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9 The Detroiters Who Are Redefining Prosperity

van Gelder, Sarah Berrett-Koehler Publishers ePub

The drive to Detroit on the interstate is much like other drives through the Midwest: long expanses of highway, punctuated by overpasses and truck stops.

As you enter Detroit, though, the decay soon becomes glaring. The old Michigan Central Train Station, formerly a grand landmark for the city and the tallest train station in the world, has been empty since the last Amtrak train left in 1988. Today, its dark windows symbolize the decline of a once great city. Elsewhere, the old Packard auto plant has turned into a much-photographed site—the manufacturing complex now in ruins, festooned with graffiti and spray-painted art, windows gone, grass and trees growing through the concrete and breaking up the three-story buildings. Other less imposing structures in the city also slide slowly into collapse. Some blocks contain burned-out shells of houses, while nearby, families go on with their lives.

Detroit’s auto industry was a major magnet for workers during its manufacturing boom. But the jobs left, and white flight along with government disinvestment left many black workers and their families with little but predatory lenders, liquor stores, and drug traffickers. Today, Detroit is a city of widespread evictions and water shutoffs—a city that, until recently, was famous for Devil’s Night, a Halloween tradition, when hundreds of fires were set throughout the city.

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16 Newark and the People Who Love It

van Gelder, Sarah Berrett-Koehler Publishers ePub

It’s a startling sight on a busy street in a rundown neighborhood of Newark, New Jersey. On a five-story brick building, windows partially boarded up, is a larger-than-life-size painting of a young girl, her black hair tied up in two high ponytails, her hands holding a mound of soil out of which grows the word “love.” And she has sprouted two giant golden-orange butterfly wings.

Nearby, on a one-story wood-sided wall, giant portraits of Black Power leader Malcolm X and poet and Newark native son Amiri Baraka look over at a young man, who is staring straight out of the painting. The young man represents the artist, who is feeling the weight—and the inspiration—of carrying on the legacy of these heroes, according to my guide, Keith Aziz Hamilton.

On the November 2015 day of my visit, these murals were brand-new, among the 15 that were in the works or completed since Ras Baraka became mayor of Newark in 2014, and Hamilton was in charge of commissioning them. Hamilton, a former schoolteacher and a longtime friend of Mayor Baraka, is currently the manager of city-owned property. He has the warmth and toughness of a lifelong Newark resident and an infectious appreciation for the murals’ artists.

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11 The Union Movement’s Hail Mary Pass

van Gelder, Sarah Berrett-Koehler Publishers ePub

In the decades after World War II, the union movement was one of the main forces boosting the incomes and security of working people. In fact, there would probably be no middle class in the United States without it.1 But the number of union members peaked in 1979, and unions have been fighting losing battles since then against the increasing power of globalized corporations.

Some people are trying something different: unionized worker-owned cooperatives.

“So many times we’re on the defensive, we’re reacting,” Ellen Vera, a staff organizer with the United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW), told me. Vera was on loan from the UFCW, working with a diverse group of people in Cincinnati to jump-start a new effort to create unionized worker-owned cooperatives.

Unionized cooperatives “give us a way to proactively create the kind of work environment we really want to see.”

I met Ellen and her husband, Flequer Vera, at a small restaurant in Cincinnati, along with Kristen Barker, executive director of the Cincinnati Union Co-op Initiative.

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5 No Fracking Way Turtle Mountain

van Gelder, Sarah Berrett-Koehler Publishers ePub

TURTLE MOUNTAIN RESERVATION, NORTH DAKOTA—Drive the long, straight roads of north-central North Dakota, and you pass lake after lake, amid hay fields and forests. Migratory birds, attracted by the abundance of water and grain, pause here. Farmers, boaters, and fishermen orient their lives around the pure water.

The water, more than anything, explains why members of the Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa Indians acted so quickly when they learned their region was next in line for fracking. Within just a few weeks of the tribal women’s meeting on the topic in late 2011, the council banned fracking on the 77,000-acre reservation. Their ban was among the first in North America, and it has since been upheld by succeeding tribal councils.

The process started in November 2011 when an elder, Carol Davis, called the women of the Turtle Mountain Tribe together. Fracking was booming on the Fort Berthold Reservation just a couple hundred miles away, and Davis had heard that the Turtle Mountain Reservation could be next. In the tribe’s tradition, women are responsible for protecting the water, so she invited the women to discuss fracking over a meal.

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4 A North Dakota Reservation Where Fracking Rules

van Gelder, Sarah Berrett-Koehler Publishers ePub

FORT BERTHOLD, NORTH DAKOTA—The haze from the wildfires burning in Washington and Montana followed me as I left the Otter Creek Valley and headed northeast toward North Dakota. The land was open grasslands with few trees. The late August sun was unrelenting, temperatures climbing into the upper 90s. I reluctantly left the back roads for Interstate 94, hoping to finish the 400-mile drive to Fort Berthold before dark.

As the day progressed, the soot and smog from methane flares and, I assumed, fracking by-products deepened the haze and added an odor of hydrocarbons. The flares were my first signal that I was coming into Bakken oil country. Then well pumps began to appear in farm fields, like giant grasshoppers bowing again and again in front of bright orange methane flares. The flaring of natural gas is so widespread it can be seen at night from space, competing with the nation’s major cities for brightness in satellite images.

This is boom country. The number of wells in use in North Dakota nearly quadrupled to more than 12,000 from 2004 to 2014;1 oil extraction increased twelvefold; the state now pumps more than a million barrels a day and is contributing to the massive increase in domestic oil extraction of the last decade.

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8 At New Era Windows, “We Work with Passion”

van Gelder, Sarah Berrett-Koehler Publishers ePub

Leaving Chicago, I decided to drop in for a visit with a relatively new worker-owned manufacturing cooperative. My phone GPS guided me as I dodged trucks and potholes through the Brighton Park warehouse district. A hand-lettered sign above the loading dock said, “New Era Windows Cooperative.” I asked at the office, and Armando Robles, one of the worker-owners, took time away from his work to talk.

Before it was a cooperative, the workers at what was then Republic Windows and Doors were simply told what to do, Robles told me. He had been a maintenance worker at Republic and president of United Electrical, Radio, and Machine Workers Local 1110. The workers there might have seen ways to improve the production process, but their supervisors weren’t interested, he said.

“Whatever the bosses want, we do it. We’d say, ‘Look, this is a better way,’ and they’d say, ‘No, we say you have to do it this way,’ ” explained Robles. “Even when they made a mistake, they just continued.”

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12 Community Work for Community Good

van Gelder, Sarah Berrett-Koehler Publishers ePub

PROSPECT, KENTUCKY—I was pretty sure I had never been to Kentucky. I thought about that as I once again got lost. I had taken it on faith that my phone GPS would get me and my truck-camper where I wanted to go.

I was trying to get to La Minga, a small farm cooperative founded by Central American immigrants. A harvest festival was under way, and I was rushing to get there before it ended.

I had passed through the city of Louisville, out into the suburbs, past fall-colored trees, and creeks and lakes, and housing developments, puzzling about where a farm could be among the strip malls and cul-de-sacs. The GPS took me into a little neighborhood of tract houses and then declared I had arrived. No farm in sight.

I backtracked, found the turnoff I’d missed, and parked my truck-camper alongside cars and trucks next to a farmhouse. There, people were filling plates with beans, homemade tamales, and a salad of greens fresh-picked from just a few feet away. I did the same and then sat on a hay bale and talked to a few of the other visitors. Soon a band started to play on the front porch of the farmhouse. A few couples began to dance. Children and grown-ups commenced a pick-up soccer game in the open field beyond the house. And I got to meet the founders.

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14 Greensboro’s Battle over Story

van Gelder, Sarah Berrett-Koehler Publishers ePub

On February 1, 1960, four African American students sat down at a Woolworths lunch counter in Greensboro, North Carolina, and asked for service. They didn’t get their coffee or a menu, or a polite word, but the next day they returned, along with more than a dozen others. And the day after that.

Some of the older residents, black and white, warned them against stirring things up. But the students didn’t quit even when whites threw coffee or catsup on them. Gradually, more and more supporters joined in, filling the store and the streets outside, people everywhere began boycotting Woolworths stores, sales dropped dramatically, and the owner gave in and began offering service to all comers.

One of the first things I did when I got to Greensboro was to visit that lunch counter, where the shop floor, walls, counters, and stools are preserved as they were during that famous sit-in. The store is now part of the International Civil Rights Center and Museum, which opened on February 1, 2010, 50 years to the day after the first sit-in.

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7 Growing Power in Chicago

van Gelder, Sarah Berrett-Koehler Publishers ePub

The “Growing Food and Justice for All” conference began with a tour led by Tyres Walker, one of the dozens of mainly African American teenagers trained and employed at Growing Power. Walker, a wiry young man in a bright blue Growing Power T-shirt, showed us the warehouse that has the organization’s offices upstairs and fish tanks, worm bins, and mushroom cultivation on the main floor, as well as a farm stand where produce and crafts are sold.

Behind the warehouse, next to the Chicago River, is the farm itself. Walker pulled open the doors to the hoop houses—half circles of piping that hold up sheets of plastic and keep the beds warm and productive—to show off the rows of vibrant lettuces and greens ready for harvest. Other vegetables were growing outside in raised beds, and goats and chickens were penned up nearby.

Walker described the trucks that pull up several times a week at Growing Power and dump piles of discarded fruit and vegetable waste. Other trucks deliver loads of wood chips. Layered together, these giant mounds break down into rich compost that, months later, crews shovel into vegetable beds. All told, the farm turns 450,000 pounds of waste into soil each year, allowing Growing Power to plant vegetables above Chicago’s contaminated soil.

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3 The Ranchers and Native People Resisting the Otter Creek Mine

van Gelder, Sarah Berrett-Koehler Publishers ePub

I drove southeast from Billings, my truck slowing as I climbed the long, grassy hills and then catching up to traffic on the downslope side. I was headed toward the Northern Cheyenne Reservation. Alaina Buffalo Spirit, one of the opponents of the mine, had invited me to camp on her land and to meet her friends and extended family, and then to go together to attend the welcoming ceremony when the Lummi carvers arrived with their totem pole. When I asked her what I could bring, she suggested fruits and vegetables, which are hard to come by on the reservation.

The land in this part of Montana is open and sparsely populated. Lame Deer is home to both tribal headquarters and Chief Dull Knife Community College. I passed through the town and continued several miles to reach Buffalo Spirit’s home, a brand-new but modest house, with a brightly painted teepee in the front yard and fields in all directions. Beyond the fields lay a couple of other houses, and then hillsides covered in stands of pines interspersed with grasslands.

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1 Fire, Coal, and Climate in Montana

van Gelder, Sarah Berrett-Koehler Publishers ePub

1It was the height of wildfire season in the West as I took off, a record-breaking year, and the air got smoky as I reached Montana.

A few days into my trip, I woke up at a campground south of Missoula to find a thin layer of black-and-white ash covering my truck and camper and the nearby pine trees. Driving in search of breakfast, I heard on the radio of the death of several firefighters in north-central Washington.

The smell of burning trees had followed me across Washington, Idaho, and into Montana along with the haze and the sting in the eyes and throat. An older couple I met at a coffee shop that morning told me that fires are common, but this fire season started earlier and was more intense than any they could remember.

A storm may be coming through in a few days, a young clerk at a run-down gas station and convenience store told me. Business was slow, and he had time to talk. It could bring winds that would blow the smoke away, he said. But it could also bring lightning strikes and set more fires in these bone-dry pine forests.

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15 Restorative Justice and the Harrisonburg Police

van Gelder, Sarah Berrett-Koehler Publishers ePub

HARRISONBURG, VIRGINIA — Restorative justice (RJ), which has roots in indigenous circle processes, is a way of dealing with conflict and violations of trust. The practice is designed to restore relationships broken by a crime or other discord. In classic cases, a victim of a crime and the offender meet in a circle with others who have a stake in the outcome—the victim gets to ask questions about the crime, the perpetrator offers an apology and may add context to the event, and together they work out terms of reparations. Advocates say this approach, compared to that of the criminal justice system, is more likely to result in healing for the victim, real accountability from the offender, and a less divided community.

I came to Harrisonburg, Virginia, to learn about a practice that is spreading across the country as a substitute for approaches based on punishment and prison time. The criminal justice system disproportionately punishes people of color, from traffic stops through sentencing and on through post-prison employment. The United States has more than 2 million people behind bars, the highest number and the highest rate of incarceration in the world; this country imprisons its public at three and a half times the rate of Europe. Furthermore, although people of color make up 30 percent of the U.S. population, they account for 60 percent of the prison population; one in three black men can expect to spend time in prison over the course of their lifetimes.1 And once convicted, anyone finds it harder to get a job, housing, credit, or social services. So diverting people from the criminal justice system, especially young people, is one piece of untangling institutionalized racism.

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17 Ithaca’s Stories of Race

van Gelder, Sarah Berrett-Koehler Publishers ePub

ITHACA, NEW YORK—As I drove across the Finger Lakes region of upstate New York, my little truck labored to climb the steep hills. Every so often I pulled over to allow the cars behind me to pass.

I was getting anxious about running out of time. It was the end of November, the weather was getting colder, and I had promised to be home by Christmas. If I headed straight back, I’d have nearly 2,700 miles to drive. But I wanted to swing south, through Louisiana, Texas, and the Southwest, so the trip would be much longer.

The decline of this area of New York State is striking. Homes are well worn, some have been restored, but many others are propped up with a few concrete blocks or tarped over. Many were surrounded by rusting RVs and cars.

And then there are the old barns. Many still provide shelter for animals and their feed, although daylight shone through the boards, and the structures seemed to be sinking in slow motion into the earth. The back of one barn was splayed out so that each stud was at a different angle, forming a fan. Another was propped up by poles stuck into the decaying walls, seeming to rest its weary bones on a walking stick.

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18 Dallas at Christmas and a Syrian Family

van Gelder, Sarah Berrett-Koehler Publishers ePub

I pulled into Dallas, Texas, on December 5. I had picked out a room on Airbnb and landed at an older, welcoming, two-story home. My friendly and proud Texas host directed me to a good local coffee shop and a part of the city where I might find a walkable shopping district.

As it happened, my arrival coincided with the planned arrival of a Syrian refugee family. But they were stranded in New York. The arrival of two small children, their parents, and two grandparents had evoked much consternation.

A few weeks earlier, Governor Greg Abbott had announced that Texas would not accept any refugees from Syria, and on December 2 his administration had filed an injunction to prevent the family of six from settling in Dallas. He then relented and withdrew his motion but still demanded that the federal government provide more information about the Syrians.

Syrian immigrants are not the only ones provoking fear. Outside a mosque in Irving, Texas, a camouflage-clad group armed with rifles showed up during services on November 21, chanting against the “Islamization” of America. Irving, a suburb of Dallas, became famous when Ahmed Mohamed, a 14-year-old student, was arrested for bringing a homemade clock to school. The Texas Rebel Knights, a Ku Klux Klan group from Quinlan, Texas, announced they would hold a rally outside the Irving mosque on December 12.

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6 The Making of the Rust Belt

van Gelder, Sarah Berrett-Koehler Publishers ePub

I drove southeast after leaving the Turtle Mountain Reservation, through Minnesota and then Wisconsin. The winding, two-lane highways through Amish communities and the small towns gave way to interstate highways. Towns became more frequent, then merged together into a nonstop grid of houses, malls, intersections, and gas stations. My GPS abruptly changed my route as I entered Chicago to avoid a traffic snarl as the evening rush hour began.

I felt daunted as I left behind the mountains and open prairies of the West and entered the congested city. I wondered where I would camp and how I would navigate the complex stories and relationships in these large cities. And how much hope could I expect to find? Many of those living in these cities have been beaten down for years by joblessness, disinvestment, poverty, and powerlessness.

My first stop in Chicago was at the Iron Street headquarters of Growing Power, an urban farm with five locations around the city, a food stand, and a training center for youth. At YES!, we had published articles about Growing Power and its founder, Will Allen, the former NBA athlete who set up an organic farm in Milwaukee in 1993. Growing Power Chicago is run by his daughter, Erika Allen. Both organizations hire and train young people, 300 a year in Chicago alone.

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