A part of the history of SAGE by Soli Grec:
Transition from Worcester Green Jobs Coalition (2008-2012) to Worcester SAGE (2012)
The invitation to contribute to Greenworks’ new publication comes at an opportune time for the Worcester Green Jobs Coalition (WGJC). We recently revised our mission statement and are in process of choosing a new name for ourselves. It is a welcome challenge to address the questions presented in the call for contributions: “What isthe green economy? What are your hopes for the green economy?” and so on.
Our city, Worcester, is the second largest in Massachusetts, with a population that is predominantly low-income and ethnically and racially diverse. The city justifiably boasts a long history of civil rights activism and, more recently, environmental activism, and today multiple programs, projects, and initiatives that share progressive concerns are ongoing. A dense concentration of colleges and universities in the city feeds these initiatives with student optimism, idealism, and labor as well as faculty and research support. Nevertheless, Worcester residents face significant challenges, including a higher cost of living than the national average, and, compared to statewide averages, higher rates of unemployment, school dropouts, and racial and ethnic health disparities.
In the summer of 2008, members of Ex-Prisoners and Prisoners Organizing for Community Advancement (EPOCA) and several youth groups: Toxic Soil Busters, Youth Grow, and the Worcester Youth Center came together to organize around sustainability and justice in the natural, built, and social environment in a way that would keep the local community, culture, and needs front and center. They named themselves the Worcester Green Jobs Coalition (WGJC) and crafted this mission statement:
“Organizing a local movement for green collar jobs for all. We work for resources to create sustainable jobs that are in sync with our community, culture, and needs.”
Four years later, the WGJC has adopted a new mission statement:
“Our aim is to dream big and create a socially just and sustainable cooperative economy in Worcester; we provide a forum for consensus-based discussion, resource sharing and organizing around ethical economic initiatives and relationships.”
This article will serve in part to explain the shift in our mission, which is now less explicitly concerned with building a well-defined movement than with providing the means for individuals and organizations to define what they are building as they build it. In addition, our new mission broadens the scope of economic concerns beyond wage labor jobs to encompass economic activities and relationships that are socially just, cooperative, and sustainable.
Summer of 2008: Dreams are Born
The WGJC formed at a time of local and national optimism in the face of an emerging global crisis. The summer of 2008 marked an upward spiral of energy and food prices amidst a credit crunch that was destined to devolve into a global recession. In the U.S., Hillary Clinton ended her candidacy for the Democratic Party nominee in the presidential campaign, paving the way for the election of our first African American President. Meanwhile, Van Jones’ book, the Green Collar Economy, which illustrated in powerful ways the linkages between green jobs and social justice, became a NY Times bestseller. Founding members of the WGJC attended the “Dream Reborn” conference in Memphis, TN, sponsored by Van Jones’ organization Green for All. The conference commemorated the 40th anniversary of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s death and focused on the power of green jobs to address the systems that continue to keep racial and economic minorities underemployed, over-incarcerated and victimized by environmental injustice.
Summer of 2008 also marks the landmark legislation in Massachusetts to reduce energy consumption and spur clean energy technology. The law required, among other provisions, that utilities invest in energy efficiency and encouraged the creation of green communities. The Massachusetts’ Green Communities Act energized members of the WGJC, who had lobbied hard for the legislation.
In the years following its formation, the WGJC hosted a Green Jobs Fair, organized an event called “Youth Roots” where youth involved in green entrepreneurial initiatives came together to develop and share skills; and was the lead organizer of “Shaping a Local Green Economy” conference attended by 150 people. The Coalition also launched an initiative to create a weatherization revolving loan fund with an initial focus on neighborhoods most in need of jobs and energy savings. Around the same time, Worcester became the first city in the Commonwealth to qualify as a Green Community, positioning the city to receive significant state and federal grants for energy efficiency and alternative energy development projects.
Glooming times (or: Then the Bad News)
Throughout most of 2009, Van Jones’ message of social and environmental justice was in the ascendancy. In March 2009, President Obama appointed Jones to be Special Advisor for Green Jobs, Enterprise and Innovation at the White House Council on Environmental Quality. Six months later, Obama accepted Jones’ resignation in the midst of a conservative backlash against his appointment.
In March 2009, an electrical fire partly destroyed the Stone Soup community center where the WGJC had held its meetings. Stone Soup had served as a hub for grassroots groups in Worcester working for social justice. One WGJC member interviewed for this article mentioned the loss of the Stone Soup community meeting space as one reason attendance at WGJC meetings (at a temporary downtown location) dropped off.
Meanwhile, regional events were slowly pushing the coalition toward a reconsideration of its role in the community and mission. Ironically, the MassSave Program created through the state’s Green Communities Act legislation proved to be one of several obstacles to obtaining the financing needed to create a revolving loan fund. Waning commitment to a revolving loan fund also contributed to declining attendance at WGJC meetings.
By the end of 2009, the national political climate had degenerated in conjunction with the worsening crisis in the earth’s atmosphere, raising temperatures both physically on earth and metaphorically in societies around the world. The nation was deep in recession. Opposition to massive government expenditures to save the financial system and stimulate the economy dominated the national stage.
Shifting focus of the WGJC
By summer 2011, WGJC had 63 members on our high-volume email list-serve, and 173 individuals who followed our updates through a less active list-serve. The 10-15 active members who were attending monthly meetings represented new as well as old organizations. Several founding members of the coalition, including EPOCA, while remaining committed supporters, attended meetings less often; new members stepped in, bringing new energy and ideas, with a focus in particular on combating climate change and conserving energy.
Through the Green Communities Act, stimulus money, and Energy Efficiency and Conservation Block Grants (EECBG), Worcester had received millions of dollars for sustainability programs. However, the City contracted companies located outside the state and little money reached local laborers and grassroots organizations. In response to what we recognized as a lost opportunity, the WGJC formed a committee to bring the concerns of our unemployed and underemployed residents to local officials. We also considered projects such as developing a city-wide system of communication for organizations, businesses, and individuals committed to sustainable economic and environmental practices.
Founding members of the WGJC had been inspired by a vision of environmental justice that linked the redress of structural issues such as poverty and racism to solutions for climate change. As Worcester became a Transition Town, a Time Trade community, and formed a local chapter of the Sierra Club, the WGJC struggled for a common language and a common vision. In early 2011, an idea for a conference was proposed that would prove a turning point.
The Making a Green Solidarity Economy Conference
In early 2011, the WGJC collaborated with other organizations to sponsor and plan the Making a Green Solidarity Economy Conference. Members of the conference planning committee were inspired by proponents of the Solidarity Economy Network in the United States and popular democratic movements across the globe, which place the market back under the control of workers and communities. The conference attendees were asked to address several questions that brought together the concerns of the various WGJC member organizations and helped to refocus the WGJC mission: “What would a green (good for the environment) solidarity (cooperative and equitable) economy (our ways of doing business) look like in Worcester? The
The conference, held July 23 at the Worcester Youth Center, showcased examples of social and environmental justice initiatives and new economic practices in Worcester and the surrounding regions. The conference featured “skill shares,” a barter market, and a “really really free” market, as well as workshops on co-operative enterprises, community mobilization, community-owned renewable energy sources, and sustainable practices in business, and related initiatives.
The goal of the conference was to begin to build a network of alternative economic practices that prioritize people over profits. Response to the conference among WGJC members interviewed for this article was universally positive. One individual was inspired by examples of how workers had organized themselves to address issues of unemployment and unfair employment practices. As the WGJC member said, “We know about injustice in poor neighborhoods. We need to know how to solve it.” However, most appreciative comments focused on new connections made among individuals and groups in Worcester. Concrete new initiatives and organizations formed, linking carpenters, engineers, metal workers, and urban farmers, and integrating work on bio-diesel production, solar power generation, and greenhouse construction.
Several WGJC members voiced concern over the predominance of white, middle class, educated participants at the conference, a concern echoed later by several non-white presenters who expressed discomfort in the conference setting.
WGJC 2012: Compiling a Profile
In preparation for this article, I conducted brief interviews with nine WGJC members who attended recent WGJC meetings. They include founding and more recent members and two youth interns who participated in the conference last summer. They represent multiple organizations—Worcester Roots Project and Stone Soup, the Worcester Energy Barnraisers, the Sierra Club, the Pondera Project, Worcester Time Trade, Neighbor-to-Neighbor, and Empower Energy Coop. Two are university students; two are high school students; one is a university professor. Six are White, one is from the Dominican Republic; one has parents from Southeast Asia; one has parents from India. Five are male.
I asked several open-ended questions: “What is the green economy? What are your hopes for the green economy? And what are your hopes for the WGJC?” I also asked participants to evaluate the Green Solidarity Economy Conference held last summer, as the WGJC plans to hold a follow-up conference in Fall 2012.
There were many points of convergence among the respondents’ views of and visions for a green economy, as well as differences in emphasis and points of divergence. Respondents’ names have been withheld in the interest of producing a collective vision, with clearly articulated fissures and forks. By identifying where we differ as well as where we agree, this article will hopefully help us to move not toward a single unifying vision but toward a deeper analysis and understanding of where we are now and where we are headed—to define what we are building as we build it.
The mini-interviews may have encouraged perfunctory responses. Certainly, some comments listed under points of convergence might mask meaningful distinctions, and some comments highlighted as divergent might be elaborated into more nuanced positions, given more time. Nevertheless, the collective profile presented here raises important issues for the group. (All those interviewed had an opportunity to comment on the article before publication.)
Visioning a green economy
In general, the WGJC members I interviewed affirmed a commitment to a broad vision of sustainability that included, in addition to energy conservation, better resource utilization and an emphasis on the local context. For instance, one respondent listed “small green businesses, energy efficiency measures, renewables, homesteading, smaller organic farms, a focus on local initiatives and enterprises.” Another said that a green economy “doesn’t waste energy; it is a way of making people’s lives sustainable, growing their own food; cutting down on the cost of organics; creating jobs in the sustainable energy field—no coal or oil.” Similarly, “the green economy is local people; local trades; local jobs; sustainability; fair trade; ecology-based agriculture.”
A divergent perspective emphasized initiatives undertaken by industry: “appointing sustainability managers, carbon managers… I hope their people will also address pesticides, chemicals; continue developing these positions.” This view of a green economy fueled by industry, new technologies (“What’s really on fire is solar…”), carbon trading schemes, and government support (“….tax rebates and incentives hopefully will be renewed”) was expressed by only one interviewee, but it is shared by others on the WGJC email list who attend meetings more occasionally, who are affiliated with city government, the business community, and a Clark University research group.
Most interviewees rejected a market-driven model for a green economy. Several respondents challenged outright the role of corporations: “Don’t support corporations. Corporations are structured by power. Help co-ops; local businesses that run on alternative structures.” “(A green economy means) questioning corporate power; (focusing on) how new economies can be built.”
A critique of corporate capitalism was implicit in other comments, such as “Consuming our way to a sustainable future is not sustainable even if it’s green.” Instead, a green economy would be a service economy, fueled by “services that are necessarily local… (and) not exportable.” This interviewee referenced grassroots, volunteer enterprises, such as Earn-a-Bike and the Worcester Energy Barnraisers. “The challenge is how to compensate people for doing that….”
Another interviewee articulated the alternative to a market-driven economy in terms of closed-loop systems, which “emphasize reuse, locality, and energy minimalization.” These principles are in fact widely embraced by climate activists, including WGJC members who look to industry for solutions. However, it is useful to differentiate the visions of a green and sustainable future that underlie the comments of respondents. In one vision, corporate capitalism continues to play a central role, as businesses adopt energy efficient and ecologically sound practices in order to gain competitive advantage; the other, in which an alternative economy is created at a local level through cooperative ventures, driven not by profit but by social and environmental commitments. Juxtaposing these different vision can help to highlight overlapping as well as divergent goals and objectives.
Justice or Just us?
The interviews also made visible our different perspectives on the role of social justice work within the WGJC. When describing a green economy, five respondents made some reference to social justice. For instance, “the green economy is solidarity and equity”; “a green economy is “equality for genders; for people who have had darker pasts; for immigrants; no legal barriers to jobs…”; it “strives to find ways that everyone can participate”; “we need a shift in decision-making structures: they should be more bottom-up and guided by social justice concerns for CORI reform, race, gender, and other forms of discrimination.” “To be practicable, [the green economy] must address conditions of social inequity in all dimensions–inclusion; democratic participation… changing structures of ownership, production, distribution, [which is] crucial for mobilizing ingenuity, creativity, perceptiveness…”
A divergent perspective was expressed in answer to questions about the future of WGJC. In response to a follow-up prompt (“What about reaching out to people previously excluded– equity issues?”) the respondent said that equity “doesn’t have to be the driving force of the coalition; (it) can be one of its components, but (environmental justice initiatives are) not really making a big impact… (They) probably won’t capture big sectors… (We need) institutional backing—states; utilities…”
Despite Van Jones’ explication of the links between social and environmental justice, the view expressed above is shared by many environmental activists, who have historically overlooked societal structures of privilege and exclusion, institutional racism, poverty; as lesser concerns than the destruction of habitats in the natural world and the looming catastrophes of climate change. Most WGJC members voiced a commitment to social equity (one long-time member quoted Van Jones’ admonitions against “eco-apartheid”), but even such assertions can reflect quite different politics. The WGJC will benefit from sustained discussion of these issues and attention to the predominance of White, middle class, educated participants at membership meetings.
A number of concerns identified by one or two (rather than most) respondents suggest other fruitful avenues for discussion at planning meetings. Interviewees expressed interest in making youth development a focus going forward; keeping workforce development and green collar jobs as one focus within a broader mission; working more closely with local government; making low income neighborhoods more safe and clean; making income inequality a central focus; building connections with the Occupy movement, and building connections with a Worcester State University Geography program designed to open the University to the community and produce engaged citizens capable of building a sustainable community.
The recently revised mission of the WGJC commits us to dream big, encouraging us not only to work within the current system to push for clean energy, green jobs, and sustainable business practices, but also to envision something bigger, more equitable, more rooted in trust and solidarity. As part of its new mission, the WGJC promises to provide a forum for “consensus-based discussion.” The consensus process should not obscure our differences. It is the view of this writer (an adult WGJC intern) that our strength resides in diversity—we need more of it; not a unifying doctrine, not one voice, not self-certainty, not an all-encompassing answer, but rather ongoing engagement with each other, reflexive analysis of ourselves and our community, and a shared sense of accomplishment gained from taking many small steps that realize practical solutions to our varied, lived concerns.