Last weekend more than 230 people showed up to George Washington Elementary school to spend their Friday night and Saturday talking about the future of Kingston. The Surviving the Future event explored the Just Transition framework — one of the underpinnings of the climate justice movement — and offered it as a starting point to talk about the more just, equitable, and sustainable Kingston so many of us are working in myriad ways to create.
Friday night we heard from three speakers active in creating Just Transitions in their own communities and beyond. Ariel Brooks from the Center for Economic Democracy in Boston described how her journey to community-focused economic relationships began as a personal one. After a busted new job left Ariel and her husband in southeastern Vermont with time on their hands, a constrained income, and a giant, way too productive garden, they began sharing food and gardening work with their neighbors. Over time this grew into an enduring commitment to community gardening, even as her family moved from Vermont into Boston.
“It’s become the grounding place for a lot of the supportive relationships in our lives,” she said. “We pick up each other’s kids, and feed each other’s cats, and bring each other food when we’re sick.”
“The heart learns what the hands do.”
“Now if you live in really deep community already then that might not seem that revolutionary,” she continued. “But a lot of us don’t. This kind of activity is a really essential for re-finding connection and taking action, even if it’s in really small ways.” She emphasized that creating a Just Transition is as much about a consciousness shift “that we all need to practice and embody” as it is about particular projects and economic structures. And she quoted Movement Generation, one of the elaborators of the Just Transition framework, about the mutually reinforcing relationship between our projects and our consciousness: “The heart learns what the hands do.”
In his talk, David Bollier, Director of the Schumacher Center’s Reinventing the Commons program, also emphasized the role of relationships and what he called “patterns of commoning”, social structures that arise in very diverse commons all over the world. He described several such projects, including seed sharing efforts, a wifi commons in Barcelona, and how the city of Bologna, Italy has set up a process to encourage community groups to create and tend public spaces. As the systems around us continue to break down, he said, “we need a new storyline,” a way to create a compelling picture of what’s next. In contrast to Margaret Thatcher’s famous TINA: “There is No Alternative” to the globalized capitalist economy, he proposed TAPAS: “There are Plenty of Alternatives.”
The crescendo of the evening came as Kali Akuno from Cooperation Jackson began his presentation with a photo of the ruins of a fort in Dessalines, Haiti called the End of the World, one of five forts built around the town by the self-liberated, formerly enslaved people of Haiti after their Revolution. This fort was called the End of the World because it was where they intended to make their last stand if the other four fell when the Europeans tried, again, to invade and reimpose slavery.
“I want you to imagine yourself chained in the hold of a ship, leaving your home — forcibly being removed from your home — and being taken God knows where, getting to a new place, being forced to labor, against your will. You’re sitting there with a group of folks who have to confront basically an apocalypse as they understand it, the end of their world, and having to reconstruct your life and your dignity.
“And that leads us here,” he said, pointing to the screen. “I think the Haitian Revolution is one of the best examples that we have to draw upon, all of us, as not only inspiration in the form of very stark militant resistance but the deeper side, which is the unconquerable aspect of the human spirit. We may not be able to defeat them if they come back again, but we are going to fight to the very end.
“And I’m putting this forward because I think we have to develop this” — pointing again to the screen — “Somehow, someway, collectively we’re going to have to develop this spirit to deal with the challenge that’s in front of us.”
Akuno said he had modified his presentation on the spot to include the Haiti photos as Bollier was speaking, because he was concerned about the dismay and doubt that he had been hearing among us. “I fundamentally believe we’ve already drove over the cliff, in all practicality, and the question is how are we going to land and who’s going to determine the terms of that landing. Is it the people who are already running the show, or is it going to be us collectively figuring out a new set of relationships and ways of being, with all the challenges and contradictions that come with that?” Powerful questions for us to sit with as the evening ended.
Saturday morning we gathered in the GW cafeteria for a delicious breakfast prepared by the Hudson Valley Current’s new catering operation — meals for the gathering were paid for entirely in the Hudson Valley’s local currency — and to begin exploring how the Just Transition framework might relate to the work underway in our community.
We used a very lightly structured “UnConference” framework to guide our conversations and actively courted the emergence of collective wisdom. In the morning, we invited folks to self-organize into issue-oriented groups to begin our conversations. We had groups on food, housing, healthcare, energy, arts and culture, and several others.
The questions we posed were: how are we already working towards a Just Transition, and how could we do it more effectively? Is the Just Transition an appropriate or resonant framework for our work? Are the five values that Good Work Institute has distilled from the Just Transition work being done elsewhere a helpful set of guideposts or screens for our community?
In the afternoon, we threw the floor open to any session anyone wanted to propose. Folks really embraced the notion of emergence, and co-designed more than a dozen afternoon sessions over lunch with impressive grace. Session topics were as diverse as community mapping and open space; re-skilling in all kinds of manual work, including building, repair, and cooking; and Failure is an Option. I had expected to field complaints about confusion and lack of structure, but there were none!
In presentations at the end of the day, we heard about plans to create a Kingston Median Income measure to assess the true affordability of housing, the crucial distinction between meaningful public engagement and mere “participation”, and a proposal to close sections of Broadway or Clinton Avenue to vehicle traffic on Sundays as is done in many other communities.
In general, people seemed to embrace the notion of a transition, but the deeper framing around Just Transition and the five values didn’t show up much in the highlights folks reported from their sessions at the end of the day. (I’d be curious to hear from any participants about their thoughts on that.)
The energy at GW was upbeat, collaborative, and determined, even as we wrestled with the very real threats facing our community and our planet. All day long I saw connections being made, people who were puzzling through some aspect of a new project suddenly finding themselves sitting next to someone who was working on that very thing.
And yet, only a small portion of the community was there. If everyone in attendance had been from Kingston — and we know we had a substantial contingent from Saugerties, groups from Woodstock, Gardiner, and Columbia County, along with folks from as far as Cape Cod, Barcelona, and Venezuela — we would have been right around 1 percent of Kingston’s population.
I was very glad to see it wasn’t just my usual suspects. I knew only about half the people in the room on Saturday. But the gathering was white relative to our community’s demographics and mostly — although not entirely, as several folks shared — already engaged in one or often more community projects. And several folks let us know that they barely heard about it in time, or — since the gathering — didn’t hear about it until afterwards. Better outreach and richer community connections in the planning process is certainly one thing the organizers will discuss as we gather to debrief the event.
Among the things that I learned: more than 20 percent of Midtown households don’t have a car, there are more people engaged in virtually every issue in town than I imagined, and I am no where near conscious enough of how I’m accustomed to speaking at how it lands for others. Several people pointed out to me — and other organizers — throughout the weekend that much of the Friday night talks and conversation in Saturday sessions used unfamiliar words and was pitched to folks already steeped in a particular way of thinking.
One friend said afterwards, “I’m sitting next to people who have seven-word job titles. They start talking and this lexicon pours out, and I’m just like, ‘Wow. … Wow.’ I mean, I see what you mean, and it’s insightful, and I never would have come up with that. I feel a bit out of my league here.”
Yikes. I know none of the organizers wanted to make anyone feel out of place. Quite the opposite! In my facilitation I’m very attentive to how we all differ when it comes to things like introversion versus extraversion, or our resonance with visual versus auditory or kinesthetic information processing. I aim to craft processes that will work for everyone, one way or another. I strive, too, to use processes that help to balance the different power and privilege that we all walk into a room carrying, such as the circle processes we worked with on Saturday.
But in a session where someone pointed out that the conversation had gotten extremely abstract, and he was not engaged anymore with what a few people had been animatedly working through, I hadn’t even noticed! (Because I tend towards the very abstract myself.) As I told my friend, we can’t have any leagues here. It’s the folks who think and work very concretely who ultimately make our work practical and bring it to life. And the folks who hone in on the social and emotional levels are the ones who do most of the tending of the relationships that make our work even possible! So here’s another dimension of interpersonal difference — conceptual versus concrete versus social/emotional — that I need to pay much more attention to in future community conversations.
Throughout the day, people kept saying to me, “This is great! When’s the next one?” The organizers will be meeting in a couple of weeks to debrief and talk about next steps, which we intend to include some means for attendees to get in touch with each other. (Another lesson learned: I wish we had thought to ask for permission to share emails at registration, but unfortunately we didn’t.)
Meantime, we hope that the biggest next steps are the ones that are emerging organically among all the participants. Just yesterday I sat in on one meeting of folks who had found each other at an afternoon session and were now eagerly sharing knowledge and next steps around very similar project ideas! I trust that something like this is happening all over town. My thanks to everyone who attended and all my co-organizers for this bit of emergent community magic. I, too, am eager to see what’s next!