November 10, 2011 —
A few weeks ago on WJFF’s broadcast of “Alternative Radio,” I heard Paul Cienfuegos, a community organizer for over 30 years, deliver a speech he titled “We the People.”
He challenged activists to assess whether their tactics for change have been effective: “Is our activism to protect the safety of our drinking water actually producing safer drinking water… stopping the planting of GMO crops… ending our dependence on fossil fuels?” The answer, obviously, is a bleak no, and Cienfuegos pointed out that we continue to be “locked out of the rooms where pretty much every decision is made that affects all of our lives.”
Those rooms are often in buildings that house governmental agencies. In my early days of environmental activism, I naively believed that the Department of Environmental Protection really worked to protect the environment and that the Department of Environmental Conservation was committed to just that—conserving our environmental resources.
Since then, my experience and observations have confirmed that, in spite of their lofty-sounding names, regulatory agencies exist to advance industry agenda. Cienfuegos explains that they were formed during the late 1800s “to protect the interests of the nation’s first giant corporations, the railroads, that were under attack by an enormous populist social movement.” President Grover Cleveland’s attorney general told a railroad executive that the new railroad agency would function as “a sort of barrier between the railroad corporations and the people… something having a good sound but quite harmless, which will impress the popular mind with the idea that a great deal is being done when in reality very little is intended to be done.”
Any community activist who has tried to navigate through the complicated labyrinth of regulatory agencies can attest to the fact that very little has changed.
Despite this reality, Cienfuegos offered inspiring examples of communities that have passed “historically ground-breaking local ordinances that give the people of those places… the right to decide and then to create the kind of community they want” to live in. Instead of fighting against what we don’t want in our communities and dealing with massive bureaucracies, only to be disappointed in the end, Cienfuegos suggests that we work to pass local laws that “guarantee the right to defend the safety of [our] drinking water… guarantee the right to keep [our] air and [our] soil free from poisons… the right to a sustainable future with sufficient renewable energy for all.” One hundred and twenty communities in six Northeastern states have succeeded in protecting their homes from factory farms, mining, logging, fossil fuel extraction, etc. He calls it “rights-based organizing regarding environmental issues.”
Such organizing is underway locally where citizens are successfully rewriting zoning laws and creating new political parties. These efforts may well be our best hope.
The transcript of Cienfuegos’ speech can be downloaded at alternativeradio.org for $3 or as an MP3 for $1.