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Oakland Lighting the Climate Path

Posted on Ella's Voice (Ella Baker Center for Human Rights)

I recently spent an unforgettable day with the Oakland Climate Action Coalition (OCAC), graciously hosted by the Ella Baker Center. And thanks to Emily Kirsch, lead organizer for the center’s Green-Collar Jobs Campaign, we packed a hell of a lot into a short time. We visited Laney College’s green jobs training program, met with housing rights activists at the Lake Merritt BART station, interviewed Sustainability Coordinator Garrett Fitzgerald at City Hall, got a tour of Oakland’s famous Mandela Market, and capped it off with a dinner hosted by the great folks from Movement Generation.

My partner Avi Lewis and I are working on a documentary film that investigates why so many are denying the reality of climate change despite overwhelming evidence. What’s clear is that many avoid or deny this reality because they fear the policies that will follow. A big part of the problem is that they have been told that the solutions to climate change will destroy the economy and diminish their lives.

We came to Oakland because we believe OCAC is in the process of demonstrating that, on the contrary, the actions needed to lower greenhouse gas emissions can be the pathway to fixing many of the problems that plague our society — from stubborn unemployment to soaring inequality to social isolation. The new Oakland Energy and Climate Action Plan – approved by the Oakland City Council and drafted with help from OCAC — shows how sharply reducing emissions can create meaningful work, put healthier food on the table, build and protect affordable housing, and strengthen frayed communities. As Gopal Dayaneni from Movement Generation points out, Oakland’s climate plan is still very much a work in progress, more of “a plan to make a plan.” But it is a very good start.

Naomi visiting with Green Trainee Students. Credit: Avi Lewis

A few of the moments that have stayed with me from a whirlwind day:

- Hearing from Quinton Sankofa that when the Mandela Park grocery opened, local residents stayed away because they assumed it was another yuppie gentrification project. “They thought it was too nice to be for them.” But they don’t stay away anymore.

- Learning from Colin Miller of Urban Habitat and Miya Yoshitani from Asia Pacific Environmental Network that if cities improve their public transit systems but fail to build and protect affordable housing near those transit lines, the likely result in an increase in greenhouse gas emissions. That’s because poorer transit users — mostly people of color – will be forced out and wealthier car-drivers will move in. “Housing,” Miller explained, “is a climate issue.”

- Seeing chickens pecking in the backyards of some of the most visionary climate justice activists in the country.

- Meeting Jasmine Shepard, a 25-year-old Laney College student studying energy efficient retrofitting. She told us that she once had a summer internship at a coal mining plant in Appalachia. By the end of the summer “part of the mountain was just gone.” She doesn’t have asthma but had to use an inhaler, just to breathe. “I want to provide energy to people but I feel like there should be better ways to do it,” she said. The kinds of green jobs Shepard will be qualified for when she graduates from Laney won’t make her sick – not of body, nor of heart. But she doesn’t think the government is doing enough to make sure those jobs are there.

- Hearing the genuine heartbreak in Emily Kirsch’s voice as she described how, in 2009, students from the Ella Baker Center’s green jobs program graduated into a full-blown economic crisis, and the promised jobs just weren’t there. “We made promises we couldn’t keep,” she said. “And that’s why we knew we needed to develop a new plan.” I couldn’t help thinking that if politicians felt the same sense of accountability as these local organizers do, the world would look a lot different.

Local initiatives like the Oakland Energy and Climate Action Plan aren’t enough to tackle the climate crisis. We need national and international regulations requiring deep, scientifically grounded emission reductions, and we need strict systems of enforcement. But before that can happen, people need to see that getting off fossil fuels isn’t a dour punishment. Done right, it can be a kind of gift. Oakland, once again, is leading the way.

Naomi Klein at the Ella Baker Center. Credit: Avi Lewis

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