A Tale of Two Cities and Two Activists

Climate change and increasing class inequities are two of the most pressing issues of our time.  How are policies and activism addressing these problems? Two young women working for progressive change in two mid-sized cities offer inspiring models, one from inside local government and the other via grassroots organizing.

Plymouth, a city of around 250,000 people on the coast of Devon about 200 miles southwest of London, is best known in the US as the port from which the Pilgrim Fathers sailed in 1620.  Once a major naval and commercial port, Plymouth shed population and prosperity as shipyards closed and docks lost traffic.  Western Europe’s largest naval base, HMNB Devonport, sits across the river from the city, but it contributes little to the local economy.

Plymouth’s City Council takes a progressive approach to the city’s social and environmental problems.  A “Fairness Commission” makes recommendations addressing such issues as substandard housing, youth unemployment, isolation of the elderly, ethnic discrimination, cuts in public services, “food deserts,” and disparities in life expectancy between affluent and deprived parts of town.  On the environmental front, Council has established a Low Carbon City Team, “responsible for promoting and delivering plans and projects that will shape Plymouth’s ability to secure radical reductions in greenhouse gas emissions and provide resilience to the impacts of climate change.”  Jenny Howard Coles (my niece) is a member of that seven-person team working on projects that connect energy sourcing, land-use planning, and social justice.

For instance, the Plymouth Energy Community advises residents on switching suppliers to lower costs.  It also offers a Solar Share Scheme, a public-private partnership whereby residents can invest in community-owned small-scale renewable energy installations in the city.  Six primary schools have now been fitted with solar panels, and displays inside each building show students how much energy is generated and carbon emissions reduced.  Jenny’s department also supports “self-build” eco-housing on vacant land provided by the Council, working with a community association to offer training in construction and to maintain existing jobs in the building trades.

Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, has a population of 380,000, down from half a million before the decline of the steel industry.  It sits at the hub of Allegheny County, a conurbation of around two million.  Despite thriving educational and medical sectors, Pittsburghers still suffer stagnant wages, pockets of high poverty, and steep racial disparities in health and in academic achievement. Also, in spite of its near-total deindustrialization, Pittsburgh still has very poor air quality, due to vehicle exhaust and emissions from US Steel’s Clairton coke works.

After decades of fairly dysfunctional city government, Pittsburgh may be on the cusp of a progressive turn.  For instance, Pittsburgh has the distinction of being the first city in the world to ban “fracking” – the extraction of gas and oil through hydraulic fracturing of underground shale – within city limits, due to a groundswell of protest that has united working-class residents with mainstream environmental groups.   Another vital local movement has been the campaign to save the city’s public transportation system.

As a city of hills, rivers, and congested roads, Pittsburgh relies on mass transit to get people where they need to go.  Yet the region has lost half of its routes since 2006, and now has the second highest fares of any US city.  In response to a threatened 35% reduction in 2010, Alicia Williamson helped found Pittsburghers for Public Transit (PPT), which unites riders with unionized drivers and other stakeholders to “keep the public in public transit.”  This includes advocating for state funding:  Pennsylvania has provided no consistent year-to-year support for two decades.  In a key move of solidarity, PPT has promoted a “Transit Bill of Rights” that includes the right to “living wages, benefits, safe working conditions, and union rights for transit workers,” along with “safe, reliable, environmentally-sustainable, and affordable transit that is accessible to all.”

Years of campaigning were finally rewarded by passage in November 2013 of PA Act 89 providing dedicated funding for five years to Port Authority of Allegheny County (PAAC) and Philadelphia’s SEPTA system.  Significantly, Act 89 does not provide for restoration of services to communities that were previously cut off.  PPT’s efforts can now pivot towards that goal, along with lowering fares, and greening the fleet – investments that will require downtown corporations, many of which operate tax-free, to pay their fair share towards the mobility of their workers and customers.  The key strategy, Alicia says, is making public planning processes more transparent and inclusive so that the system better reflects the needs of the community.

Alicia Williamson and Jenny Howard Coles are both 30 years old, well educated, from middle-class families with working-class roots.  Jenny hails from Bristol, where her mother is a sculptor and her father a former lecturer in special education.  She holds a Masters in environmental and energy studies from the Center for Alternative Technology.   Before signing on in Plymouth, she worked as an event coordinator, handling sustainability issues for major summer arts festivals.  Alicia, who has lived in Pittsburgh since 2006, is from Duluth, Minnesota, where her dad worked for the Social Security Administration and mother was a high school guidance counselor.  She has a PhD in English, having written a dissertation on the sexual politics of novels written by members of the Socialist Party of America, and she has been teaching undergraduates at Pitt for the past eight years.

Both women show remarkable political savvy and capacity for partnership in their projects.  Jenny understands that good ideas generated with groups like the Plymouth Energy Community need to be thought through with the city Planning Department and need to meet EU statutory requirements for sustainability.  She likes the way this leads to what she calls “joined up thinking.”  So, for instance, the Fairness Commission’s recommendation for school meals for all pupils was implemented in a way that met goals for employment, health, and low-carbon in one move: on-site kitchens were re-opened in each school so that meals were fresher and hotter, rather than being shipped from a central kitchen.  And meals were prepared using locally sourced food, thereby supporting area farmers and businesses and reducing fuel used in transport.

In a similar-but-different vein, Alicia is working with and between two powerful institutions – Local 85 of the Amalgamated Transit Union (ATU) and the Port Authority of Allegheny County (PAAC)  – whose interests overlap in some areas and conflict in others.  As a well-informed and independent community group, not subject to the internal politics of either organization, PPT can take positions that push their agendas.  Crucially, Alicia and other staffers have partnered with the union: many ATU drivers are also members of PPT.  They have also won a seat at the table as PAAC begins a new round of planning for a regional transportation strategy.  Pittsburgh is out in front with this kind of partnership.  Although the ATU International is committed to working with riders’ advocacy groups, PPT was the only such group attending the union’s Transit Action Month rally in Washington DC last week.

A key difference, of course, is that Jenny works within local government, in a city where the Council supports its staff in advising community groups advocating for just and sustainable practices.  She has a direct influence on policy and the resources to implement sound programs.  And she has access to data that allow her to assess progress on Low Carbon goals, such as  a 40% increase in bicycle ridership.  When I asked if she gets discouraged about the slow pace of change in the face of massive problems, she says: “It’s difficult, but good work is good work and it feels good to be engaged in it.”  She believes a food crisis is inevitable within ten years, given the impacts of climate change, and wants to help Plymouth develop the capacity to withstand it.

Unlike Jenny, Alicia works from the outside in, drawing on her experience as an activist for social and economic justice, as she pressures entrenched institutions to heed their “public” and meet the community’s needs.  She’s canvassed, petitioned, demonstrated, testified, lobbied, and handled media for the cause.  At the DC Transit Action rally, Alicia shared the stage with the Rev. Al Sharpton.  She was  one of few women and likely the youngest speaker in a roster of seasoned pols and union leaders.  “Public transportation is the backbone of healthy economies, environments, and communities,” she said, thanking the ATU “for making our transit systems better and safer and more equitable.”  When I ask Alicia the same question about discouragement, she says: “I refer to this work as ‘recreation’ in the most profound sense of the word; re-creating our selves and our world together.”

Jenny and Alicia both stress teamwork with communities in their two cities as a source for the energy, fresh ideas, and optimism that sustain them as they address the impacts of climate change and structural inequalities.  In Plymouth as in Pittsburgh, while fully aware of the daunting big picture, they have chosen near-term local issues around which people can unite and witness the positive effects their actions can have.

Nick Coles

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