Ben Powless: Grassroots must lead transition to green economy

The Power Shift Canada 2009 conference will take place in Ottawa from October 23-26. The focus is on climate change, but also on a ‘just transition’ to green jobs. Between 1000-1500 mainly young activists will gather to figure out how to present the case for a shift to a green economy, and to develop strategy for local organizing to make that happen.

Ben Powless is a Mohawk youth and one of the key organizers of the conference. He’s involved with the Canadian Youth Climate Coalition, and the Indigenous Environmental Network, among other pursuits. I had the opportunity to meet with him and hear firsthand the importance of green jobs and how we can get there in an equitable, just manner.

Ben Powless: Primarily the focus around green jobs is to try and imagine a society and an economy, a way of life that is environmentally sustainable: to try and imagine the actual jobs and the transition that we would have to go through to get towards this society. And in recognition of that, it also tries to address at the same time the fundamental social inequalities in our societies, especially tackling issues of poverty, issues of poor and low-income communities, marginalized communities, frequently not having access to most aspects of the environmental movement and not having access to a clean, healthy, safe environment -- forms of environmental justice, really.

And so, starting with this idea that -- there’s almost a human rights basis to it -- that people of colour, people from poor communities, have just as much a right, in many cases even more of a right where their communities have been marginalized in the past, to participate in this new economy. The Green For All [organization based in the Bay Area, California] and their initiatives and their coalitions focus on generating support, generating policies, and then actually involving and bringing together networks of people that can be involved in actual training programs: primarily they focus on young people, and in the U.S. especially there’s a focus on people who’ve been convicted and are returning from prison sentences, to take up a lot of these positions that are designated as part of the green economy. And they’re positions from all aspects of the economy, from typical what’s called ‘blue collar’ work right up to ‘white collar’ work, from research to actual design to manufacturing, as well as things like to simply going into houses and fixing them up, construction, manufacturing processes as well.

So it really focuses on trying to envision what are all the very much fundamental aspects of our society that we really need to make different: from our energy sources, from our food sources, to the way we build things and the way we consume things and eventually have to recycle them. That’s sort of the idea of the green economy: it has to be all of these things, and at the same time we have to make sure that this economy doesn’t recreate the injustices and the inequalities of our past grey economy.

Greg Macdougall: When you’re talking about that, that’s socioeconomic disparity.

BP: It’s economic justice.

GM: So environmental justice, economic justice and social justice all tied together. And I guess it’s looking at the green economy beyond just consumer choices, but actually the other side of that is employment, and that has to equitably divided or participated in.

BP: It has to be equitable and the other thing is it has to be local. That’s the other thing about a lot of the way this idea is set up, is that remodelling a house, doing energy audits, installing renewable energy systems, doing local community agriculture, community gardens -- these are all fundamentally local processes, and it can be replicated on a wide scale in most urban and even semi-urban centres across North America, and in a lot of other places; in a lot of other places they already exist in terms of agricultural systems and local markets, but these are things that I think we really have as a basic precept for a new society, a new economy. And these are the kind of things that also can’t be outsourced really, and it also provides secure employment for people in those kinds of positions as long as we’re able to sustain them. …

The idea of the green economy is being picked up, but it’s being picked up by a lot of governments, it’s being picked up by big environmental NGOs, sometimes it’s unions as well, and sometimes businesses. And so there’s a real threat there, that if we don’t have a solid base, a solid grassroots base, if we don’t have a solid community-centred accountability behind the green jobs movement it could very much become a greenwashed movement that just says all these industries are going to be all of a sudden green employment, green jobs, and they’re going to escape the scrutiny just because they get some sort of label -- that’s the typical greenwash anything goes.

So the idea is to really make sure these kind of things come from the community, and they’re actually able to represent this different paradigm, this economic justice / social justice / environmental justice framework, which some of the green jobs discourse that’s coming out, especially from governments and corporations and even environmental NGOs, doesn’t really take into account, they just sort of say we’re going to pump in $120 million into this, and it’s going to create some green jobs. Well they don’t say how many, they don’t say who it’s going to go to, they don’t talk about how people are actually going to get employment and training from local communities, and how those jobs are going to be sustainable into the long run. Those are the kind of things we really need to be talking about.

GM: So when you say we, who do you mean? Those things you mentioned as threats, are all, I would say and I think the book, The Green Collar Economy by Van Jones, says that those are people that need to be brought into the conversation, but I guess what you’re saying is that it’s not up to them to dominate, or to come up with a solution, it’s just to play a role that is led by the grassroots?

BP: Yes, that’s really how I see it. I think that’s the only way that it can go forward as a movement and maintain these principles that I’ve outlined here, that I think it really needs to, to in any way attempt to tackle these struggles for environmental and social justice, because otherwise it just becomes another environmental initiative that’s limited to rich communities who are able to buy organic food and who are able to buy solar panels.

If we don’t actually make sure that it’s led by communities, it’s not going to be the poorer communities who get access to their own sources of energy, who get access to energy audits -- for example the Energy Guide program here in Canada was shut down on a massive scale. And it’s going to be especially immigrant and poorer communities who don’t have access to education and training who are not going to be able to get those jobs, and are not going to be able to be involved in setting up any of those programs. So that’s why it’s really crucial to make sure that, as this movement expands, which it will, these communities are able to be there at the table as some of the main initiators of this discussion. And I think that’s why it’s crucial that we have to really start getting these people involved now.

GM: And how do we do that?

BP: I’ve already been part of one really fascinating meeting in Toronto, actually. I was invited to speak at this meeting with a number of community organizers from Jane and Finch, as well as the Canadian Auto Workers’ Union, who have a factory based out of the Jane and Finch community, so they have a local union there and I guess they’re pretty involved in the local area.

They basically brought together all these different people from community centres, from health centres, from child service centres, and from actual community organizing groups in the Jane and Finch neighbourhood district and started to talk about green jobs in the community. And, to my surprise actually, one of the community centres in Jane and Finch had already gone ahead and gotten some money to hire some people to do training for the young people in the community and by the end of this year they should be able to go and do some preliminary energy audits and environmental audits within their community, and then with further money be able to actually start implementing some of these programs and look towards more long term planning and community involvement in this initiative.

I think that really highlights an ideal way that this process can be brought about, led and organized and started by community groups, but supported by groups who are willing to come out there, support them, rally around it, and contribute their resources, material, their time and people to the efforts. And it wasn’t just the Canadian Auto Workers: the people from Jane and Finch community invited myself as well on behalf of the Canadian Youth Climate Coalition, knowing that we’ve been starting to organize around this, they invited a few people from some environmental groups from within Toronto, one or two academic people who’ve been following this idea, and so the idea is really that this kind of thing can expand, this is just one neighbourhood that’s already gotten the ball moving, but this can quickly expand to other communities as soon as that light bulb turns on and people say, this is something that is going to be long-term beneficial, it’s going to save people money, it’s going to get us involved, give people jobs, give people training, give people opportunity to tackle a lot of the economic problems and poverty and social issues, and at the same time be a significant contributor to green jobs and the green economy in Canada. …

Here in Canada we really haven’t seen any [government support], or any sort of grassroots movement come out, and the political movement has really just started. For myself, that’s what I saw as being the real challenge here in Canada, we actually have to start and create a movement that will be able to bring about significant contributions by the government, the financial backing to really create the impetus for this program. And in the meantime it can be supported by some community groups, and some of them have gone and gotten grants, gotten funding, and that will be great for getting that initial experience. But to really have this in every neighbourhood across Canada we need all levels of government to really step up.

Part II of this interview can be read here.

Greg Macdougall is involved in organizing the Organizing For Justice conference in Ottawa from Oct 15-18. He is also a member of Common Cause, an Ontario anarchist organization, and the Indigenous Peoples Solidarity Movement Ottawa (IPSMO), as well as being an educator with Equitable Education.

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