IPS Blog

Food, Livelihoods, and Bridging Race and Class Divides

Egleston Farmers Market

Egleston Farmers Market (Photo: Mike Steinhoff/Flickr)

The Jamaica Plain New Economy Transition (JP NET) is a Transition Initiative in the diverse urban neighborhood of Jamaica Plain in Boston, Massachusetts. Our program is dedicated to strengthening community resilience and transitioning to a new economy, and from our inception, we’ve emphasized economic or “pocketbook” issues relevant to the average person. One of the first potlucks we held in the community, “Rising Costs of Food and Fuel – And What We Can Do About It,” was a learning moment for many when folks began to connect issues like climate change with the rising costs they were experiencing. People were inspired to build community resilience in the face of these global trends. This gathering, along with many others, catalyzed work to increase access to fresh healthy food in Jamaica Plain, create new kinds of livelihoods, and bridge historical race and class divides.

Food Web

We imagine that a huge sector of the new economy will be the production of local, organic, healthy food through a low-carbon food system. This system will require lots of skilled work and workers, and we’re helping people reskill as well as increasing access to local food and creating jobs through the Egleston Farmers Market, Boston Food Forest, JP Yard Sharing, Egleston Community Orchard, and Festival Gardens. Our food work has also helped bridge some of JP’s historic divides. For example, the Plaza Meat Market in Egleston Square, a Dominican-owned and operated corner store rooted in the neighborhood’s immigrant Dominican community, has expanded its clientele by carrying locally-sourced cuts of meat, as well as local eggs, milk and butter. JP NET activists put its owners in touch with local suppliers and helped crowd-source new customers. In another example, through JP NET’s Egleston Community Orchard neighbors have come together to reclaim a city lot that had been vacant and trash-strewn for the past 30 years. The lot now produces free food for all in the diverse neighborhood – and includes apple trees, blueberries, raspberries, red currants and raised beds. The orchard strengthened relationships among 100+ neighbors, supporting peace and helping heal community grief after a shooting on the street. As we’ve grown, our food work has grown too. We’ve since established JP’s first winter farmers market, which has since become a year-round market. The market caters to JP’s immigrant communities and is the only one in JP to accept “food stamps” and is working with a local hospital and health centers to introduce coupons to make the produce even more affordable to low-income residents not accustomed to shopping locally. And now the Boston Food Forest is breaking ground on its flagship permaculture education site, showing how to do companion planting from the ground to the canopy to maximize food production and create lovely public space. Food Forest activists are in talks with city officials about other land parcels that could be linked into a network of edible forest gardens and orchards with the hope of weaving a scattered-site Boston Food Forest throughout the city that is cared for by local neighbors.

Sustainable Livelihoods

In the new economy, how will we spend our time? How will we provide for our needs and ensure that everyone gets to live well? We envision a world where livelihoods are safe, support dignified lives, and the work is also meaningful and purposeful. JP NET focuses on quality jobs and new forms of livelihoods that are place-based, sustainable, and reduce race and class inequality. We’re working with several existing “livelihood businesses” “(i.e., businesses that support their owners, but are not poised to grow forever) to help them transition and flourish. For example, J&P Cleaners is an existing dry cleaner owned by first generation immigrants from Central America. Like all dry-cleaners, they use perchloroethylene, a highly toxic and known carcinogen, in their dry cleaning process. With support from the Commonwealth’s Toxic Use Reduction Institute (TURI), we are assisting J&P to relocate, transition to becoming Boston’s first exclusively “wet cleaner,” and expand their market. In addition to helping existing businesses transition to a cancer-free new economy, our New Economy Enterprise Hub is incubating new enterprises with an aggressive import substitution strategy, taking advantage of the procurement needs of anchor institutions. For example, local hospitals and nursing homes are major purchases of food, cleaning services and other supplies. We are working to source more of their supply chain from local businesses and providers. We are simultaneously exploring partnerships with local banks to create a “linked deposit program” to leverage locally-focused loans and provide bridge capital to emerging businesses. Through conversations with community members over the years, we know there is a felt need to create a mechanism for “non-accredited investors” (i.e., non-wealthy investors) to move their money to community investments and strengthen social enterprise. Economic resilience is multivalent, and JP is full of people with great ideas for building it. JP NET supports and “catalyzes” lots of this work. Our Community Leaders Fellowship gives young entrepreneurs experience leading projects that build social and community capital, for example:

  • Time Banking – We’re working with the local Time Trade Circle (a 900 member Time Bank) to strengthen alternative systems of exchange to prepare for further economic downturn.
  • Emergency Prep – We’re strengthening neighborhood resilience and networks of mutual aid by bringing people together, block-by-block, to better prepare all of us for short- and longer-term emergencies.
  • Local Business – We’re collaborating with local business owners to create a network of locally owned and independent businesses.
  • Boylston Street Public Art Corridor – We are coordinating a mural contest, working with a local school to paint a new fence, and talking with neighbors about a place-making “intersection repair” to add public art to the Boylston Street corridor leading from the train station up the local main street.

Launched in 2010 as a project of the Institute for Policy Studies which has provided support for a part-time coordinator and in 2013 helped us raise the resources to hire a full-time community organizer, JP NET now involves over 2,000 neighbors and closely collaborates with local businesses, main street districts, community development corporations, youth-based organizations, environmental and social justice non-profits, city and state agencies, and elected officials. In 2012, JP NET co-founded a growing regional network of community resilience and transition groups collaborating across New England. In addition to multilingual educational forums, networking events, and potlucks regularly convening 60 to 150 people throughout the year, we also host an annual “State of the Neighborhood” with 320+ neighbors and key elected officials. JP NET is dedicated to strengthening community resilience, with equity and sustainability as our guiding values. If we are to have a new economy that works for everyone in harmony with the planet then we believe everyone has a part to play in the transition.

Electrifying Africa – But at What Cost to Africans?

A liquefied natural gas carrier near Sea Point, South Africa. (Derek Keats/ Flickr)

A liquefied natural gas carrier near Sea Point, South Africa. (Derek Keats/ Flickr)

As families in the United States steel themselves for the possibility of another sweltering summer with rolling blackouts triggered by high demand for air conditioning, it’s a good time to remember that many families throughout Africa work and live in buildings with no electricity. In areas that do have the utility, frequent power outages are a constant reminder of the need for dependable access to electricity.

In June 2013, U.S. policymakers announced two initiatives aimed at increasing electricity production in Africa. President Obama launched Power Africa, an initiative that makes a $7 billion U.S. commitment to the energy sector in six African countries. And Representatives Ed Royce (R-CA) and Eliot Engel (D-NY) introduced the Electrify Africa Act — which is expected to pass in the House mid-week by unanimous consent — which sets a goal of providing access to electricity for at least 50 million people in sub-Saharan Africa by 2020. Both initiatives place increasing investment by U.S. companies in Africa at their center.

Africa is home to almost 600 million people without electricity, all of whom struggle to meet their basic needs as a result. Access to power translates into refrigerating vaccines, keeping food from spoiling, studying after dark — the kinds of activities that can dramatically improve basic health, education, and economic opportunity.

While rhetoric around the two U.S. initiatives is about reducing poverty and improving Africans’ quality of life, the approaches being outlined seem likely to lead to large, climate-polluting, centralized power projects — not the decentralized, renewable energy systems that are the most efficient and cleanest means of reaching Africa’s poorest families.

Decentralized, renewable energy sources are best for the rural poor.

The International Energy Agency (IEA) says that universal energy access can be achieved by 2030 with significantly stepped-up investment. In sub-Saharan Africa, it would require an extra $19 billion a year, and money pledged by the U.S. government could be a strong down payment.

The IEA also notes that the majority of the additional investment needs to go to small-scale mini-grid and off-grid solutions — which are more efficient at delivering electricity to people in rural areas, where 84 percent of the energy-poor live — and not to centralized power plants. Small-scale systems produce energy at the household and community level from renewable sources, including micro-hydro, solar, wind, and biogas.

So an energy access win for the poor is also a win for the environment. By developing clean energy instead of burning fossil fuels, decentralized renewable systems help curb greenhouse gas emissions and curtail climate change. That’s important because if left unfettered, climate change is predicted to wreak havoc across Africa.

Africa will be disproportionately impacted by the climate crisis.

According to the World Bank, climate change is likely to undermine the development gains made in recent decades, pushing millions of people back into poverty. And as the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change — the leading global scientific body on climate change — notes, warming on the African continent could be some of the developing world’s most severe, reaching one-and-a-half times the global average.

Droughts and heat waves brought on by climate change are expected to significantly compromise agricultural production and access to food in Africa. Yields from rain-fed agriculture could drop by 50 percent in some countries by 2020, and crop revenues could fall by as much as 90 percent by 2100. Food insecurity and exacerbated malnutrition in turn will compromise human health.

Sea level rise is anticipated to threaten the 320 coastal cities and 56 million people living in low-lying coastal zones around the continent. And the cost to African nations of adapting to a warmer world could amount to between 5 and 10 percent of their gross domestic product.

“All of the above” means dirty and clean power.

While Power Africa and the Electrify Africa Act do include language about developing “an appropriate mix of power solutions, including renewable energy,” proponents of these policies have been most publicly enthusiastic about new discoveries of vast reserves of oil and gas on the continent.

Natural gas, in particular, is front and center. While gas is sometimes talked about as a “cleaner” fossil fuel, it can be even more polluting than dirty coal when methane (a greenhouse gas 20 times as powerful as carbon dioxide) is released during its production.

In other words, gas is no “bridge fuel” between energy poverty and the clean power that every person deserves. Once Africans are locked into natural gas infrastructure, they’re locked into 40 years of increasing emissions—and four more decades of global warming’s impacts.

Continued fossil fuel expansion threatens U.S. climate policy.

The push for natural gas is so forceful that one of the U.S. government’s strongest climate policies to date — the cap on greenhouse gas emissions at the Overseas Private Investment Corporation (OPIC) — has come under fire.

OPIC’s cap — an outcome of a 2009 legal settlement with environmental groups over the agency’s practice of lending to large, destructive oil and gas projects — forces a 30 percent greenhouse gas reduction across its portfolio over 10 years and a 50 percent reduction over 15 years.

The results have been notable. By 2011, the agency’s renewable energy finance had risen to nearly $1 billion, about a third of its total commitments that year. By contrast, the U.S. Export-Import Bank (Ex-Im) — OPIC’s sister organization — steadily increased investment in dirty energy, with fossil fuel funding doubling between 2011 and 2012.

Unfortunately, some development groups say that to achieve energy access for Africa, OPIC’s hard-won greenhouse gas cap has to be weakened. For instance, a lobbying document [PDF] from the ONE campaign highlights how the Electrify Africa Act “unlocks OPIC’s investment potential by requiring OPIC to revise its existing policy on the carbon emissions of its investments to permit significant investment in the electricity sector of the poorest and lowest pollution-emitting countries.”

Ironically, the impacts of doing away with this policy — more greenhouse gas emissions and fewer renewable projects focused on access — would only come back to hit communities in Africa even harder as climate change intensifies.

Who stands to gain by busting the cap?

If large, centralized fossil fuel production won’t particularly help poor Africans access energy — and would exacerbate climate change, which in turn threatens development on the continent — why would anyone want to bust the greenhouse gas cap at OPIC?

For one possible explanation, look no further than the oil and gas fields recently found off the coast of Africa. Big reserves mean big money, and the business of extracting and processing new oil and gas from sub-Saharan Africa will be lucrative.

It’s OPIC’s job to help U.S. companies gain a foothold in emerging markets like these by providing finance. And by doing away with lending restrictions on climate polluting projects, OPIC is free to grease the wheels for mega-deals between U.S. fossil fuel companies and African interests.

One of those companies appears to be General Electric, which recently signed a tentative deal with Ghana to build a power plant likely to be fueled with natural gas from the Jubilee offshore field. (Perhaps not uncoincidentally, G.E.’s CEO traveled with Obama on his Africa trade mission.) According to Forbes, G.E. has recently pivoted its attention to Africa and is marketing power generation products like natural gas engines to African companies. Not surprising, then, that Ex-Im chairman Fred Hochberg called Power Africa a “$7B plan to power up General Electric” on Twitter.

Helping to bring electricity into the homes, schools, hospitals, and workplaces of tens of millions of people living on the African continent is the right thing to do. The United States can support energy access through public finance — raised from innovative sources like a financial transaction tax and by ending subsidies to fossil fuel companies — and by directing the $7 billion Obama promised to decentralized, renewable energy systems. That would ensure that we’re spending our money to benefit African families, not U.S. energy companies.

Africans deserve to live full, dignified, productive lives free from dirty energy and safe from the climate disaster it promises. U.S. policymakers and taxpayers can power Africa best by protecting the planet and securing future generations.

This post has been updated from its original version posted on September 16, 2013.

A Roadmap for Survival

Originally appeared in Foreign Policy in Focus.

Survival requires a rapid decarbonization of energy and a massive rollback in fossil fuels. (Samira/Flickr)

Survival requires a rapid decarbonization of energy and a massive rollback in fossil fuels. (Samira/Flickr)

Greenhouse gas emissions are rising, and our addiction to fossil fuels is to blame.

That, in a nutshell, is the conclusion of an authoritative new UN report published on April 13th. Emissions have not only continued to increase, but have done so more rapidly in the last 10 years. While the growing reliance on coal for global energy supplies is chiefly to blame for the latest increase, the broader picture is that “economic growth has outpaced emissions reductions.”

The new report, entitled Mitigation of Climate Change, is the third in a series of blockbuster surveys from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), the UN body tasked with reviewing the work of thousands of scientists and experts to establish the “current state of knowledge” on climate change and its impacts. The first report—The Physical Science Basis—once again established with overwhelming certainty that the climate is changing and greenhouse gas emissions caused by humans are primarily responsible. The second report—Impacts, Adaptation, and Vulnerability—warned that climate change would have a catastrophic impact on food supplies, hitting the world’s poorest people the hardest. It also documented the increased risks posed by floods, droughts, and damaged ecosystems as a result of climate change. The mitigation report models scenarios for reducing greenhouse gas emissions. A final synthesis of all three elements will be released in October.

The IPCC is not tasked with recommending what should happen next, but it maps out the terrain upon which the battles over what should be done are fought. A full “underlying” report, running to a thousand pages, is prefaced with a 30-page “policymakers’ summary” written in often impenetrable bureaucratic jargon. That’s a result of how the IPCC works: hundreds of authors (272 on the mitigation report alone) review thousands of scientific papers to produce the underlying report, and then representatives of the 195 governments that participate in the IPCC are asked to approve the summary report line by line.

It’s a wonder that anything manages to emerge from this labyrinthine operation, and it’s to the credit of the many authors that they have managed to clearly chart some of the contours of the challenge we face in addressing climate change. The results are clearest in the case of fossil fuels, with the IPCC mitigation report making perfectly clear that we cannot continue to rely on coal, oil, and (over the long term, at least) gas and expect to avert dangerous climate change.

Almost half of the increase in greenhouse gas emissions between 2000 and 2010 came from the energy supply sector, with a greater reliance on coal chiefly to blame. Continuing on this course would lead to a rise of up to 5°C (compared to pre-industrial levels) by the end of the century, with disastrous consequences. Averting this catastrophe requires a rapid “decarbonization” of electricity generation and a reduction in subsidies for fossil fuels, alongside measures to soften the impacts of these changes on poor and vulnerable populations. The report also provides succor to proponents of fossil fuel divestment, noting that “mitigation policy could devalue fossil fuel assets and reduce revenues for fossil fuel exporters.”

At its best, the IPCC report can help us to refocus attention on the practical measures that can make a real difference in addressing climate change. In an insightful section on urbanization and buildings, for example, the report lays out the important role that can be played by tougher codes on the construction of new buildings, regulations to retrofit existing ones, the importance of expanding public transport and encouraging “modal shifts” away from cars and planes, and city planning that avoids urban sprawl.

The IPCC’s overview is more problematic on issues that are more politically contentious, however—notably on how and when to replace fossil fuels. Natural gas power generation is referred to as a potential “bridge technology,” a conclusion that reflects linear thinking about how emissions might decline, but ignores more sophisticated modeling (from MIT, among other institutions) showing how investments in gas displace renewable energy and increase greenhouse gas emissions. Elsewhere in the report, in fact, there is a clear warning that “infrastructure developments and long-lived products that lock societies into GHG-intensive emissions pathways may be difficult or very costly to change.” That must surely include new gas power plants, although the compromises reached in constructing the IPCC summary don’t give space for further dialogue on the matter.

The IPCC’s take on other energy generation options is similarly hedged. The report notes that renewable energy technologies “have achieved a level of maturity to enable deployment at significant scale.” But nuclear power and “carbon capture and storage” (CCS) from fossil fuel plants are presented as having potential, albeit with greater caution about their respective safety, storage, waste issues, and costs. That is not so much a neutral expert view on the future of energy generation as it is a reflection of the influence of large private and state-owned utilities in shaping the agenda on these issues. Much of the research the IPCC reviews, after all, is funded by large energy utilities or government research councils that reflect their agenda, and its findings are ultimately reviewed by governments that own (or are heavily lobbied by) the large fossil fuel and nuclear companies. The IPCC reflects the balance of power in struggles over energy. But the battle for clean, renewable energy is happening elsewhere.

The IPCC summary report is also selective in how it treats the global distribution of emissions. Glen Peters, a University of Oslo academic who studies how emissions relate to consumption patterns, took to Twitter to note that “All material on consumption-based emissions and embodied (outsourced) emissions [were] removed” from the summary.

Significant compromises can be seen where international negotiating positions are at stake. With a new global climate treaty expected in 2015, the working group on mitigation was fraught with arguments on how to frame the responsibility for taking global action. The United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), under the auspices of which a new global climate treaty will be devised, is clear that cumulative greenhouse gas emissions are primarily the responsibility of industrialized countries. That same group of countries (which includes the United States, the EU, Canada, Japan, Australia, and a handful of others) has the greatest capacity to act to reduce their own emissions, and should also provide the transfers of finance and technology needed to help the rest of the world reduce its emissions.

The IPCC summary report is broadly in keeping with the UNFCCC framework. It reaffirms the importance of “sustainable development and equity” as the basis for climate policy assessments. The former aspect is essential for developing countries, which argue that climate action should not compromise efforts to reduce poverty or improve healthcare, education, and other services. In this regard, the IPCC notes that “most mitigation has considerable and diverse co-benefits”: reducing emissions can cut air pollution, for example, while renewables can enhance energy security. The controversies are greater on how “equity” is defined, but here the IPCC report clearly references “past and future” contributions, which gives lie to the notion often promoted by U.S. policymakers that only current and future comparisons with competitors like China should be taken into account.

But matters get more controversial in relation to the underlying report and an accompanying “technical summary,” which is peppered with references to “high income countries,” “upper middle-income countries,” “lower middle-income countries,” and “low income countries”—a differentiation that conflicts with how the UNFCCC divides the world. Those divisions, translated into the arena of climate diplomacy, are viewed as an attempt to divide up developing countries in a way that undermines the UNFCCC and opens up key issues of responsibility (and financial or technology transfers) for renegotiation. This resulted in a series of formal objections to the report from, among others, Bolivia, Saudi Arabia, India, the Maldives, Venezuela, Malaysia, and Egypt.

More generally, the IPCC’s scenarios for how to reduce greenhouse gas emissions betray a strong Western bias in the report. After all, 70 percent of its authors are from the developed world, and it relies heavily on literature published in developed countries. Negotiations are underway on how to reform the IPCC to better reflect the breadth of global knowledge, but unless academic agendas become less parochial—which starts with research funding at the national level, potentially provided by financial transfers facilitated by an international climate agreement—progress on this aspect is unlikely to happen soon.

Until that time, the IPCC will remain far from perfect. The latest report on mitigation is a clear illustration, offering a partial, compromised, and politically biased map of the potential solutions to climate change. But it remains the most comprehensive map that’s available to us—one that, for all its flaws, codifies the fundamental importance of cutting our addiction to fossil fuels if we’re to have any chance of avoiding a climate catastrophe.

Sustainable Energy Access For All?

(Flickr/ESMAP World Bank)

(Flickr/ESMAP World Bank)

In 2011, the UN established “Sustainable Energy for All”, a global initiative with three goals: achieving universal energy access, increasing energy efficiency, and doubling the renewable energy supply by 2030. The first of these goals seems daunting considering that nearly 1.3 billion people on the planet still lack access to any form of modern energy and around 1 billion people have access to only intermittent electricity.

Work is being done to make these goals a reality: At the recent spring meetings of the IMF and World Bank Group in Washington D.C., environment and development civil society groups and social entrepreneurs came together with World Bank staff to discuss strategies that will achieve universal sustainable energy access.

These conversations often pushed experts who represent international financial institutions, such as the World Bank, to focus on ways to finance energy access through mini- and off-grid solutions. According to the International Energy Agency, these smaller-scale energy systems are the most efficient and cost-effective — and, some argue, the most equitable — way to alleviate rural energy poverty. These systems also tend to use renewable energy instead of coal or fossil fuels, so they help to meet two of the UN’s objectives at once.

During a panel on universal energy access, sustainable energy and climate policy experts discussed different approaches to achieve this objective. Some panelists highlighted that the money spent on distributed renewables — that is, small-scale, mostly solar, wind, and small hydropower projects that can be built where remote families live — currently only represents a small proportion of overall funding for energy access.

Vrinda Manglik, an associate campaign representative for the Sierra Club’s international clean energy access program, advocated for increasing this funding. Distributed renewables are beneficial in that they have lower environmental impacts and deliver a more secure energy supply than centralized large-scale facilities like coal- and gas-fired power plants.

Alex Doukas, a research analyst from the World Resources Institute, added that a key part to achieving universal access goals includes improving regulations — both at the federal and international institutional level — and increasing the amount of finance directly given to energy access projects. Improved regulations would create environments in developing countries that would in turn unlock larger flows of investment therein.

Daniel Schnitzer, founder of clean energy company EarthSpark International, used the example of how energy access to communities in the rural U.S. is provided to argue for improved regulations elsewhere. Success in delivering energy access to rural families in the U.S., Schnitzer argued, was dependent on improving federal regulations and finding investors interested in its financing. The same would be needed now for electrification in developing countries, most especially in finding investors who are looking for social returns — that is, investments that provide societal benefits such as reducing inequality and improving quality of life — in addition to financial ones.

The spring meetings provided some hope that major finance providers like the International Finance Corporation (IFC), the World Bank’s private arm, are changing their outlook on renewable energy.

Reinhard Reichel, Senior Investment Officer from the International Finance Corporation — the World Bank’s private arm — claimed that the financing needs for fossil fuels and renewable energy are different. Fossil fuels have low upfront costs and high operating costs, while renewable energy has high upfront costs but is cheaper long-term. He pointed out that these high upfront costs and “market readiness” requirements make financing inefficient for the renewable energy projects discussed.

Public finance institutions that publically commit themselves to funding energy access should focus their efforts on creating environments in developing countries that support distributed renewable energy and on helping small- and medium-scale entrepreneurs overcome capital investment barriers such as these high upfront costs.

If sustainable universal energy access is going to be achieved, international financial institutions need to be critical of business-as-usual financing schemes — such as continuing to favor dirty energy due to its lower upfront costs — and instead push for greater investment in innovative, renewable energy sources that provide far greater benefits in the long run.

The Enduring Impact of Andy Shallal’s Mayoral Run

Aerial View of Washington, DC

Aerial View of Washington, DC

It’s not usually realistic for a candidate who came in 5th to credibly claim that he had a major impact on an election.

Yet Andy Shallal did.

When he launched his late-starting, outsider campaign for Mayor of Washington, D.C., local political conversations were about a booming city with a scandal-plagued incumbent mayor. By the end, all the discussions were about which candidate had the best chance to defeat the scandal-plagued mayor.

But for a few months at least, Shallal injected the “Tale of Two Cities” reality into the local narrative, tying it explicitly to race and class. He argued against just counting construction cranes, in favor of counting how many kids remain in deep poverty, how many African-Americans remain unemployed, and how much it costs to afford a home.

By the end of the campaign, all the candidates, including four sitting city council members, were promising (however vaguely) that they would focus on affordable housing, and finding ways to keep long-time residents in their homes.

Was this all due to Shallal’s candidacy? No.

Was the election debate more serious and more explicitly tied to race and class because he was running? Absolutely.

Consider the issue of education reform, where Andy had a profound impact. Before his candidacy, almost the entire political establishment inside the Beltway, from the Washington Post to the City Council to the Mayor to the Secretary of Education to the President, all seemed to agree that education “reform” in Washington, D.C., was a huge success: test scores were up, and “Race to the Top” was working.

Andy Shallal disagreed. And he did so by pointing out some stubborn facts.

He pointed out that the racial gap had increased, not decreased, since so-called “reform” had been put in place. He pointed out that a big chunk of the test score gains over time came before the so-called “Rhee reforms,” before the closing of so many neighborhood schools, before the churn and turmoil caused by the firing of hundreds of supposedly “bad” teachers.

His campaign website opened up to a graph that showed that the 8th-grade reading scores for low-income students were lowest among all major urban areas. He pointed out that “no child left behind” had turned into “no child left untested, no teacher left unstressed!” He promised there would be no more neighborhood school closures.

Shallal didn’t just complain. He called for reclaiming the promise of public education, and published a 13-page white paper which led Diane Ravitch to write—under the blog heading A Mayoral Candidate for D.C. Who Rejects the Rhee Era of Test and Punish: “…it is heartening to know that at least one of the mayoral candidates has a fresh vision for educating the children of the District of Columbia and is willing to oppose the status quo.”

By the end of the campaign, closing the education racial gap was a top issue for everyone. Andy had punctured the false consensus about the “success” of education “reform.” A bit of truth had seeped through all the hype.

Andy Shallal did not win. He will not — unfortunately, in my opinion — be D.C.’s next mayor. He could not overcome being unknown to most voters, running as an Iraqi-American in a city often divided between Whites & Blacks, and getting a late start.

He was outstanding in the debates and forums, but “only” raised a couple hundred thousand dollars, which meant his direct voter contact lagged far behind most other candidates.

Andy called for public financing, but unlike in New York City, where Bill de Blasio’s brilliant run for mayor was boosted by the city’s 6-1 public match for small donations, there is not such a system in Washington—and he was outspent by something like 7-1.

So he lost the race.

But he made a difference. He changed the way D.C. talked about its growth, its inequality, its own “tale of two cities.” He altered the propaganda that has surrounded Washington, D.C.’s school “reforms,” and brought the racial gap back into focus.

He took on the hardships of running, and faced up to defeat with dignity and good humor—and he made a difference on several issues that matter to the poorest, most disrespected, most disenfranchised people in D.C.

In a money-drenched political system that often requires multiple candidacies prior to winning, Andy Shallal sowed some seeds for the future.

Mental Healthcare: Underappreciated and Underfunded

(Image Money/Flickr)

(Image Money/Flickr)

For millions of low-income Americans, Medicaid is the only means of addressing healthcare needs. Only 25 states have agreed to Medicaid expansion in the United States as part of the Affordable Care Act (ACA) — and while this would mean an expansion of healthcare coverage for most services, there’s a risk that it could mean cuts to the program when it comes to mental healthcare. There is no federal requirement for states to allocate any of their budget to mental health services: consequently, states have every ability to disadvantage those dependent on mental healthcare by underfunding or cutting funding for it entirely. In the 25 states that have refused to adopt Medicaid expansion under the ACA, for instance, nearly four million people with mental illnesses will go uninsured and will be unable to afford private insurance, according to a study by American Mental Health Counselors Association. Youth are a particular concern for mental health coverage as well. Approximately four million American children and adolescents have some form of mental illness, and nearly one-tenth of all minors are hospitalized because of it. “Psych under 21,” a Medicaid benefit that allows low-income minors under 21 years of age to receive mental health services, is entirely optional for states to provide. As a result, many parents pay out-of-pocket for their dependents’ mental health care because they may not be able to afford private health insurance or qualify for Medicaid that includes mental healthcare. At minimum, the program should be required at the federal level to cover the majority of prescription costs, long- and short-term services and supports (such as stays in psychiatric health centers), and outpatient therapy visits. Non-traditional therapies, like dialectical behavioral therapy or music therapy, could also be considered as medically beneficial to mental health. The expansion of Medicaid via the ACA is certainly a good start to improving the lives of millions of Americans, but it must be seen as a first step to a greater conversation on healthcare — with mental health as a critical component. Brianna Montague is an intern for the Break the Chain Campaign.

My Experience as a College Graduate in the Restaurant Industry

(Flickr/Mahat Tattva Dasa)

(Flickr/Mahat Tattva Dasa)

The crisp winter air stings as it hits my face on the way out of the restaurant. I’m not sure which hurts more – the winter chill or my empty pocketbook – as I briskly shove 87 crinkled dollar bills inside. It’s a Saturday night. I just worked a grueling 12-hour shift on my feet for a measly $87.

My empty stomach aches because I wasn’t allowed to stop and eat, except for a 45-minute break nearly 8 hours ago. Nothing’s open, except for the bars and the 24-hour pizza place around the corner. I all but inhale a $3 slice before making my way home. When my head finally hits the pillow, I try desperately not to think about the fact that I have to get up in seven hours and do it all over again.

It wouldn’t be so bad if I didn’t wake up every day with $60,000 in college debt hanging like a noose around my neck.

“I should be able to do better than this,” I think.

I grew up poor. Neither of my parents finished college. As the first in my family to finish my degree, I thought this was supposed to be my way out. Why did I just spend $60,000 and six years of my life, only to end up back where I started — waiting tables?

This was my nightmare. Somehow, somewhere, I failed.

But I know that’s not true. I’m a first-generation college graduate with a master’s degree from a prestigious university. My degrees should be evidence of success, not failure. Something else is going on here.

Since the Great Recession, part-time job growth has skyrocketed and continues to remain high. Currently, there are 260,000 college graduates working for minimum wage and over 43 percent of minimum wage workers have at least some college education. That’s twice as many as the pre-recession rate of 127,000 in 2005. Moreover, five out of ten of the largest low- wage jobs are in restaurants, where the tipped minimum wage is only $2.13 per hour. Imagine paying back school loans on minimum wage, let alone $2.13 an hour, hoping that someone you serve leaves you a generous tip.

What’s worse, research shows that college grads are pushing non-graduates out of work because we’re all competing for the same low-wage jobs. It looks like we are creating an economy where a college degree is the new norm not for a professional job.For any job.

That’s why the Miller-Harkin Act is so important. It would raise the minimum wage to $10.10 and, more importantly, would also raise the tipped minimum wage to 70 percent of the regular minimum wage, or $7.07. That makes President Barack Obama’s proposal of $4.90 look modest.

People who work hard and go to school deserve to make a living. Our economy is not designed to offer that.

If I can’t find a better job, it will take me as many as 292 months to pay off my student loans. That’s 24 years. I’ll be debt free just in time to help my future children get student loans for their college education.

So the cycle continues.

Marcie Gardner is an intern at the Institute for Policy Studies for its Economic Hardship Reporting Project.

World Bank Energy Lending Still Veering in Wrong Direction

(Flickr/Claudio Schwarz)

(Flickr/Claudio Schwarz)

More than one billion people around the world still lack access to modern electricity.

At this week’s spring meetings, discussions between environment and development civil society groups and the World Bank highlighted tensions between those who seek to tackle energy poverty using every energy option available, and those advocating for the Bank’s financing to focus on clean, sustainable solutions for these developments.

In 2013, the World Bank released a report describing how the institution’s energy sector activities have shifted — except in special circumstances — away from coal and toward renewable energy and “lower carbon” fuels.

But analysis of the World Bank’s energy investment tells a different story. Oil Change International points out that the Bank spent $1 billion last year alone financing oil, coal, and gas exploration projects.

Vijay Iyer, Director of the World Bank’s Sustainable Energy Department, argued on a panel at the spring meetings that energy lending must focus on reliable access to affordable modern energy at volumes that cover people’s needs. According to Iyer, fossil fuel options — particularly expansion of greenhouse gas-emitting natural gas — must stay on the table in order to keep power affordable. He cited the relatively high up-front investment needs of renewable energy installation as a barrier to clean energy access for the poor.

But Oil Change International managing director Elizabeth Bast, also on the panel, underscored that despite the Bank’s rhetoric on reaching the poor, only 8 percent of the Bank’s energy portfolio is actually focused on energy access.

If the World Bank were serious about bringing energy access to the poor, it would dedicate the majority of its lending to do so. For the rural poor, that means providing small and medium-sized businesses the capital — and investors, the guarantees — to build mini- and off-grid renewable energy systems.

Talking Points: Tensions Rising, Wars Escalating, Occupations Expanding

Phyllis speaking at an AIPAC protest on March 2, 2014

Phyllis speaking at an AIPAC protest on March 2, 2014

“May you live in interesting times,” goes the Chinese proverb — or curse, depending on your perspective. These ancient, nameless Chinese prophets were at least partly right: Living in “interesting times” can be a curse, but not necessarily so. We’re living in challenging times — wars escalating, occupations expanding, U.S.-Russian tensions rising. But changes on our side are rising as well: The discourses of war, peace, and occupation are being transformed — and don’t forget that the Chinese character for “conflict” references both danger and opportunity.

U.S.-Russia Relations: Lessons from Ukraine

A new U.S.-Russia cold war is not yet fully inescapable, but there is growing danger. As is so often the case, Russia’s aggressive posture in the current Ukraine crisis is an unfortunate but not at all surprising response to two decades of U.S. arrogance, hubris, and post-Cold War triumphalism. The U.S. disregard for post-Soviet Russia’s regional (and global) position; its failure (willful or not) to acknowledge Russian history, interests and strategic priorities; and most of all, the U.S. insistence on continuing to expand NATO right up to Russian borders all shape the roots of the Ukraine crisis. It is further complicated by a resurgent Russian nationalism that increasingly authoritarian political culture has exacerbated.

I’m no expert on Ukraine or Russia — I leave to others the close-in analysis of the various popular forces, the relative power and influence of the neo-Nazi and other fascist elements so visible in the new parliament in Kiev, the balance of forces between opponents and supporters of Yanukovych’s decision to reject the U.S./European/IMF bailout in favor of a Russian bailout, the assessment of whether or not the Crimean population is as overwhelming pro-Russian as it appears, the impact of the $5 billion Washington brags of having spent “building democracy” in Ukraine, and more.

But there are a couple of things in this new emergency that aren’t so different from lessons we’ve learned in earlier crises:

  • The U.S. admits to spending at least $5 billion on so-called “democratization” projects in Ukraine over the last decade, and certainly that means destabilization and some version of regime change was high on its agenda. That’s an outrage and something we should have been opposing years ago. But that doesn’t mean everyone protesting Yanukovych’s rampant corruption was somehow a U.S. agent. U.S. spies can’t claim credit for everything that happens. We must be careful to remember that people in Ukraine have agency as well — even with $5 billion, the U.S. couldn’t pull so many people (in at least some areas) into the streets to protest if there were not legitimate grievances.
  • The U.S.’ continuing interference, backed by NATO and parts of Europe, must be challenged, but that opposition doesn’t mean that President Putin, by contrast, is some kind of anti-imperialist good guy. Putin has fostered a plutocracy, enabling crony billionaires to undermine Russian democracy, equity, and environment by controlling Russia’s fossil fuels and minerals. And Putin’s military response to U.S. intervention doesn’t change that.The need to fight against U.S. interventions AND simultaneously be rigorous in our critique of others at the same time, has been a difficult lesson we’ve struggled collectively to learn in Iraq, Syria and elsewhere. (It does mean we should have been publicizing and challenging the National Endowment for Democracy, USAID and other U.S. agencies’ undermining the Ukrainian regime much earlier.)
  • We must not accept the mainstream media’s drumbeat of “a new Cold War” being inevitable. The current Ukraine crisis certainly could lead to a dangerous escalation between Washington and Moscow, as could the U.S.-Russian clash over naval bases and competing proxies that is one of the six wars being waged in Syria. But that escalation is not inevitable: President Putin has reached out to President Obama and they have agreed to high-level talks to tamp down the tension on Ukraine. Will it work? It’s too soon to say, but the fact that they’re talking at this level is a good thing, and it means that the Cold War-style demonization of Putin and threats against Crimea and all things Russia need to be challenged.

Given the continuing devastations exploding across, at least, the wider Middle East/West Asia/Central Asia/North Africa arc of crisis, the impact of the Ukraine situation is already affecting regions and emergencies far from the Black Sea. Even if not yet a new Cold War, the U.S.-Russia tensions over Ukraine could threaten the Iran negotiations and/or the currently-stalled Syria talks.

The U.S. needs — and has been counting on — Moscow’s cooperation in both negotiations: How likely is this cooperation to survive escalating U.S.-led sanctions against Russia? Even Kerry’s sham talks, disguised as the Israel-Palestine “peace process,” may be affected. Those talks will fail anyway, but when the failure is official and the U.S. recalibrates its “strategic partnership” with Israel, it’s pretty certain no one in the White House, Congress, or anywhere else in official Washington will have any interest in pressuring Israel while the U.S.-Russian relationship remains tense.

No News is Bad News

Wars sometimes seem to become a permanent part of our global landscape. The long and devastating wars of the Democratic Republic of Congo and the surrounding countries of Africa’s Great Lakes region stopped getting attention in the U.S. press and public long before its victims reached the multi-millions, and these conflicts continue to be largely ignored.

The humanitarian disaster in Syria — whose millions of refugees are close to overtaking Afghans as the largest refugee population in the world — faces a crisis of “donor fatigue” among potential donor governments. Beyond that, it also faces an attention fatigue among ordinary people. We may well be shocked by the reports of barrel bombs, besieged neighborhoods, and children dying for lack of food and medicine, but too many people simply turn away, uneasy and uncertain of what can be done because there are seemingly “only bad guys.” Not to mention, the alternatives proposed are usually limited to escalating dangerous U.S. military involvement.

In Iraq, years after the withdrawal of U.S. troops, the legacy of the U.S. invasion and occupation continues to fuel violent sectarianism, with corruption and civilian casualties approaching the worst years of the war. In Afghanistan, casualties rise as well, with warlords running for office in next week’s elections. Its corrupt government remains incapable of ruling.

The U.S.-imposed sham talks on Israel-Palestine have pretty much already failed, but on the ground, Israel’s occupation forces are escalating their house demolitions, settlement expansion, and constant humiliation of Palestinians living under occupation in the West Bank and the besieged and surrounded Gaza Strip. While the discourse is changing quickly for the better, the day-to-day reality of Israel’s harsh and illegal practices against Palestinians remains largely out-of-sight for most people in the U.S.

Sometimes — and perhaps the harshness of today’s continuing economic disaster is part of the reason why — it seems that with public attention fixated on immediate domestic problems, only one international issue at a time can gain a foothold on public attention. Right now, it’s Ukraine. Other critical ongoing crises — the Syrian civil war, the sectarian violence in Iraq, the drone war in Afghanistan and beyond, the Israeli occupation and apartheid — just don’t make the cut, sometimes.

Cheerleaders for War

There is on-again/off-again talk in Washington about cutting the military budget — a little bit — and reducing the size of the army — a littler bit — but none of it is very serious. Overall, as I wrote in Common Dreams recently, the new Pentagon plan is for a few less troops, but the same old empire.

In Afghanistan, the military wants to keep at least 10,000-12,000 U.S. troops (and presumably a number of convenient military bases) there, on the spurious grounds of not wanting to lose the so-called “accomplishments” of the war so far. Hard to take seriously, given the military’s utter and long-anticipated failure to accomplish any of the claimed goals for the illegal war while they occupied the country with as many as 150,000 troops over the last 13 years.

According to the CIA, Afghanistan today remains the worst country in the world for infant mortality. Warlords responsible for horrific crimes are returning to leadership and running for office in the U.S.-backed elections. And no one is secure. Over the weekend NPR interviewed Bilal Sarwary, Kabul correspondent for the BBC, about an attack last week that killed another Afghan journalist. After describing the horror of the attack, he noted “The people of Afghanistan have been born into war [and] the people of Afghanistan continue to bear the brunt of this conflict.” Signing off, his response to NPR’s anchor, broadcasting from the network’s comfortable secure Washington studios, reflected the terrifying reality of warning when saying good-bye in war-torn Afghanistan: “Be safe,” he told her.

Content to continue in Afghanistan and with the escalating and expanding drone war, the Pentagon leadership is not directly pushing for new wars — but plenty of its friends are. Military contractors and war manufacturers always want to produce ever more tools of war that reap such a killing profit: bombs, rockets, missiles, bullets, guns, tear gas, etc.

Neo-con pundits, most of them former and hoping-for-future-position officials, want to remake the world — and especially the broadly-defined Middle East — as faux-democratic vassal states that will strengthen the U.S. empire around the world. And that means more military bases, more military intervention, more “no-fly zones,” more war.

Israel — along with AIPAC and the rest of the pro-Israel lobbies — wants the U.S.’ global power, alongside its regional power, as a partner to police, control, and maintain a nuclear weapons monopoly over the entire Middle East. (The real threat to Israel, if Iran ever decided to try to build a nuclear weapon — something U.S. officials agree Iran has not yet even decided it wants — is not an existential threat to Israel or Israelis, but simply a threat to Israel’s current nuclear weapons monopoly in the region.)

The Decline of AIPAC

As I discussed on the Real News, AIPAC is losing, including in its effort with Israel to push the U.S. — specifically, Congress — towards war instead of diplomacy with Iran. A new round of talks between Iran and the P5 + 1 has concluded, with all sides expressing satisfaction that the technical-level negotiations went as-planned. A new Zogby poll indicates more than 50 percent of Washington insiders believe AIPAC’s influence is declining. Even more significant for those tracking AIPAC’s dwindling legitimacy, 74 percent of those insiders admit they have seen members of Congress take positions not in the public interest partly or fully because of AIPAC’s pressure.

Keynoting the AIPAC convention, Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu spent a good third of his speech on Iran. However, the call for Congress to impose new sanctions, guaranteed to scuttle the Iran talks, demanded by Netanyahu and thousands of AIPAC lobbyists who descended on Capitol Hill the next day has failed. After such a definitive defeat of its campaign to get the U.S. to bomb Syria last summer, AIPAC is so far losing again on war in Iran.

Meanwhile, Secretary of State John Kerry’s latest round of Israel-Palestine “peace talks” is coming up to its official deadline, and the only question now is: How will that failure be announced? Four possibilities:

  • Admit that the U.S.-brokered talks failed (very unlikely: these talks have too much connection to legacies — Obama’s and Kerry’s among them — for that.)
  • Claim a great victory that the going-nowhere talks are being extended (possible: 23 years of failed U.S. diplomacy are about to become 24.)
  • Announce that a “framework,” but not a just, comprehensive solution, has been agreed to, with the understanding that both sides can “accept” it with reservations — meaning the whole thing can be rejected while still technically “accepting” (not impossible: because it will so diverge from the meaning of an actual agreement, the two leaders might just decide they could get away with signing it.)
  • Announce that there was a framework agreement, but that only one side (more likely the Israeli side) was willing to sign on (also not impossible: the U.S.-defined “peace” is, after all, grounded in continued Israeli occupation, apartheid and domination.)

For more details on what the so-called “framework” might look like, take a look at my earlier blog on this subject. But, regardless of Kerry’s announcement later this month, the response of those of us committed to challenging U.S. support for Israeli domination remains unchanged:

  • We would welcome any agreement that was based on international law, human rights and equality for all. But weighed against that standard, this agreement fails. It is not just, comprehensive, viable, lasting, or in keeping with international law. In a different context, Netanyahu is right: “A bad agreement is worse than no agreement at all.”
  • This lack of a serious agreement, highlights the failure of U.S. diplomacy. This is the “Einstein Edition” of peace talks: Negotiating on the same terms over and over again and expecting different results. We need an entirely different kind of global diplomacy, based on international law, human rights, equality for all, and conducted not by the U.S., Israel’s “strategic partner, but by the United Nations.
  • More than 60 Palestinians have been killed by Israeli forces since this round of peace talks began last year. This shows the disparity of power and control in favor of Israel.
  • There is a serious danger that the abandonment of fundamental Palestinian rights (to equality, self-determination, return, freedom) reflected in this agreement will from now on be the official starting point for U.S. policy.
  • There is a danger that if the U.S.-Iran negotiations succeed and lead to a comprehensive deal that normalizes relations between the two countries, that Washington might feel politically pressured to provide Israel with a consolation prize — a gift likely to be paid in the currency of Palestinian rights.

War or Diplomacy?

In these interesting times with the new challenges regarding Russia and Ukraine, as well as the longstanding catastrophes underway in Syria, Afghanistan, Palestine, Iraq, and beyond, the most important question we face is: What can we do to support diplomacy over war?

A couple of weeks ago, I spoke on this very question. In sum, changing the discourse isn’t enough — our democracy is too flawed for that. But it is a vital first step towards winning the victory for diplomacy over war. The great British fighter for peace and justice, Tony Benn, who passed away last month, knew the right tasks were always the same: Educate, agitate and organize. To have a chance against the well-funded behemoth that is the U.S. war machine, we must:

  • Mobilize to stop every U.S. invasion, occupation, military attack, or escalation in its tracks
  • Show solidarity with international movements like the global BDS (Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions) against Israel in support of Palestinians.
  • Make a real commitment to responding to humanitarian disasters, like those in Syria.
  • Give voice to those whose voices are too often drowned out by war, including Syria’s brave non-violent activists, Afghan civil society, and more.
  • Include nuance in our understandings — opposing U.S. military threats or strikes doesn’t necessarily mean that the leaders on the other side somehow become “good guys.”
  • Call for real alternatives beyond just saying “no” to U.S. military actions:
    • In Syria, it means demanding new diplomatic efforts alongside an immediate ceasefire, an arms embargo on all sides, and much more humanitarian support for those on the ground.
    • In Israel-Palestine, it means a UN-based solution grounded in international law, human rights, and equality for all

Public discourse on U.S. wars has already shifted massively in recent years: 52 percent of people in the United States now say that the Iraq war failed, and far more than that say it was based on lies. More than 50 percent now say that the war in Afghanistan — remember, the war that 88 percent of people supported when it began? — was not worth fighting.

There are plenty of reasons, of course — the lies, the lives lost and damaged on both sides, the continuing violence in both regions, the wars’ failure to make Iraqis or Afghans (let alone people in the U.S.) any safer or “freer.” But at the core of this shift are the organizers and activists who continue to stand up and speak out against war — and we cannot rest because the war machine certainly does not. As ever, we have more work to do.

White House Says Raising Tipped Wage Helps Women

President Obama speaks on raising the minimum wage (Flickr/Maryland GovPics)

President Obama speaks on raising the minimum wage (Flickr/Maryland GovPics)

President Obama recently announced that he supports raising the tipped minimum wage from $2.13 to $4.90. The White House focused on how this move would help women who make up the majority of tipped workers.

This announcement comes at a key moment, as Congress is expected to vote on the Fair Minimum Wage Act sometime this spring. The Fair Minimum Wage Act would raise the national minimum wage to $10.10 and would bring the tipped wage to $7.07 – 70 percent of the full minimum.

The White House’s announcement is long overdue. The tipped wage was always meant to rise along with the minimum wage. Instead, it has been frozen in place at $2.13 for more than 20 years because of the National Restaurant Association’s lobbying efforts to make it so.

Back in the 1990s, no one predicted that the $2.13 figure would become permanent. Today, few seem to question it.

It’s about time we started paying attention to the tipped minimum wage: The restaurant industry can certainly afford to pay more. In 2013, the industry reported record profits of more than $660 billion — yet continues to spend millions on lobbying against any minimum wage increases.

Tipped workers have struggled more than other workers in our economy. They are three times as likely to fall into poverty and twice as likely to be on food stamps. It is shameful that tipped workers find themselves in this situation, and the American people need to stand behind a raise for them.

The White House correctly points out that increasing the tipped minimum wage would affect women more than anyone. Of the 3.3 million tipped workers in the U.S., nearly 2 million are restaurant servers. Of those, more than 70 percent are women.

The report from the White House noted that 26 percent of all tipped workers have dependent children, including 31 percent of female workers. About 2.8 million single working parents would be affected, 80 percent of whom are female. For over 20 years, the National Restaurant Association has ensured that tipped workers receive no more than $2.13 per hour. Their party needs to end.

Let’s stand behind tipped workers and their families and give them the raise they deserve.