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Building connections and resisting oppressions.

How to Turn Neighborhoods Into Hubs of Resilience

 PUSH
Photo courtesy of PUSH Buffalo

Think of it as a silver lining to the gathering dark clouds. We live in an era of extraordinary disruption, from the serial crises of a changing climate to the wrenching shifts of a globalized economy. But in that disruption lies the potential for positive transformation.

Addressing climate change requires adapting to the impacts that are already here—heat waves, droughts, superstorms and more—while preventing and mitigating future impacts. Taking these challenges seriously calls for radical changes in the way we live. It calls us to zero out our carbon emissions, and to rethink the systems that shape our lives, including the economy, food and power. It calls us to fundamentally transition from a world of domination and extraction to a world of regeneration, resilience, and interdependence.

It’s a tall order, no doubt, but that transition is already underway. In our work with movement builders on the front lines of the transition, we’ve identified two key guideposts—connectedness and equity—that point us toward the world we want.

Connectedness is the recognition that our well-being is inextricably tied to that of other people and the planet itself. It means there are no throwaway people, no throwaway places, no throwaway anything. In fact, there’s no “away”; there’s just here. In practice, connectedness is about lifting up the voices of the marginalized, and it means regenerating forgotten places, from industrial brownfields to hollowed-out rural towns and Rust Belt cities. The second guidepost, equity, is about recognizing and repairing the harm generated by situations of extreme power imbalance. Equity is about building power from the bottom up.

When communities are fully engaged in problem-solving, they come up with holistic solutions that address complex, interlocking challenges. Here are three.

Sunset Park, Brooklyn, New York

When Superstorm Sandy ripped through the Eastern Seaboard in 2012, the waterfront neighborhood of Sunset Park was hit hard. Power lines toppled and businesses were shuttered. The neighborhood’s industrial district flooded, washing toxic residue into nearby residential areas.

But as the people of Sunset Park worked together to rebuild, a hopeful possibility emerged. What if the neighborhood rebuilt in ways that made the local economy more resilient and equitable, while limiting the impact of climate change? That’s the vision of UPROSE, a grassroots environmental justice group that took root in Sunset Park 50 years ago.

“Superstorm Sandy was a real wakeup call for our community,” says UPROSE director Elizabeth Yeampierre. “Climate change is here now, and waterfront communities like ours are extremely vulnerable.” The neighborhood’s low-income, immigrant residents were especially at risk, so in the aftermath of Superstorm Sandy, they turned to UPROSE for a community organizing effort to prepare for a wetter, more uncertain future.

The plan they came up with builds climate resilience while protecting the environment, health, and—crucially—jobs.

The point is not simply to rebuild what was there before; UPROSE members don’t want more jobs in the same dirty industries that had polluted the neighborhood for decades. “We have a lot of businesses on the waterfront, and we want to keep them here because people need places to work,” Yeampierre says. “But we want safe places to work.” To that end, UPROSE has joined forces with labor unions, the Center for Working Families, and business owners to transform Sunset Park’s industrial space into a manufacturing hub that produces environmentally friendly building and construction materials, powered by renewable energy. And they are encouraging these industries to hire locally.

It’s a plan that addresses many problems at once. In a city with skyrocketing inequality and rampant gentrification, it could help preserve the blue-collar jobs that once anchored the middle class. At the same time, it could reduce toxic hazards and make Sunset Park a safer, healthier place to live. And it could reduce the carbon emissions that are driving that change.

The process of developing the plan was as transformational as the plan itself. UPROSE consults with residents on the future they want, then arms them with the tools they need to make that vision a reality. Some residents take on the role of block captains and gather input and educate their neighbors on city planning processes. Through partnerships with researchers, residents conduct participatory action research on issues of concern. It’s a deeply democratic, holistic approach that builds local power and increases community control over resources—key elements of community resilience.

Buffalo, New York

Left behind by the globalized economy, Buffalo has lost more than half its population since 1950. By 2005, when the community group People United for Sustainable Housing (PUSH) Buffalo was founded, residents of the West Side neighborhood were struggling with unemployment, rampant blight, and high energy costs.

At that time, there were an estimated 23,000 vacant homes in Buffalo. PUSH took on a state housing agency that was using vacant buildings to speculate on Wall Street, and got the buildings turned over to the community—with funding to fix them up.

Next, PUSH brought together hundreds of community residents to craft a plan for a large, blighted area. The result is a 25-square-block Green Development Zone(GDZ), which is now a model of energy-efficient, affordable housing. PUSH and its nonprofit development company rehabilitate homes in the GDZ, installing efficiency upgrades, like insulation and geothermal heating, that dramatically lower residents’ utility bills. The organization won a New York state grant to build 46 new homes, including a net zero house, which produces as much energy as it consumes.

The GDZ doubles as a jobs program. Through its construction projects, PUSH has cultivated a growing network of contractors who are committed to hiring locally. And PUSH successfully advocated for New York’s Green Jobs-Green New York program, which seeks to create 35,000 jobs while providing energy upgrades and retrofits for 1 million homes across the state.

Across the West Side, PUSH has transformed the urban landscape. In partnership with Buffalo Niagara Riverkeeper and the Massachusetts Avenue Project, PUSH has turned trash-strewn, vacant lots into state-of-the-art rain gardens, small urban farms, and aquaponics greenhouses. These urban oases bolster food security, while providing much-needed green space.

Richmond, California

A predominantly low-income community of color is challenging the oil giant that has long dominated their city.

In Richmond, the 3,000-acre Chevron refinery looms over the city with towering smokestacks and tangled pipes going in every direction. The largest of its kind in California, the Chevron refinery showers Richmond with unpronounceable toxic chemicals and periodic fiery explosions that put residents at risk. As a major source of jobs and tax revenue, Chevron has long held outsized influence on the city’s politics. But, fed up with their toxic neighbor, residents are working to counterbalance the company’s political muscle.

The first step was to activate community power. A coalition of local nonprofits including the Asian Pacific Environmental Network (APEN), Communities for a Better Environment (CBE), the Alliance of Californians for Community Empowerment(ACCE), the Richmond Progressive Alliance, and Faith-Works brought residents together to devise solutions to community problems.

The coalition organized forums and rallies, held regular learning institutes for decision-makers, and encouraged public participation at planning commission meetings. In this way, residents reshaped their city’s General Plan to make Richmond less reliant on Chevron. The new General Plan emphasizes green industries, anti-displacement policies, and better mass transit systems. Now, the coalition is at work translating the plan into projects, programs, and laws.

At the same time, the Our Power campaign in Richmond is working to build community control over essential resources, such as food, land, water, and energy. Our Power partners with Cooperation Richmond, a local co-op incubator and loan fund that helps low-income residents create their own cooperatively owned businesses. The group holds the annual Our Power Festival, which brings together residents, small businesses, and the public sector to envision a transition to local energy management.

Despite this groundswell of community organizing, Chevron continued to hold sway on the City Council. So the organizers switched to electoral tactics to supporting progressive candidates who would stand up to the oil giant. And it worked. In 2014, despite millions of dollars invested in the election by Chevron, residents voted in candidates aligned with community values and renewable energy.

“Winning political power, especially in this political moment, is critical for communities at the intersection of poverty and pollution,” says APEN Action executive director Miya Yoshitani. “If we are going to win back our democracy from the hands of corporations, and win the powerful vision we have for living local economies, we need to invest in organizing the power of the people and the polls in all our neighborhoods.”


Taj James and Rosa González wrote this article for YES! Magazine. Taj James is the founder, executive director, and a board member of Movement Strategy Center, a national nonprofit that promotes movement-building strategies and supports organizations to work more collaboratively and sustainably.

Rosa is the center’s director of applied practice and leads the Community Climate Solutions program to advance transformative resilience strategies that accelerate the emerging transition to a regenerative and interconnected world.

A More Equitable Economy Exists Right Next Door

 Quebec
Photo courtesy Jay Walljasper

  • Business owners gather at an elegant Montreal event center to celebrate the 20th anniversary of a large-scale economic partnership.The former chief of Quebec’s largest bank is the guest of honor.
  • Sidewalks bustle with people walking in and out of homes, offices, a bank, a pharmacy, a workout studio and a coffee shop at Montreal’s Technopole Angus — a development that already sports 56 business with 2500 employees and will eventually encompass a million-square-feet of real estate.
  • Morning-shift workers unload barrels of paper onto conveyor belts emptying into giant shredding machines on the shop floor of Recyclage Vanier, a Quebec City firm specializing in secure disposal of confidential documents.
  • A line snakes down the street for a matinee at the Cinema Beaubien, an art deco moviehouse in a quiet Montreal neighborhood. Taxis line up across the street waiting for customers who will soon be getting out of the early show.
  • Leonard Cohen’s gravelly voice rings through the taproom at La Barberie Brewery, located near Quebec City’s business district.Their Belgian-style saisons and bestselling blackberry blanc beers are enjoyed throughout the province. A few blocks away, an 18th century monastery inside Quebec City’s historic walls has recently opened its doors as a hotel and spa.

Welcome to everyday life in Quebec — Canada’s 2nd largest province with 8.2 million people. Yet these scenes of economic activity are different in a notable way from similar ones occurring throughout North America.

Each enterprise involves a cooperative or non-profit organization — which together make up 8-10 percent of the province’s GDP.  More than 7000 of these “social economy” enterprises ring up $17 billion in annual sales and hold $40 billion in assets (Canadian dollars).  They account for about 215,000 jobs across Quebec.

Quebec’s social economy (also translated as “solidarity economy”) extends far beyond the province’s two major cities, and includes manufacturing, agricultural cooperatives, daycare centers, homecare services, affordable housing, social service initiatives, food coops, ecotourism, arts programs, public markets, media and funeral homes. The capital that fuels all this economic activity comes from union pension funds, non-profit loan funds, credit unions, government investment, and philanthropy.

“We always say the social economy is simply the formalization of the commons. It’s social ownership, the goal of which is a sustainable, democratic economy with a market — instead of a market economy,” explains Nancy Neamtan, co-founder of Chantier de l’Economie Sociale, a network of social economy organizations whose anniversary banquet is described above. “Our mission is building a broader vision of what the economy actually is.”

“When Chantier started out, a lot of people said it wouldn’t work. We had unions, women’s organizations, green groups, and many thought it was too diverse,” Neamtan says. “But it does work.” Evidence for her assertion is visible all around — Chantier’s office is tucked into a six story building that takes up most of a city block, all of which is filled with social economy organizations. 

Not all of these social businesses are new — some of the credit unions, cooperatives and union pension funds go back a hundred years. “But they were largely invisible to many people until the name social economy became popular,” Neamtan adds.

Quebec’s social economy ranges from a video game creator’s cooperative to a social integration program for Haitian immigrants to a coop grocery in a remote town on the Gaspe peninsula to a network of 8000 home healthcare workers, half of whom were on welfare before being trained for the field.  Here are more examples showing the range of these enterprises:

Groupe Paradoxe

Chantier de l’Economie Sociale’s 20th Anniversary celebration was staged in a renovated church run by Groupe Paradoxe, which teaches at-risk young people job skills in the booming audio-visual presentation, events and meetings industries. 

Desjardins Group

The banker honored for his work at Chantier’s banquet was former president of the Desjardins credit union, founded in 1900 and today the province’s largest financial institution.

The Nitaskinam Cooperative

Also on hand at the banquet was Nitaskinam, an Inuit-run cooperative which designs clothing inspired by art of the Atikamekw people, which has doubled from three to six members in its first year. “The social economy is our traditional economic model and fits with our values,” explains co-founder Karine Awashish, who is also an economic development official of this tribal nation. “I see good opportunities for us to create new social economy jobs in forestry, health services, tourism, arts festivals and youth projects.”

UTILE Student Housing Cooperative

One of the youngest entrepreneurs at the banquet, Laurent Levesque, helped launch a student housing development organization with other activists involved in the headline-grabbing 2012 Quebec Student Strike, collaborating with Chantier de l’économie Trust.  “Students pay 70-80 percent more in rent on average,” he explained, “which creates an inflationary spiral” that hurts not just them, but their low-income neighbors.  With start-up capital from the Concordia Student Union and further funding from social economy partners like Desjardins and the province of Quebec, UTILE is set to break ground on apartments for 160 students.

Technopole Angus

It’s no coincidence that that the Desjardins credit union has a branch in the new Technopole Angus sustainable urban village, which brings opportunities to a working class neighborhood that was rocked when the Canadian Pacific Railway shuttered its machine shops in 1992.  A number of historic brick structures were repurposed, and new eco-friendly buildings constructed, with more planned for the project’s phase II.  The community will eventually include 500 affordable housing units, 450,000 square-feet of office space, 20 local shops, four public squares, a bike-pedestrian main street and a one-acre urban farm growing organic produce.

Recylage Vanier

A non-profit organization started 30 years ago by two out-of-work men who realized the recycling industry could benefit the disadvantaged as well as the earth, Recylage Vanier offers training for people struggling to find work because of low job skills, recent immigration, substance abuse, mental illness, disability, or other challenges. Jobseekers arrive here for a 24-week program that emphasizes work readiness and life skills as well as on-the-job experience.  Most are long-term unemployed, who have been sent by the Quebec employment bureau and social service groups.

“They have to get along with a boss, get along with colleagues, master simple tasks and then take on new ones with more responsibility, all the way up to driving a forklift,” says Nicolas Reeves, one of Vanier’s managers.  For the final four weeks, they split their time between the recycling plant and job hunting with the help of staff counselors. About 85 percent of graduates find work, and 10 percent seek further education, according to Reeves. Recylage Vanier faces stiff competition from two private companies in the field, so clients who value the organization’s mission are important to their success — including the province of Quebec, which provides about half their business.

Cinema Beaubien

This is non-profit neighborhood moviehouse explicitly proclaims its mission to “defend the primacy of persons and labor over capital in the distribution of its surpluses and incomes.”  The cinema’s importance as a community gathering spot can be witnessed in the long lines at the ticket booth, where patrons merrily chat with one another rather than staring at their phones. Taxis wait across the streets to whisk moviegoers to their next destination, about half of which are from the Taxi Coop Montreal.  (In Quebec City, all taxi drivers belong to a cooperative.)

La Barberie Cooperative Microbrewery

Operating as a worker cooperative for the past 20 years explains the success of this brewery and brewpub, says general manager Jean-Francois Genest, who joined La Barberie three years ago after running his family’s bookstore and later converting another bookstore into a cooperative. “The coop is a good plan to keep a place going. Sharing the profits means you attract the best workers. For our part, we try to make their jobs as interesting as possible, offer more holidays and higher pay.” Emilie DuMais, who’s tended bar here for eight years, notes, “You have much more ambition working for yourself than working for someone else.”

Le Monastere des Augustines

A convent dating back to 1700s in the heart of Quebec City’s walled city has just opened as an elegantly renovated hotel, spa, museum and conference center. It is organized as a non-profit in accordance with the social mission of nuns still living there to promote holistic health and spiritual renewal. Besides tourists, spa patrons and participants in corporate meetings, guests also include activist groups holding retreats and health care workers seeking a reprieve from the stress of their jobs.

RISQ

In 1997 Chantier created RISQ (Reseau d’Investissement Social du Quebec), which has invested $25 million in technical aid and capital for social economy businesses, resulting in: 1786 new jobs, 5,119 jobs maintained and job training for 1527 marginalized workers across Quebec, according to their calculations.  RISQ financial analyst Nathalie Villemure, who worked for many years in private banking, notes that they see fewer defaults than commercial lenders. “These people have a cause bigger than themselves, so they work harder and we help them find solutions.”

Fiducie

In 2007 Chantier launched Fiducie, a $50 million “patient capital” (or slow money) fund that provides long term, non-guaranteed loans of $50,000-1.5 million to promising cooperatives and non-profits with less than 200 employees. “We don’t expect to see anything in repayment for 15 years,” says General Manager Jacques Charest. Thirty million of the investment came from union pension funds with the rest from the federal and provincial governments.   

What We Can Learn from Quebec’s Social Economy

While Quebec possesses a distinct culture and history, the emergence of a strong social economy across the province provides practical lessons for other places. 

Recognize the Social Economy When You See It

Cooperatives and non-profit initiatives already exist throughout the US and most other countries, so the first step is seeing, naming and claiming the social economy as part of the commons we all share. 

Look Widely for Inspiration & Ideas

Neamtan points out that the American tradition of community organizing was a big influence on their early work, especially community development corporations (CDCs) that arose to tackle problems of disinvestment in urban neighborhoods. The Dudley Street Initiative, which transformed a low-income community in the Roxbury district of Boston, was a particular inspiration for her. The proliferation of cooperatives in the Basque and Catalonian regions of Spain provided another model for bottom-up economic development.

Seek Solidarity

Social economy initiatives benefit from the longstanding sense of solidarity in Quebec, where French speakers were discriminated against and their local economy dominated by English-speaking Canadians, Americans and English.  A analogous situation can be found among racial and social minorities, and in rural and deindustrialized regions where economic power is wielded from outside.

Tap the Power of Government

Government agencies have been a partners and funders in many projects through the years. Social economy initiatives often arose even when conservative politicians were slashing government programs to provide a more humane alternative to strictly market-oriented development. Legislation passed by the left-center Parti Quebecois in 1997 gave the social economy movement a big boost by offering local governments more leeway in supporting community and cooperative efforts to create jobs and promote entrepreneurship.

Partner with Unions

“The labor movement boosted the social economy by making the choice in the 1980s not to just negotiate contracts but to create jobs and support civic enterprises,” explains Neamtan, which led to the creation of the landmark Quebec Solidarity Fund, an $11-billion-dollar pension fund, of which 65 percent is invested in small- and medium-sized Quebec-owned businesses.

Partner with Faith Organizations

Historically, the Catholic church controlled many aspects of life in the province, and priests enthusiastically promoted cooperatives and non-profit institutions as models of the church’s social teaching. By the end of the 20th century when the church’s influence waned in the face of increasing secularization, social economy organizations found numerous opportunities to set up shop in closed churches and convents.  The church remains an ally, Neamtan notes, “especially now that Pope Francis talks all the time about the Solidarity Economy.”