Co-Creating Policy, re-writing the rules that govern economic systems from the grassroots up

Sometimes it isn’t enough to change the way you play. Sometimes you have to change the game itself, and the Localist movement is re-writing the rules that govern economic systems from the grassroots up.

By drafting, advocating for and implementing policy, a broad cross-section of entrepreneurs, policymakers, economic development professionals and community members are transforming the legal structures that undergird the economy. New rules are needed to put an end to corporate subsidies and instead reward benefit corporations, mission-based procurement, investment in health, minimum wages, rights of nature, smart land-use planning and better public transportation.Policy2

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NAACP branches in Portland, Eugene and Corvallis are looking to pass a policy that will improve energy efficiency in communities of color and for people of low-income.

While Oregon is recognized as a national leader in renewable and clean energy policies, the NAACP says populations of lesser means are not reaping the benefits.

“The beneficiaries of our current energy policies are primarily White, middleclass or upper-income individuals,” Jo Ann Hardesty, president of the NAACP Portland branch, told The Skanner. “Low-income folks and communities of color are continuing to struggle with high energy costs and the inability to live in an energy-retrofitted environment.”

The organization’s findings and recommendations are detailed in a recent report, “Just Energy Policies and Practices: Oregon Report on Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy Policies,” which was presented by the NAACP to the Legislature during a lobby day at the Oregon State Capitol earlier last month.

The report is part of the NAACP’s nationwide campaign to educate lawmakers on how these populations are most vulnerable to the negative impacts of climate change, especially at a time when the Trump administration continues to deny it.

“Communities of color and low-income communities have historically had less access to good jobs and housing in safer, less polluted neighborhoods,” wrote NAACP Corvallis president Frederick J. Edwards in the report.

The organization is asking that communities of color and low-income are given more opportunity to participate in the green economy.

To accomplish that the NAACP says these populations need access to affordable clean energy – and a share of the jobs.

“We hope that there will be a change in policy that really starts to identify how communities of color can take advantage of some of these opportunities to create green infrastructure,” said Hardesty.

Higher levels of pollution, illness in communities of color

According to the “Just Energy Policies and Practices” report, communities of color nationwide are disproportionately exposed to pollution from sources like power plants, toxic sites and roadways.

Across the nation approximately 68 percent of African Americans live within 30 miles of a coal-fired power plant, which in 2016 was the second largest generator of electricity in the U.S. at 30.4 percent, just behind natural gas at 33.8 percent.

Furthermore, Blacks who reside near energy production facilities are likely to suffer the health impacts of prolonged exposure to toxins like smog, lead, asbestos and mercury more than any other group of Americans.

In Oregon Blacks make up just less than three percent of the state’s population, yet suffer higher rates of asthma and other health problems due to their proximity to pollutants.

So the issue, according to the NAACP, is two-fold: people of low-income and communities of color directly suffer more of the health-related and economic consequences of industrial pollution than White people. Because of this they’re also the first to experience the fallout of climate change, such as natural disasters, extreme weather and food and clean water insecurity due to drought.

New policies must come

On June 1 – the same day the Trump administration withdrew from the Paris climate agreement – the city of Portland and Multnomah County committed to a goal of meeting 100 percent of its energy needs with renewable power by 2050.

But the current policies and practices tend to benefit only people of means.

For example, Oregon offers an extensive list of statewide, utility-specific incentives and rebates for those who commit to energy efficient or clean energy sources, like solar or wind.

Yet those very incentives give tax breaks to the wealthy, and are far less inclusive and accessible to communities of color and households of low-to-moderate incomes.

According to a report by the Washington D.C. nonprofit, Groundswell, almost 10 percent of all residential energy in the U.S. is consumed by low-income renters, who are often ineligible for incentives typically targeted to homeowners.

However, Groundswell calculates that if basic energy efficiency upgrades were installed in units, low income renters could save nearly four billion dollars annually.

Moreover, if the efficiency levels of the average African American household were matched to the average American household, 42 percent of excess energy would be saved, states a report by the American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy.

The NAACP is paying close attention to the figures.

The Corvallis branch has put pressure on the city council to create practices that will help curb the increasing harm of climate change.

Unfortunately, after assembling a Climate Action Plan, the city has made little strides in implementing the strategy.

“Corvallis City Council needs a fire lit under them,” said Edwards.

Hardesty, however, is a little more optimistic.

The NAACP Portland branch is currently working with the Just Energy Coalition, whose members include APANO, Verde, 350pdx and Sierra Club.

The bill – which supporters are hoping to get on the May 2018 ballot – would prioritize energy improvements for low-income, multi-family complexes and low-income homeowners, as well as boost job training for people of color in the emerging green energy sector.

Energy Trust of Oregon, which serves utility customers with energy-saving services and cash-back incentives, told The Skanner it’s paying attention to the NAACP’s work in broadening access to clean energy.

The nonprofit also said it wants to ensure its services are equitable and inclusive, and it’s currently expanding its outreach to communities of color, renters and customers with moderate incomes.

“We are conducting research to understand where there are gaps in our services and to gain insights through focus groups on energy decision-making in small businesses and Asian, African American and Latino communities,” said Hannah Cruz, senior communications manager at Energy Trust of Oregon.

Job creation in energy

The unfortunate truth is that, “while African Americans endure many of the harmful impacts of energy production, they also reap few of the benefits from the energy sector,” according to the NAACP’s report.

Furthermore, in a 2010 study by the American Association of Blacks in Energy, African Americans spent $41 billion on energy in 2009, but only held 1.1 percent of energy jobs and gained only .01 percent of the revenue from the energy sector profits.

Meanwhile, compared to the rest of the U.S. economy, the renewable energy sector is creating jobs at a rate 12 times faster.

That’s why the NAACP is asking Oregon policymakers to help them dramatically shift the relationship between communities of color and the multi-billion dollar energy industry.

The organization recommends that Oregon utilize two provisions.

One is Local Hire, which could mandate that contractors with publicly funded energy projects hire a proportion of local workers.

“What we have now is the ability to get people of color into apprenticeship programs,” said Hardesty, “but no accountability when it comes to graduating them to journeymen status, so they are able to apply for energy job contracts.”

The second is through the Oregon Minority Business Enterprise, which certifies businesses that are 51 percent owned or operated by members of a minority group.

The NAACP is asking Oregon to strengthen its MBE program through training and funds. Doing so, it says, would raise the profile of its certification and help jumpstart connections between minority businesses and the energy sector.

…Flaccavento urges us to move beyond what he calls a “false choice” between local and national issues to recognize “that almost every positive change we make in our own communities is ultimately either undermined or supported by broader economic and political choices.” We cannot coast on a “small is beautiful” community garden project or worker-owned café—not while federal policies push down wages, shift billions to the military, and subsidize corporations that destroy Main Street commerce.

Flaccavento’s perspective is grounded in his work as a farmer, entrepreneur, and candidate for Congress, with decades of experience building a regional food system and relocalized economy in southern Virginia. While he lifts up inspiring examples of urban local economy projects, he also deeply understands the challenges facing rural communities that have been bypassed by the lopsided economic gains of the past four decades. In regions like southern Virginia, where the median income is below $30,000 a year and the poverty rate is over 25 percent in some communities, new economy solutions have the potential to transcend political differences by creating and fixing infrastructure, generating jobs, increasing food security, and reducing energy costs.

The tools for change that Flaccavento offers in Bottom Up resonate with the social change frameworks of deep-ecology thinker Joanna Macy and Indian independence leader Mahatma Gandhi.

Step One: Stop Threats to People and the Earth

Macy writes that to achieve social change, we must first engage in “holding actions” to stop the destruction of the Earth and its beings. In the current context, this includes defending immigrants, protecting civil liberties, and blocking policies that will worsen economic injustices. Activities range from political advocacy and community education to public witness protests and blockadia direct action campaigns against new fossil fuel infrastructure. Similarly, in the context of the movement for Indian independence, Gandhi used what’s been called an “obstructive program” of nonviolent direct action to achieve social change.

Flaccavento too believes an important step toward social change is obstruction of harmful systems, policies, and organizations. For example, Flaccavento tells a story about the town of Bristol, Virginia, which awarded a $5,000 local entrepreneurship prize to celebrate a local business while 5 miles away the county provided $50 million in government subsidies to construct a big box store for a national chain. As he points out, the big box store will harm the local economy, yet it received a subsidy 10,000 times larger than any local business. So when a Walmart was proposed in Flaccavento’s hometown of Abingdon, Virginia, he threw himself into a coalition working to obstruct the store’s construction.

Step Two: Build Local, Alternative Systems and State and Federal Policies That Support Them

The second part of Macy’s framework for change is to build structural alternatives to the dominant systems that harm—alternatives largely rooted in local communities. This is what Gandhi called the “constructive program,” building the new society in the shell of the existing.

These local alternatives should serve as a foundation for broader policy change. Like Gandhi, Flaccavento is skeptical of centralized solutions but knows that if we walk away from national politics, the vacuum will be filled by absentee corporate power. To create change, he says, we need a public policy program that removes barriers and speeds the transition. For example, Flaccavento proposes business regulations that are “scale appropriate” and reduce the regulatory burdens on start-up, local, and home-based businesses. Instead of subsidizing absentee-owned national conglomerates, local government should direct procurement and subsidies to locally rooted enterprises.

A key ingredient in Flaccavento’s program to strengthen local alternatives is to build community-based politics of engagement to overcome the power of corporate lobbyists. I was attracted to Flaccavento’s vision of a movement of “food citizens,” which would engage the 5 million to 10 million people who shop at farmers markets or are members of one of the 4,000 CSAs. Imagine using this people power to change the national farm bill, which allocates most subsidies to the biggest 10 percent of agribusiness. These food citizens, along with community banking activists and local business owners, could be a powerful constituency for transformation—and a countervailing force to what Flaccavento calls WTF (Wealth Trumps Fairness) politics.

Step Three: Nurture a Shift in Social Consciousness

The third step in Macy’s framework for change is to nurture a shift in social consciousness—one that centers on community economics and interconnectedness.

For Flaccavento, creating space for meaningful public debate is critical to shifting social consciousness. He quotes Mimi Pickering, one of the founders of Appalshop, a cultural change resource center in Kentucky: “In order for people to turn away from the politics of denial that have overtaken the electorate … there needs to be a visible counter narrative about what else is possible here.”

Flaccavento lifts up the importance of place-based public forums as a way to build community knowledge, capacity, and shared storytelling. In my urban neighborhood of Boston, the Jamaica Plain Forum has been a key ingredient in getting people together to engage in important community conversations around speakers, films, and workshops. There is power in building institutions such as local radio stations, community media, storytelling venues, and theater groups that enable a community to lift up its own stories. These face-to-face “open spaces” are building blocks for authentic democracy—and their decline has impoverished our public life.

Alone, locally focused action will not overcome the systemic forces that are fueling the concentration of wealth and power and supercharging racial and economic disparities, climate change, and mass incarceration. Our best chance is a mass movement that works to stop threats to people and planet while building local alternatives at the same time. A place-based new economy will grow grassroots people power to fuel broad change while offering a new story of how we must live together.



“What’s Next? with Peter Buffett” invites leaders to share their ideas on changes to come and how we might help create that change. Peter Buffett has partnered with BALLE to highlight some of the leaders driving the shift toward an economy that works for all.

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