actually works against us today. The lack of recognition of these people, their experiences and struggles, as well as their ways of living and ideas on how to sustain the land we call home today need to be brought to light.

There is so much happening all over the world—overt and covert wars, kidnapping, slavery, genocide, natural and unnatural disasters, climate change, water rising and drying simultaneously, natural resources being extracted by companies that create more and more waste and destruction—and I can’t help but think about what’s going to happen to our world and to future generations. It must be the Mama in me. But even with this dirty laundry list of negative human impact, what’s hopeful is that I’ve seen how people are activating to be more aware and conscious of our interconnectedness and working to create more balance. People all over the world do live in harmony with nature and have a powerful connection with the manna of the land. Times are changing fast, and we need some ingenuity to reconnect with the land—lands that heal and are vital to our collective survival.

Last year, the killings of Mike Brown, Alex Nieto and Eric Garner, and other people of color (Trayvon Martin, Oscar Grant) in past years brought the realities of police brutality to the forefront, as also our nation’s divides. When Ferguson stepped up and was like, “We’re not taking this anymore, we demand that black lives matter! We want to change the institution, demonstrate and do what it takes!” I was so inspired to see young Black women and men stand up and fight, supported by allies from different cultures and backgrounds in the U.S. and beyond. It made me ask myself, what am I going to do? How do I help? What movement am I a part of? I want to help in a way that’s working in collaboration with others in a sacred and loving way. During Ferguson, I’ve been giving support by staying as conscious as possible and supporting friends who are frontline activists by providing outlets for creativity and healing in my home. I’ve also been teaching my kids about what’s going on, in a way that’s appropriate. But despite trying to stay grounded in loving actions, I started to get consumed with anger and even started to experience second-hand trauma from my activation and information downloading. I had to pause, meditate and ask myself, “Now what?” What do I do with all this information and lived experiences?

The one thing that was clear to me was that you can’t fight the damage our corrupt systems have produced with anger. There is a lot of pain and trauma across the board but we can heal by taking the time to rejuvenate and work together to make that happen. My own awareness and activation has heightened and a deep desire to learn more about what can bring more unity, cooperation and respect started to find its way into my creative work with Audiopharmacy. These are the beginnings of Seeds & Soul. Ultimately, the way to change what’s happening starts within us. That’s powerful, that sense of self-worth is powerful.

Ferrer: What is it like to reimagine a world that supports this idea of indigenous-led, women-led projects harnessing the power of music, performance art, nourishing food, and respectful cultural and knowledge exchange to strengthen bridges between indigenous peoples of the Bay Area?
Cruz: It’s a lot of talking, drawing and brainstorming; a lot of living to be able to think about these things actively, consciously and in the moment. It’s healthy team-work and collaboration. There are no rules but our expectations and standards are easily communicated and the team, consisting of Rulan Tangen, Javier Stell-Fresquez, myself and so many others that believe in this work, it’s been one of the most amazing collaborative experiences I have ever had. We are aligned in so many different things but our roots strongly intertwine in our belief in art, music and dance as a way to share stories and activate people to bring the healing on.
With everything that’s happening in this world, it’s important to focus on healing ourselves. Supporting each other in this process will heal the collective. We looked at what’s culturally appropriate. We created an advisory board of people from this area with diverse indigenous identities and looked to them for participation in decision-making on various aspects of the festival. The hope was to create a space to bring people together to talk and share—just as we’ve been able to do as two organizations/collectives—while having a good time, listening to music that elevates our vibrations and heals our souls, dancing to connect us to our indigenous bodies, eating good food and drinking good water. It’s  about creating a space for an open discussion about connecting the arts and diverse and indigenous cultures to policy and transformation.

I’m also drawn to and inspired by what’s been happening in Native American communities. As the original people of this land we now call America, they have a deep understanding of the cycles and rhythms of our planet, locally and globally. I feel like they’ve been trying to get the message out that Mama Earth needs to be heard! We need to learn from their traditions and intentions, and work with them to create our solutions.

Making something like this is living my own truth. For the past 10 years, I’ve been working on my own decolonization. It’s taking that long to believe in my intuition and my ability for ME to make a difference. And it’s really because I’ve been blessed to be able to experience inspiration every day from different beings and experiences, in different ways. I try and connect with my ancestors and see them and myself and the future generation of my family in a different way than my colonized mind did before. Believing in this change doesn’t happen overnight but if you want to make that change, happen it will. I want people to experience that. I think having these reflections and holding space for folks so they can create their own moments, ideas, conversations, visions, and dreams is the key.

Christine Joy Ferrer is a contributing editor at Reimagine! This interview has been edited and condensed from the original. To learn more about Seeds & Soul, visit Dancing Earth spins, stomps and spirals into life on the world’s dancing grounds as a collective of intertribal indigenous dance artists, under the leadership of internationally respected choreographer, Rulan Tangen. Audiopharmacy Prescriptions Collective is an international art collective and live world hip-hop ensemble that has been making community-minded art and music together since 1994.



More About the Cultural Exchange and Festival


Related Stories: 
Pull Quote TEXT ONLY for featured stories in image slider: 
Making something like this is living my own truth. For the past 10 years, I’ve been working on my own decolonization.

More About the Cultural Exchange and Festival

By Joana Cruz

Courtesy of Dancing EarthOn October 24, 2015, in honor of Indigenous Peoples Day, Dancing Earth will team up with Audiopharmacy Prescriptions Collective to bring about the Seeds & Soul Indigenous Cultural Exchange & Festival. The free festival will provide a creative, inclusive and welcoming environment where art, dance, spoken word, and music will be modelled as tools for community resilience and social change to raise awareness about issues, such as environmental sustainability, which affect Native and non-native peoples.

The festival will help celebrate the diversity of indigenous identities, provide a platform for critical dialogue, build unity and alliance among communities, and strengthen resilience in these times of rapid social and environmental change. We hope to enliven and indigenize the outdoor and indoor spaces, and animate the area with indigenous intention rooted in honoring the original peoples of the San Francisco Bay Area. We will incorporate tribal philosophies about relationships and treaty-making as examples of reciprocity and responsibility in caring for (not just inhabiting and using) place.

The festival, scheduled for the day between the Annual Indigenous People’s Day Pow-Wow in Berkeley and the Annual Indigenous Peoples’ Sunrise Gathering on Alcatraz, will feature local independent musicians, DJs and performers, as well as indigenous arts and community vendors. Audiopharmacy Prescriptions will also create an organic-interactive art installation based on the themes of the festival.

Seeds & Soul would like to invite indigenous culture-carriers, as well as social justice and environmental activists, to share their developed responses to environmental catastrophes. Those strategies can serve as models for the communities working in the arts, health and wellness, and the food industry. For us, decolonization is inseparable from the critical work of cultural and societal change, healing, and the seeding of hope and renewal in our journey towards empowered indigeneity.

If you or your organization is interested in learning more about how to collaborate with us, email us at:

Joana Cruz is a lead organizer for the Seeds & Soul Cultural Exchange and Festival and the operations manager for Audiopharmacy Prescriptions. For more information, visit or


Radical Healing

Pull Quote TEXT ONLY for featured stories in image slider: 

"The world becomes more like 'the streets' every day. Our cities, our economy and our planter are all in crisis mode whether we recognize it or not." - Nicole Lee, Urban Peace Movement

Black Lives Matter Allies in Change

Interview by Margi Clarke and Preeti Shekar

In September 2015, Reimagine! invited five Bay Area activists to discuss how their organizations and communities relate to the Movement for Black Lives.  Our wide-ranging discussion lasted over 90 minutes.  You can listen online at: Below we share some edited excerpts of the conversation, organized by speaker.

© Asians4BlackLivesChinese Progressive Association - Alex Tom

What does a good ally look like?
I think a lot of the people who are on the streets right now in different communities of color have a lot of outrage in knowing how Black folks are being systematically killed, one every 28 hours.

For us, the support looks similar to what we’ve done in the past, to today when Black liberation [work] has reached a peak. We see solidarity as part of our historical trajectory. The Chinese Progressive Association (CPA) has been on the frontlines with Black folks from the 70s and on, from the Black Panther Party to many other Black-led movements

Asians 4 Black Lives is living in that legacy of solidarity in a new form. So, for myself being a member of Asians 4 Black Lives and also the executive director of CPA, it’s come in a lot of different forms. With Asians 4 Black Lives, we have developed protocols and principles around how to show our solidarity. (See resources at end of article.)

And that’s been really important on how we show our solidarity on the streets, and how we organize our own folks and to really do the hard work of talking about anti-Black racism in our own community, while addressing the fact that the right-wing really exploits our divisions and uses them as a divide-and-conquer strategy to uphold racism and white supremacy.

Seeding Change, one of CPA’s national projects, organized a call with Black Lives Matter and the Southeast Asian Freedom Network, and within two weeks, we got over 800 people on a webinar to talk about Black-Asian solidarity.

It was surprising for us to see a new sector, a new layer of the community—mostly young people, in high school and college, and people who are working professionally—had so many questions about what to do in this moment. Of course, we didn’t have all the answers, but with Alicia [Garza], Patrisse [Cullors], and members of the Southeast Asian community and South Asian communities, we are coming together to really talk. This is the moment for us to struggle together and think about the moment as a way to advance liberation because it’s all connected.

The thrust for Asians 4 Black Lives is naming, specifically, the reasons for Asians to be in solidarity. Especially in the Bay Area (where the Asian American population is over 25 percent), we feel our responsibility is to respond to the call from the Black community for Asian folks to literally and figuratively put their bodies on the line.

How do you challenge anti-Black racism?
I think that there are multiple fronts around anti-Black racism that happen in the [Asian] community. On one level, it is a system issue, because of gentrification and the displacement of Black folks that are leaving San Francisco that are being replaced by primarily Chinese and Asian families. There is a lot of tension between Black and Asian folks.

It has been historic, in the sense of the last 10 to 15 years that this has happened. Now the Black population is about 3 percent in San Francisco, probably half of them are locked up in county jail. So you can see that with these tensions, systemically, people are pitted against each other, and that is a challenge that we face all the time.  There is an increase of Black-on-Asian violence because there’s a perception that Asian immigrants are coming into the neighborhood. So that’s on one level.

The other level is that there is anti-Black racism in general in the community as well. So this is ingrained in society: perceptions of Africa, African Americans, Black folks. There is a historical pattern of immigrants that come to this country who don’t know about the contributions of Black folks in this country fighting for freedom and how that has really expanded liberation and freedom for all people.

What we try to do is a lot of political education: just studying history and sharing in a popularized way, understanding the right to vote or where people get their services, and connecting the different histories that we’ve had in the past. Black Liberation also lifts the voices of the marginalized in our own community (for example, Arab, Muslim, queer, trans, Southeast, and South Asian folks) in defining what it means to be “Asian American.”

Because the Asian American community and Asian immigrant community will consistently be about a third recent-immigrant for the next period of time, this is going to be an important ongoing role for us. For the grassroots organizations that exist in the communities, our job is to talk to our people in a way that’s compassionate and is going to build unity, but also to really address the anti-Black racism that does exist as well.

So it’s not an easy task and it’s something that’s going to continue for a very long time. I would say with some folks who have been in the country longer, who are maybe younger or who have been exposed to understanding what’s happening in other communities and Black communities, there is a huge opportunity to agitate them and bring them onto the streets. We can do both at the same time, right? That’s what’s really important.

The last thing I will say is that it’s really important to, in the work, just have community and have space with Black folks and Asian folks coming together, not always on the streets, but to basically be able to break bread together. I’m talking about our grassroots members being able to talk to other mothers and to hear their stories, and when they hear about violence that’s happening in their community, they can actually talk about their experiences and be able to have a way of using stories as a way to carry a compelling narrative.

What’s your vision for the future?
We are in the belly of the beast, and I feel like many of us as organizers—young people and folks who have been oppressed—we have been robbed of our ability to imagine and robbed of our ability to even dream. I want to see a society that can shift from centering capital and capitalism, to our human development.

How that relates to this conversation is that the idea of solidarity and allyship is sometimes,  in U.S. context, very siloed and static. Yet we can build a society that can be transformed and where we are transformed as individuals. Things would not be so rigid. It would be dynamic, it would be fluid, it would be actually normalized that we are one: that we do not need to say, “I’m an ally of this, and I’m an ally of that.”  Solidarity is needed when you’re transforming society, and transforming culture, and transforming yourself. n

Alex T. Tom is a member of Asians4BlackLives and the executive director of the Chinese Progressive Association in San Francisco.  Alex is also the co-founder of Seeding Change, a center for Asian American movement building, and is a new father.

© 2014 MUA Mujeres Unidas y Activas - Karina Muñiz

When and why did you start working with Black Lives Matter?
When the decision came out around Trayvon Martin and the Black Lives Matter movement began, we began to think about how to show up. One of the major shifts that happened for us really was when Alicia Garza wrote an article called “Herstory” for The Feminist Wire in October 2014 ( and to me, that really hit home and really made us think.

One of the things that it called out and made important was that it’s really easy for us within the Latina/Latino community to jump on this bandwagon of “Black Lives Matter,” to say Black and Brown Lives Matter. That’s true, but this was/is about being in solidarity for Black Lives, and stepping up as allies. What does that look like? What does it mean in terms of anti-Black racism within our own communities and how do we address that?

So we realized that solidarity for Black communities and solidarity around supporting Black liberation, meant deepening our work and looking inward at our communities and addressing racial hierarchies that exist within the Latina/o communities and addressing real tensions and racial divides. The way we started doing this was by doing political education in our groups at our general meetings, and in our leadership and facilitators trainings.

How do you challenge anti-Black racism?
We felt like it was important to start with Afro-Latina/o history in the Americas—to both understand the root causes of anti-Black racism from our countries of origin, where many times Black experience has been rendered invisible, and to highlight and learn about Black communities throughout the Americas. We also began with speaking about personal experiences within our families. This has created a space for self-reflection, and an opening to transform. From there we talk about socio-political context within the United States, and what solidarity for Black lives and racial justice as a whole looks like for us here.
Anti-Black racism also shows up within Latina/o communities by how whiteness within the community is privileged over dark skin, with Black being at the bottom. It shows up in assumptions, stereotypes, and fear based on skin color and not on an overall understanding of systemic structural racism and white supremacy.

How has MUA moved this work forward?
As a result of our internal leadership trainings and open discussions around race, we’ve been able to respond and integrate this into our work. For example, when Freddie Gray was killed, we moved into action. We put up a solidarity statement and did it in English and Spanish, to make visible where we stood as an organization. It’s not static and finite because the real tragedy of all this, as we know, is that there are so many different times when we need to speak up and raise our voices, and be in solidarity with BLM movement and leaders at the intersections as women, migrants and queer communities.

Karina Muniz is a Xicana writer and political director of MUA , a Latina immigrant rights organization with a double mission of personal self-transformation and building community power through social justice.

© 2014 Josh Warren White Bay Area Solidarity Action Team - Megan Swoboda

When and why did you start working with Black Lives Matter?

The Bay Area Solidarity Action Team (BASAT) formed last year, was mobilized to support the Black Friday 14  folks who shut down our subway system here in the Bay Area on the day after Thanksgiving. That was sort of the driving force.

We asked, “What do you want white people to be doing right here, right now, in the Bay Area?” The answer was: to really turn up.

With our Ruckus Society connections to direct action training and support communities, the request was really specific for us:

  • Use those skills and experience, use that white privilege for the movement for Black liberation and Black Lives Matter. 
  • Really help escalate the movement at that moment, and show that white folks can’t just sit idle.

BASAT turned into a vehicle for affinity groups to use white solidarity to take direct action that pinpoints white supremacy and supports the movement for Black liberation.  Sometimes we take the lead on coordinating actions from A to Z; sometimes we’re working closely with Black Lives Matter groups or multiracial tactical teams in executing direct actions. And other times we’re being asked to just plug in folks to participate in the actions on the ground.

How do you challenge anti-Black racism?
We wanted to call out how the anti-Black racism in our country is particularly [expressed through] police violence. Supposedly, it’s in the name of safety of white folks that the police carry out their mission of brutality and murder.

[T]his idea of “safety for white folks” is embedded in police in a systemic way. They argue for raising police budgets, and to increase police beats, and all of that in the name of safety. The safety that they’re talking about is the safety of white people, so we need to combat these ideas of what safety really is.

One of the things we’ve been trying to combat through our actions is the issue of people turning Black Lives Matter into “all lives matter,” the invisibilizing, decentralizing, and denying of Black experience specifically and trying to insert white lives and all lives. We highlight how problematic that is and how much it hurts the movement and ourselves as well.

What’s your vision for the future?
We seek dismantling white supremacy, capitalism, and working towards total prison abolition. Like our friends at the Catalyst Project and Ruckus Society, and lots of others of course, we talk about collective liberation, and I think that’s really the heart of it. [We know] the history of how the Black community’s fights and struggles for justice have really uplifted everyone across history and will continue to. This is an extremely important part of the road to collective liberation. We need to lift up Black Lives and do everything we can to make everyone free.

Megan Swoboda organizes with BASAT, works at the Center for Story-based Strategy, plays trumpet with the Brass Liberation Orchestra, and is a member of The Ruckus Society where she served on staff for eight years.

© 2014 SURJ Showing Up For Racial Justice - Felicia Gustin

When and why did SURJ start working with Black Lives Matter?
SURJ Bay Area is the local chapter of Showing Up For Racial Justice, a national network of approximately 100 chapters and affiliate organizations around the country all working to organize white people to work for racial justice.

SURJ creates a space for people who are brand new to racial justice work and, in some cases, new to movement work, who are outraged about what they’re seeing happening in this historic moment in this country and are becoming aware and awakening in terms of their own consciousness to the attacks on Black lives, and racism and white supremacy in general.

In terms of our local chapter, we’re creating the infrastructure to channel a lot of the energy as well as work to develop white people’s political education.

There have been local actions where SURJ members turn out for vigils, such as for Sandra Bland or after the killings in Charleston. Most recently, we’ve been working on a more focused canvassing campaign working in conjunction with the Anti Police-Terror Project (APTP), going door to door talking to people about the case of Yuvette Henderson, who was killed by the Emeryville Police earlier this year.

We talk to people about the militarization of police and call on them to pressure the city council and the mayor to demilitarize the police and stop having military hardware within the police department. We’re also distributing Black Lives Matter window signs and lawn signs and asking folks to put those out and take a stand.

Our goal as a national organization is to engage seven million white people in the next seven years to work for racial justice. Little by little we’re going to do this.

At the national level, SURJ has an accountability council and relationships are formalized with Black-led organizations to provide accountability and direction in terms of what we’re doing.

SURJ as an organization is also committed to everything we raise financially, half of the money goes to Black-led organizations. .

In the long run, how can we dismantle racism?

It’s a deep question, you know? Personally, I’ve had the benefit of having some of my political development take place outside of this country and within a socialist reality, having lived and worked in Cuba for many years. So that informs me and who I am and how I view the world, which is unique to my experience, and I think each of us have unique experiences.

While we’re specifically talking today about racial justice, I don’t believe we can truly have racial justice, economic justice, or justice for any community—women, LGBT folks, whatever—without really transforming our society as a whole. What will that look like? I can’t answer that. I’m not a theorist. I’m not a philosopher. Like I said, I’ve gotten a glimpse of what the future can look like and it was pretty damn exciting.

Felicia Gustin is a long-time activist in racial justice, international solidarity, and labor movements. She’s on the Coordinating Committee of SURJ Bay Area (, as well as BASAT and is co-director of SpeakOut.

© Cy WagonerBlack Alliance for Just Immigration - Devonté Jackson

When and why did you start working with Black Lives Matter?
I’m the Bay Area organizer for the Black Alliance for Just Immigration (BAJI). My boss is Opal Tometi, one of the co-founders of Black Lives Matter. Immigrant rights have always been a part of our work, and though most African Americans have citizenship, we are treated as second-class citizens in this country.  We do a lot of work to empower Black immigrants and African Americans to unite to work towards Black liberation.

There’s a lot of Black folks in this political moment, looking to do intentional building amongst Black people. I know, in the Bay Area Black Lives Matter chapter, it’s an all-Black space, and folks really value that because oftentimes we’re marginalized in spaces. So having a Black space has been important, and  I think there’s been a lot of hesitancy around the alliance-building work.

What makes a good ally?
I guess there’s been several actions and things that we can refer to. For example, on September 11, we had an action against Urban Shield, which is a SWAT team training, a special weapons exposition. It was a multi-racial-action in which Black Lives Matter played a leadership role. 

One of the best practices in allyship is being patient. It takes a while to develop strategy and when Black folks are at the lead in developing so much strategy in the area, it’s just easy for us to get overwhelmed. So I think it’s being patient in response time, while also preparing for rapid response because often times we don’t have a very long lead-time, and we have to act quickly. So I think folks who are patient and who are rigorous in thinking about how to prepare are good allies.

I think other good practitioners are folks who are authentic in the work—make it enjoyable. I have a lot of experience working with white folks. Before my work with BAJI, I worked in a labor union which had predominantly white staff, and I think what characterized a lot of relationships in the organizing world with white folks would be like a transactional relationship, something really based on extraction, how we can produce things together instead of a genuine transformational relationship, really getting into solidarity.

When the work doesn’t feel like work, when folks are really moving with our personalities, and our vibes more than concrete needs and next steps for each other, I think the work is more productive and meaningful when we have those genuine, authentic relationships. I really value that those authentic, genuine relationships are being built right here in the Bay Area.

How do you challenge anti-Blackness?
Of course, anti-Blackness is inherent in U.S. society, and Black folks definitely internalize oppression and that manifests in many ways in our community. I think [you can see it in] some of the larger conversation around tactics in the Black community. There has been a lot of discussion and debate about whether or not Black Lives Matter strategists, organizers have been doing the right tactics. There’s been some policing around respectability politics that are going on within our own community. So there’s that level of what we’re dealing with—internalized oppression. Then just in the day-to-day dealing with anti-Blackness in the world, and how that manifests in organizing, in movement building work, is challenging as well.

In terms of anti-Blackness in “allied” communities—I want to put “allied” in quotation marks—the impact it has made is that some Black folks are very hesitant to want to do alliance-building.

So there’s only a few folks who actually do a lot of multicultural coalition-building work. Then there’s a lot of folks who are just sticking within the Black community, and there’s a large need to focus and put intentional effort into organizing and building within our own communities.

What’s your vision for the future?
In the long-term, we are dismantling the systems of white supremacy and capitalism and replacing those systems with things rooted in justice, love and self-determination. That’s really a social revolution that we’re talking about, replacing systems of oppression. That’s this deep work that we’re in and committed to.

Also, in thinking about transforming systems, we have to look at the prison system and think about abolition. Think about how to make our communities safe in ways that don’t police our communities and criminalize our communities. An overall reimagining of safety and community is what we’re really out to do. This is about transforming systems of oppression, which really is thinking about social revolution in the U.S.

Devonté Jackson is the Bay Area Organizer for BAJI. He grew up in Oakland, San Leandro and San Lorenzo, and is passionate in addressing social and economic inequality in the Bay Area. Devonté has organized with AFSCME Local 3299 and with students across California on labor issues within the University of California system.

Ferguson Action:
Campaign Zero:
Black Alliance for Just Immigration:
Catalyst Project for Collective Liberation:
White Noise Collective:
Until We Are All Free:

Ally Resources
Protocols and principles for people working to support the Black liberation movement:

Asians 4 Black Lives:

Related Stories: 
Pull Quote TEXT ONLY for featured stories in image slider: 

"We are in the belly of the beast...many of us as organizers...young people, the oppressed... we have been robbed of our ability to imagine and robbed of our ability to dream." - Alex Tom

Black Love—Resistance and Liberation

Photo by LandovBy Alicia Garza

The #BlackLivesMatter network, launched in 2013, began as a series of social media platforms designed to connect online people interested in fighting back against anti-Black racism and state-sanctioned violence so that they could take action together offline. It has since grown into an international network with more than 26 chapters that organize in their local communities and connect with each other.

When we started #BlackLivesMatter, we began with a set of assumptions: 

The first, was that Black people deserved to live with dignity. That we were (and still are) sick and tired of being gunned down in the streets by police and vigilantes at the rate of once every 28 hours, simply because we’re Black.

The next, was that all Black people deserve dignity, not just some. Amongst the co-founding team, all of us are women, two of us are queer, and one is the daughter of immigrants from Africa. Each of us, in the course of our organizing work, has been told one way or another that our existence was not valid—in both mainstream spaces and in movement circles. Here, we also assume that creating spaces for Black people to be all of who we are, unapologetically, is an important contribution to building a sustained mass movement.

The final assumption that’s relevant here is that for Black people to build the political, social and economic power we need to transform our conditions, we also need to change the narratives developed about us, which we also perpetuate through story and through practice.

Internalized Neoliberalism
We, as a people, also perpetuate neoliberal ideas and practices within our own communities. One example of this is the notion that you cannot resist state-sanctioned violence and anti-Black racism unless you also protest Black people killing other Black people. This type of respectability narrative is often used specifically to denigrate the efforts of a people attempting to free themselves from the chains of white supremacy, patriarchy and capitalism. In other words, the narrative about what some call “black-on-black crime” obscures the role that systemic racism, isolation and segregation play in intracommunal violence.

To build power, we need to center love and make it a priority to work on healing from the trauma of state-sanctioned violence and anti-Black racism.

It hasn’t been an easy road, but what we’ve seen more than two years later is that it is, indeed, a necessary one.

It hasn’t been easy because we have to navigate the reality that as much as we love our people, there are some Black people who don’t love Black people. We have been taught to love capitalism more than ourselves.

Yet, love for our people means being willing to struggle around the contradictions we embody and which keep us from getting free in mind, body and soul.

Black Love
Black love is a liberatory act and an act of resistance. Black people get messages every day that we are not enough, that we are somehow deficient or dysfunctional. We are told that we are criminal, that our rightful rage is somehow violent. And, on top of that, different types of Black people get different messages about our supposed dysfunction based on how we present in the world: whether or not we have “natural” hair; our body shape and size; how we present our gender. There’s very little that is not critiqued, vilified or criminalized about the Black body.

I remember one particularly painful moment that touched me deeply. In a training conducted by Black Organizing for Leadership and Dignity (BOLD), a cohort of Black leaders from across the country who do powerful work in our communities on behalf of our people, spent time together in the practice of unearthing the pain that’s internalized each and every day in our attempts to live Black with dignity. A Black cisgendered man who was a little over 6 feet tall talked about how his body hurt because he hunched down so that white people wouldn’t be afraid of him.

As a Black queer cisgendered woman, I found this profound because I know the pain he felt (having to disguise or transform yourself for your own safety), and also because I, too, at times have been afraid of Black men. What does it mean for movement building, for building power, when we are afraid of one another? How does this hiding, this shaming, this being afraid to be our full selves with one another, this transforming for the sake of safety, impact our liberatory practice together?

A Black transgender woman shared with me that she was having difficulty participating in a local chapter of #BlackLivesMatter because the only space that she’d ever been in that was all Black was in jail, and that space had been incredibly violent for her as a transwoman.

State-sanctioned violence and anti-Black racism have shaped our physical, emotional, economic, political, and cultural landscapes in profound ways that impact our ability to work together, dream together and transform together. So when we create spaces that allow us to be our full selves, unapologetically, we are engaging in acts of resistance and liberation. We are resisting the violent criminalization and animalization of our bodies by defiantly taking up more space than we are given. We are engaging in an act of liberation because we are choosing to live in the world that does not yet exist but one day will surely come.

Cleveland—The Gift of Understanding
In July, when more than 1,500 Black people from across the diaspora converged in Cleveland, Ohio the love there was palpable. Black people travelled from all over the country and throughout the world to be with other Black people in the movement for Black lives. What we shared in common was a love for Black people so deep that we would travel anywhere to be with one another, to share strategies, to cry and laugh together, to dance and sing together.

We fumbled together. We made a lot of mistakes. But in creating room to be unapologetically Black, in creating room to love ourselves and each other so fully, those fumbles and mistakes were transformed into powerful lessons that shaped us all. Those of us who are cisgender were given a gift from our loved ones who are transgender and gender nonconforming: (i) in pointing out the ways in which folks were either intentionally or unintentionally being excluded from their fullest participation; and (ii) in reminding us all that even though the world we want doesn’t exist yet, we can love our freedom and one another enough to start living the world we want, right here and now.

Getting closer to that freedom means we have to love each other enough to keep coming back, even when we hurt one another. Transgender folks and gender nonconforming folks were angry and hurt at being excluded in a space that articulated a liberatory politic but at times fell short of living that politic. Often, when we are hurt and when we are angry, we retreat into our corners and get ready to go home. This practice has split movements time and time again. But our love—for ourselves and for our people—demands that we keep coming back when things are hard, when we are angry and hurt. We keep coming back because therein lies the possibility for change, where we love each other enough to live a politic that says that no one gets thrown away or left behind.

Black love as resistance, as a pathway to our collective liberation, is not something that this generation of organizers and activists came up with on their own. The #BlackLivesMatter network sits within a context shaped by 20th century social movements and Black freedom organizations. It’s difficult and somewhat irresponsible to make comparisons to movements and organizations that existed or exist in vastly different social, political and economic conditions. There are, however, important lessons that present iterations of movements and organizations can learn from the successes and contradictions of the organizations and movements of the 20th century.

The first lesson being, nothing replaces the work of base-building and political education. Even with the prevalence of technology and the culture shift that has accompanied it, consistently and critically engaging the hearts and minds of everyday people and inviting them to become a part of a movement, while deepening consciousness about why our world functions the way it does and who is responsible for the misery that so many of us face, is essential and is an act of love. Though this is an era in which Twitter followers and Facebook friends can give individuals a platform, having a vision that is compelling enough to get people to take action offline is critical to our liberation.

The Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) took the work of base-building very seriously, immersing themselves in communities that were being denied access to their basic dignity and humanity, and their ability to determine their own futures. They began as a loose network that later solidified into a powerful national organization.

The #BlackLivesMatter network also takes the work of base-building very seriously. Begun as a loose network of Black people coming together online to take action together offline, it has since evolved into a network organized into 26 local chapters that are connected, yet relatively autonomous. The #BLM network is still in the process of solidifying its organizational structure, but the majority of its chapters are involved in base-building and political education around a range of issues at the local and regional levels.

The next step is learning to build across class while being rooted in and led by poor and working class communities. Movements and organizations in the Black freedom tradition have struggled with this, and the #BlackLivesMatter network and movement is no different. The organizations that had the most impact among 20th century movements were the ones that prioritized organizing amongst those who were the most impacted, yet knew how to leverage the support of the Black middle class.

Leadership and Liberalism
In his book, The Making of Black Revolutionaries, James Forman, recounts:

      The liberalism of which I have spoken tended to negate leadership as a valuable factor in an organization. This tendency was not something new. SNCC’s staff was young and idealistic. We rejected the “great leader” orientation of other civil rights organizations.  We wanted no part of the corruption which attended that kind of attitude, the denial of the importance of people—especially poor people. We were fed up with hearing the words leader and leadership, especially from the press and so-called civil rights leaders. We believed in community organizing, in the power of the people to develop their own strength and direction.

      But this attitude had become a kind of general neurosis in the organization, especially in the minds of the middle class element and especially among those who had been strongly influenced by ideas about participatory democracy coming out of Students for a Democratic Society. What had been born as an affirmation became a simplistic negation. Instead of finding ways that people with natural leadership qualities could make their contribution and help to develop leadership qualities in others, this attitude simply said, “Curb your leadership.”

      …[We] lost sight of the fact that it was a power achieved not through manipulation and tyranny, not out of self-interest, but as a result of performance, good ideas, hard work, tremendous courage, self-sacrifice, and, above all, a spirit of humanity (p. 419).

This is a powerful reflection and one that the #BlackLivesMatter network and movement must pay attention to. First, contrary to some understandings, #BLM, both as a network and as a movement, does not see itself as without leaders, but as a leaderful network and a leaderful movement. This is in contrast to the principles underlying the Occupy movement to which #BLM is often compared. We do not glorify participatory democracy in and of itself, yet we deeply believe in the power of Black people to develop (as Forman says) our own strength and direction.

Still, the #BlackLivesMatter network and the #BlackLivesMatter movement are susceptible to some of the pitfalls Forman describes. Social media has created, in some instances, bully pulpits where some leaders are revered and others denounced, thus following the trajectory of the same respectability politics and individualism that we seek to reject in the first place. What’s more, leadership (and who is a leader) is being defined in part by the corporate-controlled media, rather than by the work an individual does within their community, the way they interact with and support others, and the love that they bring to the work of building a movement. In other words, leaders personify Black love and leadership is the regular practice of cultivating and regenerating Black love.

A deep, abiding and unconditional love for Black people lay at the heart of the organizations and movements of the 20th century and continues to be at the heart of the organizations and movements of today.

20th century organizations and movements grappled with respectability politics in their desire to have access to power without transforming power itself. Organizations, like the SNCC and movements, like the Black Power Movement, rejected this notion over and over again. In fact, tensions arose between SNCC, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) for this very reason. Many leaders within SNCC recall a frustration with these organizations for not being grounded genuinely in the community, which in addition to professionals, included sharecroppers who were poor and facing eviction for attending meetings about voting rights or for exercising their right to vote.

While this was certainly about class division within Black communities that represented themselves in respectability politics—particularly with respect to disenfranchised poor and working class Black people, student sit-ins, and direct action tactics—it was also about promoting a narrow image of Black people: those who deserved respect and love and those who did not. Ultimately, there were times when sharecroppers got thrown under the bus in exchange for the shinier and more popular student sit-ins.

Today, that struggle continues. The #BlackLivesMatter network has placed a great emphasis on the principle of all Black lives—that none of us are free until all of us are free. And so, we must devote ourselves to complexifying Black life in this country. To do so means that we claim our transgender and gender nonconforming family as Black lives worthy of dignity, respect and Black love. To do so means that we do not participate in the valuing of one tactic over another, instead, we value a diversity of tactics and refuse to throw anyone under the bus for the sake of a seat at the table.

To refuse to be divided, to reject crumbs in favor of an entirely new pie where there is enough for everyone—that is the ultimate form of Black love, Black resistance, and the key to winning and sustaining Black liberation.

Alicia Garza is special projects director of the National Domestic Workers Alliance. In 2013, Alicia co-founded #BlackLivesMatter with Patrisse Cullors and Opal Tometi.


Related Stories: 
Pull Quote TEXT ONLY for featured stories in image slider: 

"Black love is a liberatory act and an act of resistance." - Alicia Garza

Heritage of Healing: Ecology of Hope

Permaculture Team Planting Fruit Trees ©2015 Planting JusticeBy Kelly Curry

It’s a bright sunny Sunday and I’m sitting in my homeboy’s restaurant drinking a cup of his rich, black coffee. With ceiling fans whirling overhead, the last customer, of the last rush, hustles out the door. He nods goodbye to him and then turns to me, “What are you doing today?”

I tell him I’m working on a series of interviews with guys who have recently been released from prison and are now working the land and growing food for the community.

“What a joke.” He says, grabbing the remote and pointing it towards the wide flat screen overhead, “Those guys don’t stand a chance,” he mashes the mute button, “why would anybody hire a ex-con when they can have a guy with no record, never did anything and works hard? You know what a thief does? They know what a junkie does? They use. End of story.”

His words echo in my ear a few days later as I sit with colleagues at a cafe on the outskirts of Berkeley. We’re there to raise friends and resources for an organization whose stickers read “Grow Food, Grow Jobs, Grow Community.” A brother known as Big Mo is on the mic, sharing from his heart, his very own transformation. “It started at San Quentin,” he says. “I was doin’ time for armed robbery. I saw a flyer on the wall saying that if we signed up and came to trainings and helped out in the garden, that when we came out we could get jobs startin’ at $17.50 an hour. We were all like, ‘that’s not real, that’s somebody’s idea of a joke, we didn’t believe it.’”

Urban landscapers: Siddiqqi Osibin, Darryl Aikens, and Morris “Big Mo” Bell. © 2015 Siddiqqi OsibinMo laughs and the crowd laughs with him, he bounce-sways from toe to toe as he speaks, moving with the rhythm of his words, which also bounce. Mo is a friendly man with laughter in his voice, so none of us notice the tears streaming down his face, until he wipes them from his eyes and the timbre in his voice shakes, “Having this training as a landscaper and coming out having a job means that I can be there for my family. It means that I can help out and have somewhere to live and do my best and be my best. The support of Planting Justice has changed my life. I used to be a guy who if I walked into the room you would wanna watch your bag. That’s not me anymore.” There is a thunder of applause from the small group assembled to play food justice trivia, eat burgers and fries and enjoy being a part of a movement that seems to be providing solutions to the most daunting issues of our time.

The Green Jobs Movement Gives Back
Later that week I am at San Quentin, in the garden at the edge of the Bay that Mo was talking about. I am with colleagues from Planting Justice, Katina and Haleh and about 20 guys who participate regularly in the garden class. We pinch the tops from the bright, gold and red calendula to reseed the beds, pull up mint and green-leafy sorrel, and bundle the abundant medicinal herbs, greens and vegetables that grow strong under the watchful, gentle, loving guidance of the guys from H-Unit. And although it’s against the rules for them to partake of the harvest, they are happy to be working out in the open, fresh air, salted by a gentle sea breeze. Together, we stack the fresh goodies on ice and they are ready to be transported back to the city, where they will be donated to local Bay Area folks in need.

Later, we’ll go to the chapel for a workshop on blazing new neural pathways that promote our ability to respond mindfully instead of reacting thoughtlessly. These are potentially life-changing techniques that everyone in the world needs, and which are indeed changing the lives of program participants.

“How does it make you feel, being this close to the ocean?” I ask B, a participant from H-Unit, as we look up from the basil and glance through the cyclone fencing that separates us from the shores of the Pacific, just beyond the monolithic structures where thousands and thousands of men are housed.

“Makes me feel free,” he says. “Just bein’ in this garden makes me feel free. I close my eyes and see myself getting up in the morning, going to work, doing my job, coming home, being with my children, my family, providing and really being there for them.”

I imagine him walking through the door after a long day of work and hugging his children...helping them with homework...checking on them while they sleep. With that, we turn our attention back to the garden, our fingers wade through the fragrant herbs, as the soothing smell of basil finds it way through the air.

The training that the brothers in H-Unit receive prepares them for one of the biggest booms in demand for skilled and unskilled labor in California since Congress struck a deal with Pacific Rail to lay railroad tracks across the United States in the late 1800s.

Recreation yard at San Quentin Prison 2013 Waldemar ZboralskEveryone in San Quentin’s H-Unit has a release date, but given the mysterious ways of the prison system, that release can be elusive. Volunteering with the Planting Justice program, however, can not only improve a prisoner’s chances of being released because it secures them a viable network and a job when they come out, it can actually help them participate in the transformation of their own communities by helping to grow food, grow jobs and grow community. That’s because the Food Justice movement provides resources for the very communities where Mo and the others come from—West Oakland, Chicago’s West Side, Detroit, Watts in Los Angeles—areas whose economies have been devastated by U.S. corporate reliance on overseas outsourcing of jobs for cheap slave labor (among other things).

Devastation, Gentrification, Resilience
West Oakland, original home to many of the folks at San Quentin, is being hit by massive, relentless waves of gentrification. A drive through this historically Black neighborhood reveals the impact of over 75 years of corruption, crooked politicians and bureaucratic mismanagement by City Hall, which stamped out a thriving, bustling “Harlem of the West.” Starting with a designation as a “blighted area” in 1946, West Oakland has been the victim of lots of poor planning: the “urban renewal” projects of the 1950s, ‘60s, and ‘70s; the use of eminent domain for the construction of a major postal hub and freeway which cut off the neighborhood from the rest of the city; the destruction of homes to develop ACORN projects and set up BART—all of these forced Black businesses and families out of the area, thus destabilizing the local economy.

A ride through West Oakland makes you feel a little like you’re rolling through a Dali painting. A place that isn’t what it was and is not yet what it is going to be...all tinged with a mood of unpleasant uncertainty. So today, the residents float together, like the odds and ends of bits and pieces that have drifted together after a disastrous flood. They are hipster youth (mostly white) holding down abandoned property; homeless of every age and color; historic resident hold-outs who remind us of what was and is no longer; regular working folks wondering how long before their landlord raises the rent astronomically; and the opportunists—monied gentrifiers, some of whom are painfully aware of the horrific legacy that they are benefiting from, and many others, who could give a damn. These folks are waiting for the area to become what Harlem now is for white folks­—“safe and ready for our invasion”—as I heard one new Harlem homeowner recently testify on the A train from Brooklyn.

Raised Bed ©2015 Planting JusticeAnd though you can feel the pulse of ghosts of resilience beating hard in the air­—Little Bobby Hutton ...Huey Newton ...C.L. Dellums ...Elvis’s songwriter Ivory Jo Hunter—things just feel strange. There is a vibration roiling through the streets. You can certainly feel it if you’re standing on the green grass of  Defermery Park (known to the community as Little Bobby Hutton Park), across the street from the elementary school that houses a City Slicker Farm school garden, adjacent to the fence displaying artist Keba Konte’s Black Panther leaping through a giant burst of blue ribbons... each tied hopefully by children and elders of the community.

The vibration, which seems to rumble louder and louder everyday, incantations of those ghosts perhaps, is saying that enough is enough. Resilience starts from the inside out. That resilience is getting a boost from the well-organized Food Justice Organizations in the neighborhood. They offer hope in the form of reminding the community how to grow her own food and make her own medicine.

Green Jobs and Food Justice
The intersection between Green Jobs and Food Justice creates new opportunities to reconnect folks who have been shut out and relegated to the margins to move with confidence through the world. Through these pathways, folks find themselves relevant, engaged and alive. Bringing attention back to the land, back to growing their own food, reminds folks of all the ways that the current, commercial food system neutralizes our connection to the earth. Right now we have an opportunity to reconnect to an understanding of the perfection of interdependent, holistic principles through a recalibration of our being. Tapping back into the earth’s rhythm means that we may be transformed to our natural, life-affirming balance.

This transformation has the power to redirect the future of the United States and her people, who have been left on their own to figure out how to survive the mess created by the systems that have failed her humanity miserably. This transformation creates space for America to step into her greatness as a land of true opportunity. Right now, People’s Grocery, City Slicker Farms, and Planting Justice are at the helm of a movement of healing community through connection with the earth and sustenance through her gifts of nutrition and medicine.

Mo and B are essential to this story. Because when they come home, it means that the  connection that was broken when Black men left communities in waves, as a result of the transformation from Jim Crow to Prison Industrial Complex, may finally be re-established.

A Witness to History in the Making
It’s Thursday and we are at the campus of McClymonds High School in West Oakland. McClymonds, which has produced some of the greatest American figures in sports, politics, and music, also hosts a garden donated by Planting Justice. Darryl and Mo are here, working to help train the students in the “grow food” part of the organization’s mission. Right now Dion is asking me a question I don’t have the answer to. I defer to Darryl. He is about 6 feet 5 inches tall with stunning locks, black like coal, and a voice like the one Marlon Brando did in the Godfather.

Dion is about 14 and entering the 10th grade. When he looks up at Darryl his whole demeanor shifts, he becomes markedly polite and his body language is deferential. Darryl’s shoulders seem to straighten and his tone softens as he demonstrates how to plant the fledgling marigold in the stinky-rich, organic soil.

“See,” he says, leaning down and over the soil, “you gotta be gentle with them or they won’t make it. Put it in here and pull a mound of soil around it. When you’ve done that, get you some water, and sprinkle it on there with your fingers. It’s goin’ through changes now because you just moved it from one home to another, so be careful, be gentle.”

Dion, large brown eyes sparkling in the high summer sun, gets that Darryl’s silence is a cue for him to mirror the planting demonstration. He does so with care and grace. And as he looks up at Darryl, I realize that I have been witness to a moment that has been in the making since the first slave ships began moving human cargo off the coast of Africa, across oceans, centuries ago.

The men are coming home to their communities, in positions of growing power and equality and learning to command their new identity, as teachers and leaders and fathers and brothers. “Thank you,” Dion says looking up at Darryl, who replies, “You’re welcome.”

It is after this exchange that Darryl approaches me and asks whether he can get some training in how to work with the youth. “I don’t want to say the wrong thing or mess up,” he confides.

“You’re a natural teacher,” I tell him. We do the training two weeks later. He says it’s boosted his confidence. “Now I’m ready to work with them.”

This intersection of Green Jobs and the cultivation provided by Food Justice organizations, here in Oakland and over the rest of the country, harmonizes beautifully with the melodies played out of the African American hymnal on survival and growth. One more synthesis, pulled together from the discordant notes born from enduring the pain and the brutality of a system designed to take our lives and our energy and all of our hope...a system designed for genocide. Because we are survivors, we have taken the pain and the struggles and did what we do...make music. Because we are survivors, there will be more to this story and the more to this story looks and feels like healing.

Kelly Curry is an author, publisher and social justice activist. She works with the Planting Justice education team.

Pull Quote TEXT ONLY for featured stories in image slider: 

"Resilience starts from the inside out." - Kelly Curry

Street Knowledge: Power for Positive Change

By Nicole Lee

Throughout California and across the country, communities of color are caught in a cycle of violence and mass incarceration, a cycle whose wheels were in motion years before the young people being pushed into this system were even born. These wheels turn in a staggeringly unequal economy where quality jobs are scarce—especially for young people of color—and the average CEO of a large corporation earns more than 350 times the average worker;[1] they turn in the schools, where only 56 percent of California’s black male students get their diploma in four years;[2] they turn in the justice system, where the criminalization of youth of color and entire communities—especially African American and Latino men—has helped give the United States the highest incarceration rate in the world.

Today’s young people were born into the lasting impacts of the crack epidemic of the 1980s and ‘90s—a social and economic crisis that ripped through urban communities, leaving a trail of violence, incarceration, and substance abuse, hitting young people of color and their families the hardest. Today’s youth struggle with the emotional and psychological trauma that comes with this kind of social devastation and the deep inequality that makes such devastation possible. But incredibly, they are blamed for the problem!

2014 DetermiNation Media GroupTo solve the social and economic crises that we face, we need to stop looking at youth of color as a problem.  Instead, we need to look to young people of color for solutions, and we need to support the development of their leadership toward healthy, peaceful, thriving communities.

Young people have always played a key role in social change movements, particularly in U.S. racial justice movements. The Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), led by young African American college students, was one of the core organizations of the Civil Rights Movement. The typical member of the Black Panther Party was 18-20 years old. Students were the backbone of the U.S. anti-apartheid movement. Young people are ideal “change-makers” because they are less attached to old or conventional ways of doing things. They tend toward creativity, innovation and new ideas, are less invested in the current system, and are more willing to take social and political risks.

We are finding that youth of color who have been pushed to the extreme margins of conventional society, largely excluded and disconnected from mainstream social institutions, are strategically positioned to play a leadership role in transforming those very institutions and ushering in social change. Many say these are “high-risk youth;” we think of them as “high-opportunity youth.” They tend to be older teens or young adults who have been involved with the criminal justice system, the child welfare system, or both. Most have experienced the “street life.”

The Street Is an Institution
The streets are the landing place for those pushed out of conventional educational, political, economic, and civic institutions. For those “in the streets,” mere survival in the face of hardship becomes a primary goal. The premium placed on survival pushes young people in the streets toward a certain set of skills and sensibilities that can be very helpful in other contexts. These include: 1) outside-the-box thinking and resourcefulness; 2) a willingness to take risks (i.e., the ability to move forward in the face of uncertainty and with a kind of fearlessness about taking action); 3) networking and communication; 4) adaptability; and 5) situational awareness.

Indeed, in some ways the world becomes more like “the streets” every day. Our cities, our economy and our planet are all in crisis mode whether we recognize it or not. We stand collectively in great peril, but that peril also creates great opportunity for change and for new things to be born into the world. As centenarian Detroit activist Grace Lee Boggs[3] has said, we now have the chance to evolve to a “higher state of humanity,”and “The time has come for us to reimagine everything.” [4, 5]

The resourcefulness, adaptability and fearlessness that high-opportunity young people in the streets have developed can and should be a part of the reimagining. But to unlock this potential we must recognize the value of their experiences and change the context in which they operate.

“Risk-taking” is the kind of 21st century skill that we might think of within a framework that Markese Bryant has termed, “street intellectualism.”  The high stakes of street-hustling naturally bring with them a risk-taking culture. But risk-taking “in the streets,” within the contexts of poverty and mass-incarceration, and without healing and support, has destructive and potentially deadly consequences—a dynamic that plays out in cities like Oakland and Chicago. In order to leverage the ability and willingness of urban youth to take calculated risks in a way that benefits themselves and their communities, we must create the supports and safety nets necessary to ensure that the risks they take and the mistakes they make do not cost them their lives. We have to create new contexts in which they can take nurtured risks that lead to incredible innovation and transformation within their community. Because it’s one of the things that separates upper-middle-class white male entrepreneurs in Silicon Valley from the young Black and Latino males in Oakland streets.

We are certainly not arguing that it is a good thing that our young people are in the streets and pushed to the brink of survival. We are saying that, because this has already happened to them, they have begun to develop a set of skills that place them in a strategic position to meet the challenges of the new century. We also know, however, that the adversity these youth have faced in the streets has been deeply traumatic for them.  By affirming street intellectualism, we reflect the value of their experiences. More importantly, we affirm that our youth can ultimately transform their pain into freedom.

Why Healing Can’t Wait
The youth and young adults that I work with at Urban Peace Movement have lost multiple friends and family members to gun violence. Their parents and caretakers have struggled, unsupported, with substance abuse or mental health issues. Many youth have had parents or siblings who were incarcerated, and some have themselves been incarcerated. They have suffered as their loved ones were deported. And, many have endured homelessness and hunger. These experiences are all traumatic and stem directly from social and economic policies that perpetuate inequality. Because these are not isolated incidents, entire communities have been traumatized together. So, each young person ends up even more hurt than he or she would have been if their suffering had been theirs alone. Such social trauma stands in the way of our ability to create and sustain deep social change in communities of color. As social workers like to say, “Hurt people hurt people.” But the opposite must also be true: Healthy people build healthy communities.

Measure FF Visiblity Action (Peace in Action)Oppression and inequality inflict trauma at both individual and social levels. We cannot mend one set of wounds without mending the other, too. We must build the capacity to heal and transform the individuals in our communities—our fathers and mothers, our children, our siblings and cousins. We must also transform the unfair, inequitable systems that continue to inflict shared trauma and feed the cycle of violence and mass incarceration in our communities. We need “Healing-Centered Youth Organizing.”It’s easy for someone focused on organizing and systems change to argue that the world has huge and urgent challenges that won’t wait for us to heal ourselves. Some call it the “we’re too busy to heal” perspective. But if we don’t heal the damage that’s been done to us, we burn ourselves out and often replicate the very dynamics we are trying to stop and in the process, hurt ourselves and each other. After all, hurt people hurt people.

As organizers committed to transforming the systems and institutions that perpetuate inequality and oppression, we can and must begin to do our work with an internal sense of hope, freedom, peace of mind, and well-being, from a place of sufficiency and prosperity, even when our social conditions and those of our communities are not yet ‘there.’ In other words, we can use what we already have inside of us—our sense of resiliency, our love for one another, and our hearts—to transform ourselves, each other, and society. We can begin to help one another in our communities to heal from the wounds of the past so that we can fully access our inner powers to change our society.

“Reimagining Everything”: The Genesis of a New World
I recently had dinner with a friend who has a deep spiritual practice. In describing the relationship between the “inner” and the “outer,” she said that she believes that a new world is being born and that it is emerging from ‘inside of us,’ from what we feel most passionate about, and from whom we feel most called to be. I have had similar experiences in those small moments when I am still and in the present moment—a feeling that something is trying to be born into the world through me and that this “new world” is bubbling up through the tender and vulnerable parts of our humanity, through the brokenness. Somehow, all of this reminds me of what activist Grace Lee Boggs says about this being a time for “reimagining everything.”

Boggs, who lived in Detroit among the ruins of the giants of the industrial age—the crumbled factories and auto plants—often said that she believes that we are on the cusp of a transition equivalent to that which humans made when going from being hunter-gatherers to living in an industrial society. She suggests that this shift is happening both “inside people” and within the institutions and structures that make up the “outside” world, and talks about reimagining the ways in which we think and talk about everything—even revolution. Boggs points out that the word “revolution” contains within it the word “evolution.” She argues for a new social change methodology that transforms us as human beings even as it transforms our political and economic structures. But unlike those who spend most of their time working on policy change and advocacy, Boggs spends much of her time supporting local grassroots community-based enterprises, such as urban farms and neighborhood bike shops, in her hometown of Detroit.[6]

Boggs is pointing us toward something bigger than just a shift in our economy, something that cannot be overlooked and must be included in the work of organizing and advocacy. She is pointing to a shift that is taking place at both levels—material/institutional and humanistic (or spiritual, as some might say). From a material or structural perspective, particularly in places like Detroit, a new window of opportunity has opened up in the wake of the partial economic collapse of some of the mega-institutions that were once the pillars of U.S. society.

From a humanistic or spiritual perspective, we know that when something collapses, it clears the way for new possibilities—for people to step in and do what they feel most passionate about or called to do. It is an opportunity for us to begin to serve our own communities in ways that are much more socially, economically and environmentally sustainable and which bring us joy and fulfillment. Most types of spiritual and contemplative practice lead us to a place of presence where we can more clearly see our own gifts, talents and passions. When we step up to be who we feel authentically called to be, we begin to bring the new world into being.

A Way Forward
Giving Space to Lead—
To truly transform our communities, here in California and around the country, we must be courageous enough to make a real investment (of our time, money, commitment, and love) in the leadership of our young people. We must create a leadership pipeline for “high opportunity” youth of color by acknowledging their experiences, their assets, and their capacity to lead. This will require supports that are specifically aligned with the needs and concerns of these youth. Additionally, we must provide training and support for the youth-service workers and youth organizers who support these young people. Ultimately, our job is to give young people the space to lead.

Healing and Transformation—This includes the work of helping our communities and our young people heal from the personal and social trauma they have experienced, as well as of empowering people from the “inside out” to determine and manifest a new course of history. From Transformative Organizing to the practice of sacred healing circles within social change organizations like the Milpa Movement (Salinas), the Determination and Communities United for Restorative Youth Justice (CURYJ) programs (Oakland), and Fathers and Families of San Joaquin (Stockton)—more and more groups around the country are working in various ways to integrate healing with traditional organizing and policy advocacy.

Political Engagement, Advocacy and Organizing—The work of social change requires us to pay attention to the “rules of the game”: What are these rules? Who sets them? Who implements them? Who benefits from them? And, how do we influence these rules so that they yield more just and equitable communities? Community and youth organizing are fundamentally about challenging the current political and economic structures that perpetuate inequality and maintain the status quo. Young people are organizing and speaking truth to power in places around the country on issues, such as immigration reform, education, juvenile and criminal justice, and racial and economic inequality. In Oakland, young people are helping to lead the charge on the implementation of the Local Control Funding Formula, on public safety and re-entry, and on helping to advocate for quality jobs for city residents.

Building Alternative Economic Models—In addition to policy advocacy and community organizing, the work of structural change also requires us to begin to build economic alternatives to the old models that put profit over people and locked so many of our community members out of opportunity and into poverty. All over the country, small community-based enterprises, such as urban farms, bakeries, neighborhood art galleries, and music studios are popping up. As a movement, we can begin to create the kind of community-sustaining, grassroots institutions that can serve as the foundation of the new world we want to bring forth.

Nicole Lee is the founding director of the Urban Peace Movement. This article is adapted from her paper Healing-Centered Youth Organizing: A Framework for Youth Leadership in the 21st Century available at

1.    AFL-CIO Website, CEO-to-Worker Pay Ratios Around The World, 2012.
2.    Scott Foundation for Public Education, The Urgency of Now, State Graduation Data.
3.    Grace Lee Boggs was a Chinese American activist and philosopher who worked under C.L.R. James in the 1940s and ‘50s and in the ‘60s, became a member of Detroit’s Black Power Movement. She died at the age of 100 on October 5, 2015.
5.    Grace Lee Boggs in Conversation with Angela Davis, UC Berkeley, March 2, 2012.
6.         “American Revolutionary: The evolution of Grace Lee Boggs,” a film produced and directed by Grace Lee, 2013.
Related Stories: 
Pull Quote TEXT ONLY for featured stories in image slider: 

"Oppression and inequality inflict trauma at both individual and social levels." -Nicole Lee


By Amanda "Panda" Deda

They fuel the fires of deforestation for their meat
The meat the millions of people each day
Line up to eat.
Oh, how this savagery remains discreet.
Ignorance ensues when you order some food
And mindlessly take a seat.
Little do you know of the lies instilled
Between those two buns of wheat.
But who dares to question such inhumane acts
From industry considered to be so elite?
Even though this constant exploitation
Occurs right below our unsuspecting feet.
And before you take your receipt,
Remember that there is a corporate monster
That dwells on the corner of every street,
And they will continue to excrete
False facts of how many trees
They continuously delete,
Innocent creatures they habitually mistreat,
If only Mother Nature could speak
This oppression would soon be in defeat
For she would protest against this injustice
Like the people of Occupy Wall Street
For silence and apathy
Will only cause this vicious cycle of destruction to repeat

For silence and apathy
Will only cause this vicious cycle of destruction to repeat

And repeat

And repeat

So think twice before you take a bite out of that meat
Because Ronald McDonald has a smile plastered with blood,
A smile comprised of ruthless deceit.
He has a heart,
As cold as concrete.

Cause honestly Ronald McDonald, the food that you serve is nothing but
A plate full of shit.
And believe me,
I ain’t lovin’ it.

Related Stories: 
Pull Quote TEXT ONLY for featured stories in image slider: 

"Remember that there is a corporate monster that dwells on the corner of every street." - Amanda "Panda" Deda

Silicon Valley: Riders, Renters and Workers Rise

Related Stories: 
Pull Quote TEXT ONLY for featured stories in image slider: 


Segregation Shaped the San Mateo Housing Crisis

By Marcy Rein

Skyrocketing rents, multimillion dollar homes and an epidemic of evictions and displacement have become fixtures of life on the Peninsula. Widening income inequality is feeding this housing crisis: well-paid workers set the tone for the market, driving prices in an already wealthy area to astounding new heights.

But this is barely half the story. Housing availability in San Mateo County has never been determined solely by the market; decades of public policy decisions have excluded poor people and people of color. By making it almost impossible to meet housing needs, these same decisions have propelled the current crises.Daly City became home to many low-income families and families of color excluded from San Mateo County’s wealthy suburbs by covenants, zoning, and redlining. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Early development in San Mateo County was shaped by segregation, as it was in many places across the U.S.1 Homeowners’ associations and individual property owners attached restrictive covenants to their land deeds—clauses that barred the sale of the property to people based on their race, ethnicity and religion. Blacks, Latinos, Asians and Jews found themselves locked out of neighborhoods around the region.The last restrictive covenant in San Mateo County wasn’t voided until 2007. Homes in the Cuesta LaHonda Guild, in the rural southwestern part of the county, had had exclusionary clauses in their deeds since 1941, even though by 2007, the neighborhood had long been desegregated.2

The U.S. government also actively promoted housing segregation through the Federal Housing Administration (FHA), which financed the bulk of private home construction during World War II and helped fuel the suburban housing boom. On the pretext that segregated neighborhoods posed lower insurance risks, the FHA required covenants on property deeds where it guaranteed loans.

“For the first 16 years of its life, FHA itself actually encouraged the use of racially restrictive covenants. It not only acquiesced in their use, but in fact, contributed to perfecting them,” the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights wrote in its 1959 annual report.3 The FHA would promise developers that it would make loans to homebuyers in a new subdivision; the developers would take the promise to the bank and get low-interest construction loans. It was understood that the FHA guarantee meant that the neighborhood would be segregated.

After World War II, the agency also used low-interest home loans for veterans to maintain segregation by restricting the areas where veterans of color could use the loans.

The US Supreme Court ruled in 1948 that racial covenants couldn’t be enforced (Shelley v. Kraemer). But “…the FHA and VA continued to promote racial restrictions in their loan insurance programs until the 1960s,” wrote Richard Rothstein in The Making of Ferguson.4

After the federal Fair Housing Act passed in 1968, communities turned to planning and zoning to perpetuate segregation. While it was no longer legal to deny housing on the basis of race, cities could simply zone for large, single-family homes with spacious lawns and exclude the smaller homes and apartment buildings that low- and moderate-income people could afford.

In some cases, the policies were made specifically with racist intent. In others, residents made planning decisions that kept property values high and defended more subtly prejudiced visions of “quality of life.” This outlook persists today, as shown by debates over alleged racism at a recent neighborhood association discussion of regional planning in the generally liberal City of San Mateo.5 Whatever the motivation, the result has been the same. Little housing has been produced, and most neighborhoods have stayed wealthy and white.

San Mateo Flouts Affordable Housing Law
Housing activists in California fought to amend the state law on city planning to support fair and affordable housing. The state’s housing element law, passed in 1980, requires cities and towns to plan for their fair share of regional housing needs at all income levels. Regional councils of governments—such as the Association of Bay Area Governments (ABAG)—determine this need with a tool called the Regional Housing Needs Assessment (RHNA).

The RHNA looks at needs for very low-income, low-income, moderate, and high-income housing based on population and employment growth, existing employment, and employment growth near transit.

San Mateo County as a whole has consistently failed to meet its obligations to provide affordable housing. From 1988 to 2014, the county issued permits for only 34 percent of the low- and very low-income housing required.6 Several cities issued no permits at all for housing in those brackets. Menlo Park didn’t even submit the required housing action plan to the state Department of Housing and Community Development and was sued in 2012 by Public Advocates and the Public Interest Law Project on behalf of Peninsula Interfaith Action (PIA), Youth United for Community Action and Urban Habitat.

The groups brought the suit after Facebook announced its decision to move its corporate headquarters to Menlo Park. The company asked for permission to add nearly 10,000 new workers, 28 percent of them in low-wage positions. This would squeeze the already tight supply of affordable housing, and threatened to displace low-income city residents.

The lawsuit sought to stop any new commercial development until Menlo Park met its housing needs—just as an action brought by Public Advocates on behalf of a coalition in Pleasanton had done a few years earlier. Pleasanton lost when a U.S. Superior Court judge ruled in 2010 that its zoning policies violated state law.

Menlo Park opted to settle the suit, making an agreement that could lead to construction of 1,000 units of affordable housing.7

Gentrification Threatens Peninsula Communities
Excluded from wealthy suburbs by covenants, redlining and zoning, low-income people and people of color were forced to stay out of the Peninsula entirely, or crowd into a few dilapidated neighborhoods. Many found their way north to Daly City and South San Francisco, or south to East Palo Alto, Menlo Park (Belle Haven) and North Fair Oaks.

Now, as workers stream into Silicon Valley from around the world, there are few outlets for housing demand. Formerly dis-invested areas, home to most of the Peninsula’s communities of color, suddenly appear desirable. Facebook’s move to Menlo Park, for instance, has spurred a cycle of rapid speculation and displacement in East Palo Alto,8 Belle Haven9 and North Fair Oaks. 

The consequences of the Peninsula’s housing policies are reverberating around the region. Families and workers who have been left out of the economic boom are crowding in with friends or relatives, living in garages or cars, or leaving Silicon Valley entirely—often spending hours on the road to commute each day from the cheaper outskirts of Alameda, Contra Costa and Solano counties.

While San Mateo cities have been happy to accept new job growth, many have effectively outsourced their housing needs to other parts of the Bay Area, fueling rising rents, gentrification, traffic congestion, and air pollution—and raising questions about the role San Mateo is willing to play in planning for the future of the Bay Area.


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


1.    Toward Opportunity: Fair Housing and Equity Assessment of the San Francisco Bay Area, Association of Bay Area Governments (ABAG), 2015.

2.    Julia Scott, “Racist Remnant Struck from Covenant,” San Jose Mercury News, Aug. 19, 2007, accessed 5 October, 2015,

3.    Richard Rothstein, “The Making of Ferguson: Public Policies at the Root of its Troubles,” Economic Policy Institute Report (2014): B16, accessed 5 October, 2015,

4.    Ibid, p. 17.

5.    David Lim, “Letter: Regarding the Beresford Hillsdale Neighborhood Association meeting,” The Daily Journal, June 22, 2015, accessed 5 October, 2015,

6.    Compiled from the ABAG reports on past Regional Housing Need Allocation production,

7.    Rene Ciria-Cruz, “Advocates Compel Facebook to Like Affordable Housing,” Race, Poverty & the Environment, Vol. 19 No. 2, 2012.

8.    East Palo Alto case study by the Urban Displacement Project, University of California Berkeley, accessed 5 October, 2015, - section-52h

9.    Farida Jhabvala Romero, “Renters Struggle to Keep Up in Menlo Park’s Belle Haven Neighborhood,” Peninsula Press, March 3, 2015, accessed 5 October, 2015,


Related Stories: 
Pull Quote TEXT ONLY for featured stories in image slider: 

Housing availability in San Mateo County has never been determined solely by the market; decades of public policy decisions have excluded poor people and people of color.

Housing Stability and Health In San Mateo County

By Dr. Scott Morrow

“When I first started my job managing the San Mateo County Health System’s Asthma Management Program, I knew I would be dealing with mold and other common triggers that cause children’s asthma attacks,” says San Mateo County Public Health Nurse Vera Williams, “but none of us realized how big a component housing would be in the health of our clients.” Williams says that about half of her asthma clients live in unsafe conditions that exacerbate their symptoms. And they are not alone. Faced with the Peninsula’s increasingly high rents, many people in San Mateo County have been forced to accept substandard housing, crowd into units with two or three families, move to other counties, or become homeless—all of which expose them to a host of negative health impacts.

The San Mateo County Health System helps county residents and workers live longer and better lives.  We do this by providing excellent healthcare services; but also work to reduce people’s need for these services by creating healthy places with safe housing, sidewalks, good transit, nutritious food, open space, and a vibrant economy. When we succeed in creating healthy places, however, housing costs tend to increase—sometimes pushing out the very people whose health we are trying to improve. Housing stability is therefore a fundamental element of the Health System’s commitment to healthy places. This article explores this issue and its effects on health, highlights the need for action, and suggests a framework for moving forward.Renters displaced from San Mateo County leave an environment rich in amenities that support health, such this Burlingame park that gives children space to play. Photo © Gino DeGrandis

Housing and Health Crisis on the Peninsula
San Mateo County undoubtedly faces a housing crisis. Rents have shot up 70 percent in the last five years.1 Each week brings news of another building evicting tenants. This is due in part to the booming economy, which has produced 57,000 new jobs in 10 years.2 While much of the growth is in tech and other high-wage sectors, many low-wage jobs have also been added.3, 4

Housing production has not kept up with the soaring job market. Cities across the county have some of the worst records in the Bay Area for building homes for very low-income families. Over the last eight years, cities have given permits for just over half the homes needed across affordability levels. While 93 percent of the need for above-moderate-income housing has been permitted, only one-fifth of the housing needed for very low-income households has been permitted.5  Today, there is only one affordable housing unit for every four low-wage jobs.6  

Faced with this dramatic shortage, workers are forced to stretch their housing budgets to the breaking point. Almost 50 percent of San Mateo County renters spend more than they can afford (30 percent or more of their income) on housing. This cuts across race and class, and impacts low-income people and people of color hardest: 80 percent of very-low income renters and almost 60 percent of Black and Latino renters spend more than they can afford on housing.7 When residents pay too much for housing, they have less money to spend on healthcare, healthy food, and health-related activities.8, 9, 10

People who experience housing instability are at risk for significant mental health impacts. When displacement seems imminent, residents can experience anxiety and depression.11 They may also double or triple up families in crowded conditions or accept unhealthy and/or unsafe housing conditions, causing greater susceptibility to diseases such as asthma and coronary artery disease.12, 13 

When residents are displaced they face poor health effects from social isolation, disconnection, and loss of political voice.14, 15, 16 Children who have been displaced have worse developmental outcomes, such as lower academic achievement and a greater lifetime risk of depression.17,18 Some San Mateo County families who lose their housing end up homeless, which dramatically impacts their health.19

Additionally, the housing crisis feeds traffic congestion, which affects nearly everyone who lives or works in the county. Every morning, over 100,000 workers wait in traffic to cross the county’s bridges and highways.20 More than 60 percent of workers commute in—the second highest rate of in-commuting in the Bay Area21—leading to more inactive commuting time, more air pollution and congestion, and increased chances of traffic collisions, injuries, and fatalities.22

Some commuters are former residents who can no longer afford to live here, and many more are workers who cannot consider moving closer to their jobs because housing costs are so high. Virtually no research follows households after they’ve been displaced, so we don’t yet know where residents go when they are forced to leave San Mateo County. We do know that they leave behind a county rich in health supportive amenities such as high-quality schools, local parks, and good jobs. Research shows that growing up in high-opportunity areas improves a child’s chances of success later in life.23 For adults, moving away from San Mateo County can mean leaving a jobs-rich environment or commuting many miles back every day for work.

Taking Action: Start with the Five Ps of Housing Stability
Health begins where people live, learn, work, and play. Get Healthy San Mateo County is a local collaborative of community-based organizations, county agencies, cities, schools, and hospitals working together to advance policy change to prevent diseases and ensure everyone has equitable opportunities to live a long and healthy life. The collaborative is facilitated by the San Mateo County Health System. 

The health consequences of housing instability and displacement are widespread, serious, and difficult to resolve. But displacement is not inevitable. Get Healthy San Mateo County proposes five principles that can help achieve housing stability:

  • Protection of existing residents to ensure that they can remain in their homes and do not experience the health impacts of housing instability.
  • Preservation of existing housing at all affordability levels whenever possible despite changing economic conditions, or replacing lost units at the same affordability levels for current residents.
  • Production of new housing units at diverse affordability levels in line with housing needs through regulations and incentives for developers, as well as through a commitment to using public resources for housing.
  • Participation of residents and community leaders in decision-making processes that impact their housing stability.
  • Placement of new housing near amenities, jobs, transit, and healthy food and away from sources of pollution.

These principles are a starting point for cities and communities in San Mateo County to limit housing instability and ensure health and housing for all.  See, sign up for our e-newsletter, and follow #HealthyHousingSMC to get involved.


Scott Morrow is a board certified physician in Public Health and General Preventive Medicine, and a Fellow of the American College of Preventive Medicine, with almost 30 years of experience in medicine and public health. He has served as Health Officer for San Mateo County for the past 23 years with a passion for the prevention of substance abuse and childhood obesity, changing the built environment to provide health equity, and promoting a local and sustainable food system.


1.    San Mateo County Department of Housing, San Mateo County Housing Indicators (June 2010-June 2015). Available at:,  and

2.    LED Extraction Tool-Quarterly Workforce Indicators. Job Change (Stable): Net Change. Available at:

3.    United States Census. Longitudinal Employer-Household Dynamics. On the Map. Available at:

4.    Benner, C. Center for Regional Change, UC Davis. Jobs-Housing Fit Analysis dataset. Available at:

5.    ABAG, Bay Area Progress in Meeting 2007-2014 Regional Housing Need Allocation (RHNA) as of 3/27/15.

6.    Benner, C. Center for Regional Change, UC Davis. Jobs-Housing Fit Analysis dataset. Available at:

7.    Housing and Urban Development. Comprehensive Housing Affordability Strategy Data, 2008-2012. Available at:

8.    Joint Center for Housing Studies of Harvard University. The State of the Nation’s Housing. 2013.

9     Kushel M, Gupta R, Gee L, Haas J. Housing instability and food insecurity as barriers to health care among low-income Americans. J Gen Intern Med. 2006; 21: 71–77.

10. Joint Center for Housing Studies of Harvard University. The State of the Nation’s Housing. 2013. Available at:

11. Liu Y, Njai R, Greenlund K, Chapman D, Croft J. Relationships between housing and food insecurity, frequent mental distress, and insufficient sleep among adults in 12 US states, 2009. Prev Chronic Dis. 2014;11 (37).

12. Sandel, M, Wright, R. Home is where the stress is: Expanding the dimensions of housing that influence asthma morbidity. Arch Dis Child. 2006; 91:942-948

13. Seeman T, Syme S. Social networks and coronary artery disease: A comparison of the structure and function of social relations as predictors of disease. Psychosom Med. 1987; 49: 341- 354.

14. Uchino B, Cacioppo J, Kiecolt-Glaser J. The relationship between social support and physiological processes: A review with an emphasis on underlying mechanisms and implications for health. Psychol Bull. 1996;119(3):488-531.

15. Stansfield SA. Social support and social cohesion. In: Marmot M,Wilkinson R, ed. Social Determinants of Health. Oxford: Oxford University Press;1999:155-178.

16. Fullilove, M. Root shock: The consequences of African American dispossession. J Urban Health. 2001; 78(1): 72-80.

17. Voight A, Shinn M, Nation, M. The longitudinal effects of residential mobility on the academic achievement of urban elementary and middle school students. Educ Res. 2012; 41(9): 385-392.

18. Gilman S, Kawachi I, Fitzmaurice G, Buka S. Socio-economic status, family disruption and residential stability in childhood: relation to onset, recurrence and remission of major depression. Psychol Med. 2003; 33(8): 1341-1355.

19. Schanzer B, Dominguez B, Shrout P, Caton C. Homelessness, health status and health care use. Am J Public Health. 2007; 97: 464-469.

20. United States Census. Transportation Planning Package. 2010 Data.

21. United States Census. Transportation Planning Package. 2010 Data.

22. Department of Public Health, City and County of San Francisco. Traffic density. 2014. Available at: http://www.

23. Harvard University, Equality of Opportunity Project.  Available at:


Related Stories: 
Pull Quote TEXT ONLY for featured stories in image slider: 

When residents are displaced they face poor health effects from social isolation, disconnection, and loss of political voice.

San Mateo County Renters Fight Rising Evictions

By Joseph Smooke and Dyan Ruiz

A group of community workers, along with mostly Latino and African American working-class parents, hold hands in a prayer vigil at a suburban Bay Area neighborhood. They huddle together in the shade on the front lawn of a townhouse complex as their children play with protest signs and run around with friends. So close to San Francisco with its rent control and modest eviction preventions, the Silicon Valley city of San Mateo provides no security for tenants.Renters and community supporters protest the eviction of residents of 1824 El Parque Court in San Mateo at a vigil organized by the San Francisco Organizing Project/Peninsula Interfaith Action. Courtesy of [].

The renters at 1824 El Parque Court are not the only ones threatened with eviction—San Mateo has no Rent Stabilization Board to compile reliable statistics. Tenants in several other buildings—910 Clinton St. and the Park Royal among them—also got eviction notices in previous months.

“We see a lot of buildings being flipped through speculation and hundreds of families being left without a home, having to leave the area completely, or move in with another family member,” says Aracely Mondragón, San Mateo County community organizer for the San Francisco Organizing Project/Peninsula Interfaith Action (SFOP/PIA),1 which organized a vigil to bring attention to the evictions at El Parque Court while escalating a campaign about the plight of Black and Latino working families in San Mateo and Santa Clara Counties.

With help from SFOP/ PIA, renters in several San Mateo County cities have begun to organize, which is starting to catch the attention of some local lawmakers. San Mateo City Council member David Lim was recently quoted saying that he supports just cause eviction protections, but it will be challenging to get legislation passed.2

San Mateo County touches San Francisco’s southern border and is home to some of the largest and most recognizable tech firms in the world. YouTube, Electronic Arts, Facebook, and Oracle anchor this northern part of Silicon Valley, which houses three million people,3 and stretches south down the length of the peninsula to San Jose and back up the east side of the Bay to Fremont.

Income Disparity Skews Housing Market
Companies on the San Francisco Peninsula employ over 300,000 tech workers who earn an average of nearly $200,000 per year.4,5 This means that a huge number of people, roughly equal to three quarters of the population of Oakland, are making a tremendous amount of money in the Bay Area. Many are young professionals wanting to live in San Francisco, but with the extraordinary demand for housing and the crowded ranks of high wage earners, the spillover from San Francisco to neighboring San Mateo County is intense.

Despite this increasing high-end demand for housing, income disparity dominates the social and economic landscape. At the top, high-profile tech firms are paying elevated wages to secure top talent. At the bottom, “the average income for Hispanics, who make up one in four residents in Silicon Valley, fell to an all-time low of $19,000 a year,” according to the annual Silicon Valley Index.6,7

According to the Wall Street Journal, “Blacks and Latinos make up a sizable share of low-wage workers cleaning and guarding Silicon Valley tech companies, where the technical workforces are overwhelmingly white and Asian.” Statistics in the article make the divide even clearer. Latinos make up 69 percent of the janitors in Santa Clara but only three percent of Google’s workforce.8

As the demand for housing from a highly compensated workforce continues to grow, landlords are eager to cash in. Why rent to a janitor when you can rent the same unit to an engineer whose paycheck is 10 times larger? Without renter protections, it’s easy for a landlord to evict a tenant or clear out an entire building or just keep raising the rents. If an existing tenant can pay, they can stay, but the increases inevitably become too much.

An internet search reveals several San Mateo County businesses dedicated to helping landlords evict tenants, such as Professional Eviction Services, whose website says: “When you need to clear your home, apartment, or commercial property of its tenants, search no further than our tenant eviction service company...”

Families Feel the Bite of Greed
“With the current market and the housing crisis, we’re seeing landlords and investors taking advantage of the weak legal protections, exploiting the holes that exist in the law in order to turn a quick profit,” says Daniel Saver, housing attorney at Community Legal Services of East Palo Alto. “In the wake behind them, there’s a trail of human cost. It’s destroying communities. It’s really tearing apart families and communities and ties that make San Mateo such a great place to live!”Evicted families face special challenges. Courtesy of []

Residents at the El Parque Court vigil talked about what this meant to them. One mom with two young children had lived there for seven years. Her daughter was still recovering from an ear implant and getting ready to start school at the end of summer. “We received the eviction notice on July 7, saying that we have to vacate our apartment in 60 days,” she said, speaking in Spanish. “I am so sad about this. We had been fighting so hard for my daughter to get her implant, and the eviction notice came at roughly the same time as her implant. These were two very difficult things to handle at the same time.”

Another mom told us that it’s hard to find a new place that takes kids as landlords often restrict households to no more than four people. And moving at the end of the summer means not just finding a new place, but also getting children enrolled in a new school.

“My kids were born here, so they’re scared to move to another place,” she told us. “They think that this is their home and they’re worried about changing to another place, changing schools, and missing their friends. That’s why, for me it’s very difficult… and necessary to support vigils like this one.”

This certainly won’t be the last vigil for SFOP/PIA.

“We should start with just a baseline of tenant rights, like rent stabilization, just-cause and relocation benefits,” says Mondragón, who remains steadfast despite a well-funded lobby anchored by the Apartment Association working to defend the rights of property owners at the expense of tenants. “There is huge opposition but I think that we can continue to lift these eviction cases up and make tenant protections more feasible. And if not, you know, we’ll go to the ballot.”


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



2.    “City to explore eviction limits: San Mateo City Council may consider just-cause ordinance, affordable housing crisis,” Samantha Weigel, Daily Journal, Sept. 5, 2105, accessed at

3. and


5. High-Technology Outlook_2013.pdf




Related Stories: 
Pull Quote TEXT ONLY for featured stories in image slider: 

"There is huge opposition, but we can continue to lift these eviction cases up and make tenant protections more feasible."—Aracely Mondragón, SFOP/PIA

Exodus From The Jungle

By Andrew Bigelow

In the heart of Silicon Valley, the tech capital of the world, resided one of the largest homeless encampments in the United States, The Jungle. The encampment was the epicenter of homelessness in the Valley and was home to nearly 400 residents. The Jungle lay hidden in a creek bed off of Story Road in East San Jose, a stark contrast to a family amusement park across the street. After decades of existence, in the midst of a housing crisis in Silicon Valley, the City of San Jose decided to close The Jungle. Silicon Valley De-Bug, a media and advocacy organization, created a video documentary, Exodus from The Jungle, that depicts the eviction, talks with residents of The Jungle about what the camp meant to them, and follows their efforts to find new places to stay.

"Exodus From The Jungle" is a Silicon Valley De-Bug Production

All kinds of people stayed at The Jungle. “There’s a common misconception to how people become homeless,” said Robert Aguirre, an advocate for the homeless and former resident of The Jungle. “The stereotypical view is that homeless are drug-crazed, violent and lazy people. That they choose to be homeless and expect society to provide for them and aren’t interested in helping themselves, choosing instead, to live in filth and garbage, hoarding useless junk and using stolen shopping carts to haul it all around town. I am living proof that this is not so. I used to own my own business here in Silicon Valley, making $200,000 a year. I provided consulting services to manufacturers of electronic devices, designed and manufactured here. Many of the companies decided it was cheaper to manufacture their products outside the country.

Robert Aguirre, advocate and former resident of The Jungle.

“What a lot of people don’t consider is that they’re one or two paychecks away from being homeless themselves, with the price of housing in the Valley being what it is. You look around here and you see a lot of people who lost their homes due to foreclosure. They’ve lost their jobs because of illnesses, or because, like in my case, everything’s moved away,” Aguirre said.

The Jungle was home to all of its residents. People had built their own structures that they called home. It was an underground city. Despite the portrait often painted of the encampment, most residents vouched for how close a community it was. Anna, a former resident, called The Jungle a “family” and said, when the city dismantled The Jungle they were “tearing apart [their] family.” The city was said to be under pressure from the Environmental Protection Agency regarding the pollutants in the creek, but residents attested that the mercury and other pollutants existed before they arrived. The day they were evicted, residents helped each other gather all belongings they had as they set off to find a new place to rest.

The night before the eviction, we heard there was going to be a press conference and protest. Organizers who had been aiding the community at The Jungle heard that the city wouldn’t start the sweep until a few days after the rain. It had been pouring leading up to that Thursday, December 3, 2014. It was dark and wet, but the sky was clear. Everything was very still; San Jose hadn’t woken up yet.  We showed up at The Jungle at 6 a.m. The cops were already there. Story Road was coned off from around the bridge to the end of The Jungle.

A temporary police fence stretched close to a quarter mile along the sidewalk that separated The Jungle from Story Road. As residents climbed out of The Jungle, they put their belongings on the sidewalk. By 7 a.m., the sun was rising over the hills in the east and the sidewalk was literally lined with people’s lives. Everything people owned was inside bags and shopping carts. Some stood not knowing where to go—there was nowhere for people to go.

Community organizers circled across the street planning immediate next steps. The police weren’t letting anyone cross the fence into The Jungle, but some residents and organizers were able to convince police to let us in. Photographer Charisse Domingo and I were allowed in and went to the edge of the top lot. While we interviewed former resident Anthony King, who’s now a community organizer, an elderly woman was gathering her belongings nearby. We cut the interview short and helped the woman move her belongings to the sidewalk across the mud. Her name was Eva. She had a fractured hip and was afraid of falling. Charisse took her shopping cart and Eva grabbed my arm as we slowly walked across the muddy lot.

Evicted residents of The Jungle placed everything they owned on the sidewalk.

What looked like a hundred city cleaners showed up and started destroying the camp, moving fast, tearing down tents and throwing away people’s belongings. Eva and I moved slow, being careful so she didn’t get hurt. When we got to the sidewalk, maybe 100 feet from her tent, she asked me to get her friend’s bicycle. They were separated during the frantic morning but she didn’t want her friend’s bike to be taken: an act of love. While standing on the sidewalk, Eva looked back and watched the workers destroy her home. She had lived there for almost a year. She turned to me and said, “There goes my home.” She said it with a strength that had endured this pain before. She walked to the bus stop to sit down because she couldn’t stand any longer.

“I’ve been homeless for seven years,” said Yolanda, a homeless advocate and former Jungle resident. “I have three kids who live with my parents in Mexico. I hope my kids never have to deal with this in their life. What they did here... they want to turn it into a dog park. What are they trying to say with that? They have better feelings for dogs than for human beings.”

After the eviction, some of the former Jungle residents tried to reestablish their community in two other locations, but the City swept them out each time, scattering them around the county.

“When The Jungle was closed, it drove a lot of homeless people all over the county to make themselves less visible, thereby lessening the chances of being harassed,” said Anthony King. “In doing this, many fell off the radar.”


Andrew Bigelow is a Hip Hop artist as well as a writer and organizer with Silicon Valley De-Bug. Follow him on social media @HeIsAndrewBigs.


The video documentary “Exodus From The Jungle” is available online at

Related Articles:

Related Stories: 
Pull Quote TEXT ONLY for featured stories in image slider: 
The Jungle was home to all of its residents....It was an underground city.

Exodus from the Jungle Video

In the heart of Silicon Valley, the tech capital of the world, resided one of the largest homeless encampments in the United States, The Jungle. The encampment was ground zero to the homeless problems of the Valley and was home to nearly 400 residents. After decades of it's existence, in the midst of a housing crisis in Silicon Valley, the City of San Jose decided to close The Jungle.

"Exodus From The Jungle" follows the story of The Jungle closing and a group of it's residents as they search for a new home.

"Exodus From The Jungle" is a Silicon Valley De-Bug Production

Charisse Domingo
Jean Melesaine
Fernando Perez
Daniel Zapien

Daniel Zapein
Andrew Bigleow
Fernando Perez

Mixed Audio and Original Score by Malcolm Lee

Related Stories: 
Pull Quote TEXT ONLY for featured stories in image slider: 


Housing and Commute Costs Squeeze Low-Wage Workers

By Alexandra Goldman

San Jose janitors mark the 25th anniversary of the June 1990 protest in Los Angeles that ignited their unionizing effort. Courtesy of SEIU-USWW.

In Silicon Valley, current and historical land-use decisions create daily challenges for low-income residents. Low-density development, inadequate transit, and the high cost of housing force residents into tough choices: commute long distances, despite the high cost of gas and car ownership, or live close to work and pay rent almost equal to a month’s salary.

Over the next few years, the high-tech sector, Silicon Valley’s economic engine, is expected to continue its rapid growth, bringing with it a high demand for service sector jobs. In fact, more than half the Bay Area’s job growth will come from occupations earning less than $50,000 annually.1 Silicon Valley’s workforce continues to stratify, with one large group of wealthy workers, one large group of low-wage workers, and a few workers in the middle. And in a blisteringly hot housing market, low-wage workers—a disproportionate number of whom are Latino—face some unique challenges and constraints around living and commuting to their jobs.2

Hoping to illuminate the housing and transportation concerns of a rapidly expanding low-wage workforce, we surveyed more than 230 janitors at Silicon Valley’s high-tech firms. The study found that currently, many of the janitors live relatively close to their workplaces and feel that their only option is to commute alone by car. However, this situation is not sustainable—either for the janitors, as they struggle to live on only $25,000 annually, or for the Bay Area, as it strives for a future that is more environmentally sound. As one janitor put it, “How am I going to pay my bills? I’m going to pay the rent and I’m not going to eat!”

Although the opinions expressed in this article are entirely the author’s, the research was sponsored by a grant from the HUD Sustainable Communities Initiative to the Metropolitan Transportation Commission, and was carried out by the Equity Collaborative, in collaboration with Service Employees International Union-United Service Workers West (SEIU-USWW), which represents 1,200 janitors in high-tech companies across Silicon Valley, including Facebook, Google, Yahoo, Apple, Microsoft, and Genentech.

We hope this study will help catalyze some beneficial shifts towards a more equitable housing and transportation policy.

Our study began with a common hypothesis: As the Bay Area grows increasingly expensive, low-wage workers will be forced to move to less expensive real estate and commute long distances to work. However, researchers found this not to be the case.  Almost all the janitors (95 percent) live in Silicon Valley (60 percent in San Jose), and work an average of 12 miles away. The median commute time each way is 30 minutes, not drastically different from the commute times for residents at other income levels.3

The vast majority of janitors (85 percent) drive their own car to work, 13 percent commute as passengers, and only 4 percent report not using a car (as driver or passenger) for any part of their regular commute.4 A very small number report using public transportation or walking, though they may sometimes use a car as well.

The expense of gas greatly limits how often those surveyed leave the house. One explained, “When I go out to get gas, I think about everything I need and I buy everything that same morning to not have to go out again.” Despite the cost, the janitors cite several reasons why they consider a car “a necessity” for working:

The transit system fails workers who commute outside of normal commute hours. “My schedule and the bus service schedule don’t match. I leave at 4:30 a.m.,” one janitor explained. Only 20 percent of the janitors both start and end work during regularly scheduled public transit hours.

There are no transit stops convenient to the workers’ homes and/or worksites.  Corporate campuses in Silicon Valley generally follow mid-century sprawling land-use patterns and are built on large, relatively inexpensive lots, removed from existing transit lines.

Many janitors have to move between buildings at their worksite during a shift, which can be difficult without a car as the distance between buildings can be over a mile. It can also feel unsafe for those working at night. The janitors also said that they are not allowed to use the bike shares many campuses offer the higher-wage employees.

Driving a car is often faster. Although many reported uncertain commute times, our survey found that commuting by public transportation can be twice as slow as commuting by car.

Without substantial efforts to increase the availability of public transportation, cars are a crucial link to economic opportunity for the janitorial workforce. In Silicon Valley, the landscape of public transportation investment mirrors the income disparity. Far more money—most of it from sales taxes that are regressive—has been spent expanding BART and Santa Clara Valley Transit Authority (VTA) light rail system, which serve higher-income residents, than the bus system, which is used by lower income residents.5

The "Victorian Gown Economy," by Working Partnerships USA, based on analysis of Census 2000 and the American Community Survey.Housing
Study data suggests that the janitors choose to live closer to work to have a shorter commute, rather than live farther, in the less expensive exurbs and have a longer commute. “I feel that in the area where we live, it’s easier to find employment, for the young people who arrive, as well as for older people… even though it’s a very expensive city,” one janitor said. Another explained that she chose where she lives because “the convenience of having work nearby… [is] sustainable… We cannot look for jobs far from home, because gas is so expensive.” The cost of housing and transportation, as the two largest budgetary expenses, are intimately linked.6,7

The median monthly rent of the janitors surveyed is $1,675 a month and going up. To afford this rent, a household would need to earn $67,000 annually, or more than two-and-half-times the annual janitorial salary of $25,000. As one janitor explained, “I live in one bedroom and it costs more or less $1,200… That’s what I earn.”

The janitors report making a range of sacrifices to make ends meet: from living in overcrowded conditions with strangers, to working two jobs. “I think the most difficult thing I have done is to stop eating,” said one. “When I arrived in this country, I never imagined I would have to do something so cruel or so difficult or so hard as waiting to go into a room where I work so they would not see me taking an apple out of the trash.”

This study provides a limited but important look at the housing and transportation opportunities and constraints for a sector of the low-wage workforce living and working in one of the wealthiest and most expensive areas of the country. With an extremely low salary of $25,000 annually, the janitors are very vulnerable to fluctuations in the housing  market.  Ultimately, this points to the urgent need for more affordable housing in Silicon Valley, particularly housing near transportation. It also suggests that other tenant protections, such as rent control or just-cause eviction protection, may be crucial for stabilizing this population.

Janitors and other service workers could be a source of new ridership for VTA, since many live relatively close to their worksites. However, past funding priorities and the current transit service offered by VTA do not make public transportation a viable option for these workers. The extension of BART to San Jose and expansion of the light rail system have attracted the vast majority of Santa Clara’s local transit revenues in the last decade, and CalTrain may increasingly be more of a priority going forward.  These transit systems are generally utilized by the higher-wage workforce. However, the economic and environmental sustainability of the Bay Area requires that lower-wage workers also be able to access jobs and opportunity by means of frequent, reliable and affordable public transportation, which calls for major increases and improvements in bus service.

The extremely high cost of housing, the low wages, and the daily attempts to make ends meet are hardly unanticipated results of this study. What is more surprising, however, is the high percentage of low-wage workers still living in Silicon Valley. It’s not too late to make substantive housing and transit changes to improve both the daily lives of the Bay Area’s low-income workers and environmental sustainability.


Alexandra Goldman works as a Community Planner for the Tenderloin Neighborhood Development Corporation in San Francisco. She strongly believes that land-use struggles in Silicon Valley and San Francisco are interconnected.


1.    Employment and Development Department, State of California, 2013.

2.    American Community Survey, 1-year, 2013 “Tech’s Diversity Problem: More Than Meets the Eye.” Working Partnerships USA, San Jose, California. 2014.

3.    Ibid.

4.    Janitors were allowed to select more than one form of transportation; hence the totals are greater than 100.

5.    “Moving Silicon Valley Forward. Vu-Bang Nguyen and Evelyn Stivers. Urban Habitat and Non-Profit Housing Association of Northern California. 2012.

6.    “Commuting to Opportunity: The Working Poor and Commuting in the United States.” Elizabeth Roberto. Metropolitan Policy Program at Brookings. 2008. 

7.    “Something’s Gotta Give: Working Families and the Cost of Housing.” Barbara J. Lipman. New Century Housing 5(2). 2005.


Related Stories: 
Pull Quote TEXT ONLY for featured stories in image slider: 

“I live in one bedroom and it costs more or less $1,200… That’s what I earn.”—a Silicon Valley janitor

Transit Allies Fight for Share of Sales Tax

By Marcy Rein

The smell of garlic growing hits your nose as you turn off Hwy 101 onto Route 152 through Gilroy. With its wide streets, low buildings, and dry 95-degree heat, Gilroy feels like a Central Valley town, though it sits at the southern tip of Santa Clara County, on the fringe of Silicon Valley. When you head north on 101, the “San Jose City Limits” sign pops up in the middle of open space and thirsty hills, and about 15 minutes later, traffic begins to clot around the 10th largest city in the country and its far-flung carpet of suburbs—wheelhouse of the high-tech industry and site of some of the worst commutes in the country.1

But low-income transit users face some common challenges, whether they live in Gilroy, the Latino communities of East San Jose, or Sunnyvale. The buses they depend on cost too much, take too long, don’t run often enough or late enough, and are always at the end of the line for transit funding.

The countywide transportation sales tax proposed for the November 2016 ballot could begin to close the funding gap, but competition for the $6 billion the tax could raise will be stiff: The Santa Clara Valley Transportation Authority (VTA)2 got proposals for $50 billion worth of projects by its August 31 deadline. Low-income transit users will need to press their case in a political process that has been dominated by the Silicon Valley Leadership Group, which represents the region’s major employers. But a diverse new coalition, the Transportation Justice Alliance (TJA), is taking the challenge head-on.

“This is something bigger than the initiative,” says Diana Salazar, community organizer for Sacred Heart Community Service. “We’re in a broad alliance, and we’re building a strong base of riders countywide…. As low-income bus riders, we historically haven’t benefitted from services and the right to move. This is about coming together, claiming our place and power, learning how we shape the city and county.”Community meeting on proposed transportation sales tax, at Mexican Heritage Plaza in San Jose, Sept. 9, 2015 © 2015 Tiburon

Transportation Funding Burden Falls Where it Hurts Most

Before 1980, California counties got about 80 percent of their transportation funding from the federal and state governments. Since 1980, the balance has flipped. Counties now bear 80 percent of the cost of their transportation systems, according to VTA’s Planning and Program Development Director John Ristow. Federal and state transportation spending, such as it is, favors highways; only 20 percent of federal dollars goes to transit, and in large metropolitan areas like San Jose, almost none of it can be used for bus operations.

To fill the funding gap, counties have turned to sales taxes. Santa Clara was the first to do so, with a 1984 ballot measure that raised funds for highways. This funding strategy has the county’s poorest residents paying the biggest share of their income to support the system—and getting the smallest returns.

“We’re paying but not getting service. It’s like taxation without representation in the American Revolution,” says Lucila Moran, an activist with Renovadores Unidos de Transportes Urbanos (RUTU).

For transit-dependent county residents like Moran, “transportation dictates the quality of jobs, education, housing, and services you have access to,” says Charisse Ma Lebron, director of health policy and community development for Working Partnerships USA (WPUSA), a group that combines research, policy advocacy, and organizing in campaigns for equitable growth, healthy communities, and quality jobs.

The ongoing housing crisis makes transit even more vital. “When you’re displaced, you get pushed farther from where you have your life. If you don’t have a car, public transportation is your only way to stay connected,” says Lisa Castellanos, Sacred Heart’s director of policy and organizing. 

Low-income families in the county spend around one-third of their household income on transportation3 and are far more likely to take the bus than light rail (84 percent of them depend on the bus, but only 16 percent rely on rail).4 The average annual income of VTA bus riders is less than $30,000; for BART riders, it’s $53,000, and for CalTrain riders, $117,000.5The bulk of the revenues from previous county transportation sales taxes have benefitted higher-income residents.

Bus service hours are down 22 percent since 2000; even after the restoration of some hours in 2010–2011, service is the lowest it’s been in 25 years. Light rail service, by contrast, has gone up 32 percent since 1999-2000.6

More than half the funds from the half-cent tax passed in 1996 went to transit—but to light rail, not buses. Eighty percent of the revenue from Measure A, passed in 2000, has gone towards bringing BART to San Jose,7 and money raised by the eighth-cent tax passed in 2008 is all earmarked for BART.

To say that transit funding slights the Valley’s poorer residents is also to say that it leaves out communities of color. Latino, Black and Native American families have the lowest incomes in the Valley and saw the sharpest decline in income from 2000 to 2010.8 Segregation within the tech industry concentrates Latinos and African Americans in poorly paid service jobs.9

Transportation sales tax measures go to the voters with a spending plan attached. The fight for a fair distribution of the funds happens early—so when the Silicon Valley Leadership Group tried to slide a new tax proposal onto the 2014 ballot with little discussion, community groups and some elected officials weren’t having it.

Getting Equity on the Agenda
David Packard (of Hewlett-Packard) founded the Silicon Valley Manufacturing Group in 1978; it changed its name to the Leadership Group in 2005, but remains the voice of the high-tech employers at the core of the Valley’s economy.

The Leadership Group has initiated all of Santa Clara County’s transportation sales tax proposals. It has funded polling to see which spending plans would get the greatest voter support, and bankrolled the campaigns themselves. In late 2013, Leadership Group President Carl Guardino proposed a new sales tax for the November 2014 ballot, to spend on BART and roads.

“When SVLG floated the idea of a potential new measure in 2014, we and many others jumped in quickly to make sure the next transportation funding measure would be made with significant community input and through a transparent public process,” says Chris Lepe, TransForm’s senior community planner.

WPUSA called together the group that would become the TJA—a broad coalition of more than a dozen community organizations, unions, environmental groups, and policy advocates.10   “We want to be sure the tax revenues are invested to benefit our communities, and raise our communities’ voices in the transportation sphere,” says Lebron.

TJA members met with VTA staff and Board and other local elected officials to make the case for postponing the tax vote and seeking meaningful community input. The VTA agreed to consider the tax for the 2016 ballot and to collaborate with the TJA on four community meetings around the county.

More than 400 people participated in the meetings held in Gilroy, Mountain View, Central San Jose, and East San Jose. The meetings were scheduled to make attendance easier—on Saturday afternoon in Gilroy and in the early evening everywhere else. The organizers provided food, childcare and translation—Spanish/English at all meetings, and Vietnamese/English as well in East San Jose.

In two-and-half packed hours, the meetings offered a crash course in the way decisions get made on transportation funding and a chance for community members to talk directly with VTA planning staff. Participants spent about an hour in breakout groups, mapping their regular transit use and reflecting on their riding experience. They ranked the transit improvements they would like to see and reported their priorities back to the VTA staff and the meeting as a whole.

Some needs percolated to the top of the list at every meeting: more frequent and affordable bus service; better connections among bus routes; reduced fares for seniors, people with disabilities and low-income people, and safer streets for pedestrians and bicyclists. The TJA is compiling the community priorities into a transit justice platform that can guide it through the next stages of the work.

“Santa Clara County has had very strong labor, social justice and environmental coalitions, but this is the first time these interests have mobilized around transportation funding in such an invested way,” says Lepe, who as a student at San Jose State was part of the campaign to keep San Jose’s famous flea market, “La Pulga,” from being displaced by a future BART stop at Berryessa.11

Keeping Fairness at the Forefront
“Transportation is a collective enterprise, and this is a long process. We need to work together to improve transportation for all,” Lebron reminded participants at the end of each community meeting.Bus riders from Gilroy and surrounding areas identify routes where they need more buses. © 2015 Harvey Barkin

At the next step in the process, the TJA will need to ensure that equity stays on the agenda when the VTA decides which of the dozens of project proposals submitted by cities, agencies, and community groups will go into the final spending plan that gets on the ballot.

The VTA has been collecting input to help its board of directors decide on the criteria it will use to evaluate proposals. The coalition sent a four-page letter detailing changes that would enhance equity and environmental health elements in the proposed criteria. For example, instead of “travel reliably,” the group suggested saying, “Increase the reliability of public transit, especially for people with disabilities, seniors, students, and low-income individuals.”

The Alliance also suggested that the VTA compare an entire package of equity-based projects and programs against other packages. In planning lingo, these packages are “scenarios.”

“Developing an investment scenario that starts with the needs of low-income communities produces the greatest benefits—including environmental and economic benefits—for the broader community,” says Bob Allen, director of policy and advocacy campaigns for Urban Habitat. “We saw this at work in the recent regional planning process that led up to the adoption of the Metropolitan Transportation Commission’s Plan Bay Area.”12

The VTA will review all the proposals using the criteria it picks, and come up with a draft expenditure plan by February 2016. Before the sales tax measure goes on the ballot, all 15 cities in Santa Clara County and the VTA Board will have to approve the spending plan. The Alliance and its member groups will continue participating on VTA’s Policy and Ad Hoc committees, engaging Board members and other elected officials.

Working with a Complex Process and Flawed Choices
Special-purpose sales taxes in California have to pass by a two-thirds majority,13 so the proposal that emerges from these long preparations must appeal to voters all over the county with widely varying income levels and transportation needs—from the wealthy, almost rural communities of Saratoga and Los Altos Hills, to the poorer communities east of Hwy 87, to the suburban environs of North County. 

“Typically, we see high turnout in North and West County, so opposition needs to be neutralized or pleased,” retired San Jose State University Political Science Professor Terry Christensen says. “When you need two-thirds approval, you can’t afford any organized opposition.”

Deep imbalances between jobs and housing define the county’s transportation landscape. Jobs abound in the northern part of the county, but housing—especially affordable housing—is hard to find. Workers must travel from San Jose or farther away to work at Apple in Cupertino, or Stanford University in Palo Alto, for example.

The BART extension has drawn support from those who see it as an effective way to get drivers out of cars and encourage job growth in San Jose. “The entire Bay Area has been behind extending BART… I drive 880 and the traffic is horrendous; as the economy gets more regional, our need for connectivity increases,” says Doug Bloch of Teamsters Joint Council 7.

But the BART project has taken far longer and cost far more than anticipated, leaving a host of unmet needs not only for TJA’s constituencies, but for North and West County cities as well. Elected officials from several cities signed onto a letter to VTA in August 2015, asking the agency to take a more truly regional approach to planning. Priorities for North County cities include electrification and grade separations for CalTrain (over- and underpasses so the train doesn’t back up car traffic) and light rail extensions.

“How have downtown San Jose interests dominated the process until now?” asks Mountain View City Council member Lenny Siegel. “We need more jobs in San Jose and more housing here, but the imbalance is so great that transit must be part of the picture. The best option is transit that follows the commute… cars use 280, 85, 237, 101 from the south. That’s the traffic transit needs to address,” Siegel says.

Some members of the TJA, notably WPUSA, advocate incorporating affordable housing near transit into the sales tax measure. Building affordable housing within a quarter-mile of transit could also cut congestion and pollution by reducing vehicle miles traveled; affordable housing yields even greater benefits than market-rate, according to a report by TransForm and the California Housing Partnership Corporation.14Signing in at East San Jose community meeting © 2015 Tiburon

Building Power for the Long Term
“The affordable housing need is so acute that you can’t have that level of public investment and not include it,” says Bob Brownstein, WPUSA’s director of policy and research.

California law only allows local governments to raise sales taxes 2 percent over the state’s base sales tax of 7.5 percent. Santa Clara County’s rate is already at 8.75 percent, so it can go up another half-cent. If the transportation tax passes, the county won’t be able to raise taxes until the current measures expire in 2036.

“You need to seize windows of opportunity when they open. This is our last chance to capture local resources for transit for a while, so we need to take it seriously,” Brownstein says.

The social movement moment also offers an opening, and a perspective on the work.

“A bigger movement is happening around the Bay. This is an opportunity to build power in a way unique to this moment because of the multiple ways low- and moderate-income folks are suffering and struggling over the costs of housing and transportation,” says Lisa Castellanos. “We need to democratize more spaces where decisions get made that hit very close to home for low-income people and people of color, immigrants, undocumented, people who ‘shouldn’t’ be participating, whose voice isn’t considered in the electorate.”


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


1.    “Transportation Justice in San Jose and the Bay Area,” presentation by Urban Habitat and Public Advocates for PACT, March 2012.

2.    The Santa Clara Valley Transportation Authority (VTA) runs the bus and light rail systems in Santa Clara County. It also functions as the county’s Congestion Management Agency, responsible for making transportation plans and securing and allocating funds. Its Board of Directors sets policy for the agency. The Board is made up of 18 county and city representatives; 12 are voting members and six are alternates. All are elected officials, appointed by the jurisdiction they represent. Three are Santa Clara County supervisors, six come from the city of San Jose, and nine represent other cities.

3.    Moving Silicon Valley Forward: Housing, Transit and Traffic at a Crossroad, Non-Profit Housing Association of Northern California and Urban Habitat, 2012, p. 6.

4.    Ibid., p. 10.

5.    Interview with Charisse Ma Lebron, director of health policy and community development for Working Partnerships USA, Aug. 18, 2015.

6.    Life in the Valley Economy 2012, Working Partnerships USA.

7.    Transportation funding memo to county Board of Supervisors.

8.    Latino and Black families saw their household income drop by 29 percent; white households experienced a 9 percent decline; Asian households saw a 1.4 percent increase. Life in the Valley Economy.

9.    Blacks and Latinos hold fewer than five percent of the high-paying engineering and technical jobs, but make up 75 percent of all grounds maintenance workers, 72 percent of janitors, and 41 percent of security guards. Tech’s Diversity Problem: More than meets the eye, Working Partnerships USA, 2014.

10. As of September 2015, the Transportation Justice Alliance included the Amalgamated Transit Union (ATU) Local 265, California Walks, Friends of CalTrain, Greenbelt Alliance, People Acting in Communty Together (PACT), Public Advocates, Sacred Heart Community Service, Sacred Heart United Seniors Action Committee, Renovadores Unidos de Transportes Urbanos (RUTU)/Riders United for Transportation Renewal, Silicon Valley Council of Nonprofits, Silicon Valley Independent Living Center, South Bay AFL-CIO Labor Council, Teamsters Joint Council 7, TransForm, Transit Riders United, Urban Habitat, Working Partnerships USA (WPUSA) and Yu-Ai Kai.

11. For more on “La Pulga,” see Ginny Browne, “San Jose Flea Market Faces BART Expansion, Displacement,” Race, Poverty and the Environment, Vol. 18, No. 1, 2011.

12. SB375, a part of California’s landmark climate change legislation, requires regions to plan to bring jobs, housing and transit closer together in order to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. The Metropolitan Transportation Commission (MTC) is the planning body for the nine-county Bay Area region: Napa, Sonoma, Solano, Marin, Alameda, Contra Costa, San Francisco, San Mateo, and Santa Clara counties.

13. A special-purpose tax raises funds for a specific use—in this case, transportation. Sales taxes to raise money for city and county General Funds only need the support of 50 percent of the voters, plus one.

14. Why Creating and Preserving Affordable Homes Near Transit is a Highly Effective Climate Protection Strategy, TransForm and the California Housing Partnership Corporation, 2014.


Related Stories: 
Pull Quote TEXT ONLY for featured stories in image slider: 

"We're paying but not getting service. It's like taxation without representation."—bus rider activist Lucila Moran

Bus Riders Step Up for Better Service

By Harvey I. Barkin, Photos by Tiburon

Cutting-edge technology and the best-paying jobs may be in San Jose. But San Jose also has a far worse commute time than the national average, and low-income families in Santa Clara County spend more on transportation than their Bay Area neighbors. When they use transit, they are far more likely to use the bus than light rail—and bus riders face daily inconveniences and indignities that can deeply affect their lives.One of the busiest transit stops in San Jose, downtown on Santa Clara Street. ©2015 Tiburon

Consider the experience of Artruro Velarde of San Jose, who takes the #71 bus to his job with a company that stages homes for sale. Sometimes the bus is late, or simply doesn’t show up. “To get to work late can mean losing a job. My boss is understanding, but he’s not going to pay me when I don’t work, and an hour’s pay can make the difference in not being able to pay the rent on time, not being able to pay the bills,” says Velarde. Or that of Lucy Moran, also of San Jose: “I’ve been on the bus all day long just trying to get things done, like pay the PG&E, pay the water, go to the doctor,” Moran says. “Just to get anything done, it takes forever,” she says.

Velarde and Moran each belong to one of the new groups in Silicon Valley that formed to give voice to bus riders and fight for better, more affordable service, and a fair share of transit funding for buses: Transit Riders United (TRU), organized by Working Partnerships USA (WPUSA) and RUTU (Renovadores Unidos de Transportes Urbanos), Riders United for Transportation Revitalization, a project of Sacred Heart Community Service. “I’m tired of complaining,” Velarde says. “I want to do something.”

Transit Riders United
“Transit Riders United is made up of people who ride the bus every single day. The vast majority of them are Latinos and Vietnamese, youth, seniors, students and working folks. There’s beauty in putting all these different cultures, backgrounds and ages into one room joined together in the fight for a better community,” says Maria Noel Fernandez, Director of Community and Civic Engagement for WPUSA.

Transit Riders United started based on a need. “We [WPUSA] were working on a whole host of issues around housing, transit, renters, wages and workers,” Fernandez says.  “The one issue that rose to the surface was the need for reliable transit. Eventually, we started talking about what is it that we really want to do, and how do we build power for transit riders?

“As part of the conversation, we looked into other communities that were able to build power for transit riders such as Los Angeles and Boston. It was interesting to note the similarity in LA and San Jose where transit riders didn’t have power. We realized that the voice of everyday people riding the bus should be part of the decision-making process. And bottom line, that’s what we’re all about,” she says.1

San Jose’s TRU began building its base by going to the most heavily traveled bus lines and talking to riders at the stops and on the buses, surveying riders about their experiences with the bus system and improvements they would like to see.

In the conversations that shaped the TRU, the overlapping nature of transportation and housing issues was never far in the background. Fernandez shares the story of a woman with two kids:  The family lives in Tracy because San Jose is too expensive. “She and her husband work here [in San Jose],” Fernandez says. “They get up very early, at 5 a.m., and commute by car. He drops her off at the bus stop. Then she has another two hours to get to her job. She said to me, ‘Not only does it cost me time, but I don’t see my kids. By the time I get home, they’ve done with homework and dinner. I only get to kiss them good night. That’s it for family time.’”

Sacred Heart distributes discount transit passes through Santa Clara County’s Transit Assistance Program. TAP itself represents an organizing victory. Community groups mobilized for two years to get the affordable passes—but TAP is temporary, set to close down at the end of 2016.

Sacred Heart’s name and fame for “giving lots of free food and TAP (the bus transfer pass) has helped us build a base,” says Community Organizer Diana Salazar. Besides helping people meet their immediate needs, though, Sacred Heart works with them to build power to change their conditions. RUTU, its transit riders group, started with people who get TAP passes.

Since it began in February 2015, RUTU has built three committees, one each in San Jose, Sunnyvale, and Gilroy. The San Jose people got together first, named the group, and also came up with the idea of a rider survey. By the end of the summer RUTU members around the county had collected about 400 surveys, talking to people on the bus, at bus stops, and in line to get TAP passes.

Sacred Heart’s work, like WPUSA’s, recognizes the intersections among the many issues that affect people’s lives. Its organizing model addresses anti-displacement (housing, renters’ rights), transportation justice and migrant rights. Transportation often is in the middle.

Salazar explains, “You’re an immigrant and you get evicted for no reason. You are now homeless and have no access to transportation.”  Members of Sacred Heart’s senior organizing committee rely on a lunch program funded through VTA, RUTU members want to see TAP continue, and seniors worry that the VTA-run paratransit program may be replaced by cab vouchers.Adrian and George go home from work as night security guards. ©2015 Tiburon

Bus Riders Speak Out
Many of the transit problems TRU and RUTU members seek to solve can be traced to the consistent underfunding of bus service in Santa Clara County. In 2008, for instance, BART took all of the funding from Measure B, which put an eighth-cent sales tax in place. By 2010, rail capitalization had eaten up 88 per cent of the funding from the Measure A sales tax passed in 2000. This left only 10 per cent for VTA operations and 2 per cent for bus capitalization. In the same year, VTA cut four times as much bus service as light rail service to cope with budget deficits.Rider on the #23 in Cupertino. ©2015 Tiburon

Now a new proposal for a county transportation sales tax is being developed, upping the ante on the work of TRU and RUTU. (See “Transit Allies Fight for Share of Sales Tax,” p. 109.) If funding can be found, it should go where it is most needed.

“There needs to be better investment in transit, such as fast, frequent, and reliable bus service,” says WPUSA Director of Health Policy and Community Development Charisse Ma Lebron, speaking on behalf of the Transportation Justice Alliance (TJA), a broad coalition of more than a dozen community, environmental and labor groups.

“Transit investments should benefit the needs of low-income, people of color, and working families. These are our same community members who may not be able to afford a car, are transit-dependent, and may work unpredictable hours—so they need better access to buses. Some residents have two or three jobs, yet the current bus service does not meet their transit needs,” Lebron says.Riders on the #22 from Sunnyvale. to San Jose. ©2015 Tiburon

Over the summer RUTU and TRU played major roles in mobilizing bus riders to the community meetings co-sponsored by the TJA and the Santa Clara Valley Transportation Authority (VTA) to gather input for the sales tax proposals. The four meetings identified community leaders and those with opinions; despite the differences in geography, riders in Gilroy, Mountain View, downtown San Jose, and Alum Rock (East San Jose) voiced some common concerns.

Gilroy, in the rural southern part of the county, “is simply transit-starved,” Lebron says, and bus riders feel the pinch.

Victor Frias has been a bus rider since he lost his eyesight three years ago. At the Gilroy meeting he complained that the #14 bus to Saint Louise Regional Hospital goes to its garage too soon and doesn’t stop at Walmart (where he shops for his basic necessities). He also pointed out that there is no shade under which bus riders could wait in comfort. “You get burned out in the summer,” he said.

Alejandro Ayala of San Martin echoed Frias’ concern about the #14; he has to be out of the hospital at 5:15 p.m. or he will miss the last bus. He has to go to Morgan Hill to pick up his medications, because the County closed medical clinics in Gilroy and even The Sisters of Charity no longer take Medi-Cal or Medicare. He’d walk to Cochrane Road to take the #16,“but it does not run on weekends,” he said. Even when it does run, the walk and the bus ride would take him four hours round trip, said Ayala, shifting his weight from one foot to another as if it hurt to stand.

At the Mountain View community meeting, Angela Mital said, “We use the bus for everything… We take four different buses just to go and walk another hour and a half to the bus station. Sometimes we have to wait for close to one hour on weekends, and the bus trip to San Jose takes two hours. We want more routes for the #26 and for the #304 to run after 7 p.m.,” she said. She gets help from Sunnyvale Community Services with food but because no bus goes there, she has to walk home laden with heavy but basic necessities.

When buses don’t run their routes or are late, students are “sometimes marked absent” in school, Marcel Mendez noted. Patricia Martinez identified the #53, which should come every half hour, but is often late. It is the route that high school and middle school students take.

The Mountain View bus riders also made mention of the need for shade at bus stops and more accommodations for the safety of pedestrians and bicycle riders.

Leticia Martinez told the East San Jose meeting about the difficulties of being a caregiver dependent on the bus. “Twice in the last two years I was unable to drive for health reasons. I live in the eastern foothills in San Jose, and am the caregiver for my 97-year-old mother,” she said. “The nearest bus stop is a mile and a half away. How can you carry groceries that far? How can you do your mother’s laundry? I felt helpless, depressed and very isolated.”

Patricia, a law student at San Jose State and a single mother, said that buses get her home too late after her night classes. “They need to run more frequently, especially the #25 and #65—and they need to run through campus, so we don’t have to walk so far to catch them at night when it isn’t safe,” she said.

Building Power and Voice
The town meetings in Gilroy, Mountain View and San Jose generated a long list of ideas for improving the transit system, Salazar said. Concerns for frequency, connectivity (being able to get around with fewer transfers) and affordability rose to the top.Students and other riders at bus stop across the street from San Jose State © 2015 Tiburon

RUTU and TRU both face the long-term tasks of building their members’ leadership capacity and knowledge of the politics behind transportation decisions—as they think about strategy for the sales tax campaign.

 “We’re still almost a year away from the ballot. So we haven’t figured out how many members of RUTU can’t vote,” Salazar says. “It’s still too early to figure out how we’re going to push [for a yes vote] because the ballot language has not been determined.”

Even help from non-voters can be effective. Salazar says, “Those who can’t vote can pass the word out in the streets to vote. They know people who can vote or they have children who can vote. We just need to get the word out.”

Up until now, Fernandez says, “there really wasn’t a lot of time and energy put on organizing riders. We can have a handful of people talking about what isn’t working but unless we can organize, work together and speak in one voice, we’ll definitely be drowned out.” But the picture is changing.

“If we keep building the power of bus riders, we will make sure that the funds that could possibly be collected go to where they’re most needed. And frankly, if I didn’t feel this way, I wouldn’t be doing this job,” she says.


Harvey I. Barkin is a San Jose-based freelance and technical writer. His work has appeared in various outlets, including several Filipino community publications such as FilAm Star and Philippine News.

Tiburon is a Bay Area Psychonaut photographer whose driving visual force is sub-cultures and counter-cultures. Follow him on ig: tiburonfb



1.    The Los Angeles Bus Riders Union (BRU), founded in 1992, won a civil rights suit against the Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Authority for running a “separate and unequal” transit system: The MTA dramatically underfunded the bus system, used almost exclusively by people of color, compared to light rail, patronized by whites. After winning the suit, BRU kept organizing to turn the victory into concrete improvements, such as added service hours and driver jobs, and a nine-year halt to fare increases.


Related Stories: 
Pull Quote TEXT ONLY for featured stories in image slider: 

“If we keep building the power of bus riders, we will make sure that the funds that could possibly be collected go to where they’re most needed."—Maria Noel Fernandez, WPUSA

Bus Rider Profile: Arturo Velarde

By Harvey Barkin

When his car broke down three years ago, Arturo Velarde decided he had more important goals in life than driving again. He has since been using the bus, mostly for work, but also for other things, such as getting to medical appointments at Santa Clara Valley Medical and getting his tax return done in Cupertino.

Still strong at 64, Velarde works for a staging company—the kind that dresses up homes for sale. He has been managing the inventory for almost half a year, but he doesn’t feel permanent enough in the job to take liberties. “My boss is very understanding but he can’t keep saying to me, ‘It’s okay to be late’—and he’s not going to pay me when I don’t work,” he says.

Velarde is fortunate to have a bus stop only three blocks from his home. He takes the #71 to work. By car, it’s a short hop, but the bus takes 20 to 22 minutes and if he misses it, he has to walk the eight to 10 blocks, which makes him late.

On weekends, the wait and ride can take 40 to 45 minutes, “because (VTA) thinks no one works [on weekends] and there’s no demand,” he says. But Velarde tries to live with it. Instead of whining, he’s systematic about riding the bus; he carries a map of the routes and consults the timetable posted at the stop.

“When the bus is late three to four minutes, I’d check my schedule sheet. It stretches to 25 minutes, I call the VTA customer support hotline posted on the wall. ‘The bus is late,’ they say, and I say, ‘I know that.’”

“‘It’s going to be there,’ they say, with no explanation. In 25 minutes, a bus arrives. But it’s the one scheduled to arrive after the bus I called about. You don’t know if the previous bus is down or if they decided to skip a trip to save money! I think the key points here are frequency and respecting the schedule.”

Like most veteran bus riders, Velarde is a realist and has often been in situations where he has to help himself. But even with the best plan, the bus still defeats him.

“I always arrive at the bus stop 10 minutes before the bus is scheduled to arrive,” Velarde says. “If it arrives later than scheduled, I catch it. If it’s the previously scheduled bus arriving late, I still catch it. If the bus arrives 20 minutes late, then I take the #271 to Eastridge, but I’ve already missed the #26 that will take me to Monterey Road.”

This is not the only problem. “One time, I was between jobs, and I had to ride a bicycle,” Velarde recounts. “I found this to be more of a hindrance than the healthy benefit they say it is because there’s only space for two bicycles [on VTA buses]. And I guess it’s up to the driver to accept more bicycle riders.

“One day, a bus driver shooed me away saying, ‘Wait for the next bus; I already have one bike!’ It was 11:00 and I had no choice but to wait for the next one, who would probably tell me the same thing. On that day, I decided to walk instead of bringing my bicycle to work.”

Velarde has been sharing his experiences with Transit Riders United as part of an effort to make the system work better for bus riders.

“I believe in changes and hope these all will be good changes that come out of this process,” he said at the TJA/VTA community meeting in East San Jose on September 9, 2015.


Related Stories: 
Pull Quote TEXT ONLY for featured stories in image slider: 

“The key points are frequency and respecting the schedule.”—Arturo Velarde

Bus Rider Profile: Lucila Moran


By Marcy Rein

“Last night I got off work at 1:30 a.m. and missed the last light rail,” says Lucila (Lucy) Moran. “A girlfriend who works nearby got a taxi with me, but it cost us $15. The bus Lucila Moran, activist in RUTU (Renovadores Unidos de Transportes Urbanos/Riders United for Transportation Revitalization)needs to run later!”

That’s just one of many improvements this  would like to see to make the bus system work better for those who need it most.

Moran grew up in San Jose. “I can still remember the orchards, how beautiful they were. In the summers, my family all worked picking fruit—cherries, walnuts, pears, and prunes. My brother said to me, ‘If you don’t study and go to college, you’ll be doing this the rest of your life,’” she says. She paid attention, following her brother to San Jose City College, then to San Jose State, where she majored in dance.

She still wears her dark curly hair in a dancer’s bun, and when she’s telling me how one of her teachers insisted on precision in every move, she lifts her spine and raises her arms in an elegant line; I can see her on stage. But a car wreck changed her plans.

“I couldn’t move from the neck down,” she says. “I told God that if He healed me, I would give up theater, and only dance for Him.” She recovered, and went back to school. Then she got married and had three children (the oldest over 30 now), but ended up a single mom after her husband left the family.

“I was taking the bus all over, sometimes with all three kids,” Moran recalls. She encountered her share of frustrations with bad connections, infrequent service, and rude drivers. “And bus stops need benches and shelters for seniors and people traveling with young children,” she says, remembering a day when she and her grandniece got drenched by a sudden rainstorm while waiting for a bus. Even telling this story, she smiles a bit.

Over the course of several years, Moran finished her BA in theater arts and drama and got a second degree in creative arts and dance. She’s had a variety of jobs and taught dance in the community and at her church. Today, she works as a substitute teacher and as a banquet server through UNITE-HERE Local 19. Sometimes she has a car that works, but sometimes she still relies on the bus and light rail.

To get to her sister’s retirement home across town, Moran has to take three buses and light rail, shelling out $2 for each leg of the trip. “Six dollars is a lot of money when you’re struggling,” she says. The trip takes two hours if all the connections work, longer if they don’t.

A friend told Moran about the Transportation Assistance Program (TAP) at Sacred Heart. She had to make three early morning trips to get her discount pass but she appreciated it so much that she was glad to help when the organizer at Sacred Heart asked her to bring more people together to save the program.

“Before I got involved, I used to just get upset,” Moran says, leaning towards me, her hands dancing as she talks. She had no idea how decisions about transit got made, or how to work for better service.

“Lots of people don’t know they have a voice, like I didn’t know.” Now she helps with RUTU’s meetings and transit rider surveys and tries to motivate others to get involved.

“I tell them, ‘If you love the [TAP] program, help others. Speak up so the people who make decisions will know there’s a need out there, and keep the program going,’” Moran says. “It’s hard when people have to juggle kids and work, they’re stressed, but I tell them, ‘If you can’t come, tell others,’ so everyone has a way to contribute. And I ask, ‘If not us, then who?’ If you get involved, we can make it happen.”

Related Stories: 
Pull Quote TEXT ONLY for featured stories in image slider: 

“Before I got involved, I used to just get upset.” —Lucila Moran

Tech Shuttle Drivers Win Union Contracts

By Doug Bloch

After six months of organizing, the workers at Loop Transportation who drive the Facebook shuttles, voted to join Teamsters Local 853 in November 2014—cracking high-tech’s anti-union wall and inspiring a wave of union organizing that lifted up wages throughout their industry.Shuttle drivers celebrate after vote to unionize. Courtesy of Teamsters Local 853

 “Everywhere we turn, people seem to be talking about income inequality, especially here in  Silicon Valley,” says Teamsters Joint Council 7 President Rome Aloise. “But if you look at recent US history, you’ll see that the income gap has grown as the percentage of unionized workers started to shrink—so we see this organizing as a hopeful move towards closing the income gap in Silicon Valley.”

At their peak in the 1950s, the Teamsters represented almost 50,000 mostly Latino cannery workers in San Jose.  These good middle-class jobs with decent wages and benefits are all gone now, replaced with low-wage service sector employment.  The canneries were shut, the orchards paved over, and highly successful companies such as Apple, Google, Facebook, eBay and others grew up in their place.

While these new companies have made some fabulously rich in this new information economy, most people haven’t got much to show for it. Low wages, rising rents, and high housing prices are squeezing working families out of the Bay Area. Although the region’s top tech firms made a record $103 billion in profits in 2013, one in three Silicon Valley households do not make enough money to meet their most basic needs. 

The business model of the high tech industry itself exacerbates the problem. Median wages for tech workers employed by these companies exceed $60 per hour, according to data from the California Employment Development Department. But the high tech firms also contract out a vast array of service jobs, such as security guards, janitors, cafeteria workers, and shuttle bus drivers.  For these workers, who are primarily people of color, median wages range from $11–14 per hour.1

When the Loop Transportation drivers decided to organize with Teamsters Local 853, their number one issue was working split shifts. They only got paid while they were driving, not during the downtime between the morning and evening commutes. They were working twelve to fourteen hours for eight hours’ pay. Since most couldn’t afford to live in the Bay Area, they couldn’t get home between shifts. They were left with nowhere to go; sometimes they slept in their cars.

“Driving a shuttle bus means long days,” says Loop Transportation driver Sean Hinman. “Before we had the union, it meant hours of sitting in Bay Area traffic and hours of sitting around between shifts without pay.”

Loop not only required split shifts, but provided no vacation, paid holidays, or retirement benefits, and offered healthcare that workers simply couldn’t afford. So, despite the company’s anti-union campaign, the 87 drivers prevailed in their National Labor Relations Board election.2 This was outstanding, given high tech’s longstanding hostility to unions. And in February 2015, the workers negotiated a first contract that provides for a $9 per hour wage increase, on average (from $18 to $27.50 per hour), fully paid family healthcare, up to five weeks paid vacation, eleven paid holidays, bereavement leave, a pension, and more.  Facebook signed off on it.

Usually it takes a long, contentious campaign for unions to win a first contract.3 This was a dramatic exception. The high tech companies have deep enough pockets to foot the cost of a union contract with no difficulty—and could pay a political price in the Bay Area for being perceived as anti-union.

Union Drive Lifts Wages Industry-wide
Just after the Loop Transportation workers voted on their contract, more than 150 drivers for Compass Transportation—which runs the shuttles for Apple, Yahoo, eBay, and other companies—won their union election. They prevailed after four months of organizing amidst an anti-union campaign. They negotiated a similar contract that is still awaiting approval by Apple and Yahoo.  In the meantime, hundreds more workers for roughly a dozen shuttle companies are on the move.

Although it involved a relatively small number of workers, this organizing set off a chain reaction that nobody anticipated. After the victories at Loop and Compass, last March, Apple and Google announced across-the-board 25 percent wage increases for all shuttle bus drivers—union and non-union alike. The companies were responding to collective pressure from both the Facebook victory and Silicon Valley Rising, especially the successful effort by the Service Employees International Union/United Service Workers West to push Apple and Google to bring their security officers in-house.

These wage increases appear to have forced non-union shuttle bus companies to follow suit just to keep their drivers from going to one of the better-paying companies.  One employer estimated that wages have gone up 30 percent in the market since the organizing started.

The ripple effects of the tech drivers’ successes have spread beyond Silicon Valley.  The same companies that service high-tech firms also service airports, transit agencies, and other clients in the Bay Area.  For example, Teamsters Locals 665 and 853 represented Loop drivers at San Francisco and Oakland airports before the Facebook group organized.  All of a sudden, those clients find themselves in a position where they need to raise wages and benefits just to keep their drivers.

At the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency (SFMTA), Local 853 represents about 145 paratransit drivers.  Many of these drivers are African American and live in Bayview/Hunter’s Point.  They transport San Francisco’s disabled, elderly and infirm under a contract SFMTA has with TransDev—the parent company for Compass Transportation.  Local 853 started bargaining with TransDev in November 2014, and by April 2015 had only secured a proposal for 1 percent wage increases. 

Meetings with Mayor Ed Lee, several members of the Board of Supervisors, and the SFMTA staff produced some movement.  Angry members, led by some very strong shop stewards, were threatening a strike as a last resort.  Nobody wanted to leave the riders stranded, but with median rents in San Francisco hitting $4,225 per month, something had to be done.

With active members pushing the issues and strong help from political allies, in May things broke.  Little more than a month after Apple and Google announced pay raises to try to keep pace with Facebook, TransDev suddenly seemed to discover some new reserve of funds. The company offered up an $8 raise over the five-year contract, which amounted to a whopping 44 percent increase. They upped the paid days off from 12 to 25 and included five paid holidays, where drivers had none before. 

 “Despite these very positive gains, we understand that wage and benefit increases alone will not solve the problem—so many factors increase inequality in the Bay Area,” Rome Aloise says. “That’s why we’re working with Silicon Valley Rising to address issues like the high cost of housing and the need for better transit.”

Doug Bloch is the political director for Teamsters Joint Council 7, and participates in the Transportation Justice Alliance.


1.    Working Partnerships USA, Tech’s Diversity Problem: More than Meets the Eye, August 2014, accessed at

2.    The National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) is the federal agency that oversees the elections in which workers vote on whether or not to join a union, and the bargaining between workers and employers over contracts. Workers face serious obstacles to winning union elections. Employers routinely fire union supporters and threaten to cut wages and benefits or close the plant if the workers vote union; they spy on organizing efforts and interrogate workers in one-on-one meetings with supervisors. See Kate Bronfenbrenner, No Holds Barred: The Intensification of Employer Opposition to Union Organizing, Economic Policy Institute and American Rights At Work, 2009, p.2. accessed October 17, 2015,

3.    Fifty-two percent of workers who win union elections still have no contract a year after the election; 37 percent don’t have an agreement two years out. Ibid, p. 3.




Related Stories: 
Pull Quote TEXT ONLY for featured stories in image slider: 

"We see this organizing as a hopeful move towards closing the income gap in Silicon Valley.”—Teamsters Joint Council 7 President Rome Aloise

Social Justice Unions Claim Deep Roots in Silicon Valley

By David Bacon

This story was drawn from a longer article, "Roots of Social Justice Organizing in Silicon Valley."

Versatronex electronics assembly plant workers on strike, September 1992. ©1992 David BaconThe Santa Clara Valley labor movement took off in the 1880s as agribusiness boomed. Huge orchards of prunes, apricots, and other fruit flourished, and alongside them, the canning industry that allowed the shipment of fruit to the rest of the country and the world. The Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) organized the first unions for cannery workers, including one called “Toilers of the World,” which included both men and women, and people of color as well as white workers. The IWW became the first in a line of left-wing unions that would practice radical, inclusive, worker-to-worker organizing in the Valley, linking workers’ rights and immigrants’ rights, and workers’ and community struggles.

By 1930, the Santa Clara Valley was the fruit processing capital of the world, owing to the labor of thousands of immigrant workers. It was also the state’s largest employer of women. Thirty-eight canneries—some run by huge corporations like Libby’s, Hunt’s and Calpak—employed up to 30,000 people.

“The fruit industry constituted a classic segmented labor market, with women’s work being systematically paid less then men’s,” wrote historian Glenna Matthews.1 This pattern was duplicated years later in the other huge industry for which the Valley became famous—electronics.

In August 1931, every cannery from the border of San Mateo County to south San Jose went on strike, organized by a Communist union, the Cannery and Agricultural Workers Industrial Union.

“We could not rent a single hall in San Jose,” recalled Dorothy Healey, one of the strike organizers. “There was nothing which was legal, where people could gather together… So we would hold these street meetings—I mean park meetings, strike meetings—at St. James Park, and the police would break them up,” said Healey, who was 16 years old at the time of the strike.2

The main strategy used through the 1930s in the canneries was “workers organizing workers.” There were hardly any full-time organizers. Meetings were held in people’s homes, and membership cards passed along through family networks in the plants. Despite obstacles, by the end of the 1930s the San Jose canneries were all unionized, and remained so until they closed six decades later.

The anti-communist hysteria of the late 1940s and ‘50s bred a fratricidal struggle in the U.S. labor movement. This led to the expulsion of unions like the United Cannery and Agricultural and Packing and Allied Workers of America (UCAPAWA) and the union founded to organize workers in the electrical industry—the United Electrical, Radio and Machine Workers of America (UE). UCAPAWA was destroyed, and its union contracts in the canneries were taken over by the Teamsters Union, with the support of the companies who wanted to be rid of leftwing unions. And while the new high-tech industry was growing in the Santa Clara Valley, support for workers organizing unions in the expanding plants virtually disappeared.

Farmworker Organizing
With the anti-communist witch hunts still taking place, radical Chicano labor and community leaders began work in San Jose. Bert Corona, the father of the modern immigrant rights movement, moved there after being blacklisted by the Coast Guard on the Los Angeles docks. He and Lucio Bernabe, a cannery organizer, encouraged strikes among braceros, contract farm workers brought from Mexico to work in U.S. fields as semi-slave labor. The pair organized food caravans when braceros stopped work, and tried to prevent their deportation.

Ernesto Galarza, who also lived in San Jose in the postwar era, organized Mexican and Filipino farm workers into the National Farm Labor Union in the late 1940s, which struck growers in the Central Valley. That union’s successor, the Agricultural Workers Organizing Committee, began the great grape strike in 1965 under the leadership of Larry Itliong, and later merged with the National Farm Worker Association to form the United Farm Workers (UFW).

Bernabe later helped found the Cannery Workers Committee (CWC) in the 1970s and ‘80s. The CWC challenged discrimination under the Teamsters contracts. Mexican workers, mostly women, had only temporary jobs working on the line during the season, while white workers, mostly men, had the permanent jobs in the warehouses and maintenance departments.

High Tech Builds Its Anti-Union Model
From the beginning, high tech workers faced an industry-wide anti-union policy. “Remaining non-union is an essential for survival for most of our companies… The great hope for our nation is to avoid those deep, deep divisions between workers and management,” said Robert Noyce, co-founder of Intel Corp.3 The expanding electronics plants were laboratories for developing personnel management techniques for maintaining “a union-free environment.” Some of those techniques, like the team-concept method for controlling workers on the plant floor, were later used to weaken unions in other industries, from auto manufacturing to steelmaking.

A co-inventor of the transistor and founder of an early Silicon Valley laboratory, William Shockley, espoused theories of the genetic inferiority of African Americans. As Shockley, Noyce and others guided development in the Valley, they instituted policies that effectively segregated its workforce.

In electronics plants women were the overwhelming majority, while the engineering and management staff consisted overwhelmingly of men. Immigrants from Asian and Latin American countries were drawn to the Valley’s production lines. Engineering and management jobs went to white employees. African American workers were frozen out almost entirely. Unemployment in the African American communities of Oakland and East Palo Alto, within easy commuting distance of the plants, has remained at depression levels. African Americans are still not above 7.5 percent of the workforce in any category, and below 3 percent in management and engineering.

Starting in the early 1970s, workers began to form organizing committees affiliated with the UE in plants belonging to National Semiconductor, Siltec, Fairchild, Siliconix, Semimetals, and others. Most of these were semiconductor manufacturing plants or factories that supplied raw materials to those plants.

“It was very hard organizing a union in those plants, because the feeling of powerlessness among the workers was so difficult to overcome... It seems obvious that there has to be a long-term effort and commitment, with a movement among workers in the industry as a whole, and in the communities in which they live,” said Amy Newell, who helped start a rank-and-file organizing committee at Siliconix, and later headed the AFL-CIO’s Central Labor Council in Monterey County, just south of Silicon Valley.Workers from USM, Inc.—largely Korean immigrants—march with other immigrant workers to protest wage theft. © David Bacon

By the early 1980s, the UE Electronics Organizing Committee had grown to over 500 workers. Romie Manan, who organized Filipino immigrant workers on the production lines at National Semiconductor, remembers that the union published 5000 copies a month of a newsletter, The Union Voice, in three languages—English, Spanish and Tagalog. Workers handed it out in front of their own plants, or in front of other plants if they were afraid to make their union sympathies known to their coworkers. “A few of us were aboveground, to give workers the idea that the union was an open and legitimate organization, but most workers were not publicly identified with the union,” Manan recalled.

Committee members challenged the companies and won cost-of-living raises, held public hearings on racism and firings in the plants, and campaigned to expose the dangers of working with numerous toxic chemicals—all without a formal union contract.

Eventually the semiconductor manufacturers, especially National Semiconductor, fired many of the leading union activists, and the committee gradually dispersed as its members sought work wherever they could find it.

UE Spurs Organizing for Worker and Community Safety
Despite its lack of success in organizing permanent unions, the UE Electronics Organizing Committee was a nexus of activity from which other organizations developed. The Santa Clara Committee on Occupational Safety and Health (SCCOSH), originally founded by health and safety activists in the late 1970s, fought successfully for the elimination of such carcinogenic chemicals as trichloroethylene, and for the right of electronics workers to know the hazards of toxics in the workplace. SCCOSH sponsored the formation of the Injured Workers Group, which organized workers suffering from chemically induced industrial illness. The group’s lawyer, Amanda Hawes (also the lawyer for the Cannery Workers Committee), is still filing suits against the electronics giants.

“When we talk about organizing,” explained Flora Chu, the director of SCCOSH’s Asian Workers’ Program, “we have to talk in a new way. Many immigrants, for instance, aren’t used to organizing in groups at work. SCCOSH helps to introduce them to the concept of acting collectively. The organization of unions in the plants will benefit from this, if unions are sensitive to the needs and culture of immigrants.”

The Silicon Valley Toxics Coalition also grew out of the health and safety campaigns that ripped apart the image of the “clean industry,” exposing large-scale contamination of the water by electronics manufacturers. Coalition activists forced the Environmental Protection Agency to add a number of sites to the Superfund cleanup list.

In 1982 the UE committee tried to mobilize opposition to the industry’s policy of moving production out of Silicon Valley. In 1983, the plants employed 102,200 workers; they employed only 73,700 10 years later. While the number of engineers and managers increased slightly, job losses fell heavily on operators and technicians. “What this really meant,” said Romie Manan, “was that Filipino workers in particular lost their jobs by the thousands, more than any other national group.” Manan lost his job as National closed its last mass production wafer fabrication line in the Valley in 1994.

Employers Turn to Contractors, Unions to New Tactics
In 1993, Intel built a new $1 billion plant in Rio Rancho, New Mexico, instead of California, because New Mexico offered the company $114 million in incentives. Lower wages were another determining factor. In Silicon Valley, the more permanent jobs in the large manufacturing plants began disappearing. But contractors who provided services to large companies, from janitorial and foodservices to the assembly of circuit boards, employed more workers every year.

Workers losing jobs in the semiconductor plants made as much as $11-14/hour for operators, even in the early 1990s when the minimum wage hovered just above $4/hour. Companies provided medical insurance, sick leave, vacations and other benefits.

By contrast, because contractors compete to win orders by cutting their prices and workers’ wages to the lowest level possible, contract assemblers and non-union janitors got close to the minimum wage, had no medical insurance, and often no benefits at all.  The decline in living standards made the service and sweatshop economy in Silicon Valley the subsequent focus for workers’ organizing activity.

In Fall 1990, more than 130 janitors joined Service Employees International Union (SEIU) Local 1877 during an organizing drive at Shine Maintenance Co., a contractor hired by Apple Computer Corp. to clean its huge Silicon Valley headquarters. When Shine became aware that its workers had organized, it suddenly told them they had to present verification of their legal immigration status in order to keep their jobs. SSEIU (Service Employees International Union) Local 1877 organizer Lino Pedres on the picket line. © David Baconhine’s actions ignited a yearlong campaign, which culminated in a contract for Apple janitors in 1992.

Other employers in the Valley closely watched the campaign at Shine and Apple. Using the same strategy, SEIU went on to win a contract for janitors at Hewlett-Packard Corp., an even larger group than that at Apple. The momentum created in those campaigns convinced other non-union janitorial contractors to actively seek agreements with Local 1877, and over 1500 new members streamed into the union.

In September 1992, electronics assembly workers at Versatronex Corp. used a similar strategy to organize against the sweatshop conditions prevalent in contract assembly factories. The starting wage at the plant was $4.25 per hour, the minimum wage at the time. There was no medical insurance. Sergio Mendoza worked in the “coil room,” making electrical coils for IBM computers for seven years. “Sometimes the vapors were so strong that our noses would begin to bleed,” he said. The conditions in the “coil room” were very different from those at the facilities IBM had at the time in South San Jose, which it referred to as a “campus.”

Versatronex workers went on strike after the company fired one of their leaders, and later launched a hunger strike and Occupy-style encampment, or planton. “It is not uncommon for Mexican workers to fast and set up plantons—tent encampments where workers live for the strike’s duration,” said Maria Pantoja, a UE organizer from Mexico City. “Even striking over the firing of another worker is a reflection of our culture of mutual support, which workers bring with them to this country. Our culture is our source of strength.”

As workers at Versatronex were striking for their union, Korean immigrants at another contract assembly factory, USM Inc., launched a public campaign after their employer closed their factory owing them two weeks’ pay. They marched through downtown San Jose against Silicon Valley Bank, which took over the assets of the closed factory.

Tactics like those used at Apple, USM and Versatronex have been at the cutting edge of the labor movement’s search for new ways to organize. They rely on alliances between workers, unions and communities to offset the power exercised by employers.  Often they use organizing tactics based on direct action by workers and supporters, like civil disobedience, rather than a high-pressure election campaign that companies frequently win. As workers organized around conditions they faced on the job, they learned to deal with issues of immigration, discrimination in the schools, police misconduct, and other aspects of daily life in immigrant communities.

Electronics manufacturers have been forced over the years to permit outside contract services, like janitorial services and in-plant construction, to be performed by union contractors. Nevertheless, the industry has drawn a line between outside services and the assembly contractors who are part of the industry’s basic production process. In one section, unions can be grudgingly recognized; in the other, they will not be. Workers, communities and unions need a higher level of unity to win the right for workers to organize effectively in the plants themselves.


Text and photos © 2015 David Bacon. David Bacon is a writer and photojournalist based in Oakland and Berkeley, California. He is the author of several books about migration and globalization, most recently The Right to Stay Home (Beacon Press, 2013). He was a factory worker and union organizer for two decades, including several years with the United Farm Workers, the UE, and the ILGWU.


1.    Glenna Matthews, Silicon Valley, Women, and the California Dream, Stanford University Press, 2003, p. 42.

2.    Ibid, p. 266, note 15.

3.    Alan Hyde, Working in Silicon Valley: Economic and Legal Analysis of a High-velocity Labor Market, Routledge, 2015.


Related Stories: 
Pull Quote TEXT ONLY for featured stories in image slider: 

A long line of left-wing unions has practiced radical, inclusive, worker-to-worker organizing in the Valley, linking workers’ rights and immigrants’ rights, and workers’ and community struggles.

Roots of Social Justice Organizing in Silicon Valley

By David Bacon

Versatronex electronics assembly plant workers on strike, September 1992. ©1992 David Bacon










California’s next-to-last lynching (the last was an African-American man lynched in Callahan in 1947) took place in St. James Park, in downtown San Jose, in 1933. Radical labor lawyer Vincent Hallinan, representing two accused kidnappers, Thomas Thurmond and John Holmes, called Governor Sunny Jim Rolph, urging him to send in the National Guard as a lynch mob of thousands gathered in front of the county jail. Rolph did nothing, and the two men were hanged from a tree in the park.

The South Bay has its history of violence, structural racism and worker exploitation. But it also has a long history of resistance—of courageous organizers who built movements that have had an impact far beyond the Santa Clara Valley.

Thirty-nine years after Thurmond and Holmes were killed, Angela Davis, African American revolutionary feminist and then-leader of the Communist Party (CP), was also held in the same Santa Clara County Jail near St. James Park. There she went on trial, charged with kidnapping and murder, accused of providing the guns used by Jonathan Jackson in an attempt to free his brother, George, a leader of the Black political prisoners’ movement. The jury declared Davis not guilty. The jury foreperson, Mary Timothy, hugged her afterwards and later wrote a book about the trial.

The verdict was the product of an international campaign that put a spotlight on Santa Clara County. It succeeded because a strong local committee mobilized support, headed by another African-American Communist, Kendra Alexander. To back up Davis’ legal team, the committee, including veteran radical Virginia Hirsch, researched every person named as a potential juror. Although researchers were careful not to have any direct contact with jurors, their work ensured the jury included people open and fair about the prosecution’s accusations. This kind of community research, giving the defense lawyer daily reports as the jury was being seated, has since become a powerful tool in other trials of political activists. It was the first time such intensive background research on the jury pool was employed by the defense in a criminal trial.

Indigenous Resistance
The Santa Clara Valley's social movement history began with the indigenous resistance to colonization, followed by the annexation of California after the war of 1848.The original indigenous Ohlone people living at the south end of the San Francisco Bay were torn from their communities, and then enslaved in the missions built by the Spanish colonizers. But those communities fought the Spaniards and the land grant settlers. Roxanne Dunbar Ortiz writes that in the civil rights era of the 1960s, California indigenous people researched this resistance. “They found that no mission escaped uprisings from within or attacks from outside by communities of the imprisoned along with escapees,” Ortiz writes. “Indigenous guerrilla forces of up to two thousand formed. Without this resistance, there would be no descendants of the California Native peoples of the area colonized by the Spanish.” After Mexico freed itself from Spain in 1820 (throwing out the Franciscan friars who operated the missions), Valley residents rose in opposition to conquest by the United States in 1848. Tiburcio Vasquez, who led a rebellion against the U.S. in the years after the war, was born in Monterey and fought with Joaquin Murrieta from the Santa Clara to the San Joaquin Valleys. After Vasquez was captured, he was tried in the Santa Clara County Courthouse, and hanged in St. James Park.

The growth of the South Bay’s population really began with the development of huge orchards of plums, nuts and other fruit in the late 1800s, and then the canning industry that allowed the shipment of fruit to the rest of the country. By 1930 the Santa Clara Valley was the fruit processing capital of the world, owing to the labor of thousands of immigrant workers.  It was the state’s largest employer of women. Thirty-eight canneries included huge corporations like Libby’s, Hunt’s and Calpak, employing up to 30,000 people.

Researcher Glenna Matthews says, “The fruit industry constituted a classic segmented labor market, with women’s work being systematically paid less then men’s."  This pattern was duplicated years later in the other huge industry for which the valley became famous—electronics. The pollution of the South Bay’s water also has a long history prior to the emergence of the electronics industry in the 1970s. By 1930 ranchers and canneries were pumping so much water from wells that salt water from the bay had leaked into the aquifers. Even earlier, the disposal of organic waste from canneries had caused serious pollution of the bay itself.

Worker-to-worker Organizing Wins the Canneries
To oppose the canneries, the Valley’s labor movement was launched in the 1880s with material support from the San Francisco Federated Trades Council. The Wobblies—the radical anarchist Industrial Workers of the World—organized the first unions for cannery workers, including an early one called “Toilers of the World.” It included both men and women, and people of color as well as white workers.

Then, in August 1931 every cannery from the border of San Mateo County to south San Jose went on strike, organized by a Communist union, the Cannery and Agricultural Workers Industrial Union. Its main organizer was Elizabeth Nicholas, a Serbian immigrant and Communist, who won the support of the local labor council in 1929. Another strike organizer was Dorothy Healey, at the time sixteen years old. “We could not rent a single hall in San Jose,” she later recalled. “There was nothing which was legal, where people could gather together. The police brutality was of a far greater level than anything that the people have seen in later years. So we would hold these street meetings—I mean park meetings, strike meetings - at St. James Park, and the police would break them up.”

The main strategy used through the 1930s in the canneries was “workers organizing workers.” Nicholas later worked for the union, but besides her there were hardly any full-time organizers. Meetings were held in people’s homes, and membership cards passed along through family networks in the plants. Despite obstacles, by the end of the 1930s the San Jose canneries were all unionized, and remained so until they closed six decades later. Healey became a vice-president of the United Cannery, Agricultural and Packinghouse Workers of America (UCAPAWA), as well as a national leader of the CP. Nicholas remained in the valley, where she spent the rest of her life advocating for workers.

In the red scares of the late 1940s and 1950s, however, UCAPAWA was expelled from the CIO for its radical politics and destroyed. Its union contracts in the canneries were taken over by the Teamsters Union, with the support of the companies who wanted to be rid of leftwing unions. Also expelled from the CIO were the International Longshore and Warehouse Union, which organized food processing workers in dried fruit plants in the Santa Clara Valley, and the United Electrical Workers (an expulsion that would later have a profound impact on the future of unions in the Valley's electronics industry.)

After World War II, while the anti-communist witch-hunts were taking place, radical Chicano labor and community leaders began work in San Jose. Bert Corona, the father of the modern immigrant rights movement, moved there after being blacklisted by the Coast Guard on the Los Angeles docks. He and Lucio Bernabe, a cannery organizer, encouraged strikes among bracero contract farm workers brought from Mexico to work in U.S. fields as semi-slave labor. The pair organized food caravans when braceros stopped work, and tried to prevent their deportation.

Corona organized the local chapter of the Asociación Nacional Mexicana Americana (ANMA), a radical community organization fighting discrimination. He also belonged to the Community Service Organization, where Cesar Chavez got his original organizers’ training. Chavez’ family lived in San Jose for several years on 21st Street near the Sal Si Puedes barrio, and he and Corona both worked there with the CSO. But Corona also disagreed with “one of its [CSO’s] stated reasons for organizing ... to keep the ‘reds’ from establishing a base in the communities.” Veteran San Jose activist Fred Hirsch says, “Fear that the CP might establish a base in communities was not unfounded. In fact, it had a base, and used it to strengthen community actions and organizing by workers in the canneries and fields.”

Lucio Bernabe fought off one of the most notorious political deportation cases of the era with the help of the leftwing American Committee for the Protection of the Foreign-Born and local members of the CP. He eventually helped found the Cannery Workers Committee (CWC) in the 1970s and ’80s, with another left-winger, Mike Johnston. The CWC challenged discrimination under the Teamsters contracts. Mexican workers, mostly women, had only temporary jobs working on the line during the season, while white workers, mostly men, had the permanent jobs in the warehouses and maintenance departments.

Ernesto Galarza also lived in San Jose in the postwar era. Galarza worked with Mexican and Filipino farm workers starting in the late 1940s, organizing the National Farm Labor Union and striking growers in the San Joaquin Valley. That union’s successor, the Agricultural Workers Organizing Committee, began the great grape strike in 1965 under the leadership of Larry Itliong, and later merged with the National Farm Worker Association to form the United Farm Workers (UFW). Galarza wrote several influential books about farm labor and Chicanos, particularly Merchants of Labor, which exposed the abuses of the bracero program.

In the 1960s the upsurge of the civil rights and anti-war movements transformed the politics and social movements of the Santa Clara Valley. In part, this reflected growing population and changing demographics. In 1950 Santa Clara County’s population was 290,000, and 12 percent were people with Spanish names. By 1970 the population had grown to over a million, and while Spanish-named people were still 12 percent, their numbers had swelled to 129,000. As significant, the 2,333 Filipinos in the county in 1960 had exploded to 28,000 in 1980, and 60,000 in 1990, as they became one of the most important parts of the workforce in the electronics industry of Silicon Valley. By 1990 the Hispanic category used by the Census that year included 307,000 people—now over 20 percent of the population.

Key among the organizers of the civil rights era was Sofia Mendoza. She and her husband Gil fought discrimination in San Jose from the time she was a student in college. In the 1960s she and other Chicano community activists in the East San Jose barrio began organizing against the Vietnam War. “I was extremely bothered because not only were they killing our young men in Vietnam, they were also killing them here in the streets of San Jose,” she later explained.

1960s Chicano Movement Mobilizes Against Police Brutality
The first of the Chicano student blowouts, which helped launch the Chicano movement, took place at San Jose’s Roosevelt Junior High in 1968. Rosalio Muñoz came up from Los Angeles to support the students, and talked with Mendoza. He then went back to LA where he, Carlos Muñoz and other activists started the student walkouts there. Rosalio Muñoz later became a primary organizer of the huge Chicano Moratorium march against the Vietnam War up Whittier Boulevard, where Ruben Salazar was shot by Los Angeles police and killed.

In San Jose the movement began organizing marches on City Hall, and formed a committee to stop police brutality, the Community Alert Patrol. “We just had it,” Mendoza remembered. “We had reached our limit. The police had guns, mace and billy clubs. They were always ready to attack us. It seemed as if nobody could stop what the police were doing.”

But CAP did stop them. One march mobilized 2000 people. Its members monitored police activity, much as the Panthers were doing in Oakland, documenting police beatings and arrests. Students organizing for ethnic studies classes at San Jose State University became some of CAP’s most active members, at the same time fighting to get military recruiters off the campus. CAP had the participation of Communists, socialists, Chicano nationalists and other leftwing groups.

Mendoza, her comrade-in-arms Fred Hirsch, and others saw that the area needed a multi-issue organization to confront the many problems people faced in the barrios—discriminatory education, lack of medical services, poor housing, and of course the police. “We wanted an organization that was not limited to one ethnic group, that would organize our entire community,” she later recalled, “so we called ourselves United People Arriba—United People Upward. We liked the term ‘United People’ because it got the idea across that people from different ethnic backgrounds were coming together in San Jose to work for social change—Blacks, Mexicans, Puerto Ricans and whites working together in one organization.” Today organizations in Silicon Valley carry on the legacy of UP Arriba and the anti-deportation fights—from Silicon Valley De-Bug’s Albert Covarrubias Justice Project to the community organizing of Somos Mayfair to the Services, Immigrant Rights and Education Network.

Mendoza went to El Salvador, Nicaragua and Vietnam during the U.S. military interventions, and in 1973 she went to Moscow as a delegate to a congress of the World Peace Council. She was motivated, not just by the deaths of young Chicanos in Vietnam, but by the transformation of her valley by the Cold War. The Westinghouse plant in Sunnyvale was making nuclear missile tubes for Trident submarines. The plant where Gil worked started making farm equipment, but then switched to building tanks and armored personnel carriers.

Most of all, she saw food processing replaced by the growth of the huge electronics industry. Del Monte finally closed its Plant 3, at one time one of the largest and most modern in the world, in 1999—the end of the canning industry in San Jose. The last of the big canneries is today a condominium complex.

Defense Contracts Feed Tech Industry
One of the oldest myths about Silicon Valley is that its high tech innovations were the brainchildren of a few, brilliant white men, who started giant corporations in their garages. In fact, the basic inventions that form the foundation of the electronics industry, especially the solid-state transistor, were developed at Bell Laboratories, American Telephone and Telegraph, Fairchild Camera and Instrument, and General Electric. These innovations were products of the Cold War—of the arms race after World War II. The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency was founded in 1958 and provided basic research at taxpayer expense that enabled the electronics industry—especially chipmakers—to launch startups that were then fed by military contracts. Long before the appearance of the personal computer, high tech industry grew fat on defense contracts and rising military budgets. Its Cold War roots affected every aspect of the industry, from its attitude towards unions to the structure of its plants and workforce.

As the electronics industry began to grow in the 1950s, a fratricidal struggle within the U.S. labor move­ment led to the expulsion in 1949 of unions like UCAPAWA and the union founded to organize workers in the electrical industry—the United Electrical, Radio and Machine Workers of America (UE). Only the ILWU and the UE survived as independent unions, and the UE went from 650,000 at the end of World War II to about 60,000 at the beginning of the 1980s. As a result, while the new high-tech industry was growing in the Santa Clara Valley, support for workers organizing unions in the expanding plants virtually disappeared.

From the beginning, high tech workers had to face an industry-wide anti-union policy. Robert Noyce, who participated in the invention of the transistor and later became a co-founder of Intel Corp., declared that “remaining non-union is an essential for survival for most of our companies. ... The great hope for our nation is to avoid those deep, deep divisions between workers and management.” The expanding electronics plants were laboratories for developing personnel-management techniques for maintaining “a union-free environment.” Some of those techniques, like the team-concept method for controlling workers on the plant floor, were later used to weaken unions in other industries, from auto manufacturing to steelmaking. While many techniques were developed in Japanese plants for driving workers for more production and efficiency, and were referred to as the “Japanese model,” other techniques were pioneered in Silicon Valley itself.

Another co-inventor of the transistor, William Shockley, was an advocate of racist theories of the inferiority of African-Americans. As Shockley, Noyce and others guided development in Silicon Valley they instituted policies that effectively segregated its workforce. In electronics plants women were the overwhelming majority, while the engineering and management staff consisted overwhelmingly of men. Immigrants from Asian and Latin American countries were drawn to the valley’s production lines. Engineering and management jobs went to white employees. African-American workers were frozen out almost entirely. Although unemployment in the African-American communities of Oakland and East Palo Alto, within easy commuting distance of the plants, has remained at depression levels, African-Americans are still not above 7.5 percent of the workforce in any category, and below 3 percent in management and engineering.

UE Challenges Anti-Union Electronics Giants
Starting in the early 1970s, workers began to form organizing committees affiliated to the UE in plants belonging to National Semiconductor, Siltec, Fairchild, Siliconix, Semimetals, Signetics, Intel, AMD and others. Most of these were semiconductor manufacturing plants, or factories that supplied raw materials to those plants.

Workers in the UE asked the Department of Labor for the workforce demographic information the companies were forced to file as recipients of Federal contracts. They sought to document systematic discrimination and racial, national and sex segregation practiced by employers. The Federal Office of Contract Compliance refused to turn over the information, saying that these giant corporations considered demographic breakdowns of their workforce a trade secret. Essentially, there was no enforcement of civil rights anti-discrimination laws in the industry, since both the government and the companies themselves hid the information that would have supported charges.

Amy Newell helped start a rank-and-file organizing committee at Siliconix. Two decades later she became the UE’s national secretary-treasurer, and later headed the AFL-CIO’s Central Labor Council in Monterey County, just south of Silicon Valley. She recalls, “It was very hard organizing a union in those plants, because the feeling of pow­erlessness among the workers was so difficult to overcome ... It seems ob­vious that there has to be a long term effort and commitment, with a movement among workers in the industry as a whole, and in the communi­ties in which they live.”   

By the early 1980s, the UE Electronics Organizing Committee had grown to over 500 workers. Romie Manan, who organized Filipino immigrant workers on the production lines at National Semiconductor, remembers that the union published 5000 copies a month of a newsletter, The Union Voice, in three languages - English, Spanish and Tagalog. Workers handed it out in front of their own plants, or in front of other plants if they were afraid to make their union sympathies known to their coworkers. “A few of us were aboveground, to give workers the idea that the union was an open and legitimate organization, but most workers were not publicly identified with the union,” he recalled.

Committee members challenged the companies and won cost-of-living raises, held public hearings on racism and firings in the plants, and campaigned to expose the dangers of working with numerous toxic chemicals. At the height of its activity, organizer Michael Eisenscher was the committee’s link to the national union, running the union mimeograph machine in his garage. “It was the workers who brought the UE into the industry,” Eisenscher recalls. “They had to run a campaign to convince the union to move me from Los Angeles to San Jose in 1980.”

Eventually the semiconductor manufacturers, especially National Semiconductor, fired many of the leading union activists, and the committee gradually dispersed as its members sought work wherever they could find it. The main strategic question, which the committee sought to answer, remains unresolved. In large electronics manufacturing plants, union-minded workers are a minority for a long period of time. Their organization has to be active on the plant floor to win over the majority of workers by fighting around the basic conditions that affect them. But it has to be able to help its members survive in an extreme anti-union climate.

This long-term perspective is very different from the organizing style of most unions today. Many view union organizing as a process of winning union representation elections administered by the National Labor Relations Board. Others try to use outside leverage to force management to remain neutral while workers sign union cards, and eventually negotiate a contract. In high tech, however, huge corporations insulate themselves from their production workforce so well that outside pressure has little effect on them. Most unions have simply abandoned the idea of helping workers in those plants to organize at all, saying that they are “unorganizable.”

Because of the weak interest by unions themselves (aside from the UE), and the high level of repression inside the plants, an important reason for the survival of the UE Committee for so many years was a commitment by the Communist Party. The party set up a collective to help workers build a union structure inside the plants and organize community support outside them. One party member joked that it was easier to distribute the Communist paper The Peoples’ World than the union committee newsletter, “since everyone knew you could get fired for joining the union, and reading the PW seemed a lot less dangerous.” The committee also included members of other left political parties, including the Communist Labor Party.

In plants where a large percentage of the workers were immigrants, it attracted people who’d been active in Communist and left parties in their countries of origin, especially the Philippines. Some played a leading role in the UE committee because they’d played a similar one back home, where they’d been educated politically in their own revolutionary traditions. And because of the repressive conditions there, they had experience in working in what was, inside the Silicon Valley plants, essentially an underground environment.

Union Spurs Organizing for Worker and Community Safety
Despite its lack of success in organizing permanent unions, the UE Electronics Organizing Committee was a nexus of activity from which other organizations developed. Semiconductor production is basically a chemical process, and uses extremely dangerous and toxic gasses and solvents. The Santa Clara Committee on Occupational Safety and Health (SCCOSH), originally founded by health and safety activists in the late 1970s, fought successfully for the elimination of such carcinogenic chemicals as trichloroethylene, and for the right of electronics workers to know the hazards of toxics in the workplace. SCCOSH sponsored the formation of the Injured Workers Group, which organized workers suffering from chemically induced industrial illness. The group’s lawyer Amanda Hawes (also the lawyer for the Cannery Workers Committee) is still filing suits against the electronics giants.

“When we talk about organizing,” explained Flora Chu, a former director of SCCOSH’s Asian Workers’ Program, “we have to talk in a new way. Many immigrants, for instance, aren’t used to organizing in groups at work. SCCOSH helps to introduce them to the concept of acting collectively. The organization of unions in the plants will benefit from this, if unions are sensitive to the needs and culture of immigrants.”    

The Silicon Valley Toxics Coalition also grew out of the health and safety campaigns that ripped apart the image of the “clean industry,” and exposed the large-scale contamination of the water by electronics manufacturers. Coalition activists forced the Environmental Protection Agency to add a number of sites to the Superfund cleanup list. Workers were the canaries in the valley - what afflicted them was eventually visited on the surrounding community.

Because of the concentration of immigrant workers in the electronics industry, the UE Committee became one of several organizations that opposed growing immigration raids in Silicon Valley at the end of the 1970s and beginning of the 1980s. Together with Mike Garcia, then an organizer with the janitors’ union, James McEntee of the county’s Human Relations Commission and others, they picketed employers who cooperated in turning over undocumented immigrants to immigration authorities for deportation. The activists focused on electronics plants like the circuit board assembler Solectron, and on the local garment plant belonging to Levi’s.

This activity led to hearings before the county Board of Supervisors, and eventually to the formation of People United for Human Rights. When Congress began debating immigration bills that eventually resulted in the Immigration and Reform Act of 1986, PUHR and its member organizations opposed them. PUHR supported the bills’ immigration amnesty, but warned that employer sanctions (the provision that forbids employers from hiring undocumented workers) would criminalize work for the undocumented.  PUHR also warned that the bills would restart bracero-type programs, and militarize the U.S./Mexico border. Even some local unions joined this opposition, defying what was then support of employer sanctions by the national AFL-CIO.Workers from USM, Inc.—largely Korean immigrants—march with other immigrant workers to protest wage theft. © David Bacon

In 1982 the UE committee tried to mobilize opposition to the industry’s policy of moving production out of Silicon Valley. In 1983 the plants employed 102,200 workers; they employed only 73,700 workers ten years later. While the number of engineers and managers increased slightly, job losses fell much more heavily on operators and technicians. “What this really meant,” said Romie Manan, “was that Filipino workers in particular lost their jobs by the thousands, more than any other national group.” Manan lost his job as National closed its last mass production wafer fabrication line in the valley in 1994. “It was the union that developed the analysis of the industry’s runaway strategy,” Eisenscher notes, “and we warned what the consequences on production jobs would be for the Valley. Those warnings were not heeded and our predictions unfortunately were proved correct.”

Corporations Turn to Contractors, Unions to New Tactics
In 1993 Intel built a new plant in Rio Rancho, New Mexico, instead of California, because New Mexico offered $1 billion to help finance construction. Lower wages were another determining factor. In Silicon Valley, the more permanent jobs in the large manufacturing plants began disappearing. But contractors that provided services to large companies, from janitorial and food services to circuit-board assembly, employed more workers every year.

Workers losing jobs in the semiconductor plants made as much as $11–14 per hour for operators, even in the early 1990s when the minimum wage hovered just above $4 per hour. Companies provided medical insurance, sick leave, vacations and other benefits. By contrast, contract assemblers and non-union janitors were paid close to the minimum wage, had no medical insurance, and often no benefits at all.  The decline in living standards made the service and sweatshop economy in Silicon Valley the subsequent focus for workers’ organizing activity.

 In the fall of 1990 over 130 janitors joined Service Employees International Union Local 1877 during an organizing drive at Shine Maintenance Co., a contractor hired by Apple Computer Corp. to clean its huge Silicon Valley headquarters. When Shine became aware that its workers had organized, it suddenly told them they had to present verification of their legal immigration status in order to keep their jobs. Shine’s actions ignited a yearlong campaign, which culminated in a contract for Apple janitors in 1992.

Other employers in the valley closely watched the campaign at Shine and Apple. Using the same strategy, the union went on to win a contract for janitors at Hewlett-Packard Corp., an even larger group than those at Apple. The momentum created in those campaigns convinced other non-union janitorial contractors to actively seek agreements with Local 1877, and over 1500 new members streamed into the union.          

In September of 1992, electronics assembly workers at Versatronex Corp. used a similar strategy to organize against the sweatshop conditions prevalent in contract assembly factories. The starting wage at the plant was $4.25 per hour, the minimum wage at the time. There was no medical insurance. Sergio Mendoza worked in the “coil room,” making electrical coils for IBM computers for seven years. “Sometimes the vapors were so strong that our noses would begin to bleed,” he said. The conditions in the “coil room” were very different from those at the facilities IBM’ had at the time in South San Jose, which it referred to as a “campus.”

Contract assembly, the kind of production done at Versatronex and similar plants, provides a number of benefits for large manufacturers. Contractors compete to win orders by cutting their prices, and workers’ wages, to the lowest level possible. Today the contract assembly system, then in its infancy, has come to dominate high tech industry. Corporations like Hewlett-Packard and Apple have no factories at all. Their entire production is carried out by contract manufacturers in plants around the world.       

‘Our Culture is Our Source of Strength’
Workers at Versatronex went on strike after the company fired one of their leaders, and later launched a hunger strike and Occupy-style encampment, or planton. One of the hunger strikers was Margarita Aguilera, a former student activist in Mexico who used her experience to organize workers. “It is not uncommon for Mexican workers to fast and set up plantons, tent encampments where workers live for the strike’s duration,” said Maria Pantoja, a UE organizer from Mexico City. “Even striking over the firing of another worker is a reflection of our culture of mutual support, which workers bring with them to this country. Our culture is our source of strength.”

As workers at Versatronex were striking for their union, Korean immigrants at another contract assembly factory, USM Inc., launched a similar struggle after their employer closed their factory owing them two weeks’ pay. They marched through downtown San Jose against Silicon Valley Bank, which took over the assets of the closed factory.

Tactics like those used at Apple, USM and Versatronex have been at the cutting edge of the labor movement’s search for new ways to organize. They rely on alliances between workers, unions and communities to offset the power exercised by employers.  Often they use organizing tactics based on direct action by workers and supporters, like civil disobedience, rather than a high-pressure election campaign that companies frequently win. As workers organize around conditions they face on the job, they learn  to deal with issues of immigration, discrimination in the schools, police misconduct, and other aspects of daily life in immigrant communities.

Electronics manufacturers have been forced over the years to permit outside contract services, like janitorial services and in-plant construction, to be performed by union contractors. Nevertheless, the industry has drawn a line between outside services and the assembly contractors who are part of the industry’s basic production process. In one section, unions can be grudgingly recognized; in the other, they will not be. Workers, communities and unions need a higher level of unity to win the right for workers to organize effectively in the plants themselves.

Industry Domination of Valley Development
“We’ve never felt that the electronics industry had the interests of our communities at heart. If they plan the future of the Valley, they’re going to do it for their benefit, not ours,” charged Ernestina Garcia, a longtime Chicano community activist in San Jose.

“What we have here are different interests,” said Jorge Gonzalez, who chaired the grassroots Cleaning Up Silicon Valley Coalition. “Economic development in Silicon Valley has historically served the interests of the few. We want development that serves the interests of the many. Just protecting the competitiveness and profitability of big electronics companies will not necessarily protect our jobs and communities.”

In the heyday of the UE Electronics Organizing Committee, the National Semiconductor plant had almost ten thousand workers, working directly for the company. By the time Romie Manan was laid off, employment had fallen to 7000. Over half worked for temporary employment agencies, including almost all production workers. Manpower, the temp agency, had an office on the plant floor. According to Mike Garcia, president of SEIU Local 1877, “High technology manufacturing doesn’t create high-wage, high-skill jobs. It patterns itself after the service sector. Contractors in manufacturing compete over who can drives wages and benefits the lowest.”

Twenty years later Silicon Valley remains the fortress of the country’s most anti-union industry. High tech dominates every aspect of life. Its voice is largely unchallenged on public policy, because the workers who have created the valley’s fabulous wealth have no voice of their own. Corporations like IBM, Hewlett-Packard, Intel and National Semiconductor told their workers and communities for years that healthy bottom lines would guarantee rising living standards and secure jobs. Economists still paint a picture of the industry as a massive industrial engine fueling economic growth, benefiting workers and communities alike.

The promises are worthless. Today many giants of industry own no factories at all, having sold them to contract manufacturers who build computers and make chips in locations from China to Hungary. In the factories that remain in the Valley, labor contractors like Manpower have become the formal employers, relieving the big brands of any responsibility for the workers who make the products bearing their labels. While living standards rise for a privileged elite at the top of the workforce, they’ve dropped for thousands of workers on the production line. Tens of thousands of workers have been dropped off the lines entirely, as production was moved out of the valley to other states and countries.SEIU (Service Employees International Union) Local 1877 organizer Lino Pedres on the picket line. © David Bacon

Apple Corp. has cash reserves in excess of $1 billion, while San Jose voters are told that there is no money to pay for the pensions of workers who’ve spent their lives in public service. The productivity of industry in the Valley went up in the first decade of the current century by 42 percent. But at the same time, average annual employment went down 16 percent. The upper income stratum of the Valley benefited from this productivity growth, but there was no corresponding growth in jobs. Fewer people produced wealth for fewer people. The rich got richer and the poor got poorer. Between 2000 and 2010 the number of households with incomes under $10,000 more than doubled, from 11,556 to 26,310.

To make the economy serve the needs of working families, they must be organized. It’s not enough to have a voice “speaking truth to power” or a “place at the table.”  Silicon Valley’s 99% need the organized ability to effectively fight for their needs, in the face of corporate resistance. And despite obstacles, for its entire history Silicon Valley has been as much a cauldron of resistance and new strategies for labor and community organizing as it has been an engine for the production of fabulous wealth. Workers have opposed inhuman conditions. Community organizations have fought for social justice and equality. They will keep on doing that.

Left organizers played a vital role
“A thread runs through Santa Clara Valley’s history of labor and community organizing, from the days of the canneries up through the heyday of industrial production in the high tech industry,” says Fred Hirsch. “Very little organizing or political activity occurred spontaneously. There was always a small group of left-wing, class-conscious, Marxist-oriented workers who met regularly, exchanged experiences, and planned campaigns. It was not one single group. New people came in and others moved on. Many simply got old, retired and died. Through much of the time an important strand of that thread was the Communist Party and the many friends with whom its members worked. But other groups with similar left ideas also organized and sought to influence people’s ideas.”

Hirsch spent his own working life as a plumber. When he first came to Santa Clara County and joined the Plumbers’ Union, at the height of the Cold War, he was attacked by right-wing leaders of his union. But he persevered, and eventually his local elected progressive officers and had a membership often open to radical ideas. It passed resolutions supporting immigrant rights, and even made a donation to U.S. Labor Against the War—the network of unions opposing U.S. intervention in Iraq. Hirsch himself became a delegate to the South Bay Labor Council, and a respected voice and officer in his own local.

For Hirsch, learning the radical history of the Santa Clara Valley isn’t just about the past. He believes this experience points a direction for the future, to today’s movements committed to deep and structural social change. “The real lesson is that we need to build an organization with a clear focus on a socialist and democratic future in a world without war,” he says. “It has to be an organization that deals with injustice in our communities and worksites, our nation and our planet. It must point the way for the labor movement to fight the racism and sexism embedded in the institutions and culture of our society. Its members should be active, take leadership from the people around them, and be willing to shoulder responsibility themselves.”

For Hirsch and the Party members of his generation, the CP brought together those who’d been active in the labor and civil rights struggles of the 1930s, ’40s and ’50s, with the activists of the 1960s, ’70s and ’80s. That allowed one generation to pass on to the next the political theory, the culture of organizing and resistance, and even the history of peoples’ movements themselves. A similar organization, he says, “should do its best to promote serious education about the process for social change and organize people to take to the streets. In other words, we need an organization like the Communist Party we dreamed and worked for so many years ago, but that’s more effective than we were. Without it wonderful working class leftists will continue making enormous efforts to build progressive movements that ebb and flow, but won’t develop a strategy and build a base of their own.”

Disclosure: David Bacon was chair of the UE Electronics Organizing Committee for several years, the UE organizer assigned to Versatronex, and treasurer of People United for Human Rights.


Related Stories: 
Pull Quote TEXT ONLY for featured stories in image slider: 

The South Bay has a long history of resistance—of courageous organizers who built movements that have had an impact far beyond the Santa Clara Valley.

Planning for People, Not Profit

Human Development for the Right to the City
By Dawn Phillips

Photo courtesy of CJJC

Working class urban dwellers are in crisis. Neighborhoods that have seen decades of public and private disinvestment, environmental degradation and racist segregation are now being flooded with an influx of new capital, new developments and new residents. Is this new wave of investment actually good for people and neighborhoods? Who is really benefiting from urban development?

The regional median home price in the Bay Area at the end of 2014 was $742,900. This means that to afford a home, you would need a 20 per cent down payment of $150,000 and expect a monthly mortgage of $3,323.79. Cash investors account for 1 in 5 of all home sales and there is a growing number of absentee buyers. Waypoint Real Estate Investment Group has spent $1 billion purchasing hundreds of single family homes in Oakland and Contra Costa County. Wall Street-backed investment firms like Colony Capital, Blackstone and Och-Ziff are literally buying up neighborhoods around the country and making it impossible for anyone who cannot afford an “all cash” purchase to acquire homes in these communities. This type of speculation has contributed significantly to rising prices and deepened disparities in homeownership rates for Latino and Black families. Nationally, the Latino-White homeownership gap has widened and the Black-White gap has reached historic proportions. Increased investments in housing has not benefitted the residents of urban communities in the Bay Area or nationally.

Proposals for big development projects are popping up all over San Francisco and Oakland.

Maximus Real Estate Partners is proposing to build 345 units of luxury condos with retail space above the 16th and Mission Bart Station right next to an elementary school. The 10-story project will cast a permanent shadow on the school playground, increase housing prices in the surrounding area and raise commercial rents for small mom-and-pop businesses. Hundreds of teachers, students, parents, and neighborhood business owners have organized a powerful coalition to demand that the project be 100 per cent affordable in a community hard hit by evictions, displacement of Latino residents and established small businesses.

Mission District residents, teachers and business owners express their opposition to luxury condos in their neighborhood. Photo courtesy of CJJCIt took community residents and organizations coming together to ensure that a proposal to develop a huge section of East Oakland included plans to stabilize current residents, provide affordable housing and provide jobs to those in the area. One resident described her view of the Coliseum City project as “feeling like it didn’t include those who live [nearby], and that the development would be an ‘alien space city’ plopped down in East Oakland. We’re here now, so let’s move you out!” While the project promises to create 20,000 jobs over a 25-year period, there is no guarantee that current workers would keep the jobs or that the new positions would be union. The project that covers an area between the Oakland Airport and the Coliseum Bart station includes multiple parcels of public land and there are many concerns about how that land will serve the many needs of current East Oakland residents.

Residents in the San Antonio neighborhood of Oakland are opposing a plan to sell a city-owned parcel to a developer who wants to build a 24-story project with 298 luxury units. The land is in a prime location on the edge of Lake Merritt and the city’s proposal to sell it for far under market value, to a small group of hand-picked bidders has raised serious opposition. Projected rents for a one-bedroom unit in the building will be $3,150 a month, making the units affordable to households with $113,000 or more in annual income. According to U.S. Census data, the median household income for the zip code that includes the neighborhood is $38,363 a year. It is clear that if approved, this project will not serve the affordable housing needs of the neighborhood and will likely drive up the cost of living in this working class community with a large and diverse immigrant population.

Photo courtesy of CJJCThere is a widely held view that historically disinvested and neglected neighborhoods should welcome all new developments; that any investment is better than none at all. For many residents of those neighborhoods, the opposite feels true.

Working class Blacks and Latinos are being displaced at incredible rates from their neighborhoods. The historically Latino Mission neighborhood went from being 50 percent Latino in 2000 to just 38.5 percent in 2013 and Oakland has lost almost a quarter of its Black residents in the last decade. In Oakland, you have to make $8,000 a month to afford the median monthly rent of $2,412, and in San Francisco, you have to make $10,400 a month to afford the median rent of $3,100. Someone making minimum wage would have to work 163 hours a week in Oakland and 212 hours a week in San Francisco to be able to afford housing. This affordability crisis is compounded by the fact that real wages for Blacks and Latinos have decreased in the Bay Area over the last decade. The argument that producing new housing will solve the crisis feels like a limited solution. Regional housing production 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 over the next 30 years. Racial and economic inequity is deepening in the Bay Area and the current approach to development is contributing to that, not helping it.

We hear too often from our elected representatives and public agency staff that we cannot make demands of private developers who are coming in with ideas and money, for fear that we will scare off investors. A large part of this problem is the over reliance on the private sector to drive urban development. The public sector sees its role as facilitating and supporting private development through public policy and spending. It is common practice for cities to ease existing land use and building regulations, as well as providing generous public subsidies to encourage private investment. Twitter successfully negotiated a payroll tax break from San Francisco in exchange for staying in the city and expanding operations. Forest City received almost $61 million to develop the Uptown project in Oakland, a huge sum for a city with a modest budget. For both cities, this is a standard part of doing business and promoting development.

Photo courtesy of CJJCSuch development results in a severe mismatch between the needs of residents and the profit motivated interest of those driving urban development. While our communities are crying out for basic infrastructure, such as grocery stores, family-serving retail and low-cost housing for a range of family sizes, what often gets prioritized are new businesses and services designed for new, higher-income residents, not the projects that benefit existing residents. An approach that focuses development on serving new, future residents requires and facilitates the displacement of current residents and businesses, as well as community-serving social, cultural, faith, and political institutions. Luxury condos, high-end bars, restaurants, and retail are not making our communities healthier or more sustainable. For those on the frontlines of the gentrification crisis, it feels like the public sector has made landlords and private developers rich at the expense of working class communities of color.

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 courtesy of CJJCEnough is enough. We will not be moved. Our neighborhoods and cities are not for sale. Gentrification stops here and we are fighting back. Community residents are creating a new vision for urban development—one not driven by speculation but centered on human need. We are calling for human development for the right to the city.

We want development to be driven by the leadership and vision of current residents. We want our public representatives and agencies to ensure that residents are fully informed and deeply engaged in projects that are coming to their neighborhoods. We want residents to have the ability to participate in actual decision-making around the types of development and to know who the developers are, coming into their communities. We want development to be driven by those who will be most impacted by it.

We want 30 per cent of all land in working class communities set aside for community-controlled and community-driven projects. We want our public agencies to stop the sale of all public land to private entities. We want to see existing land trust and land banks expanded. We want to see the creation of mechanisms that will support collective ownership and control of land for green space, housing, health, job creation, urban agriculture, and other community-serving needs. We want community control of land as a way to stabilize and strengthen our communities.

Photo courtesy of CJJCWe want to see tenant rights and protections in all cities throughout the region and we want to see the preservation and improvement of the rental housing stock. We want all jurisdictions to pass and fully enforce Just Cause and Rent Control. We want to see public revenues and programs dedicated to improving the quality of older buildings and housing. We want stronger enforcement of building and health codes that do not result in the displacement of residents from their homes. We want to see housing made more affordable, healthy and sustainable for all residents.

Human development empowers a community to identify the types of housing, services and infrastructure that should be located in their neighborhood. It ensures that the interest and needs of longtime residents play a central role in defining the vision for neighborhood development and change. It supports resident leadership and protagonism by providing resources, tools and information to support full engagement. A human development approach also centralizes decision-making power in the community and ensures that residents are not only able to offer their opinions, but also have actual decision-making ability to say what development looks like in their neighborhood. Such an approach to community development fosters institutions and enterprises that are of value to the residents, puts protections in place that prevent displacement and gentrification, and results in positive human development outcomes for all residents.

This is our vision for a new urban agenda centered on racial and economic equity and a healthy society for all people. Human development driven by the needs of working class communities of color will create neighborhoods and cities that work better for everyone.

This is a call to action. Join us.

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. Dawn can be reached at or #HousingisaHumanRight@CausaJusta1


Related Stories: 
Pull Quote TEXT ONLY for featured stories in image slider: 

The approach that focuses development on serving new, future residents is one that will require and facilitate the displacement of current residents, businesses and community institutions.

Business Improvement Districts Take Over Cities: One-Dollar/One-Vote

Women from St. Mary’s Center in Oakland join the protest in San Francisco against the harassment of homeless people by Union Square BIDs. ©2015 Janny Castillo

By Jess Clarke

Imagine a government where voting power is directly proportionate to the value of the property one owns; where a majority ownership stake gives one the right to appoint leaders; where small businesses and homeowners don’t have a voice; and people without homes are exiled from the community.

You might think this is a dystopia still to come (after a few more Supreme Court decisions granting corporations ever more rights as persons), but unfortunately, it’s already a reality in hundreds of cities across the United States in so-called “Business Improvement Districts (BIDs).”

BIDs are private corporations governed by business property owners in a particular geographical region. They are chartered by state law and approved by local jurisdictions to take over many of the functions once served by local government. Better street cleaning, trash removal, street signage, streetscape improvements, and other maintenance tasks are part of the sales pitch BIDs make to cities to gain taxing power over commercial property within a district. BIDs are also typically empowered to hire poorly trained and poorly paid security guards to push undesirable people out of the area—supposedly the criminal element, but often poor and homeless people who aren’t deemed good customers by big business.

“According to the Business Improvement District, quality of life is more access to Macy’s and all these other shops without having to step around people and deal with human suffering,” notes Marcus Harris, director of Cities of Refuge in Denver, Colorado.

The creation of BIDs gives the big businesses, which already dominate local politics through Chambers of Commerce and political donations, yet another mechanism for changing city policies to reflect their interests. Homeless people are the first to feel the brunt of these privatization and gentrification initiatives but low-income tenants soon discover that they too are being pushed out. While incumbent homeowners may be the beneficiaries of a brief boom in the value of their homes, new families trying to move from apartments into houses are likely to be driven out to the periphery, further degrading the diversity of our communities.

“We are back to the days of Jim Crow laws and Anti-Okie laws,” says Lisa Marie Alatorre of the San Francisco Coalition on Homelessness. “The BIDs are promoting discriminatory policing practices to simply remove people deemed unwanted from certain parts of town.”

Origin and Spread of the Business Improvement District

The first significant governance by a BID in the U.S. came in the wake of a governmental collapse in New York City in the 1970s, when Grand Central Station and other key mercantile hubs were given over to privatized governance.

BIDs are granted the power to assess commercial property owners within a district with what amounts to a real estate tax, collected on their behalf by the local government. Voting power in a BID is based on the amount of tax paid, not the number of businesses in a district.

In some cases, BIDs, which are privately managed entities, also take on the land-use planning and capital investments typical of government. They can control millions of dollars of public tax revenues and expenditures—ranging from $18,000 to over $27 million in the case of the San Francisco Tourism Improvement District. While most BIDs file some sort of report to their city council once a year, research into the actual practice shows city councils largely uncritical of plans created by the business-led boards of BIDs and rarely, if ever, overrule them.1

BIDs are quickly spreading from state to state and laying the groundwork for ever more direct corporate governance at the municipal level. In California, which leads the country in BIDs with almost 250 in downtown and suburban areas statewide,2 a BID can be created with the support of 51 percent of the business taxpayers in a district. According to a 2011 report based on a census conducted by the International Downtown Association and professors Carol Becker and Seth Grossman, there were over 1000 BIDs in the U.S. and their numbers are growing rapidly.

Grossman, who is the founder and director of the Rutgers’ Institute of Business District Management, sees Business Districts as improving government accountability by shifting the taxing and spending decisions about a neighborhood to a level closer to those who have a stake in it—the business owners. They act, in effect, as a political action group.

“Prior to the ‘60s, the Chamber of Commerce was a political organization. In fact, almost all elected officials were put forth by the Chamber of Commerce. Business and government were almost hand-in-glove, way more than it is now.  Business people, because of suburbia, began to move out of the urban areas...  and they couldn’t vote and they couldn’t run for office. So they lost their political power in town.”

You Are Either Customer or Contagion

In San Francisco, Oakland and Berkeley, the BIDs that control and patrol the downtown city centers have aggressive anti-homeless policies enforced in a joint effort with the local police departments. The City of Berkeley’s harassment of homeless people hit new lows in spring 2015, when its Downtown Business Association (DBA) employees were caught on video assaulting homeless people as the City Council launched a new campaign to criminalize homelessness, again. In a widely viewed YouTube video taken March 19, 2015, Berkeley “ambassadors” beat two homeless men they chased off the main street into an alley.3

Grossman is frank in his evaluation of why BIDs aim to move homeless people out of the districts. “It’s a customer service district. So they are concerned about customers. They don’t see the homeless people as customers... If they don’t see you as a customer you are in trouble... You are either a customer or a contagion.”

While granting that BIDs don’t represent the whole population, Grossman sees them as an improvement over bribery through campaign contributions. “[If] all they can do is “pay to play” then it becomes so self-centered. They don’t have any overall community interests. They are just trying to save their own ass or their business.”

He sees BIDs as a way of reconnecting business and government. “Aren’t they getting the ear of the Mayor almost the way the old Chambers of Commerce did? Chambers of Commerce are flaccid, but BIDs are exerting more and more political power. They are a public-private partnership.”

“They are of government, but they are not in it,” says Grossman. “[And] it’s in their best interest to get along with their public partner really, really well.”

California BIDs Lead Anti-Poor Campaigns

The Berkeley DBA has been doing a good job of organizing for what they see as their collective interest. In mid-March, a package of ordinances backed by the DBA went before the City Council in an underhanded effort to revive the core of the so called “sit-lie” law that Berkeley community organizations convinced voters to reject just two years earlier.  In that campaign, BID CEO John Caner was named in a complaint eventually sustained by the city’s Fair Political Practices Commission, for campaign finance violations that included paying $5,530 in $100 and $50 cash payments to homeless and formerly homeless “poll workers” who were deceived into handing out slate cards urging a vote for the measure that would have criminalized them.

Street protests and interventions by local faith leaders and other civil rights advocates have managed to prevent the immediate adoption of the new anti-poor laws, but BIDs across the state are maintaining constant pressure to deprive homeless people of their human and civil rights.

In Los Angeles, years of successful legal challenges brought by community organizations, such as Los Angeles Community Action Network (LACAN), and the ACLU, overturned five different sleeping bans and property seizure laws as unconstitutional. But in June 2015, the City Council once again passed another set of anti-poor laws targeting homeless people4 and the LAPD is back to business-as-usual, making sweeps in the Downtown Industrial District BID, which is run by the Central City East Association (CCEA).

CCEA is just one of many business lobbying groups that is helping itself to local taxing authority in LA, which now boasts nine BIDs in just the downtown area—three of which overlap or abut the Skid Row area.

According to Curbed (a real news website), LAPD Sergeant Robert Bean told the homeless people as he was rousting them out, “People pay a lot now to live here, they expect services from the city.”5 Of course, the service they seek is to drive the homeless out of their rapidly gentrifying neighborhoods.

Taking people’s bedrolls, shopping carts, and tents is only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to police actions. In their 2010 study of increased police presence in skid row, LA CAN reported that the so-called Safer Streets initiative—intense street enforcement of minor infractions like drinking and drug possession—leads to far greater numbers of encounters between homeless people and the police with an astonishing 54 percent of the 200 homeless residents of downtown LA reporting being arrested in the previous year (compared to a 5 percent rate for California overall).6

With increased police contact comes the predictable excessive use of force that is now widely reported across the country. In March 2015, the LAPD killed a homeless man on Skid Row—pursuing him to his tent, tearing him out of it and shooting him dead in front of numerous onlookers and several cameras.7 Two months later, on May 5, they killed another man in Venice who committed the crime of running from police while homeless.8

While Police Chief Charlie Beck and Mayor Garcetti made apologetic gestures in public, the LA city government banded together with others in the League of Cities to attack homeless rights bills in the California legislature.

Right to Rest Blocked by League of Cities and Business Groups

In California, Colorado and Oregon, where members of the Western Regional Advocacy Project (WRAP) ran a coordinated campaign for “Right to Rest,” BIDs working through the California Downtown Association and the business-dominated League of Cities blocked the legislation.

One of the more absurd arguments put forward by the California League of Cities warns that ensuring the Bill of Rights for homeless and poor people might result in a homeless person claiming protection under the Second Amendment to defend their tent by force of arms.9

Of course, we should not need enabling legislation to extend the Bill of Rights to poor and homeless people. We should all be protected by all constitutional requirements. In a court case in Boise, Idaho, even the current Justice Department has signed on to a brief that characterizes as “cruel and unusual punishment” (banned by the 8th Amendment), the practice of arresting people for sleeping in public spaces.

Community groups continue to fight in the courts, the legislature and above all, in the streets. In late September, WRAP and other groups took the fight to the International Downtown Association’s major annual conference in San Francisco. (See box p. 91)“This is about commercializing and applying neoliberal economics to our communities and the only way to stop that is to say ‘hell no, we are fighting back,’” vows Paul Boden, executive director of WRAP.


Big Businesses Use Broken Windows Policing to Gentrify and Exclude

Business Improvement Districts and business associations, such as the Chamber of Commerce, are very powerful lobbies that advocate the criminalization of homelessness and the use of police power to maintain the core fabric of racial and economic segregation in many cities across the United States. 

WRAP panel on “Broken Windows” policing.  ©2015 Jess ClarkeReal estate owners, developers and large retail businesses are the biggest beneficiaries of the “Broken Windows Policing” and “Stop and Frisk” approaches to maintaining order in public spaces. Segregation of the poor and people of color out of areas where property values are increasing or already high, is typically accompanied by methods of police enforcement that criminalize poor people of color’s very presence.

As police murders and abuse stir a popular movement for police accountability, corporate interests continue to preserve and expand their investments in urban centers by shifting police responsibility to private-public entities where corporate interests rule more directly.  Business Improvement Districts are one such mechanism.

At a panel discussion organized by the Western Regional Advocacy Project speakers address the BIDs increasing power in San Francisco, Los Angeles, Denver and other cities and how policing is connected to racial and economic segregation, gentrification and mass incarceration.

Jess Clarke is project director and editor at Reimagine! and is digital publishing coordinator at Street Spirit newspaper where this story first appeared.



1.   Goktug Morcol and Ulf Zimmermann, Business Improvement Districts: Research, Theories, and Controversies (CRC Press, Taylor & Francis Group, 2008), Chapter 2, pp 27-50.

2.   Carol Becker, PhD and Seth Grossman, PhD, 2011 Business improvement Districts: Census and National Survey. Summary available at, Powerpoint:

3.   Bob Offer-Westort, “The Wrong Men Were Sent to Jail in Berkeley,” Street Spirit, April 2015.

4.   The Times Editorial Board, “Where is L.A.’s urgency in the homelessness crisis?” Los Angeles Times, June 21, 2015.

5.   Adrian Glick Kudler, “LAPD Hassling Homeless People On Behalf of Rich Downtown Gentrifiers,” CURBED, August 24, 2015.

6.   Los Angeles Community Action Network, “Community-Based Human Rights Assessment: Skid Row’s Safer Cities Initiative,” December 2010.

7.   Gale Holland, Jack Dolan and Kate Mather, “LAPD fatal shooting of man caught on tape,” Los Angeles

      Times, March 1, 2015. Video of shooting:

8.   Michael Martinez, “LAPD chief concerned if officer’s fatal shooting unarmed man was ‘justified’,” CNN, May 7, 2015.

9.         Jessica Bartholow, Paul Boden, Judith Larsonand and Elisa Della-Piana: Letter to Transportation and Housing Committee chairman Jim Beall, California State Senate, RE: SB 608 (Liu) Sponsor and Support – Response to League of Cities Opposition.

Pull Quote TEXT ONLY for featured stories in image slider: 


Big Businesses Use Broken Windows Policing to Gentrify and Exclude

WRAP panel on “Broken Windows” policing.  ©2015 Jess ClarkeBusiness Improvement Districts and business associations, such as the Chamber of Commerce, are very powerful lobbies that advocate the criminalization of homelessness and the use of police power to maintain the core fabric of racial and economic segregation in many cities across the United States. 

Real estate owners, developers and large retail businesses are the biggest beneficiaries of the “Broken Windows Policing” and “Stop and Frisk” approaches to maintaining order in public spaces. Segregation of the poor and people of color out of areas where property values are increasing or already high, is typically accompanied by methods of police enforcement that criminalize poor people of color’s very presence.

As police murders and abuse stir a popular movement for police accountability, corporate interests continue to preserve and expand their investments in urban centers by shifting police responsibility to private-public entities where corporate interests rule more directly.  Business Improvement Districts are one such mechanism.

At a panel discussion organized by the Western Regional Advocacy Project speakers address the BIDs increasing power in San Francisco, Los Angeles, Denver and other cities and how policing is connected to racial and economic segregation, gentrification and mass incarceration.

November 19, 6pm — Release Party: Alive!

RP&E Release Party: Movements Making Media
Thursday November 19, 6 pm - 9 pm
Food, drink, conversation and more!
Oakstop, 1721 Broadway

Oakland, CA 94612

Join Reimagine! organizers, writers, dancers and artists
to celebrate the release of the new issue with sections on:
Black Lives Matter: Allies in Change
Strategies for Healing: Urban Gardens, Urban Peace Movement
I am San Francisco: [Re]collecting the Home of Native Black San Franciscans
Planning for the People: from Homelessness to Housing
Hotspot: Riders, Workers & Renters in Silicon Valley

Performers include members of
Capoeira Ijexa,
JIRIDÓN and Eyes Opened MVMNT
Speakers include:

Kheven LaGrone

Jarrel Phillips, AVE and 3.9 Collective
Joana Cruz, AudioPharmacy/Seeds and Soul
Nicole Lee, Urban Peace Movement
Kelly Curry, Planting Justice
Karina Muñiz, Mujeres Unidas y Activas
Members of Asians4Black Lives

Wanda Sabir

Please RSVP to or via Facebook event 

Subscribe  |  Donate  |  Write  |  RSVP

The Reimagine! Working Group
Jess Clarke
Project Director  /Editor

Merula Furtado
Associate Editor


Christine Joy Ferrer
Web Editor and Designer

Marcy Rein
Contributing Editor

Preeti Shekar
Contributing Editor

Eric Arnold
Contributing Editor

Bob Allen
Contributing Editor

Margi Clarke

Jarrel Philips

Forward this message to a friend


  • Reimagine! focuses a race, class and justice lens on core issues of justice and survival
  • RP&E’s editorial mix and its commitment to pluralism make its coverage both deep and uniquely multi-faceted
  • Reimagine! organically links activists and media-makers to amplify our voices, strengthen our connections and deepen our cross-movement analysis
  • RP&E provides for multiple levels of community engagement through an interactive editorial process that support emerging and veteran journalists
Subscribe  |  Donate  |  Write  |  RSVP

Keep this movement making resource alive! Celebrate 25 years of RP&E by giving $25! 


Related Stories: 
Pull Quote TEXT ONLY for featured stories in image slider: 

RP&E Release Party: Movements Making Media Thursday November 19, 6 pm - 9 pm Food, drink, conversation and more! Oakstop, 1721 Broadway Oakland, CA 94612

Pull Quote NEW for book or for a podcast from a book page.: 

RP&E Release Party: Movements Making Media
Thursday November 19, 6 pm - 9 pm
Food, drink, conversation and more!
Oakstop, 1721 Broadway

Oakland, CA 94612